I must admit my initial encounter with McGann and his idea of deformance made me a bit skeptical of its value and usefulness. Our class discussion probably swayed me to thinking of it as a little more of a robust concept. I decided to do a deformance of a Frank O’Hara poem I read recently and enjoyed. The poem is called “To The Harbormaster” from the collection Meditations in an Emergency. The original can be found at:


My initial non-theoretical reading/impression:  I don’t know enough about poetry to be able to tell someone if this is a “good” poem or not, but I liked and related to it. Clearly, O’Hara uses nautical language to convey a sense of gratitude towards a friend or lover who gave him a bit of stability & safety, yet remained just out of reach.

Using Deformance: While casual research would reveal that O’Hara often wrote of personal experiences in the moment, just knowing about the idea of deformance  made me want to see the original text or understand where O’Hara was at the time to influence his use of language in this particular poem. Was he sailing or boating that day? Was he on a pier watching boats come and go? So, I think we can assume that simple familiarity with the idea might lead to a desire to get a feel for the original text or the “moment” it was created in.

Next, I played around with the order of the poem. A straight up backwards reading didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid. Reading it aloud or mouthing it backwards and forwards helped in getting a rhythm for a possible oral performance. One valuable insight was gained here, that might have been overlooked otherwise – both the first and last lines allude to the writer reaching “you.” The first line is more optimistic –“I wanted to be sure to reach you,” while the final line seems a resignation that obstacles will always be in the way.

After a backwards reading, I did more of refrigerator poetry alteration of the poem, juxtaposing lines in an order that I tried to keep understandable and readable and adding spaces between some of the lines. For whatever reason, the middle of the newly constructed poem ended up drawing out the words/lines corresponding to the body – “lips,” “hands” and “arms.” In a way, this arrangement drew my focus away from the nautical terms that caught my eye in the initial reading. I’ll add the caveat that it was fairly obvious without deformance that O’Hara is comparing himself to a vessel, but playing with the arrangement might have fleshed this out a little more.

Finally, I removed everything but the nouns and verbs. While this mostly reinforced the nautical/body insights explained earlier, I noticed the competing ideas of motion and being held in place. “Depart,” “rudder,” “waves,” “wind,” “drives” vs. “coils,” “caught,” “moorings,” and “tying up.”

Only in the final part did I find myself thinking like a computer. Playing around with arrangement, I felt more creative & human, like a DJ remixing a track or a drunken college student playing with refrigerator magnets.  Breaking it down further felt more machine-like, and liberated me from the idea of thinking about the complete body of the text, complete sentences, or lines and allowed me to focus on individual words.  At the very least, deformance might be a useful thought experiment or assignment for students reading poetry or a short text. It might also encourage a deeper understanding and reading of the piece.