“De/Compositions” Review

3-star rating

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.

To read the rest of the review, please click here.

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A Little Piece of Personal History

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A POET

It’s like the tidal drag of some irregular

moon, alternately flooding and forsaking.

And when it comes, I thrust aside the dishes

that must be done and the novel

tugging at my hem; put off offers of sex

and sociability, and like a woman

possessed by the bulge of body and instinct,

I retreat, lie up, sweat and groan, deliver.

In the end, it takes me over, bears itself

not by me but through me, leaving

the question I’d like to bury

with the afterbirth:

Does human life really matter?

Or are people just the way that poems

have found to reproduce their kind?

— published in Writer’s Digest in 1987 – my second publication

Writing, with Parrots – Part 2

Four little free-flying parrots violate the first

imperative of writing: create a situation quiet,

calm, and insulated. The youngest thumps

onto my desk like a feathered rock, rips up

an eraser, fat-foots the computer keys

until the monitor spasms and seizes up. While I

huff and run a finger down the manual’s index

toward Troubleshooting, she wriggles

down my blouse, punctuates my concentration

like a possessive apostrophe.

This, as the unattached male squabbles

like a fishwife with the pair over leftover brunch.

He lights on the back of my chair, drops a sticky

tidbit of waffle onto my white shirt, scrambles

after it. The other two land in my lap and wipe

their egg-smeared beaks on my clean jeans.

A sharp-shinned hawk cruises the wild-bird feeders

at the fence line, and the parrots scream, launch,

orbit like comets trailing colorful tails. Down the hall

they wing to who knows what mischief, perhaps

a tasty snack of closet molding, curtain cord, or,

in a moment of better taste, the delicate,

Bible-like pages of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems

and a Song of Despair.