De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong


This original, illuminating, and sometimes quite funny poetry anthology is primarily concerned with a fundamental and familiar question: How can we tell good poetry from bad? To illustrate precisely why these 101 poems, many of them well-loved classics, are so accomplished and remarkable, the prize-winning poet, author, critic, and veteran teacher Snodgrass herein rewrites them—wrongly. De/Compositions tellingly presents these rewrites next to the originals—by poets ranging from William Shakespeare to William ...

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This original, illuminating, and sometimes quite funny poetry anthology is primarily concerned with a fundamental and familiar question: How can we tell good poetry from bad? To illustrate precisely why these 101 poems, many of them well-loved classics, are so accomplished and remarkable, the prize-winning poet, author, critic, and veteran teacher Snodgrass herein rewrites them—wrongly. De/Compositions tellingly presents these rewrites next to the originals—by poets ranging from William Shakespeare to William Stafford—and thus we can more fully appreciate the artistry of these astonishing poems word by word, line by line, stanza by stanza. This book will appeal to anyone studying the craft and/or creativity that good poems demand.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[These] de/compositions [are] fascinating. They'd be a wonderful teaching tool."—J. D. McClatchey, Yale University

"Terrific for teaching purposes . . . Not just for readers of poetry wishing to write it, but for students who don't know very much about reading poetry at all."—Debra Shostak, The College of Wooster (Wooster, OH)

"I read [these] de/compositions with pleasure and profit. They provide a wonderful tool for teaching both literature and creative writing."—Thomas Lisk, North Carolina State University (Raleigh)

"I think that every English teacher (literature and creative writing) should make [this] work mandatory. Up until reading [this book], I thought it was not really possible to 'explain' to students why great poetry is great."—Diane Goodman, Ransom Everglades School (Miami Beach, FL)

"[These de/compositions] are gruesomely revealing . . . They point toward, if not in all cases right into the heart of, the mystery of power in a poem. And what a good way to teach. And to meditate. And to school oneself."—Rosanna Warren, author of Stained Glass: Poems

"We looked at both [versions of] 'Richard Cory' in my creative writing class and the students were impressed . . . I think [they] learned a valuable lesson about showing over telling."—Sam Dodson, Tarleton State University (Stephenville, TX)

"The poems, good beside bad, stand alone and teach their lessons. What will this book do for readers? Make them laugh maybe, but it will also show them what makes a good poem and possibly help them to write some."—Library Journal

Publishers Weekly
Neither Yeats nor Stevens, Dickinson, Auden or Shakespeare escapes Pulitzer-winner W.D. Snodgrass's often droll, (intentionally) paltry rewriting in De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Bad. In the classroom, Snodgrass (Heart's Needle) deploys the alternate-universe technique he demonstrates in this teacher's and poet's manual that is, he changes the specific words and syntax but retains the sense, meter and length of various poems and asks his students to compare the two versions. Cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town" (here "A certain man lived in a very nice town"), Lowell's "Skunk Hour" ("Raccoon Time") and Dickinson's "I Never Lost As Much but Twice" (simply "I've Lost So Much") each possesses a "particular excellence" that he attempts to "dissolve or drive out," thereby laying bare the elements that make a poem great. (July) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
How can you tell if a poem is good? Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Snodgrass would put it next to a bad one and let the reader judge. To that end, he has taken 101 great poems and rewritten them wrong. The bad ones are sometimes so bad as to be funny, but they give readers a chance to see the difference even a small change can make in a poem. The "de/compositions" are divided into five categories: "Abstract & General vs. Concrete & Specific," "Undercurrents," "The Singular Voice," "Metrics & Music," and "Structure & Climax." The only commentaries are short essays on these sections. The poems, good beside bad, stand alone and teach their lessons. What will this book do for readers? Make them laugh maybe, but it will also show them what makes a good poem and possibly help them to write some. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Lisa J. Cihlar, Monroe P.L., WI Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555973179
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2001
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 1,016,108
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

W.D. Snodgrass won the Pulitzer Prize for his first book of poems, Heart's Needle (1959). The celebrated author of more than thirty books of poetry, prose, and translations, he is Distinguished Professor Emeritus from the University of Delaware and lives in Erieville, New York.

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Table of Contents

Foreword: The De/Composer
Leda and the Swan 2
Dream Song #22, 'Of 1826' 4
Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock 6
Globe 8
The Fury of Aerial Bombardment 12
The Groundhog 14
Still to Be Neat 18
Sonnet #129, 'The expense of spirit ...' 20
A Noiseless Patient Spider 22
The Man in the Dead Machine 24
I Know a Man 26
Eros Turannos 28
The Miller's Wife 38
Egyptian Dancer at Shubra 40
A Late Aubade 42
Janet Waking 46
Piazza Piece 50
Sonnet #73, 'That time of year thou mayst ...' 52
Sailing to Byzantium 54
A Supermarket in California 58
Nantucket 62
Transformations 64
Afterwards 66
The Man He Killed 68
Traveling through the Dark 70
Piano 72
A Narrow Fellow in the Grass 80
If I Shouldn't Be Alive 82
I Heard a Fly Buzz - When I Died 84
The Oxen 86
Drummer Hodge 88
God's Grandeur 90
Sonnet #67, 'I wake and feel ...' 92
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London 94
The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower 96
Repose of Rivers 98
At Melville's Tomb 100
Anecdote of the Jar 102
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird 104
in Just- 110
anyone lived in a pretty how town 114
The Drunken Fisherman 118
Dream Song #29, 'There sat down, once ...' 122
The Bundled-Well-Hung-Up-Tight-Don't-Put-That-In-Your-Mouth-It's-Pois oned-Blues 124
Upon Julia's Clothes 130
Still to Be Neat 132
My Picture Left in Scotland 136
Preludes 138
The Sunlight on the Garden 142
My Papa's Waltz 144
Excellence 147
To Heaven 148
The Second Coming 150
They Flee from Me 152
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal 154
Break, Break, Break 156
The Tyger 158
Ah Sunflower 160
Spring and Fall 162
Heaven-Haven 164
The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo 166
Cavalry Crossing a Ford 172
Bivouac on a Mountain Side 174
Tears 176
The Main Deep 178
Bethsabe's Song 180
The Return 182
In a Station of the Metro 185
No Swan so Fine 186
The Mind is an Enchanting Thing 188
Bagpipe Music 192
Musee des Beaux Arts 196
Song of the Old Soldier 198
Queen-Anne's-Lace 202
Spring and All 204
Poem, 'As the cat' 208
London 218
Ozymandias 220
Skunk Hour 222
Eight O'Clock 227
Parting, Without a Sequel 228
I Never Lost As Much But Twice 230
This Be The Verse 232
Whoso List to Hunt 234
Holy Sonnet #7, 'At the round earth's ...' 236
To Autumn 238
Loveliest of Trees 242
The Fish 244
She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways 250
A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal 253
Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter 254
England in 1819 256
Richard Cory 258
The Evening Darkens Over 260
Seen When Nights Are Silent 262
Sir Patrick Spens, Scottish Folk Ballad 264
Edward, Scottish Folk Ballad 268
Afterword 277
Index 281
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First Chapter


101 Good Poems Gone Wrong
By W.D. Snodgrass

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2001 W.D. Snodgrass
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-317-5

Chapter One

During the 1930s, the British poet and critic William Empson was teaching English Renaissance Literature at a commune school in China. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, the whole school, teacher and students together, fled on foot, hiking over the mountains and holding classes as they went. Empson, noted for a prodigious memory, had no textbook with him and so taught his classes, including the texts, from memory. When he came to John Donne - with whose work he was slightly less familiar than, say, that of Milton - he occasionally had trouble recalling Donne's text and, here and there, made up a word or two, even a line, to fill out the original. After some weeks, he noticed that one of the boys at the back of the group was busy writing and went back to see why. To his astonishment, he found the boy had brought his own book and was canceling passages of the original to write in Empson's improvisations.

Empson sometimes told this story on himself; we will probably never know whether he then provided the class with corrections of the "de/compositions" he and his student had jointly produced, much less whether he discussed the relative merits of Donne's version against his own. I suspect that if Empson forgot any part of a fine poem that would be one of least crucial, least meaningful elements.

Just the opposite, when I taught the reading or speaking of poems, I often found the best way to do that was to deliberately alter the most memorable, most crucial aspects. After reading the poem aloud to fix it in the class's hearing, I'd get a student to read with me. Since the de/compositions usually match line by line, he or she would read a line of the original; I'd follow with my ersatz version. When we'd finished, I'd ask what was the most scandalous thing I'd done to the poem. The natural urge to find one's teacher wrong usually provoked lively exchanges, bringing the students into close contact with the true text. With a little nudging, this could reveal how local excellences interconnected to form a basic structure. Often, my "direction" of the class lay only in a half-joking defense of my version or in an attack on some aspect of the original, meant to rally their support and grasp of that text. Not infrequently, one of my students claimed to prefer the de/composed version. It was sometimes hard not to answer this, but instead to let the discussion disperse it. Students with nerve enough to say what they really thought (not what they thought I wanted to hear) are too great an asset to be embarrassed or intimidated. Often enough, those "dead wrong" students would go on to make startling leaps, working toward their own discoveries, not waiting to hear what was " right." Besides, learning to change one's mind may be half an education.

While putting this collection together, I found that my de/compositions fell naturally into five sections according to the particular excellence I was trying to dissolve or drive out. Not surprisingly, this proved to be related to the ways that the language of poems tends to differ from that of instructions, arguments, or prose discourse generally: I. Abstract & General vs. Concrete & Specific

II. Undercurrents

III. The Singular Voice

IV. Metrics & Music

V. Structure & Climax

The first section deals with a problem particularly troublesome to my students, many of whom were young poets. When we discuss poems, we quite properly tend toward abstract terms: freedom, love, humanity, etc. This might suggest that the poem's business is to offer summations and solutions, to present a generally applicable "message." Such interpretative terms are indeed a part, but only a part, of the minds we aim to record.

My second section deals with the way that a poem's meaning often lies beneath its prose or "dictionary" sense; since it is found in implication and suggestion, so demanding sensitive interpretation. The third section acknowledges that a poet's voice may convey a recognizable identity, though this may or may not relate directly to the author's known or supposed qualities. In any case, the more familiar we are with the work or a particular poet, the more meaning we are likely to derive from his/her individual works.

The fourth section continues the pursuit of significance and intensity below the poem's conscious surface into its music and rhythm. Obviously, we derive some kinds of meaning from the movement and music of language, although this may lie in areas of emotion and impulsion well beneath our conscious and intellectual awareness. The fifth and final section investigates how words and phrases nourish and enrich each other, so building the poem's shape and structure.

Although the book's sections are defined by these qualities, it has often proven impossible to impair one effect without affecting others as well. In the Commentary at the end of each section, I've suggested how I see the relation between each poem and it's de/composition. This is intended only to suggest a useful jumping-off point in the unlikely event that none suggests itself; it does not mean to conclude discussion or to give any final or exclusive interpretation. Dealing with something so rich and strange as a poem, there is no guarantee (not even, perhaps, a desirability) that different readers find identical answers. Poems are not only produced by individual sensibilities; they are also received and interpreted by individuals. The better the poem, the more likely it is not only to carry its "maker's mark" but also to accept a multiplicity of readings. There do seem to be times when we can agree that a specific interpretation is merely wrong; the number of right readings may be limited only by the number of possible readers.

Often, my de/compositions are easier to understand than the originals - usually because there is less to understand in them. It is also easier to tie up an animal whose blood has been drained; creatures not subject to taxidermy are less easily corralled, more likely to yield surprises both pleasant and shocking. Many of the de/compositions render a poem's denotative or dictionary sense while stripping away connotations, suggestions, the inflections of living beings. Without the intuitive, less conscious, and intellectual elements, this de/composed "literal" or "surface" meaning often yields roughly what you'd get if the poem were translated into a second language, then translated back. For a reader with an inquiring mind - not too ready to take answers where questions are still possible - the poem may offer opportunities for lifelong discoveries.

I have not always resisted the temptation to make my versions comical. As W. H. Auden noted, there are few things funnier than bad poems. Athletes, watching a film of a past game or race, no doubt laugh at their opponents' blunders - even at their own. Works of art, however, have an added problem: the rules always change because no two situations are the same. What we learn about one poem may yield no general principle for others (including any poems that the students may be writing). Just so, chess players study the games of the masters even though that exact situation will probably never exist again for them to face. Instead we are trying to learn how one mind faced a particular situation, and perhaps to temper our own minds toward others' possibilities. In any case, the deliberate failures of my versions, even when amusing, should not distract anyone from the real subject: the abiding successes of the real poems.

I am laying out a game, then, that provokes readers (alone or in a group) to ask what makes fine poems fine. Enriching our responses can be a long process but that may be one of the best things about it. You can't get rich quick; the chance to get rich gradually - perhaps lifelong - may be worth more.


Excerpted from De/Compositions by W.D. Snodgrass Copyright © 2001 by W.D. Snodgrass . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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