I must be cruel to be kind
December 4, 2010 10:00 PM   Subscribe

This Old Poem Those familiar with the long-running PBS TV series This Old House may be able to discern where I am going with this series of essays. Basically, I seek to rehabilitate (by rewriting) well-known poems....

Dan Schneider cuts Amiri Baraka in half, performs battlefield surgery on Hughes, takes away Raymond Carver's carriage return, and runs carefully amok in your classics. Whether or not you like the results, Schneider makes an exhaustive case that even the oldest standards can and must offer surprise at every turn.
posted by kid ichorous (42 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Philosophically, the concept of "rewriting" poems written written by someone else seems, just, wrong....
posted by HuronBob at 10:06 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:18 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

(I would be so tempted to present my edit as the original and the original as my rewrite, then only reveal the truth after everyone commented on how my rewrite is totally pedestrian and misses the author's point completely and is obviously the work of an inferior writer...)
posted by Ian A.T. at 10:26 PM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Christ, what a thoughtful person.
posted by shii at 10:39 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hated all of the rewrites that I read. They varied from "not quite as good" to "what the hell, this no longer even makes any sense or has any soul, kind of like it was computer-generated."

This could actually be funny, if it was being done in an overly-pedantic English teacher sort of way and meant to be humorous, but this was just painful.
posted by wending my way at 10:41 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Philosophically, the concept of "rewriting" poems written written by someone else

is just fine if the goal is to understand the poems and poetry better, and not to actually publish new versions of the poems, Sonnets by Shakespeare & Smith, and even that could be interesting if Smith were amusing.

In these linked essays, the writer spends time considering, for example, whether a certain word should come before or after the line break. That is how poetry should be approached: syllable by syllable. I'm not claiming his analyses are brilliant, but the approach is sound. Take it apart, look at each part, and see how it all fits back together. Are there any parts we don't need? Are there any parts that could have been fitted together better? Anything missing? What would happen if we moved this part over here and cut that part?
posted by pracowity at 10:48 PM on December 4, 2010

My God, they're all so much worse! It's impressive, that combination of consistent inability to improve good poets' worst poems with all the bluster and denigration and conviction that he has done so. Suggests how easily territory-marking can overtake the ability to read.
posted by RogerB at 10:51 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

TH never wrote a poem over 10 lines long that was any good.
Well, this was an extremely unpromising start to the first link I read. And it went downhill from there.
posted by Abiezer at 11:12 PM on December 4, 2010

I once considered doing this with screenplays I've liked the premise of but hated the execution (most recently Inception), but then I feared it would be linked to on MeFi and people would react like MeFites.
posted by dobbs at 11:17 PM on December 4, 2010

One does see the similarity with This Old House. At least the later series.
posted by maxwelton at 11:18 PM on December 4, 2010

Actually, as wending my way suggests, some of these are kind of unintentionally hilarious. My favorite so far is when his constant refrain of "Let's tighten things up" turns Blake into a Hallmark card. But it's hard to find enough humor amid the bile drenching these pieces to keep reading.

The most potentially interesting moments here are the ones where Schneider's sensibility, his personal convictions about the One Right Way to write poems, is in the starkest conflict with the material, as when he confesses his wish to "de-Whitmanize" Whitman. But the right way to process that wish was Pound's, not this bitchy feigned surprise at finding "Victorian pomp" in an 1865 poem memorializing a head of state.
posted by RogerB at 11:30 PM on December 4, 2010

Heroic levels of ineptitude and hubris in that Blake re-write. I am now happy to concur with Saxon Kane's pithy summing up above.
posted by Abiezer at 11:39 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

The hand that wrote this should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his other work. It's alright to question, but to rewrite?
posted by Trochanter at 11:50 PM on December 4, 2010

Oh, this is a joke. Right?
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 12:00 AM on December 5, 2010

Ugh, Shakespeare is so, like, blah blah blah. So imma gonna take his Henry VIII and turn it into a TV show.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:11 AM on December 5, 2010

Heroic levels of ineptitude and hubris in that Blake re-write.

Yes. This is an interesting idea and there's even a need for it because poets get away with far too much and all anybody ever does is chuckle and move on. But that Blake re-write was so awful that I feel this person should be put up against a wall. He's done a very bad thing and that's all there is to it.
posted by nixerman at 12:24 AM on December 5, 2010

who's woods these are?
i think i know!
his house is in the village.
though he will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow,
my little horse must think it.
of easy, wind, and downy. flake the woods are!
lovely! dark! and deep!
to go before:
i sleep and miles.
to go before.
i sleep.
posted by brenton at 12:31 AM on December 5, 2010

Consensus in this thread seems to be drifting towards "what an asshole" territory generally, and the City Pages article sure paints him that way. On the other hand, I just wound up reading his take on Weldon Kees, and it seems like he's got a side as an informed and thoughtful reader with an interesting taste in things (albeit too concerned with pointing out the originality of his interpretations).
posted by brennen at 12:43 AM on December 5, 2010

It's alright to question, but to rewrite?

The rewriting of poetry is a valuable way to learn the writing of poetry, though more polite poets will keep their practice sessions confined to the notebook. Recasting free verse in pentameters, tearing lines out of a stanza until it stops working, translating a poem from an unknown language with nothing but a rough gloss and a dictionary - all of these are edifying, productive, and fun. If there's any offense here, it's in the manner rather than the nature of this guy's work.
posted by Iridic at 1:03 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this concept is fine but the execution would be more palatable if it had the tone "let's experiment and see if we can come up with an interesting alternative" rather than "Step aside, Eliot and Keats, Dan Schneider is here to show you how to write poetry." I suppose that raging ego helps the creative process as much in poetry as anywhere else, but it all but forces the reader to react with nitpicky glee when he gets a technical point wrong like "I cut air from bubbles because it’s an unnecessary adjective."
posted by No-sword at 1:23 AM on December 5, 2010

His comments about Sandra Cisneros are kind of disgusting.
posted by wayland at 1:35 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

This was more fun when it was rewriting poems as limericks. The challenge of capturing the original while also saying something about the original at the same time and making it funny is more interesting than "This is how I would have done it" because there is no "How I would have done it" You didn't do it. Do your own thing.. It also reminds me of the recent post about "Good artists copy, great artists steal." You're supposed to take something and make it your own. Not take something, mess it up and give it back.
posted by amethysts at 1:42 AM on December 5, 2010

Ugh. Fuck this guy. I'm embarrassed for him.
posted by the bricabrac man at 2:19 AM on December 5, 2010

The woods, pretty
Not near city
Pause a bitty
Must sleep, pity
posted by maxwelton at 2:20 AM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Maybe I can tighten that up:

Woods cute
Horse mute
Snow beaut
Sleep, shoot
posted by maxwelton at 2:25 AM on December 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

She should have died hereafter;                          Dead girly:
There would have been a time for such a word.            Too early
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,                 Time passes:
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,               Molasses
To the last syllable of recorded time;                   Final days:
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools                Foolish ways
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!          Spirit snuffed:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player               Actor cuffed
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage            Curtain call:
And then is heard no more. It is a tale                  Bugger all
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury                 Loud tale:
Signifying nothing.                                      Derail
posted by maxwelton at 2:49 AM on December 5, 2010 [21 favorites]

a fork in the road
snow slips down from heavy branch
many ri till sleep
posted by zompist at 5:29 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am having a massive rage overreaction to this. I suddenly hate this man more than I hate Communists.
posted by prefpara at 6:41 AM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

It only matters because the stakes are so small. Since the City piece was written in 1999, I think he's branched to interviews and not terible film criticism. But ripping apart the Twin Cities' poetry world can't have taken too long.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:29 AM on December 5, 2010

I have rewriten
the poem
By William
Carlos Williams

and which
you were probably
forwards to

Forgive me
it was delapidated
so long
and so old
posted by Artw at 7:45 AM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's interesting that people get so worked up about this in a way they don't about, say, a cover version of a song. I find I don't care for much contemporary poetry, so I don't care for this either, but I think the idea of "cover versions" of poetry is totally worthwhile.
posted by Failure31 at 8:41 AM on December 5, 2010

Dan Schneider, I know Byron. I've read Byron. I've studied Byron.

Byron's poems are old friends of mine.

You, Sir, are no Lord Byron.
posted by misha at 8:41 AM on December 5, 2010

I wouldn't say I'm bothered to the point of worked up but to return to the execrable Blake 'tightening up':

Joy and woe: the soul divine
Runs a joy with silken twine

makes nonsense of the grammar (the soul runs a joy?) by cutting Blake's original:

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

to the point that you can't help but think Schneider's either not reading properly or an utter moron.

And the cloth-eared fucknut called Milton a bad poet! /wipes spittle flecks
posted by Abiezer at 8:50 AM on December 5, 2010

He said Frank O'Hara was "a very lazy poet." My hands are shaking. He insults him repeatedly. I had to stop reading. This post should be titled "some dude named Dan shits on greatness."

There is a way to analyze poetry, and there is a way to discuss how poems are constructed, and there is a way to describe the choices made by the poet and the impact those choices have on the poem, and this is not that. This is just atrocious. This guy's tone is among the most off-putting I have ever encountered. "By now I hope you will be able to recognize bad line breaks without the need for me to hand hold & explain the obvious."

Not only is this guy doing something he should not be doing, but he is also revealing that he totally lacks insight and good taste. Dylan Thomas "is doubtlessly 1 of the most overrated poets of all time."

I am ashamed for him. Simultaneously I am totally appalled.
posted by prefpara at 8:51 AM on December 5, 2010


"I am having a massive rage overreaction to this."

Which I think would be fine by Schneider. It appears he styles himself a provocateur, someone who will stand up in a crowd and say the emperor has no clothes. Which in a theoretical sense is perfectly fine, but in the real world means that one often comes across as the sort of person for whom the only role of a punchbowl is to be the place one deposits one's turds. Schneider appears not to mind this, which might be why it appears at this point he does not get very many party invitations.


I don't think what Schneider's doing is comparable to a cover version, though. The closest description would be "parody by editing," although I clearly Schneider would argue that he's improving via his editing rather than parodying.
posted by jscalzi at 8:55 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the idea of "cover versions" of poetry is totally worthwhile.

Here's an example of a brilliant, intelligent riff:

Another example. I've always been fond of a fairly juvenile poem by Dylan Thomas in which he pokes fun at the popular poetry of his day. Here's an excerpt:

Do not forget that 'limpet' rhymes
With 'strumpet' in these troubled times,
And commas are the worst of crimes;
Few understand the works of Cummings,
And few James Joyce's mental slummings,
And few young Auden's coded chatter;
But then it is the few that matter.

...it's possible to have a conversation about poetry without being an intolerable asshole.
posted by prefpara at 8:57 AM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

It appears he styles himself a provocateur, someone who will stand up in a crowd and say the emperor has no clothes

Not just one emperor, though, but all the emperors of history (is there any 1 who isn't "1 of the most overrated"?); and while standing up to bravely inform you of this, Schneider repeatedly declares himself the greatest tailor of all time, reminding you that he has produced hundreds of fine suits of clothes, far better than the emperors', which he'd be happy to sell you if you weren't such an idiot.
posted by RogerB at 9:04 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

For those of you who have read Pushkin's Malenkie Tragedii, this guy is like Salieri if Salieri had no talent and, instead of killing Mozart, waited for him to die and then started rewriting his music ("this 1 needs more cowbell").
posted by prefpara at 9:10 AM on December 5, 2010 [8 favorites]

Look, this might be extremely interesting as a personal exercise in understanding poetic process; it might be somewhat useful to share that exercise.

The part where he brags about how much he "improved" these poems makes him seem like a dick. (And/or like Nahum Tate or Colley Cibber, both famed for "improving" Shakespeare by making it boring and like saccharine ass--in Tate's King Lear, Cordelia lives at the end!)

The part where he publicly posts unauthorized edited versions of living poets' copyrighted works makes him seem like an idiot. An idiot and a tortfeasor.

Postcard from my mind: I always sing the word "Tortfeasor" to the tune of "Goldfinger" so now you know. And I do an awesome Shirley Bassey.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:27 AM on December 5, 2010

I worked in the same office as Schneider as few years back. The CP article came out during this time and many of us had the same reaction: "The article makes him seem less like the weirdo-about-to-snap that we thought he was."

His personality was very much what many people here have described. He certainly has intelligence and wit but it is hard to access behind the ego and need to appear provocative. A close friend of mine worked closely with him and would likely have a more charitable impression. 6-12 months after he left the company, I was forwarded a scathing email he wrote to most of the management, copying union officials and local media. My name was on the long list of people he had problems with for supposedly passing along privileged information to others on the list. Most of the missive was from the same attitude these reinterpretations came from, namely his assumption that he knows better and you should listen to him because he is willing to say that he knows better.
posted by soelo at 4:10 PM on December 5, 2010

On first skim: What on earth is this guy's aversion to writing out numbers and the word 'and'? His ampersand key must be worn out.
posted by Gordafarin at 3:01 AM on December 6, 2010

And, on reading through a few articles: Christ, what an arrogant asshole.
posted by Gordafarin at 5:38 AM on December 6, 2010

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