by W.D. Snodgrass
Graywolf Press, © 2001, pgs. 285. $16.00 ISBN: 1-55597-317-5
Fortunately a book reviewer need only describe a book and not attempt criticism, for in no way am I fit or able to analyze this new work of imagined intellect any more than I would be able to name all the poems W.D. Snodgrass has ever written. He is one of America’s greatest poets, if not the best alive, and since the 1960’s when he won the Pulitzer Prize, Snodgrass has amazed and delighted us with works of instruction that have no precedent. The subtitle of this book is “101 good poems gone wrong;” and who but Snodgrass would have the grasp and capability to tackle 101 classic and famed works of poetry and rewrite them, not to the good, to make a point. What a way to teach! I think we should bring it into every one of our classrooms, for the content in this book has never been seen before; such a fresh approach to teaching poetry is pure Snodgrass. He makes his point by taking apart, and putting poems (almost) back together….and then let’s us see why the emperor had the real clothes in the first place, and how the rewritten costume is fine fakery. We learn the crucial elements of poetry, and the devices that make for a “great” poem, by what I can only call Snodgrass surgery, and sorcery.
There are five sections to this book. The first presents “Abstract & General vs. Concrete & Specific.” That’s topic enough for a whole book. For this, Snodgrass rewrites Yeats, Berryman, Whitman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Donald Hall, among others. Sometimes the transformed poems are humorous when splayed apart, but the more interesting thing is that some rewritten poetry at first seems all right, at first reading, until we are brought into the secrets that only Snodgrass knows.
Leda and the Swan (pg.2)
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
Here is stanza # 1 again de composed by W.D.
Leda and the Swan
An unforeseen assault; that huge form still
Above the helpless girl, dazed and distressed
By the attack, then pinned down by his will
And massive force, powerless and oppressed….
This, among other poems is discussed in the chapter’s end essay. This poem – in its entirety -shows how “ the loss of physical details and actions- specific nouns and verbs displaced by interpretative adjectives – drives out Yeats’s immediacy”…there is further explication, and we are also treated to Yeats’s first version of this poem. We see the original work written by Yeats before the heralded version we all know and learned. So detailed is the analysis here that Snodgrass points out how the omission of one word “indifferent” undermines the strong emotion in the poem before de/composition..
Section II, “Undercurrents,” presents poems whose very nature is changed by the Snodgrass rewrites. Nowhere better than this do we see the moral imperatives formed by language…how the loss or addition of a word and phrase can change more than the complexion…but alters the force field of the work…dignity can become pomposity, by rewriting a poem, and courage turns to swagger, by change of phrase.
“The Singular Voice” titles the next section, and I guess tone would be the best way to describe which element of poetry is shown here. I suppose the best way to understand this is not by the message the poem delivers, but the order prescribed by the diction, the choice of words which tell the story, i.e. Snodgrass tells us about the work of Wallace Stevens…“taking a refined and somewhat mannered eloquence as our only hope in bringing order and symmetry to an essentially meaningless world…”
I do not know a work of composition or decomposition that teaches so completely by such unorthodox tactics.
I think my favorite from this section is Robert Lowell’s "The Drunken Fisherman" as seen against Snodgrass’s "Fishing Drunk." (Pg.118).
What I am thankful for in this world, is that Snodgrass is in it. No one today has the mastery of poetic canons to equal this scholar, whose wit and intellect take us new places. Snodgrass talking us through the book is like being with someone you always wanted to sit next to, someone who is unafraid to dismantle the universe for the benefit of showing what is inside.
On the back cover of the book:
The first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s
“If I Shouldn’t Be Alive”
If I shouldn’t be alive
When the robins come,
Give the one in the red Cravat,
A Memorial crumb…
And de/composed by Snodgrass
When the robins come
If I should be dead
In my remembrance give a crumb
To the one whose breast is red.
Snodgrass goes from the Music of the Spheres to a Hallmark card with just a little mischief.
Critic F. D. Reeve says “…by showing what’s good poetry we free ourselves of domination by what’s bad.” We could say the same in reverse, for W..D. Snodgrass shows what is bad to free us for the good. This book is for use in your classroom. Who would not want W. D. Snodgrass as visitor there?
Pulitzer Prize Winner W. D. Snodgrass is the author of eight books of poetry, of prose, two books of translations, along with books of criticism and essays