De/compositions

August 16, 2018

Flower Conroy
Poet Laureate of Key West

De/compositions

In his book De/compositions, W. D. Snodgrass alters great canonic poems’ techniques of diction, meter, image, and/or intention in order to showcase how crucial each and every gesture a poet makes contributes to the poem’s overall success. As a result, these new poems become semblances of their original selves, often lacking the magic, musicality and power they once possessed. Bastardizing a great poem however is much easier a task than transforming a flailing poem into something at least worthwhile if not esteemed. The process of dismantling an accomplished poem (when watered down by someone with refined insight into the craft of poem making) can allow the reader a sideways glimpse into a poem’s crafting. But just like being in the dark wings of a stage set, this view is limited and as such lacks the capacity to fully transport the reader.

Any act of reading requires a degree of suspended reality because letters are symbols strung together to make larger units of symbolic meaning called words. Even when we are aware of the artifice—I’m thinking of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in which the main character, Ferris Bueller, often turned his attention to the camera, addressing the audience and abridging the distance between observed and observer—we are engrossed in the happenings of the art; by contrast, think of how less invested one is in watching the outtakes, for example. We can appreciate them mostly or only because we have seen the finished product and been transported by it: we can appreciate the bloopers because we have experienced the art. Take for example how Snodgrass’ de/composition of William Blake’s “Ah Sunflower” recasts the original poem’s dramatic intent by changing meter and diction.

Snodgrass observes: “In “Ah Sunflower” Blake uses the so-called ‘triple meters,’ anapests and dactyls, which for many other have yielded a brain-deadening ‘bounce.’ Blake, however, cannily manages extra and secondary stresses to maintain but vary this rhythm” (“IV. Metrics and Music,” 210). Snodgrass’ acute awareness of Blake’s sense and therefore use of meter allows Snodgrass to manipulate Blake’s poem into three metrically different versions: one composed of four foot iambic stresses; one composed of strict anapests; and the last constructed with three foot iambic stresses (Snodgrass, “IV. Metrics and Music,” 160-1). Blake’s expert execution of anapests and dactyls sonically reinforce the poem’s mood—which is part awe and wonder, part hope and realization, whereas Snodgrass’ metric recasting in four foot iambic lines burdens the poem with clumsiness and gracelessness: “Sunflower, weary grown of time,/ Who counts the footsteps of the sun,” (Snodgrass, “IV. Metrics and Music,” 160). While the second line isn’t terrible (musically speaking), the opening line is musically akin to beholding the sunflower and tripping over a log.

It is, in its syntax and meter, overdramatic. In order to maintain the four foot iambic lines, Snodgrass had to manipulate diction. Consequently, Blake’s final line, “Where my Sunflower wishes to go,” becomes “Where my sunflower yearns to go” (Snodgrass, “IV. Metrics and Music,” 160). Although “wishes” and “yearns” are synonymous and connotatively similar (both are imbued with hope and want), “yearns” is sonically a harder word than “wishes.” Think how different the Disney song would be if the lyrics were “When you yearn upon a star…” By altering Blake’s poem into four foot iambic stressed lines, Snodgrass not only transforms the musicality of Blake’s poem, but also the emotional intent of it.

Likewise, when Snodgrass manipulated Blake’s original meter into strict anapests, the (new) poem acquired the “brain-pounding” effect Snodgrass cautioned against: “As the Sunflower, weary of time/ Who is counting the steps of the sun” (Snodgrass, “IV. Metrics and Music,” 161). Lost is the awe and reverence present in Blake’s original opening line, and the second line becomes almost accusatory. And although the last line’s diction remains intact, the altered meter changes the line’s (accumulative) mood; “Where my sunflower wishes to go” now sounds disdainful or flippant, and loses what Renee Ashley calls the “matter” of the “material” (Snodgrass, “IV. Metrics and Music,” 161; Ashley, “Some Notes on Making Poems: Material and Matter”). The line seems now to only mean the literal—that a sunflower, by design, follows the sun—and loses the figurative which embodies the design and/or designer.

When Snodgrass recast Blake’s “Ah Sunflower” into three foot iambic stressed lines, he compromised diction in order to render the meter. For example, the two syllable word “weary” became the single (and aurally harder) syllable “tired,” “traveler’s journey” was squelched into “travels,” the mysterious “shrouded” devolved into the uglier word “clad,” “sunflower” was downgraded to the more generic term “flower,” and “wishes” dissolve into “wills” (Snodgrass, “IV. Metrics and Music,” 161). Unlike the seemingly innocuous change from “wishes” to “yearns’ in the four foot iambic stressed version, these changes in diction (and therefore connotation) dramatically alter the original poem’s mood. For example, if you are weary of something, there seems to still existence tolerance amidst the fatigue whereas if you are tired of something, your patience has run dangerously thin, and tolerance bleeds into intolerance. Similarly, “wishes to go” connotatively seems airy, optimistic, and/or pleasant whereas “wills to go” seems urgent, desperate, and/or forceful. The changes in connotation, coupled with the meter, eliminate many of the original poem’s innate caesuras; as a result, this version acquires a sing-song-y feel.

For someone like myself who struggles with acutely hearing stresses, these examples of de/composition illuminated the ulterior significance of meter—I could hear how Snodgrass’ changes destroyed Blake’s “material” and therefore, his “matter” (Ashley, “Some Notes on Making Poems: Material and Matter”). The act of changing meter is a simple way to change a poem’s musicality, but it is a complicated way to change the poem’s intention. As a result, the de/compositions are not so much a matter of Snodgrass’ versions of the poems being adequate (but perhaps sometimes inferior) semblances of their originals, but how Snodgrass’ tampering of poetic techniques affects the whole experience of the poem—a fact that reiterates how crucial each and every gesture in a poem becomes in determining its success or failure.