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.
For the less advanced student or reader, however, these changes can be too subtle to be easily understood. This is why Snodgrass is perhaps not good enough. For these readers or students, a revised poem in a much more advanced stage of decomposition—that is, one that is far more amateurish—would have been more instructive. It takes no small degree of skill, but also a particular turn of mind, to turn a fine poem into a piece of hack-work.
Perhaps Snodgrass assumed that by the time a student was presented with this book, he or she would have progressed beyond the raw amateur stage and be ready for more advanced instruction. Or perhaps he assumed that even the beginner could, with proper instruction, be guided to perceive the differences between the canon-quality work and the “de/composed” one. These are, of course, just guesses.
Snodgrass does provide brief discussions of why each “de/composed” piece fails at the end of each section. I would have found it helpful to have those summaries at the beginning, so I could know what to look for, rather than having to remember the injuries inflicted on dozens of poems after I’d read them all.
In sum, then, the value of this book depends on how it’s used and who’s using it. For an advanced student in a semester-long poetry class, or a non-student poet looking for ways to improve their craft and with the time to study these works closely, De/Compositions will be a valuable addition to their knowledge base. For others, not so much.