De/Composing W.D. Snodgrass
Copyright Ó by Dan Schneider, 6/6/03
will deal with W.D. Snodgrass both as a quality poet & as the editor of a
somewhat interesting- if flawed- book called De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems
Gone Wrong. In it WDS takes 101 ‘good poems’ & shows why they are
‘good’ vs. what a ‘lesser’ poet would have written. Unforthckanately (as
Popeye would mumble) quite a # of the DC’d poems are better than the
mediocre originals. The reason for this is probably because WDS, himself, does
not really understand why his good poems worked- & the bad 1s failed. Repeat
after me: ‘Greater than transcendence is its recognition.’ I’ll try
to posit this basic lack of poetry rudimentarianism as the reason WDS’s later
poetry has not been anywhere nearly as successful as the earlier stuff.
To kick things off, William De Witt (hence the W.D.) Snodgrass was born in the town of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1926. In a sense, he was an archetypal World War 2 era poet. He did the college thing, got in to the-then- still burgeoning MFA programs after the War, & by the mid-1950s was a fairly well-known ‘name’ in the magazines of the era. Although Confessional poetry was not an organized clique like the Beatniks, or even a looser assemblage like the New York school of poets in the 1950s, WDS was soon recognized as the leading light of this trend toward personalizing 1’s own experiences in to poems. The reach of this method- due in large part to WDS’s success- led to older, more established poets such as Robert Lowell dropping their established poetic tendencies, & embracing the ‘workshop method’ & the Capital C Confessionalism (as it was labeled) of WDS. Within a few years, following the meteoric ascent of the Holy Trinity of Feminist-Confessionalist poets (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, & Adrienne Rich) the genre was entrenched- especially in Academia where, despite occasional moves to oust it (as well as shorter lived other –isms’ attempts to displace it), at pretty much the same level it still holds today.
I will briefly discuss 2 of WDS’s early, successful poems- which ‘established’ him- in a bit. Let me briefly limn the trajectory of the rest of his career 1st. Heart's Needle (1959), won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, & it is its titular poem I’ll deal with. The book was wildly overpraised. This is not to say it did not deserve praise, but- especially- with 40+ years in the tank this good solid little book is more an important book, than a great book, of poetry. It officially sanctioned Confessionalism as the literary counterpart to painting’s Abstract Expressionism- with the artist (& what led him/her to the art’s creation) valued far more than the art itself. WDS is notable, however, for many of his dozens of poetry books & chapbooks have been released by small presses, with runs of under 1000 copies.
On the other hand, WDS did the trite thing of also attempting to be a literary critic- at which his limitations are obvious- as my later tackling of De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong will prove. 1975 saw the 1st book In Radical Pursuit released, & then 27 years later his 2nd book To Sound Like Yourself: Essays on Poetry was released. Add to that 6 volumes of ‘translations’, including 1998’s Selected Translations (BOA Editions), which won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, & you get the idea that WDS is not as different or revolutionary as his c.v. may appear at 1st blanche. If you factor in the countless other generic awards the literatistas foist on each other when their turn comes up (an Ingram Merrill Foundation award, a special citation from the Poetry Society of America, fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.) you may wonder why I am not foaming at the mouth to rip this apparatchik a new asshole. Well, simple. The bulk of his poetry is good- often very good.
Yes, he did put out a 30 year Selected Poems, 1957-1987, but has yet- to my knowledge- foisted a Collected Poems upon the world. Still, he is most known for a long poem (or cycle of poems) he started in the 1960s, called The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress & published in 1977. This was an occasionally brilliant book which took vignettes from key Nazi figures & dramatized them. The overall book was so effective that it was deservingly nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, & then later turned into a play, produced by Wynn Handman for The American Place Theatre, where it also garnered some theatrical awards. It continued a tradition of long American poems that dramatized historical people, places, & events- from Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, Robinson Jeffers’ many long narrative poems, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, & John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Yet, the poem which it truly most resembled- in makeup & success- was Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems. Like CO, the 1st version of TFB was not too long & all the sections worked well with each other. The 1st 1960 version of CO’s Maximus was novel in that none of the individual poems were successful, but together they were like layering single strokes of a Matisse painting on tissue paper, 1 on top of the other, to get an interesting composite. While the 1977 TFB was more straightforward in its narrative style- the book was an artistic success. However, foolishly- like CO, WDS could not rest on his success & spent another 2 decades adding more poems, reworking old sections & retextualizing the original sequence, so that by 1995, when The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle, came out- it was a bowdlerized shell of its former self- still with some peaks, but very watered down. The original excellence had been subsumed in a sea of narcissistic didacticism not unlike CO’s final version of the MPs. The original had been called a work in progress, but 1 hopes that artists can grasp their true talents & limits, & not just publish to fill space.
The retired WDS now lives in upstate New York where it is (ugh!) rumored that he is at work on an even more final version of the Complete Fuehrer Bunker. But, before we drift off on to his later failures, let me give you 2 examples of his earliest successes, & we can see why this poet, indeed, was influential enough to convert other poets to investigate what he was doing. April Inventory was the 1st of WDS’s poems to go gonzo in the Academic circles. Let’s look at how it subverts the expected (especially in context of its era), & how subtle the Confessionalism of its tone is to later monstrous incarnations by lesser poets:
green catalpa tree has turned
The girls have grown so young by now
The tenth time, just a year ago,
I haven't read one book about
And smile above their starchy collars.
I taught myself to name my name,
I have not learned there is a lie
While scholars speak authority
Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives,
The strict formal rime scheme puts in mind a childish sort of poem, due to its deadening rhythm. Yet, WDS uses this very slyly to subvert the poem’s thrust. Note the lack of clichés, as well as stanza 1’s seeming setup to a bucolic. Look at how subtly lust is portrayed in stanza 2, muted deftly by the tight rime scheme- which has the effect of distracting the reader’s attention to it, rather than the narrative. This stanza also lets in the 1st hints of personalism. Stanza 3 is a masterful stroke of self-deprecation & self-realization all in 1: ‘The girls have grown so young by now/I have to nudge myself to stare./This year they smile and mind me how/My teeth are falling with my hair./In thirty years I may not get/Younger, shrewder, or out of debt.’ Yet it’s stanza 4’s lines- ‘Then told my parents, analyst,/And everyone who's trusted me/I'd be substantial, presently.’ which seal the Confessionalist deal. Note the mention of the shrink, & the self-bolstering. BUT, forgotten is how sly & humorously this poem uses both- something future C-poets never seemed to grasp. The poem then goes on taking its speaker through the midlife crisis now familiar to readers in the 21st Century, but still a newfangled idea nearly 50 years ago: ‘I have not learned there is a lie/Love shall be blonder, slimmer, younger;/That my equivocating eye/Loves only by my body's hunger’. Then we get the enigmatic ending, which sticks in our minds: ‘There is a loveliness exists,/Preserves us, not for specialists.’ Is he riding the psychiatric profession or saying we should all take life a little more easy? Or another possibility? Still- an excellent poem- perhaps the best in the book & best singular poem of his career- sense the familiar trend of poets whose careers go downhill with age?
When he would not return to fine
garments and good food, to his houses
and his people, Loingseachan told him,
"Your father is dead." "I'm sorry to
hear it," he said. "Your mother is
dead," said the lad. "All pity for me
has gone out of the world." "Your
sister, too, is dead." "The mild sun rests
on every ditch," he said; "a sister loves
even though not loved." "Suibhne, your
daughter is dead." "And an only
daughter is the needle of the heart."
"And Suibhne, your little boy, who
used to call you 'Daddy' he is dead."
"Aye," said Suibhne, "that's the drop
that brings a man to the ground."
He fell out of the yew tree;
Loingseachan closed his arms around
him and placed him in manacles.
After the middle-Irish romance,
The Madness of Suibhne
Child of my winter, born
By love I could not still,
All those days we could keep
In their smooth covering, white
And thinks: Here lies my land
My chances to restrain
Late April and you are three; today
So you were the first to tramp it down.
Someone will have to weed and spread
Easter has come around
You lived on this bank first.
Over the stagnant bight
You bring back how the red-
After the sharp windstorm
In the debris lay
You raise into my head
Of all things, only we
Okay- not as good as April Inventory, at least in these sections- the epigraph is really unnecessary & far too long, & a few clichés pop up: cold war, torn limbs, debris lay, etc. But, note how this poem is basically about a love lost. Most likely- if we interpret it by its main thread- the death of a 1st wife in labor, as well as the fetus, & the husband’s looking backward with new wife & child. Yet, look how wondrously circuitous this is laid out- the whole bird/park trope, & never quite being sure whether the 1st wife or the 1st child is the addressee- even when 1 is named, because wife 1 could have been the youthful ‘1st love’- thus the ‘child’ reference. The poem’s last section, as with the 1st poem, ends without a cliché, & leaves 1 maudlin, yet hopeful.
But, WDS went the traditional rout of the Academic- getting in to editing, as well. De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong is a worthy, if flawed, effort that shows WDS’s balls in rewriting ‘good’ poems to show how they work. By making then ‘bad’ he attempts to show the inner structure of great poems by how lesser poems miss there target. This is a very apt way to approach true criticism. It’s 1 that I’ve adopted in my This Old Poem critical series- albeit from the opposite perspective; by making bad poems better.
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.
Would that some of those students who preferred WDS’s De/Cs made it in
the poetry world. It needs such clarity & honesty, & given some of
WDS’s DeC’s there’s little doubt that his ‘dead wrong’ students were
WDS divides the book into 5 sections:
1 Abstract & General vs. Concrete & Specific
3 The Singular Voice
4 Metrics & Music
5 Structure & Climax
The differences & sections are fairly self-evident. 1 of the 1st poems discussed in Section 1 is John Berryman’s Dream Song 22, ‘Of 1826’. The poem is hardly a good poem. It’s passable, though. Taken out of context it is virtually meaningless, The Dream Songs’ strength lies in the structure of the sequence, not the individual Songs’ strengths. I will quote the poem’s last of 3 stanza’s, then give a critique of the stanza from another source, then give WDS’s DeC version, & comment.
the Fourth of July.
Here is a
critique from J.M. Linebarger’s 1974 book ‘John Berryman’:
Dream Song 22, "Of 1826," criticizes America for its anti-intellectualism, Dale Carnegie salesmanship, domineering women, and devotion to television. The last stanza mentions one important fact we have forgotten ("Collect" here means "prayer"): "Collect: . . . the dying man / . . . is gasping "Thomas Jefferson still lives" / in vain. . . ." Berryman said in 1967 that "no national memory but ours could forget the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day—the fourth of July in 1826." Adams did make the remark "Thomas Jefferson still survives" as he lay on his death-bed.
Overall, a good reading of WHAT the poem says- how it says it- eh, a rather blasé listing of typical artistic grievances. But, bear in mind Linebarger’s interpretation of the last stanza & compare to WDS’s rewrite:
This is our nation’s 50th anniversary.
That’s it. 1st off, this DeC is not a poem- it is prose broken in to lines; a prose paraphrase which does not even attempt a rime scheme. Which might be acceptable if this section’s thrust were to show the value of poetic structure. But, no- WDS’s stated objective in this section was to reveal the power of the abstract. So, is there any de-abstracting? Let’s go line-by-line in the last stanza. Line 1’s DeC is simply to retell us that the year is 1826- so? Certainly not less abstract- just a different set of proirties in the immediacy of the information proffered. Line 2 de-abstracts slightly by telling the lay reader the dying man is the 2nd President. But look at the DeC of the word ‘Collect’. This somehow becomes ‘Join in’, whereas it is clearly meant as a pause to emotionally collect oneself before the deathbed scene. WDS seems oblivious to this narrative fact- de-abstracted or not. What gives? Lines 3-5 are, again, a misreading- not a de-abstraction- of the lines. Line 3 becomes a shriving John Adams, rather than Adams seeking forgiveness from his maker- i.e.- both ‘God’ & the reader, who creates the scene in their head. Both of these aspects are lost not because they are less abstracted but because they are totally ignored in the rewrite. The last line is the only line in this stanza- & probably the whole poem- that is truly a de-abstraction. So, WDS manages to only accomplish undermining the whole premise he set up for himself in this section’s DeC’s- that is, to show why poetic ‘license’ works better than prose.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
A pretty good poem- I graded it an 80 out of 100- that denounces the belittlement of love for lust. Here are the rewrites:
Vigor and spunk drain out to barren guilt
In casual sex, we jeopardize our souls
Version A 1st- WDS claims this version is less generalized than the original. True, but he at least retains a sonnet’s form this time. But Version B- which WDS says is even more abstract than the original- is actually the most plainspoken of all. Yes, the poem is not as good as the original- but neither it nor A are bad poems. In fact, both are passable-good Modern poems. Here, WDS has made 2 errors- 1st in thinking version B is the most abstract of the 3 versions- which leads us to question his critical skills, & 2nd, he conflates Modern phraseology with less abstraction when, in truth, the opposite is usually true- at least in the High Modern era. So, the reader is left pondering whether or not their guide through this book even knows what the hell he’s talking about. I say he’s barely got a grasp.
Another poem he tackles is this Walt Whitman classic, which WDS identifies as the final 1868 version of the poem:
A Noiseless Patient Spider
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated;
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my Soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my Soul.
WDS comments that this version is more specific to the action, but more universal in meaning than this 1862 first draft of the poem:
The Soul, Reaching, Throwing Out
The Soul, reaching, throwing out for love,
As the spider, from some little promontory, throwing out filament after
filament, tirelessly out of itself, that one at least may catch and form a link, a bridge, a connection
O I saw one passing along, saying hardly a word -- yet full of love I detected him, by certain signs
O eyes wishfully turning! O silent eyes!
For then I thought of you o'er the world,
O latent oceans, fathomless oceans of love!
O waiting oceans of love! yearning and fervid! and of you sweet souls perhaps in the future, delicious and long:
But Death, unknown on the earth -- ungiven, dark here, unspoken, never born:
You fathomless latent souls of love -- you pent and unknown oceans of love!
You know, WDS got his criticism correct regarding this poem- BUT, only as
far as it went. These 2 poems are not just different versions of the same poem-
& hardly ‘De/Composed’. They are very different poems- period. To
compare them as being better or worse is specious since the earlier poem is far
more sexual & homoerotic. That sense of the poem is totally castrated in the
more familiar version. The rewrite is a philosophic set piece with point &
counterpoint. The original is a bursting forth of sexual energy. The spider in
it is just a metaphor, while in the final version the spider is real & the
Soul the metaphor of it. Why is WDS so ignorant of this rather MANIFEST
difference? Both poems are good- the rewritten version was not rewritten for the
original’s lack of excellence, but due to the narrowmindedness of the times he
lived in. So, we’ve seen that WDS is not too swift on the critical uptake.
Another poem he tackles is Donald Hall’s The Man In The Dead Machine- the poem I redid as my 32nd TOP. Check out how I made this barely passable poem in to a near great poem by concision & enjambment, then let’s see how WDS tries to make what he feels is a ‘good’ poem a lesser poem. Yet, in truth WDS actually improves the poem- although not to the degree I did in my TOP. Here’s the actual poem:
The Man In The Dead Machine
High on a slope in New Guinea
The Grumman Hellcat
lodges among bright vines
as thick as arms. In 1943,
the clenched hand of a pilot
glided it here
where no one has ever been.
In the cockpit, the helmeted
by dry sinews at neck
and shoulder, and webbing
that straps the pelvic cross
to the cracked
leather of the seat, and the breastbone
to the canvas cover
of the parachute.
Or say the shrapnel
missed him, he flew
back to the carrier, and every
morning takes the train, his pale
hands on the black case, and sits
by the firm webbing.
Now let’s look at just the last stanzas, where WDS rewrites a 1st person POV in to it:
Or say the shrapnel
Or say that the shrapnel
missed me, I flew
back to the carrier and every morning
take the train, my pale
hands on a black case, and sit
by the firm webbing.
WDS admits that his turn makes the poem more personal & universal,
but it also makes the poem better- why? Because it politicizes the poem in to a
critique not just of a past war but of contemporary society. But, what does this
have to do with abstraction? Even when WDS gets something right he seems to do
so for the wrong reasons. But why try to write down a mediocre poem in the 1st
The next poem is Robert Creeley’s I Know A Man:
I sd to my
sd, which was not his
can we do against
drive, he sd, for
This is RC at his imitative William Carlos Williams worst. This is a bad
poem- period. So- again- why rewrite to ‘make it worse’? Bad enjambments,
pointless abbreviations, ridiculous breaks of words in their middle- in short,
oy! Yet, WDS claims these things force the reader to pay closer attention to the
poem’s details- huh?
Let’s do a side-by-side with this & the rewrite by WDS:
I sd to my
I said to my friend-
we always discuss this-
“John,” I said to him
(that’s not his real name)
“evils are universal;
what can we do
to ameliorate suffering
or should we just get
more luxurious comforts?”
“For the future’s sake” he answered
“consider the possible
harm to the ecology.”
Again, WDS is right that the DeC version is more prosaic- but lacking the
poor structure of the 1st it’s not necessarily a lesser poem; both
are bad. But, look at how the poem’s real message totally eludes him. The
original ends with the speaker’s philippic being intruded upon by reality.
Yet, WDS ends up moralizing. The original’s ending is in no way de-abstracted-
it’s changed to something totally narratively different. Again, the whole
point of WDS’s exercise is missed.
Section 2’s DeC’s tackle ‘Undercurrents’- i.e- that poetry uses metaphor & that a word choice can convey more than a singular meaning. The next poem I’ll tackle WDS bizarrely calls The Miller’s Wife, although it is The Mill, by Edwin Arlington Robinson. WDS claims the original’s diction lends ‘propriety’ to the narrative- the discovery of a suicide by the wife of the dead man. Yet, again, the change in diction is more due to modernity than to excellence, or poverty, of the poem’s phrasing. Here’s the original description of her encountering the body:
else there was would only seem
Now the rewrite:
What else was there she had to hope
Would tell her fully what he’s meant
And his corpse, hanging from a rope,
would never notice where she went.
The music is the same- & save for the word corpse there is no real difference. It is modernity of diction, not duplicity of meaning, that has been revealed. He then takes on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73- which grades out at its own number. Here ‘tis:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth steal away,
Death's second self, which seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
WDS raves that the opening quatrain is amongst the finest in the language- perhaps. Then the poem becomes a clichéfest & bottoms out. But even if we accept the superlativity of the 1st 4 lines here is how WDS twice recasts line 3:
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold (original)
So leafless boughs are subject to the cold (A)
Or vigor in my frail extremities (B)
Both DeC A & the quoted line are more in the vein of the original, although clichés are lessened, while DeC B is thoroughly modernized- & cliché-gutted. Again WDS has mistaken Modern diction for lack of poeticality. He suffers especially when taking non-Modern English into the Modern.
Later in section 2 he takes on another poem I’ve previously tackled- William Stafford’s Traveling Through The Dark. As I said in
that essay, after critiquing the misreadings of the poem:
Yet, as bad as LW’s criticism is- & it’s a very typical misread
of this good poem- it is a lot better & more thoughtful than most
contemporary criticism; just compare it to Kathryn Mullins’ take on DH’s My
Son, My Executioner. Is this due to WS’s poem being better than DH’s?
Probably not. Again, the 10,000 Monkeys Syndrome is at play. To be a good
critic does not mean having correct opinions on something, but having
correct opinions, for correct reasons, expressed well! While I am glad that LW
finds meaning & comfort in this poem, she does so for the wrong reasons.
That is OK for her, but for those who pay more attention to the poem her reasons
This is a good-very good poem. Some of its clichés early on really dig it into a hole. This was no doubt due to WS’s innate sentimentality. But he recognized he was on to a narrative gem & recovers nicely. Most of this recovery is due to the man’s decision to drop sentimentality, be objective, & go against his grain. Yes, there are the standard apologists who deny that this poem is atypical of WS’s oeuvre, that he was always a man of raw nature, etc. To that I can just say- NO. Reread his work. This poem, while not a great work, stands as many other poems by greater poets do- as a unique work different & above- in relation to their other poems. Think of this as WS’s Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, Four Preludes On Playthings Of The Wind, or Ozymandias. It has a nice subtle music to it: stanza 1’s d & short e sounds; it has a very subdued imagery throughout; & we are dramatically left hanging as to the speaker- his act is the last image. The poem is well-structured & not too long. If only the start of the poem were stronger this could have been a very great poem. But, we do learn more from near-misses than from the hermetically great.
Here’s the poem itself:
Traveling Through The Dark
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason --
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all -- my only swerving -- ,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
WDS posits that the
original succeeds because of the moral uncertainty of the speaker, whereas his
rewrite casts the speaker as self-righteous & certain. Let’s see:
Driving Late At Night
Driving late at night I found an animal
that had been killed on the road.
I always drag such things off the pavement --
that road's hazardous; if a car swerves it's a danger.
In the darkness I walked back of the car
to examine the body, a female, not dead for long
though rigor mortis was setting in, the body warmth going.
When I moved her, she was surprisingly heavy.
I soon found out why --
she was pregnant; the unborn foetus
was still alive but irrecoverable.
On that steep road I took just long enough to decide.
I knew I needed to go ahead
with the errands I'd started out on.
There was a lot of pressure since
I wanted to be sure I did the right thing.
I weighed all factors but wasn't indecisive
and shoved the corpse over the cliff for good and all.
True, that the speaker in the original is indecisive. So what? That has nothing to do with the rewrite’s lack of success- which is due to the prosified language- not the moral dilemma, if there was 1! Yet again WDS- even when he correctly dumbs down a poem- does not understand the fundaments of why his rewrites pale to the original. Besides, what does a moral dilemma have to do with metaphor & duplicity of meaning, or as WDS calls it: ‘Undercurrents’?
Section 3 is ‘The Singular Voice’, where WDS Confessionally posits that poetic depth is achieved by the more we know about the real poet’s identity, & how the poem plays off of it. An odd posit, but let’s see what is done with it. Here’s his attempt at redoing Emily Dickinson:
I Heard a Fly Buzz -- When
I Died (ED)
A Fly Got in the Day I Died
Granted, ED’s version is superior- but NOT because of the ‘Voice’
of the speaker within the poem, but that without- which has nothing to do with
the speaker within the narrative- or the ‘percipient’. The rewrite is bland,
lacks music, & verges on cliché. But, that has nothing to do with the
‘persona’ of ED, that has to do with the writing style- 2 different things.
It’s easy to see, I think, why so many MFA students are so poor in their own
writing when they have teachers who are incapable to make these very necessary
distinctions when trying to explain the mechanics of why a poem works or fails.
While 1 can grant plaudits to WDS for trying to explain these things at all, the
overall effect must be counterproductive- or, at least, all the evidence seems
to point that way.
Section 4 is ‘Metrics & Music’. See my essay on Robinson Jeffers, & The Metric Fallacy for the denuding of that long-held silliness. But, let’s see if WDS fares any better in his description of the music of these poems. Here’s a short poem by Robert Francis called Excellence:
Excellence is millimeters and not miles.
From poor to good is great. From good to best is small.
From almost best to best sometimes not measurable.
The man who leaps the highest leaps perhaps an inch
Above the runner-up. How glorious the inch
and that split-second longer in the air before the fall.
Here is WDS’s ‘iambic pentameter’ rewrite. We’ll see if he actually sounds metric, & if that has anything to do with the rewrite’s quality, or lack:
Mastery appears in inches, not in miles.
From poor to good’s great; good to best is small.
near-best to best may be too small to measure.
He who leaps highest leaps perhaps an inch
above the runner-up. How great that inch
and that split-second more before the fall.
Okay- this section’s poems are about the music of the poem- bear that
in mind. WDS’s comment on these 2 poems? He claims that there is a 6th
iambic foot to each line in the original, which stretches out the rhythm &
the last line’s 7th foot corresponds to that extra split-second. 1st-
in the original- reread ‘From poor to good is great. From good to best is
small.’ This is not stressed-unstressed all the way. Spoken plainly the 1st
sentence’s stress levels are clearly 2-3-5-4-6-1. The effect is that the 1st
& last words are stressed & give a nice sag in mid-sentence which rises
sharply from is to great. Think Kelloggs’ Frosted Flakes’
Tony The Tiger’s mantra! But even were 1 to buy in to the ridiculous metric
fallacy those 6 syllables would scan '----' not -'-'-'. Then look at the
original’s line 1- it’s far closer to the mythical trochee than iamb. So
what gives with WDS’s total obliviousness to this? It’s obvious that 1) he
is clueless as to what makes music in poetry- at least in recognizing it
critically- he may be adept in writing well out of sheer innate skill, but
it’s beyond his ken. 2) the rewrite is probably better, especially with the
assonance & alliteration, & 3) the real significant change in the poem
has NOTHING to do with its ‘music’- but with the title. Excellence &
mastery are 2 different things that qualify a skill level- 1 can only hope he
chose the former word as the title for ‘musical’ reasons- which were false.
Nonetheless, that word change is the single most important change in the poem-
all else pales next to it.
Next WDS tries 3 different rewrites of William Blake’s Ah Sunflower:
Ah Sunflower (original)
Ah Sunflower (into
Ah Sunflower (into
Ah Sunflower (into
WDS posits Blake uses anapests (--'), but varies the rhythms to achieve some sort of effect. WDS, again, is clueless as the originals 1st words ‘Ah Sunflower!’ would have to be (classically speaking) metered as ('''-) or truly stressed as 1-3-2-4 (in order of stress level). Yet, if this poem were anapestic its ‘feet’ would be multiples of 3- syllabically, yet we only get the hints of nonosyllabic counts in stanza 2. What gives? WDS’s reasoning, obviously. The fact is that WB rarely paid attention to meter- he was a VISIONARY, after all. Version 2- in 4 iambs- is a lesser poem because of the banal diction- NOT the music. As for version 3? The strict anapests have at least a few ‘missteps’- as well as failing for the diction! Same for the 4th poem version. The original succeeds NOT because of its music due to meter, but because of the music due to the appropriateness of stresses on the speaker’s emotions as they rise- d’ja ever wonder why WB, & other older poets capitalize certain words? Think there might be a reason?
Another poem he uses in this section is William Carlos Williams’ well known poem called ‘Poem’:
the top of
first the right
then the hind
the pit of
WDS reckons that the enjambment mimics the cat’s hesitant stepping. But so does the poetic DeC version he provides- BUT with better enjambments, & none of the hesitancy is lost:
then the hind
into the pit
of the empty flowerpot
This version is better, & the individual lines can play off of each other in more ways than the original’s. The 2nd rewrite- a DeC prose poem is lesser- but, no shit! As prose its music is dashed- yet WDS is oblivious to the improved actual music of the 2nd version, & the structural neatness that smoothes a lot of it out, as well. The proem version:
As the cat climbed over the top of the jamcloset, first the right
forefoot carefully then the hind stepped down into the pit of the empty
WDS is maddening- but an almost perfect example of the ‘Greater than
transcendence is its recognition.’ theme I always apply to art &
artists. He simply does not know why a poem- even his own- works when it works
& fails when it fails.
The last section- #5- is ‘Structure & Climax’- here WDS says the section ‘investigates how words and phrases nourish and enrich each other, so building the poem’s shape and structure.’ Admit it- with an intro like that you just KNOW you’re in trouble! In this section WDS returns to Emily Dickinson again:
I Never Lost As Much But
I've Lost So Much (WDS)
WDS’s comment?- None. So let’s look at the changes- ED’s poem has
more emotional ups & downs, + better phrasing. This is obvious. So WDS’s
point is that word choice matters. Great. So why does he not even hint at
The last poem from the book that I’ll deal with is from William Wordsworth:
She Dwelt Among the
Untrodden Ways (WW)
She Lived Among the
Untravelled Ways (WDS)
WDS says WW’s poem’s power lies in its move from euphemisms to straightforward speech. Obviously WDS alters the narrative & blands out the diction. So, again, the point is good word choice is good- but why? Apparently WDS feels that explication is not the purview of the critic. Which may be justified since, at root, WDS fundamentally knows he’s not really a critic- or at least a good 1.
Before I wrap up with my conclusion of WDS as a poet & critic it is interesting to look at what WDS, himself, thinks at the end of his book De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong. Quoth WDS: ‘I propose that we listen to poems with a similar ear for the genuine....to testify to an “inner light” so personal that only this speaker could be “witness” to it- yet which, once spoken, is proposed as universal.’ Go ahead, vomit it out, & when you recover you will realize exactly why WDS is so oblivious to the workings of poetry. Still not convinced? Here’s the book’s last sentence: ‘By the same token, whatever misrepresents the psyche leaves us poorer, less fit to decide, less able to nourish and mature our own sensibilities.’ Thank you, Oprah Winfrey!
Really, let’s be serious- WDS is the epitome of the good artist who is utterly clueless as to why he’s good. In other words- raw talent, but no true understanding of what it is, how it is, much less even- ugh- why? Recall- ‘Greater than transcendence is its recognition.’ This is 1 of my cardinal points in both art & life. Too bad WDS was not born after that bit of wisdom made its way in to the canon. Then again, we’d not have such a delightfully ridiculous book as De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong to inspire essays as this, which tell you the what & the why, as well as let you know the real who in the Pantheon. That all said- read his poems, throw his criticism on the woodpile!
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