I first encountered De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong as a text book for an undergraduate English course I had to take to build up my humanities credits before I could be accepted into a Master’s Degree program in English at the University of Central Oklahoma. Author W. D. Snodgrass’s idea, to take 101 highly-regarded poems, from Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare to Donald Hall’s 1990 “The Man in the Dead Machine,” and turn them into something less than great, is an interesting one, particularly as an academic exercise. He groups the poems into five general categories—abstract and general versus concrete and specific; undercurrents; the singular voice; metrics and music; and structure and climax—and focuses his “de/composition” work in these areas.
Snodgrass, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware, is both a good enough poet to do this, and one not good enough. Why do I say that?
On the one hand, when “de/composing” each poem, he maintains its poetic structure, in particular its form and its rhyme and beat patterns, while reducing the qualities that made the poem stand out. With some poems, he even provides alternative versions with different beat patterns or number of beats per line. In a few cases, he even shows early drafts by the poet him- or herself, so the reader can see how the poem developed.
All of this is fine, even excellent… for an advanced poetry student who has the time and guidance to study each poem and absorb the lessons the “de/composition” teaches.