Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(ewitt)
SNODGRASS, W(illiam) D(eWitt)
Nationality: American Born: Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, 5 January 1926. Education: Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, 1943–44, 1946; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1946–55, B.A. 1949,M.A. 1951, M.F.A. 1953. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1944–46. Family: Married 1) Lila Jean Hank in 1946 (divorced 1953), one daughter; 2) Janice Wilson in 1954 (divorced 1966), one son and one stepdaughter; 3) Camille Rykowski in 1967 (divorced 1978); 4) Kathleen Brown in 1985. Career: Instructor in English, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1955–57, University of Rochester, New York, 1957–58, and Wayne State University, Detroit, 1959–67; professor of English and speech, Syracuse University, New York 1968–77. Visiting professor, 1979, and distinguished professor of creative writing and contemporary literature, 1980–94, University of Delaware, Newark. visiting teacher, Morehead Writers Conference, Kentucky, summer 1955, Antioch Writers Conference, Yellow Springs, Ohio, summers 1958–59, Narrative Poetry Workshop, State University of New York, Binghamton, 1977, Old Dominion University, Norfolk Virginia, 1978–79, Cranbrook Writers' Conference, Birmingham, Michigan, 1981, San Miguel Poetry Week, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 1998–2000. Awards: Ingram Merrill Foundation award, 1958, and fellowship, 1979; Hudson Review fellowship, 1958; Longview award, 1959; Poetry Society of America special citation, 1960; Yaddo Resident award, 1960, 1961, 1965, 1976, 1977; American Academy grant, 1960; Pulitzer prize, 1960; Guinness award(U.K.), 1961; Ford fellowship, for drama, 1963; Miles award, 1966; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; Guggenheim fellowship, 1972; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1973; Centennial Medal (Romania), 1977; Harold Morton Landon Translation award, Academy of American Poets, 1999, for Selected Translations. Honorary doctorate: Allegheny College, 1991. Member: American Academy, 1972; Fellow, Academy of American Poets, 1973. Address: R.D. 1, Box 51, Erieville, New York 13061, U.S.A.
Heart's Needle. New York, Knopf, 1959; Hessle, Yorkshire, Marvell Press, 1960.
After Experience: Poems and Translations. New York, Harper, and London, Oxford University Press, 1968.
Remains (as S.S. Gardons). Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Perishable Press, 1970; revised edition (as W.D. Snodgrass), Brockport, New York, BOA Editions, 1985.
The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress. Brockport, NewYork, BOA Editions, 1977.
If Birds Build with Your Hair. New York, Nadja, 1979.
These Trees Stand. New York, Carol Joyce, 1981.
Heinrich Himmler. Cumberland, Iowa, Pterodactyl Press, 1982.
The Boy Made of Meat. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1983.
Magda Goebbels. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon, 1983.
D.D. Byrde Callying Jennie Wrenn. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1984.
W.D. Meets Mr. Evil… San Diego, Brighton Press, 1985.
The House the Poet Built. San Diego, Brighton Press, 1986.
The Kinder Capers. New York, Nadja, 1986.
A Locked House. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1986.
Selected Poems 1957–1987. New York, Soho Press, 1987.
W.D.'s Midnight Carnival. Encinitas, California, ARTRA, 1988.
To Shape a Song. New York, Nadja, 1988.
Lullaby: The Comforting of Cock Robin. New York, Nadja, 1988.
The Death of Cock Robin. Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1989.
Autumn Variations. New York, Nadja, 1990.
Each in His Season. Brockport, New York, BOA Editions, 1993.
The Fuhrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle. Brockport, New York, BOA Editions, 1995.
After-Images: Autobiographical Sketches. Rochester, New York, BOA Editions, 1999.
Recording: Calling from the Wood's Edge, Watershed, 1985.
The Führer Bunker (produced Norfolk, Virginia, 1980; New York, 1981).
In Radical Pursuit: Critical Essays and Lectures. New York, Harper, 1975.
Editor, Syracuse Poems 1969. Syracuse, Syracuse University Department of English, 1969.
Translator, Six Troubadour Songs. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1977.
Translator, Traditional Hungarian Songs. Baltimore, Seluzicki, 1978.
Translator, Six Minnesinger Songs. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1983.
Translator, The Four Seasons. New York, Targ, 1984.
Translator, Five Romanian Ballads. Bucharest, Romania, CarteaRomaneasca, 1993.
Translator, Selected Translations. Rochester, New York, BOA Editions, 1998.*
Bibliography: W.D. Snodgrass: A Bibliography by William White, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1960.
Manuscript Collection: University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware.
Critical Studies: W.D. Snodgrass by Paul L. Gaston, Boston, Twayne, 1978; Everything Human: The Poetry of W.D. Snodgrass edited Stephen Haven, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1993; "The Strength of Departure in Snodgrass's 'Leaving the Motel'" by Coreen Dwyer Wees, in Notes on Contemporary Literature (Carrollton, Georgia), 24(2), March 1994; W.D. Snodgrass in Conversation with Philip Hoy by Philip Hoy, London, Between the Lines, 1998; Tuned and under Tension: The Recent Poetry of W.D. Snodgrass edited by Philip Raisor, Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1999.
W.D. Snodgrass comments:
I am usually called a "confessional" poet or else an "academic" poet. Such terms seem to me not very helpful. I first became known for poems of a very personal nature, especially those about losing a daughter in a divorce. Many of those early poems were in formal meters and had an "open" surface. All through my career, however, I have written both free verse and formal meters. At first I published more of the formal work because it seemed more successful to me. Recently my free (or apparently free) verse seems more successful, so I publish more of it. My poems now are much less directly personal and often experiment with multiple voices or with musical devices. My work almost always goes very slowly and involves long periods of gestation and revision. This is not because I am particularly perfectionistic but because it takes me so long to get through the conscious areas of beliefs and half-truths into the subrational areas where it may be possible to make a real discovery.* * *
Since the publication in 1959 of the Pulitzer prizewinning Heart's Needle, W.D. Snodgrass has established himself as one of the most prolific, versatile, and accomplished poets of his generation. Quick to recognize the personal and confessional nature of the poems of this first volume, critics pointed out that Snodgrass was following the example of his teachers, Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell. Like them, Snodgrass developed a hard and refined craft that used rigidly controlled forms to objectify his personal pain and to transform it into art. By doing so he seemed to be saying, "Don't look at me; look at what I've been able to do with me, to make of me." Nonetheless, he has not been content to write about himself only. Instead, he has embarked on major efforts to engage historical forces and to account for what he sees as the basic human tragedy. At his best he is both family centered and metaphysical. The bitterness and disappointment he sees as part of life stems from the limitations of human existence.
In his first two volumes, Heart's Needle and After Experience, Snodgrass is racked by guilt, not only for the sense of a failed life as father and husband but also for placing the lives of his family on display. In "The First Leaf," from Heart's Needle, he says to his daughter,
Now I can earn a living
By turning out elegant strophes.
Your six-year teeth lie on my desk
Like a soldier's trophies.
The tone of this and most of the work in his first volume is ironic and bitter, but although his poems are steeped in life's pain and grief, he refuses to be self-indulgent. Above all he seeks to examine motivation and to seek forgiveness wherever possible. Such is his theme in the exquisite sequence of poems that give the volume its title and that express pain and sorrow in brilliantly controlled forms, as in the following—
Winter again and it is snowing;
Although you are still three,
You are already growing
Strange to me
—or in the line "Whom equal weakness binds together / none shall separate."
The effort to transform personal sorrow into art takes on a new dimension in Snodgrass's second volume, After Experience. He ransacks other poetic traditions for vehicles and models to express private grief. A good portion of the volume is composed of translations of poems by Rilke, de Nerval, Rimbaud, and Eichendorff that use symbols to objectify and generalize the poets' personal experiences, as in Rilke's "The Panther" or Eichendorff's "On My Child's Death." The first half, however, is composed of poems that remind us of those of Heart's Needle, many written during the same time but not included in that volume. Poems such as "Partial Eclipse," "September," and "Reconstructions" provide additional perspective on the poet's shattered marriage. Another portion of the volume includes poems that comment on paintings by modern masters whose work has had significant influence on the poet's sensibilities: Matisse, Vuillard, Manet, Monet, and van Gogh. The poem based on Vuillard's The Mother and Sister of the Artist is particularly important to Snodgrass, who sees in it a portrait of a domineering mother and a frail and sickly daughter, which reminds him of his own mother and sister. This relationship becomes the core of his writing in his next volume, Remains.
The material of Remains was so sensitive that Snodgrass published it under the pseudonym S.S. Gardons, which is "Snodgrass" spelled backwards. In the volume Snodgrass takes a harsh and unforgiving look at his parents and their treatment of their children, particularly of his sister, whose death at the age of twenty-five he blames on them. In "The Mother" he pictures a woman obsessed with power and evil ("If evil did not exist, she would create it / To die in righteousness"), and in "Diplomacy: The Father" he pictures a man devoid of will who scavenges human weaknesses to gain personal advantage over others and who surrounds himself with an air of meanness and emptiness. What pity or compassion the poet feels is for his sister, and in poems such as "The Mouse," "Viewing the Body," "Disposal," and "Fourth of July" he presents her as the victim of the inadequate parents. Throughout her life neglected and demeaned, only at her funeral is she accorded "a place of honor."
The publication of The Führer Bunker in 1977 demonstrated that Snodgrass was developing into a poet of diverse and prodigious talent. The volume is a total break from his previous work and represents a bold and ambitious attempt to transcend the limits of personal experience and to rise to the level of dramatic poetry. The awful sense of guilt and responsibility of the individual, the sense of a Hitler in himself and in all of us, provided the motivation to search into the heart of what Hannah Arendt called in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem "the banality of evil." Through the interior monologues of Hitler, his senior officials, and his mistress, Eva Braun, the volume tells the story of the last days of the survival of the Third Reich. As if reacting to charges of excessive concern for his own personal life, Snodgrass immerses himself in historical fact. Presented as a work in progress to which he has continued to add, including Magda Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler, Snodgrass apparently believed that some truth of human nature is inherent in these events. In the monologues of the characters monstrous acts mingle with the utter banality of daily life.
Two other volumes, If Birds Build with Your Hair and A Locked House, represent a return to the personal and confessional mode. The poems reflect the experience of another failed marriage, more heart-rending than the first. This marriage apparently was supposed to last the poet's lifetime, but his wife turns to another, younger man and the poet's life turns to ashes. In If Birds Build with Your Hair the bitterness of this disappointment is sharply felt in poems such as "Old Apple Trees," "Cherry Saplings," and "Setting Out," and in A Locked House in "Mutability," "The Last Time," and "A Valediction."
Although he has worked on additional volumes, most of Snodgrass's later work is in his Selected Poems 1957–1987, which contains not only generous selections from his earlier work but also new work published separately as a cycle of poems called The Kinder Capers, which includes The House the Poet Built, and selections from The Death of Cock Robin, poems written to accompany paintings by DeLoss McGraw. These latter works represent a totally new departure for Snodgrass and suggest the kind of originality that Berryman discovered when he wrote The Dream Songs. Inspired by McGraw's drawings and picking up story lines and poetic forms from Mother Goose, Snodgrass has written powerful poems in which he displays a new inventive magic and comic play with language and verse forms as well as a playfulness in relation to himself as poet. Although apparently keyed to children, these poems are much too complex and innovative to be left only to the young, and they should be read by adults of all ages.