W. D. SNODGRASS
When it was published in 1959, in a poetry collection of the same name, W. D. Snodgrass's poem "Heart's Needle" was a sensation. Snodgrass won a Pulitzer Prize, and the poem came to be recognized as one of the very first examples of confessional poetry, a term coined that year to describe poetry that deals straightforwardly with autobiographical material. Snodgrass's talent was immediately viewed as equal to that of such luminaries as John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. Indeed, "Heart's Needle" is almost universally acclaimed, whether as an example of a particular style of poetry or for its own potent message.
The poem itself concerns the poet's relationship with his daughter after he divorced her mother (when his daughter was three years old). Told over a series of ten sections, each written in a distinct style, "Heart's Needle" reflects on the poet's weakening bond with his daughter. "Heart's Needle" can now be found in Snodgrass's 2006 collection Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems.
W. D. Snodgrass was born William De Witt Snodgrass on January 5, 1926, in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. His father was an accountant and his mother was a homemaker. After high school
he enrolled in Geneva College, now called Hobert College, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His studies there were interrupted when he was drafted during World War II. He went into the U.S. Navy and served in the Pacific. After his discharge from the navy in 1946, he continued his education at the University of Iowa, where he enrolled in the college's internationally famous Writers' Workshop program. He earned a master's degree in fine arts from Iowa in 1953. He married the first of his four wives, Lila Jean Hank, in 1946; their divorce in 1953, and Snodgrass's subsequent losses in the battle for custody of their daughter, Cynthia Jean, were frequent subjects of his poetry during that period, which was one of the reasons why he came to be categorized in the confessional school of poetry.
Snodgrass started publishing poetry in the 1950s, appearing in the most prestigious literary magazines of the time, including the New Yorker, Partisan Review, and the Hudson Review. In 1957 he established himself as one of the most important rising stars on the American poetry scene when a long section of "Heart's Needle" was published in an anthology called New Poets of England and America, edited by Donald Hall, Louis Simpson, and Robert Pack. Snodgrass won several prestigious awards before his first book of poetry was published, including the Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in 1958, the Longview Foundation Literary Award for 1959, and the Hudson Review Fellowship in Poetry for 1958-1959. His first published poetry collection, Heart's Needle, was published in 1959 and received a citation from the Poetry Society of America, a grant from the National Institute of Arts, the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and the British Guinness Award in 1961.
After the success of Heart's Needle, Snodgrass published his next book, Remains, under the pen name S. S. Gardons. This alternate identity was one that he did not try very hard to keep a secret, and later, after the deaths of both of his parents (whom the book was about), he talked about his pseudonymous work openly and reissued Remains under his own name.
In the following decades, Snodgrass taught at several colleges and universities. His longest-lasting association was with the University of Delaware, Newark, where he was a distinguished visiting professor from 1979 to 1980 and a distinguished professor of creative writing and contemporary poetry from 1980 to 1994; since then he has been a distinguished professor emeritus. He has published numerous books of poetry, several plays, and several collections of literary essays. He has been awarded some of the most prestigious fellowships available to poets, including fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts. As of 2008, Snodgrass was retired, splitting his time between Erieville, New York, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. His most recent publication was Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (2006).
After dedicating "Heart's Needle" to his daughter, Snodgrass begins with a passage from the Irish legend of Suibhne. Suibhne, a Gaelic version of the name Sweeney, was a king of Ulster who was driven insane by a curse that was placed on him by a bishop he had attacked. In the section of the story that Snodgrass relates, Suibhne has left society and is living in a tree. He gradually comes to his senses when a noble, Loingseachan, tells him of the deaths of his mother, his sister, his daughter, and his son, and he drops out of the tree, only to be arrested. In the midst of this discussion, he refers to an only daughter as being a needle of the heart, which can imply both the pain of a needle puncture and the sense of direction given by a compass needle.
Snodgrass begins the poem by comparing his feelings for his daughter to those felt by a farmer toward his field that is covered by winter snow. His daughter was born in the winter, and, like a field in winter, she represented pure, unsullied potential. As Snodgrass depicts the situation, the daughter's life, like the coming summer for the farmer's fields, will be full of work and suffering before there is any rest to be had.
The marriage that the child is born into is not portrayed as a happy one. The poet describes himself as being torn by love and as silenced by his fears. Although the birth of the child is a happy occasion, it is also one that is fraught with uncertainty.
The poem's second section takes place when the child is three. The time of year is also moved forward, from the dead of winter to April, a pattern that the poem follows throughout.
The central image of this section is a garden that the father is helping his child plant. The perimeter of the garden is defined by strings, which are said, a little jokingly, to pose a defense against animals that might crawl or tunnel into it. The father advises his daughter to watch over it, to water the seeds, and to keep her garden free of weeds. In the end, he admits that she will be responsible for looking after her garden because he will not be living at that house any more in a few months, when the plants come up.
Section 3 is about the tension in the speaker's household that precedes the family's breakup. Snodgrass draws a comparison between the unhappy household and the political situation known as the cold war. The main similarity presented here is that the soldiers of the cold war were kept in a constant state of anxiety, prepared to fight but always kept waiting for actual combat to break out, just as the people in a bad marriage might spend much of their time wondering when all of the pent-up hostility might turn into actual fighting.
The first image in this section, in the first stanza, is that of a child walking along the street with two parents and being lifted up over a puddle, with each parent taking one hand. The child is not the daughter that Snodgrass talks about throughout most of the poem but a boy, mentioned with the masculine pronoun. In this stanza, all three members of the family are presented as one homogenous unit, working together smoothly, but once the child is swung over the puddle they separate from each other.
- Snodgrass reads from "Heart's Needle" on Nine Pulitzer Prize Poets Read Their Own Poems, an LP recording by the Library of Congress Recordings Laboratory that was released in 1963 as part of its Twentieth Century Poetry in English series.
- As read by the author, sections 7 and 9 of this poem are available on a cassette tape titled Calling from the Woods' Edge, released in 1986 by Watershed Tapes.
At the end of this section, the speaker of the poem once again addresses his daughter. He recalls a time when, playing with her, he pulled too hard on her arm and dislocated her wrist. Writing from a distance, as someone who now lives apart from her, he wishes that some twist of fate, as in a Chinese play, would tell the girl that he was wholly responsible for her, that he was as much her mother as her father.
The fourth section of this poem takes place after the father has already moved out of the house. It starts with a mention of the time when he told her that he must leave, but most of the stanza takes place during a visit in the autumn, just as the cold weather is arriving. Snodgrass describes the plants and flowers that they see as they walk together and the ways that the change in the weather affects them. He specifically mentions that these are not the flowers that the father and daughter were planting in section 2 but municipal flowers planted by the city.
In the sixth stanza of this section, the poet compares the vines that are hardened and ruined by the cold to the lines of poetry that he cannot complete, showing how the emotional complexity of his divorce and separation from his child affects his life as an artist. In the last stanza of section 4, he relates the story of a different child, the daughter of a friend, who became so attached to the sound of a cricket outside her window that she cried when it died. This image connects the coming of winter with a child's emotional state, conveying the sadness of the child who has to deal with changes that are natural and unavoidable.
This section takes place in the middle of winter. The daughter is still three years old, as she was in the section about spring planting, section 2. Although she is still in the same year of her life, much has changed: She has new friends, and she has learned new songs. She has forgotten songs that her father used to sing to her and she is no longer familiar with his routines or habits, such as singing to her before going out for a nighttime walk. The poem illustrates this situation with the image of Snodgrass's footprints in the snow filling up with new snow over time.
At the end of this section, the poet uses the image of an injured fox to show how he feels. The fox is missing one leg, having chewed his own leg off in order to free himself from a trap. The fox returns to the place where the trap is and, staring at his own paw, is aware that he cannot feel it anymore.
In section 6, the setting is Easter, which is traditionally thought of as marking the beginning of the spring season. The daughter comes to visit, and they go to the river; the river's waters are high, as rivers usually are in the spring, which brings to mind the killdeers that were displaced from their nests another time the river overflowed. This brings back other memories associated with birds.
The daughter remembers a time that a blackbird attacked her father for coming near its nest. They also recall starlings whose nests were destroyed when workers cut down branches that had been weakened by a wind storm and a pigeon that the father tried to catch but had to let go when she flapped her wings in panic. About the last, Snodgrass notes that there are some things that his daughter reminds him of that he is not proud of.
In the last two stanzas of this section, the poet recalls a time when he came to his daughter's bed when she was sick and could not breathe, comparing that feeling to how disabled he felt after his divorce. He ends this section by noting that he now has a new wife and an adopted child to care for.
Section 7 offers a brief look at the father and daughter playing on a July day. The father pushes his daughter on a swing, and every time he pushes her away she comes back to him with even more force. This very action can be seen as a symbol for their difficult relationship, which has by this point reached a sense of balance.
In section 8, Snodgrass compares the relatively easy relationship that the father and daughter had when she was young with the strained relationship they have when she comes to visit him at his new house. He recalls that as a baby she would not eat unless her milk had some lemon juice put in it and that as a toddler she would chew the white clover in the yard. He recalls taking her to the zoo and feeding the animals from the bag lunches they brought with them. After the divorce, he could not afford to have her visit often and had to cut back on the times that he could see her.
The second half of this section takes place at Halloween. The daughter comes to visit for a week. She dresses as a fox, but when the neighbors ask who she is and she takes off her mask, they still do not recognize her and ask whose child she is, being unfamiliar with that part of the poet's life. The daughter has a terrible time during her visit; she quits eating, and the father leaves her untouched plate in her room until she will eat it. When she leaves to return home, it is November, and there is snow on the ground again. The father has a terrible appetite for candy when she has gone, even though he is very aware of how harmful it is to his teeth.
In this section, it has been three months since the daughter's last visit. The speaker, who has not been in communication with his child in that time, wanders through a natural history museum, where the carcasses of birds and animals have been preserved and are displayed in glass cases. He recalls being there a year earlier with his daughter and her stepsister, his daughter in his new marriage, and how the girls ran around and had fun with one another before having their first argument. Some of the animals are big and ferocious, but they are frozen still now, unable to attack—just as the father's relationship with his daughter is in a state of suspended animation.
In the second half of this section, the speaker goes from listing the museum's stuffed animals to listing the odd medical specimens preserved in liquids in jars, including a kitten, a two-headed goat, and a tiny horse with no limbs. The sights of these animals, which died before they were born, makes him even more aware of the fact that he has a living, healthy daughter that he has not talked to for three months.
It is springtime again. The poem brings up images of renewal, of plants growing and newborn animals, such as colts and piglets. The daughter has come to visit her father once again, just as the seasons come around regularly. Any bitterness that has built up is melted like the winter snow, and they are at the park again, feeding the animals as they did in years gone by.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Snodgrass varies the rhyme scheme over the different sections of this poem. Choose two sections of "Heart's Needle" and consider their differing rhymes and rhythms. Write an essay on the topic.
- Research the cognitive abilities of three-year-old children. Choose some of the daughter's actions described in the poem and write a report that explains them in terms of standard developmental phases and abilities.
- In section 3, the speaker describes dislocating the child's wrist when he pulled it while playing. Contact a social worker and find out about the frequency of unintended injuries caused by well-meaning parents, and write a report on your findings. In your report, be sure to propose steps that could help curtail the problem.
- Make a list of all of the species of birds mentioned in this poem. Research the behaviors of each, and then write a brief interpretation of what those behaviors might symbolize in "Heart's Needle."
Separation and Its Effects on the Parent-Child Relationship
The most obvious and powerful theme covered in this poem is the relationship between the poem's speaker and his daughter. From the first line to the last, Snodgrass explores the unique relationship that occurs when a father and his daughter are separated from one another by divorce when the girl is very young. The separation itself causes its share of problems, introducing a sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity that puts a strain on the naturally occurring bond between parent and child. Added to that is the hostility that often occurs when two parents decide to go their separate ways—not only the hostility between the parents that caused the breakup in the first place but the lingering resentment that the child can feel at being in a certain sense abandoned. In this case, the tension of the situation is made even more pronounced by the fact that the daughter has to deal with the father's new family when she comes to visit.
For most of the poem, the speaker and his daughter maintain a solid relationship, given the circumstances. He recalls pleasant activities that they have shared in together, like planting her garden, going out to neighbors' homes for Halloween, helping an injured bird, and going through the wildlife museum with her stepsister. Their relationship throughout these activities is, however, strained by their growing unfamiliarity with one another.
The greatest strain on their relationship comes from a disagreement that is almost trivial in nature. At the end of section 5, the speaker recalls how, during the Halloween visit, his daughter refused to eat her dinner. Not willing to let her flaunt the law of his household, he left her uneaten food in her room for days, which created resentment in her, so that they parted at the end of the trip angry at one another. This fight eventually settles itself by her next visit, but the speaker nonetheless agonizes over the emotional distance that has grown between himself and his daughter. Looking back, he seems to understand that his response to his daughter's attitude was as much a cause of the problem as her attitude itself; in being separated from her, meanwhile raising a stepdaughter who was presumably already more mature when he arrived, he has missed out on the opportunity to develop his sense of fatherhood gradually, and he is therefore bound to make mistakes along the way.
Time and Its Passage
Snodgrass adds an element to the reader's understanding of the relationship between father and daughter by focusing on a particular time of her youth. Specifically, he follows how their relationship progresses in relation to the progression of the seasons. In doing this, he juxtaposes the natural measurement of time with the unnatural changes that occurred in his and his daughter's emotional lives as their family came apart. Moving from winter at the beginning to springtime at the end, the poem never talks about any events in the speaker's life without telling readers what time of year it was when they occurred.
Time is of course an important part of this relationship for several reasons. The most obvious one relates to the father's sense of the child growing up quickly. In one section she is a newborn, and then almost immediately they are playing together in the yard, and then she has become rebellious, and her father seems to be caught unprepared for each new development. This is true of many relationships between parents and children, but it is especially true of the estranged circumstances described in this poem. After the breakup of their family, their time is not continuous together. They see each other for specific lengths of time that occur irregularly, and they have to make the best of that. While the changing seasons will be roughly the same each year, each meeting between father and daughter draws attention to the differences that time has brought.
Shame and Remorse
There is a sense of shame and remorse in "Heart's Needle," as the speaker comes just short of apologizing to his daughter for the circumstances that made their lives more difficult than they might otherwise have been. The whole poem takes the form of an explanation, such that his daughter can, at some time in the future, see how his behavior was at least well-intentioned. The complexity of their social situation is laid out in the first section, where Snodgrass compares his first thoughts about fatherhood to the sense a farmer has before his fields have grown, to establish how his daughter's birth filled him with anticipation; the ominous imagery of a frozen, snow-covered field lets readers feel the sadness that lies behind that anticipation. The poem goes on to chronicle missteps that the father took in his relationship with his daughter, including pulling her arm too hard when she was an infant and allowing himself to be distracted from her by his new family. Going into the poem's final section, it seems that he does not think much of himself as a father. In the end, however, the relationship between father and daughter rights itself through no particular effort of his own, much to his relief.
Varying Rhyme Scheme
Snodgrass gives this poem a comforting sense of familiarity by using a strong, recognizable rhyme scheme. While using rhyming patterns that are easily recognized, though, he also changes the rhyming patterns frequently, such that the structure of the poem always feels new. For instance, the first section follows an abba pattern, with the words at the ends of the first and fourth line rhyming and the words at the ends of the second and third lines rhyming. The second section has an abacbc pattern, as line 1 rhymes with line 3, line 2 with line 5, and line 4 with line 6. Section 3 is aabccb, section 4 is ababb, and so forth. The most disorderly part of the poem is section 8, which is the only one where the rhyme schemes changes within the section: the first stanza of this section follows an abacb pattern, the second stanza is ababb, the third stanza is abbac, and so on. This irregularity is appropriate for this part of the poem, as this is the section that deals with the most emotional confusion; still, Snodgrass retains some rhyming structure even as he alters it, giving the poem a strong sense of control.
"Heart's Needle" is organized into ten distinct sections that tell a comprehensive story when they are put together but which can also be read independently. In fact, individual sections have sometimes been published separately in anthologies, where readers can appreciate them for their own internal logic. The sections are not equal in length, and they have differences in stanza length and rhyme schemes, but they all have similarities in their structures and, of course, they share similar subject matter. Although this poem can be examined in terms of its individual parts, the overall effect when the ten sections are read together is greater than the sum of those parts.
The Confessional Poetry Movement
"Heart's Needle" is often identified as one of the first confessional poems, ushering in a trend in poetry that was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. Confessional poetry is generally characterized as poetry that looks deeply into aspects of the poet's life that might be considered embarrassing. Among those who were considered to be practitioners of the confessional school of poetry were Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell.
By the late 1950s poetry had come to be viewed as having strayed too far from actual, lived experience. After World War II, the government's G.I. Bill provided financial assistance to veterans who wanted to attend college. A great number of aspiring writers took advantage of this opportunity, as evidenced by a swelling of enrollment in creative writing programs. While this seemed to offer training to common people who might never have been able to hone their writing skills, some writers felt that it led to a trend toward poetry that focused on technical, impersonal aspects that could be taught in the classroom. One response was the poetry of the Beat generation, a group of writers, including William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, who sought deeper understanding of existence by living life to its fullest and who wrote poetry, prose, and fiction based on their experiences, recorded in a stream-of-consciousness style that made the writing seem spontaneous and unpolished.
The confessional poets, by contrast, did not reject formal poetic techniques, and they did not seek out intense experiences to write about. Instead, they looked inward, at the aspects of common life that are worth examination but that often are seldom discussed. Plath wrote about her damaged relationship with her father and how that affected her ability to function as an adult; Lowell wrote about his family and his personal life; Snodgrass wrote about the dissolution of his family and his feelings of loss after losing custody of his daughter; and Sexton wrote about infidelity and abortion.
The phrase "confessional poetry" was coined in 1959, when the critic M. L. Rosenthal was reviewing Lowell's collection Life Studies in the Nation. Although similarities could be seen in the works of certain poets writing at the time, few of them, including Snodgrass, cared to have their works categorized as confessional. For most, they were simply seeking to do what poetry has always done: unveil truths. Still, there is a distinct trend in poetry written in the late 1950s and early 1960s toward the revelation of personal details often considered too embarrassing to discuss publicly.
The Cold War
Snodgrass refers to the cold war several times in this poem, using it as a metaphor for the unspoken tension between him and the mother of their daughter after their divorce. It is an apt metaphor, as the cold war was a time of hostility between the world's two superpowers that never grew into an actual war.
When World War II ended in 1945, most of the countries of Europe, Africa, and Asia had suffered. Manufacturing capacity had been damaged in countries that had been involved in the fighting, and populations of skilled workers had been diminished. The two countries that were left in the strongest positions were the United States and the Soviet Union, which were run under opposing political ideologies: The Soviet Union, which came into existence in 1917, practiced and supported the spread of communism, while the United States was a democracy with a capitalistic economic structure. Though both countries were allies during the war, they disagreed immediately after about the political structure Europe was to have.
What followed for both nations were decades of suspicion, hostility, and covert operations aimed at undermining each other's power. The two sides often gave support to opposing factions in smaller countries, as in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, rather than instigating direct U.S.-Soviet combat. Though crises often threatened to bring about direct fighting, such as with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, tensions were always calmed through diplomacy. The cold war managed to remain an abstract, theoretical war through the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
When it was first published in 1959, "Heart's Needle" was viewed as a groundbreaking work, setting the tone for a generation of poetry. The book that bears the poem's title won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the year that it was released, as well as the Guinness Award in England the following year. Although some critics characterized the poet's style as being too academic, these critics were themselves often dismissed as being too infatuated with the antiestablishment aesthetics of the Beat generation. M. L. Rosenthal, the critic who coined the term "confessional poetry" (the style that Snodgrass was to become most closely associated with), reviewed Heart's Needle in the Nation in 1959. In his review, Rosenthal speaks of the power of the title poem: "The undramatic misery of the troubled father anxious to create common memories … has great authority." Rosenthal adds that Snodgrass gains this authority "through a gift of understatement that is yet saturated with feeling." Later in his review, the critic states that "the poem remains true to its germinating feeling of quiet suffering, and to its author's special talents."
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: In the event of a divorce, the custody of any children is almost automatically granted to the mother.
Today: Courts take many factors into consideration in determining which of two divorced parents should have primary custody.
- 1950s: A parent living across the country from his child has to rely upon letters and expensive long-distance phone calls to keep in touch.
Today: Written messages and photos can be sent instantly by e-mail or can be posted to Web pages. Most cell phones have plans that include unlimited long-distance calls.
- 1950s: The United States is in competition with the Soviet Union. People live in fear that nuclear war might erupt at any moment, destroying whole civilizations.
Today: The fear of nuclear war is less immediate than the fear of terrorist attacks.
As the years passed, Snodgrass's reputation as a major poet did not persist. Nothing that he has written since his first volume has made such an impact on the literary world. By the 1990s, the release of a new collection was not met with enthusiasm. This can be seen in William Pratt's review in World Literature Today of Snodgrass's 1994 collection Each in His Season. "Sadly," Pratt remarks, "Snodgrass is a poet who found his voice early but who has not been able to sustain it into his later years."
Some critics attribute Snodgrass's waning reputation to the tremendous impact "Heart's Needle" had when it was first published. Writing in the Southern Review in 2006, Jay Rogoff recalled a discussion he had with another poet who, in the 1980s, had recently reread Heart's Needle and had failed to understand the enthusiasm she had once had for it and for confessional poetry in general. Rogoff explains, "Our difficulty today in seeing Snodgrass's special quality actually derives from his success and his influence, as well as the influence of Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and others: What looked forbidden in his poetry, what made it new and startling at the time, has become the norm." Nevertheless, Rogoff goes on to praise Heart's Needle for its "impeccable craft," noting that "its technical mastery still compels us and argues for its enduring power."
Kelly is a writer and an instructor of creative writing and literature at two colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, he explores the implications of the label "confessional poetry" and how the label relates to "Heart's Needle."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The poet Seamus Heaney wrote a modern translation of the traditional Irish legend Buile Suibhne, the myth that Snodgrass quotes at the beginning of "Heart's Needle." Heaney's modernized version, titled Sweeney Astray, was published in 1984.
- In section 9 of "Heart's Needle," Snodgrass gives a detailed description of a visit to a museum, tucked away in a university building, that has display cases full of animals that have been stuffed and posed. The sociological aspect of such museums is explored in Stephen T. Asma's 2003 study Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums.
- While "Heart's Needle" is often considered the first poem to be categorized as confessional, Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," in which an adult daughter voices her resentment toward her father, is considered one of the most powerful examples of confessional poetry. It was published in 1965, shortly after Plath's death, in her collection Ariel.
- The term "confessional poetry" was coined to describe Robert Lowell's Life Studies. The collection was published in 1959, the same year as Heart's Needle.
- Snodgrass uses "Heart's Needle" to demonstrate how a writer begins a work in his essay "Finding a Poem." The essay is included in his book In Radical Pursuit: Critical Essays and Lectures (1975).
In the nearly half a century since it was first published, W. D. Snodgrass's poem "Heart's Needle" has been referred to as one of the earliest examples of the burgeoning confessional poetry movement. It is a label that Snodgrass has tried to distance himself from, and for good reason. For one thing, the description is counterproductive in regards to understanding an individual poem. Labels explain little, and at the same time they limit a work's possibilities. Labels may make readers feel that a poem is only relevant to a particular place and time. Because of this, readers may study a poem as a historical curiosity rather than as a work of art that is relevant to the world they live in today.
Besides the ways in which labeling can limit how readers view a poem, there is the broader issue in this case of whether the label even provides an accurate description. Confessional poetry describes a poetry that reveals secrets of the author's that most people would rather keep hidden. There does not seem to be any need for confession, after all, if there is not some secret involved.
It simply is not clear whether "Heart's Needle" is any more revealing of the secrets of the human soul than any other well-written poem. Certainly, its subject matter, concerning the changes that come between a man and his growing daughter after his divorce, seems like pretty tame stuff today when compared to some of the therapeutic childhood stories and poems that are routinely published concerning abandonment, incest, and mental disease. The ordinariness of Snodgrass's poem, though, should not be a consideration here. It just would not be right to judge the poem by the standards of today, given that the confessional poets worked against different social standards, breaking barriers of taste and propriety that modern readers can only imagine. Writers of Snodgrass's generation—Lowell, Berryman, Plath, and the rest—made the personal poetry that is now commonly published possible. What makes a poem confessional or not is a matter not of how embarrassing the reader might find the relationships it describes so much as what the events in the poem mean to the speaker.
Here, the evidence about whether this poem is actually a confession is unclear. At times, it seems as if "Heart's Needle" is telling readers details of the poet's personal life that he would just barely be able to whisper among the closest of friends. More often, though, the poem reads as if the poet is standing up to announce his declaration, a justification of what he did as being what he had to do. A justification is quite a different thing than a confession.
The uncertainty about this poem's tone starts in the epigraph and follows through from there. Snodgrass starts by providing a section of the ancient Gaelic story The Frenzy of Suibhne. This brief vignette provides the poem's title, as Suibhne states upon hearing that his daughter has died that an only daughter is like a needle in the heart. Just what this story is supposed to mean is ambiguous, and that ambiguity carries into the rest of the poem. On the one hand, it could be read that the father is saying that his overwhelming love for his daughter makes him vulnerable to news of her bad fortune. On the other hand, Suibhne does not seem to be suffering too much over his daughter's death; a needle is a much smaller thing than, say, a dagger. He might as well call his daughter's death a minor, though sharp, pain.
Even more perplexing is the question of how readers are to apply Suibhne's story to "Heart's Needle." Snodgrass does not stop at Suibhne's line about his daughter and a needle in the heart but carries on, including the response Suibhne then gives upon hearing of the death of his son. Whatever this means to the overall story of The Frenzy of Suibhne, it is almost offensively dismissive in relation to "Heart's Needle." Snodgrass does not mention a son anywhere in his poem. The passage as used in this epigraph seems to make an even more radical point than the suggestion that a son's fate is more important to a father than a daughter's: Snodgrass's use of it gives the impression that he may think even a theoretical son is more important to him than his real daughter. By including the lines that give Suibhne's reaction to the death of his son, Snodgrass goes out of his way to put the focus on a character who does not even correspond to one in his poem, thus taking the spotlight off his daughter.
If this is true, then the poem might indeed well deserve its categorization as confessional. The speaker is perhaps confessing to a much dimmer level of concern for his daughter than is socially expected. The divorcing father should be lavishing affection on his daughter, but the use of this epigraph implies that he is dismissing her as an inconvenience. There is a sense of shame implied in the lines the poet has chosen from Suibhne's story. If Snodgrass actually is admitting, confessing, this as the reality of his relationship with his daughter, he is taking a gamble that he might embarrass his readers.
Throughout the poem itself, however, the poet's sense of shame is not so clear. Just when he seems to be confessing to loving his daughter too little, new evidence arises to show that he feels he has loved her the best he could. Examples of this can be found from the very first image of the poem. Snodgrass starts by referring to his daughter as the child of his winter. In other circumstances, the mention of one's winter would mean the later years of one's life, when growth is past and one is facing the cold of death, as in the title of Shakespeare's play A Winter's Tale. In this case, though, the poet was still a relatively young man when his daughter was born. Later references to soldiers and the cold war indicate that the winter he means is an emotionally cold and dead period that he went through. The reference to his cold, frozen emotions could be read as a confession, as a way of saying that he was more inaccessible to her than a father should be. But it could just as much be read as the poet accepting what life has dealt him, as if his coldness, like the cycle of the world's climate, is just something that recurs now and then. One might confess if they looked back and saw that they had turned aloof, shutting out wife and child, but one would hardly confess for being cold because the temperature dropped. Observing a natural occurrence is not a confession.
And that is the problem overall with calling this poem, or any poem, confessional. Poets do what they can to look at their subject matter and find meaning in it, but the word confession distracts readers from precisely what is being said. The focus ends up being on what the situation described means to the poet, on whether he is discussing or confessing. The possibility of confession invites the reader to pass judgment; these judgments will usually be favorable, but if the poet seems to be trying too hard for a favorable judgment—if he is twisting his description of the circumstance to make his actions look at all favorable—then his "confession" lacks sincerity. The search for confessions in confessional poetry becomes like sorting salt from sand with tweezers, a job so labor-intensive that it can never end up being worth its while.
The task of the artist is to look at life and present it with all of its flaws. "Heart's Needle" tells a story that is emotionally true. The truth of what it has to say remains unchanged, regardless of where the ideas came from or how much Snodgrass felt shame about the details he shares within the poem. The label "confessional" can make readers overlook that fact. There may indeed be such a thing as the confessional poetry movement, and critics and historians can argue about who and what the term applies to. Still, segregating these poets because they happened to use their lives as subjects does little to further one's understanding and appreciation of their works; by the time one finishes sorting through the confessional elements, the poem's other splendors have lost their allure.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Heart's Needle," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Rogoff reviews Snodgrass's collection Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems, along with specific discussion of "Heart's Needle." Rogoff praises the collection, noting its "technical mastery."
Almost two decades ago, when W. D. Snodgrass's last Selected Poems appeared, another poet told me how different she felt revisiting his Heart's Needle sequence after many years. Back in the 1960s, she said, those poems had shocked her—had shocked everyone—with their subject matter: the guilt and anger of the speaker's divorce and the anxious difficulty of maintaining a loving relationship with his estranged young daughter. But the poetry now seemed tame, decorous in its formal restraint, and she had difficulty perceiving what had created such a fuss. And truly, it was quite a fuss: The 1959 Heart's Needle, Snodgrass's first collection, took the Pulitzer Prize over, among others, Life Studies, the now-iconic book by Snodgrass's teacher Robert Lowell that, together with Heart's Needle, brought family trauma and psychological disturbance out of the closet and made them fair game for verse, inspiring M. L. Rosenthal to create the label "confessional poetry." These books shocked readers in 1959 precisely because Snodgrass and Lowell presented themselves not as wild-man outsiders like Allen Ginsberg, who, guided by Blakean vision and elegiac Whitmania, ran naked through America, but strong traditionalists who clothed disturbing personal dramas in technical beauty, so the rawness of the wounds they examined seeped through the gold tissue of their poems' finery.
Our difficulty today in seeing Snodgrass's special quality actually derives from his success and his influence, as well as the influence of Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and others: What looked forbidden in his poetry, what made it new and startling at the time, has become the norm. The wrong turns that in the 1950s counted as dirty secrets of private life—divorce, adultery, and the emotional snarls they make of parent-child relationships—have become common American experiences and, therefore, common poetic subjects. The culture has caught up with Snodgrass and Lowell, and poetry, as always, has pushed beyond the culture, outing all of its skeletons from the closet into cold print.
If Heart's Needle's subject no longer piques our lust for gossip or scandal, its technical mastery still compels us and argues for the sequence's enduring power. Snodgrass has included all ten sections of the title sequence in his new book of selected poems, Not for Specialists, and they demonstrate how, early on, he had achieved an impeccable craft.
… The poem's complex grammar unrolls in a single sentence whose long parenthetical phrases interrupt his address to the child, suggesting the constant interruptions in their love. It embodies the difficult balancing act the speaker has assigned himself: to salvage some harvest in his emotional winter, to control his sometimes violent feelings (the sequence's third poem describes how he "tugged your hand, once" so hard he "dislocated/The radius of your wrist"), and to establish a lasting bond with his daughter (the same poem boasts that "Solomon himself might say/I am your real mother" since he has surrendered her to his rival parent rather than tearing her in half like "Love's wishbone"). If the movement from the Korean War to the divorced couple's "cold war" seems presumptuous, the development of the snow metaphor for the child's mind resonates richly. The "new snow," her tabula rasa, presents a comforting purity but also induces anxiety, implicit in the preceding image of Asian snows "fouled" by death, in the guise of "fallen soldiers," "new" in both their youth and their sacrifice. By turns, her "new snow" recalls the trauma "Of birth or pain," offers itself "spotless as paper" for the poet-father to make his mark upon, and demands protection from "the weasel tracking, the thick trapper's boot," and other predatory dangers.
Yet the speaker also feels temporary and helpless, like "the chilled tenant-farmer" who neither owns the land nor can, in the dead of winter, cultivate "His fields asleep." His lack of rights eliminates any certainty in his life with her: He has "planned" only to leave much between them to chance, realizing that any paternal protection he can provide must be hit or miss. The poem's stanza, swelling to four beats in the third line before dwindling to two at the end, plays out his swelling love and shrinking hope, while the language details his restrained and terrible acceptance. Later, in poem seven, set in summer, the rhythm of a playground swing enacts precisely his combined love and despair in their periodic relationship, ending, as she returns through the air to him, with an emblem of their tentative love: "Once more now, this second,/I hold you in my hands." That the subject matter of "Heart's Needle" has grown commonplace reflects on us, not on the poetry, which still succeeds in its skillful designs.
In his letters from the late 1950s, Lowell repeatedly judges Snodgrass "better than anyone [of the new poets] except [Philip] Larkin," and his best early poems warrant the comparison. Snodgrass is more flamboyant than his English contemporary, as in this stanza I often quote to my students from "Mementos, 1," from his second book, After Experience (1968), a poem unfortunately left out of Not for Specialists:
Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
Who has turned up a severed hand.
Here is the sense of shock my poet friend missed on rereading Heart's Needle, a rancid memory instantly transforming domestic life into gothic horror. Snodgrass comes closer to Larkin, however, in presenting the accumulated disappointments of modern daily emotional life, cast into formal structures that keep them art, as in "Leaving the Motel," whose mildly despondent, postcoital mood highlights the tawdry side of adultery.
… Yet Snodgrass's particularly American confessionalism—his lack of reticence in appropriating his own life and family for poetry—also distinguishes his early work from Larkin's. Not for Specialists includes six poems from his 1970 chapbook Remains, a bitter exposé of unhappy family life centering on the early death of a hopelessly mousy wallflower sister, a sequence apparently so personal that he first issued it under the anagrammatic pseudonym S. S. Gardons.
… This poem, "Disposal," also describes how "One lace/Nightthing lies in the chest, unsoiled/By wear, untouched by human hands," and notes "those cancelled patterns/And markdowns that she actually wore,/Yet who do we know so poor/ They'd take them?" That "actually" serves a vital role, not just filling out the meter, but expressing quiet amazement at her impoverished taste and acceptance of her shriveled emotional circumstances. As in Donne's elegy "Going to Bed," clothing becomes a synecdoche for the woman who wears it, but here creating a scenario of isolation and misery rather than erotic play.
As a student I loved Snodgrass's poetry, especially how its formal elegance domesticated the worst shocks of our emotional lives, intensifying them by ironically pretending they participated in an orderly universe we could endure. I chose Syracuse University's writing program expressly to study with him, and found a man as boisterously outspoken as his poems were movingly restrained. He attended intensively to detail, the minutiae of rhythm, rhyme, and sound, as you would expect from a poet with such an impeccable ear, but he also encouraged a tendency to sarcasm I wished, at the time, to exorcise from my work. He would declaim poetry to us each week, and if his exuberant performances of "Frankie and Johnnie," Wyatt, Wordsworth, and Whitman, designed for a thousand-seat hall with no amplification, felt overbearing at the seminar table, they offered an antidote to 1970s poetry-reading syndrome—a monotonous delivery distanced from expressiveness, punctuated by a rising inflection at the ends of lines or sentences. Snodgrass helped me learn to read aloud by demonstrating that, yes, poetry could stand dramatic emotion in oral delivery, and I borrowed from his approach while softening it by several decibels. When I tested my new style one Sunday, reading at the local art museum, Snodgrass joined our quiet chatter afterwards to congratulate me in his booming voice: "That was WONderful! That was deLISHious! And YOU used to read SO BADly!"
With the first installment of his next poetic cycle, The Fuehrer Bunker (1977) [originally titled The Führer Bunker], the first book ever published by BOA Editions, Snodgrass's subject shocked us all—interior monologues in the voices of Hitler and his circle during the war's final days—as did its explosive, often obscene language: "if any foe rejects us,/We'll broil their liver for our breakfast/And fry their balls like bacon!" ("Chorus: Old Lady Barkeep"). It showed an encyclopedic understanding of form—ballads, tetrameter couplets for Goebbels, envelope sextets for Goering, a pantoum for Magda Goebbels—in addition to experiments in free verse, especially for Hitler. (Snodgrass had used free verse in After Experience for some of his poems based on paintings. "Van Gogh: ‘The Starry Night,"’ the lone example included in Not for Specialists, is unfortunately rather slack; I prefer the psychological drama of his Vuillard poem, on "The Mother and Sister of the Artist," which harmonizes chillingly with the tensions of Snodgrass's other family poems.)
As a sequence, a gesture toward a long poem, The Fuehrer Bunker, which Snodgrass kept expanding and revising until the complete cycle appeared in 1995, fails for all the reasons that his other work succeeds: The monstrous nature of many of the characters resists his attempts to humanize them, and we don't feel the force of poetic revelation; a more sympathetic Hitler and company might have created a literary sensation. In Snodgrass's bunker, the most successful poems belong to the women. The pantoum's repetitions circle around Magda Goebbels's mind as she meditates on how to save her children—"Now Joseph's sister's offered us the chance/To send the children somewhere farther West/Into the path of the Americans/To let them live. It might be for the best"—several days before she and her husband will hit on the final family solution of poisoning them all. In contrast, Eva Braun flounces about the bunker, ecstatic at the new life she has defined for herself and Hitler: "Today He ordered me to leave,/To go back to the mountain. I refused./I have refused to save my own life and He,/In public, He kissed me on the mouth."
In the 1980s Snodgrass began a series of collaborations with the painter DeLoss McGraw, resulting in humorously sinister books with titles like The Death of Cock Robin and W. D.'s Midnight Carnival. If Nazi history moved Snodgrass toward the prosaic, McGraw's paintings helped him discover a new musicality, mixed with grotesquely comic intimations of mortality, in a set of nursery rhymes for adults.
… Snodgrass jumbles into this vaudeville an open embrace of all his favorite traditions, alluding more obviously than before to writers ranging from the seventeenth-century cavalier poets, to the troubadours (he has ably translated Provençal poetry), to modern masters like Wallace Stevens ("They say, ‘Your songs do not compute./ Your music's mixed; your moral's moot") and W. H. Auden ("In the perspective of the heart/Those dearly loved, when they depart,/Take so much of us when they go/That, like no thing on earth, they grow/Larger … "). Working with McGraw relieved Snodgrass of the overbearing obligation to seriousness with which The Fuehrer Bunker saddled him, and by letting himself have more fun, he created more interesting and important poetry. In their try-anything, on-with-the-show, shuck-and-jive spirit, Snodgrass's McGraw poems owe something to John Berryman, and while they do not possess The Dream Songs' wild, manic power, they constitute a significant accomplishment.
Not for Specialists concludes with forty new poems, written over the past decade or so, which provide many satisfying symmetries with the early work. Snodgrass has always acknowledged the comical nature of his name ("poor ill-named one," sympathized Randall Jarrell): His early "These Trees Stand …," which opens the book, notes, "Your name's absurd," and turns on a delightfully ludicrous refrain, "Snodgrass is walking through the universe." The recent poem "Who Steals My Good Name" returns to the name blame game: It casts spells upon a Snodgrass masquerader "who obtained my debit card number and spent $11,000 in five days," after beginning with a complaint from "My pale stepdaughter": "Well, that's the last time I say my name's/Snodgrass!" Even better, his homage to Marvell, "Chasing Fireflies," exploits his name's literal sense, since "to snod" means "to make smooth, trim, or neat."
… The Heart's Needle sequence also earns a reprise, in "For the Third Marriage of My First Ex-Wife," which speaks once more of the woes of wedlocks past—
not once in twelve years had we laid
each other right. What we had made
were two nerve-wracked, unreconciled,
spoiled children parenting a child.
—in order to look benignly ahead and wish everyone well. This moving gesture acknowledges all the hearts badly in need of repair, including that of the daughter, as well as providing some comic and benevolent surprises:
Our daughter, still recovering from
her own divorce, but who's become
a father, in her call at least
as an Episcopalian priest,
will fly down there to officiate
in linking you to your third mate;
only some twenty years ago
that daughter married me also
to the last of my four wives.
"Also, save the best for last," the poem ends. Not all the new poems that end Not for Specialists rank with Snodgrass's best, but several decidedly do. All told, they provide a delightful and absorbing range of subjects and moods: splenetic political poems denouncing the Bush administration's war in Iraq, satiric Ben Jonson-like epigrams on a contemporary literary culture designed (his book's title implies) increasingly for specialists, wry observations on the foibles of advancing age, and generous accounts of love for wife, children, and friends. Through it all, Snodgrass remains undiminished in his technical skill and unapologetic about his formalism, the secret subject of "Warning," a poem ostensibly about "rumors that Richard Wilbur has had a hip replacement so he could go on playing tennis":
Wilbur's ball and ceramic socket
Propel him like a racing sprocket
To where his artful serve and volley
Dole out love games and melancholy.
Tremble, opponents: learn by this
What power's secured through artifice.
The poem is not just a charming tribute to his important fellow poet, but a witty manifesto, recalling Robert Frost's quip that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. After more than fifty years refining his "love game," Snodgrass keeps mindful of the rules, and the rules have enabled him continually to surprise and delight us. If his poems dare to commit the occasional fault, they can still move and enchant us with the power artifice can secure.
Source: Jay Rogoff, "Shocking, Surprising Snodgrass," in Southern Review, September 22, 2006, pp. 885-92.
In the following excerpt from an interview, Snodgrass gives a conversational retrospective of his poetic career.
… [INTERVIEWER:] Heart's Needle was published in 1959 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1960. It is an amazing first book, made even more so, perhaps, by the fact that it was partly written while you were a student. It is difficult now to speak of the book outside its importance in contemporary literary history—its influence on Robert Lowell's Life Studies, for example. Yet the title poem seems to me one of the major American lyrics of the past fifty years, and I would like to talk a bit about the poem itself. Did you conceive of such a long sequence when you began …?
SNODGRASS: … Somebody suggested to me a cycle of short poems rather than a long single poem, but I don't remember who that was. That was long ago, of course; I've changed every molecule seven times since then. I started making the first notes for that at a concert, and I still have the concert program. I don't think I had any idea how many poems it might come to, whether it would be several poems, or one, or what. The writing stretched out over about two and a half years, which is the amount of time that the poem covers, season by season. I don't believe the writing exactly followed that pattern, but it took roughly the same amount of time.
INT: Several of the poems in the book—"At the Park Dance," "The Marsh," "September in the Park," the two "Songs"—have the centered lines, and something of the tone, of certain sections in the title poem. "The Marsh" especially suggests the subject matter and imagery of "Heart's Needle." Was "The Marsh" origininally a draft section of the longer poem?
SNODGRASS: No. No, it wasn't. I suspect it was written first, but I am not positive. Oh, wait a minute: I remember how I wrote it. Good heavens, I haven't thought of this in a long time! I'd been out tromping around in the woods, wandered into a marsh and saw the things that come up in the poem. And I'd been trying to write a poem about it, but it didn't seem to work. I had to monitor an exam for a friend, and I thought, I've been stuck with the same phrases, etc. for months. Since I have to get up and put the time on the blackboard every five minutes, I'll write a line and if it doesn't work within that five minutes, I'll cross it out and write another. At the end of the two-hour exam, I had [a] poem, which amazed me, because I usually take weeks, months, years. I think this showed me something about being more ruthless with my first phrasings.
INT: Some sections of "Heart's Needle" have stanzas in which the lines are all flush left, with capitalized first letters, while in other sections the lines are centered and only the first letter of sentences is capitalized. Was there a design to that?
SNODGRASS: No, only that I decided that if I was going to make a series of shorter poems I would want a slightly different form for each of them.
INT: You wanted a different visual form.
SNODGRASS: Yeah. And each one would also have a different sound, I would hope. I don't mean that you necessarily pause at the end of a line. But if you don't have capital letters I assume that the lines are "rove over," as Hopkins says.
INT: A leitmotif in the poem is the speaker's feeling that he cannot write. It is introduced in Section 1 when he envisions the farmer's snowy fields as being "spotless as paper spread/For me to write," continues in Section 4 where he compares the frost-shriveled morning-glory vines to "broken lines/of verses I can't make," is alluded to again in Section 5 when he remembers singing songs to his daughter at bedtime "Before I went for walks/And did not write," and then seems to be resolved in Section 9 with his statement that "I write you only the bitter poems/that you can't read." These references seem a kind of objective correlative of the speaker's emotional limbo at the beginning of the poem, and of his growing acceptance of the divorce and separation at poem's end. Did the writing of"Heart's Needle"represent an overcoming on your part of a period of silence in our work?
SNODGRASS: Your inference is correct, though perhaps the cause and effect weren't quite so direct. I see the passage in Section 1 as more about the promise of what those fields could produce, though I do recall that I often talked about one's terror of the blank page; the other passages seem to me just as you suggest.
When my first marriage was breaking up I had been blocked for about two years and did go into therapy at the University Hospital in Iowa City. Both problems rose at least partly from my own passivity, and the therapy did help. The doctor, by the way, was R. M. Powell, to whom "MHTIS … OU TIS" is addressed.
INT: The fox is an image which recurs several times in the poem. Is there any special reason for that?
SNODGRASS: I'm not sure. I always did sing my daughter the song "Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night," from that old Burl Ives recording. I tended to think of myself as being a fox type as opposed to a hedgehog. I'd been reading Isaiah Berlin, and I thought, OK, I wish desperately to be a hedgehog, and I can't; I've got to try to play foxy. So I tended to identify with that kind of critter.
INT: In your recently published After-Images: Autobiographical Sketches (BOA Editions, 1999), you speak of your conviction that "one of the most important developments in our poetry has been the polyvoiced poem," and among other examples you cite Eliot's The Waste Land and Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts." Why in your view has the polyvoiced poem been so important?
SNODGRASS: Generally, I suspect that this is related to the loss of religious faith and surrendering the hope of finding some universal philosophical system, some one formula or formulation to sum up our fragmented experience.
For myself, I was very much moved by the poems you mention, but also by Theodore Weiss's Gunsight and especially by Henri Coulette's War of the Secret Agents. (I was on a jury that gave the latter the Lamont Poetry Prize.) Poems of this type, I thought, offer something like the oppositions of sonata form in music, pitting theme against theme and building that into a larger structure. Everybody then was looking for ways to reproduce musical forms in poetry; this seemed to work for me first in a poem called "After Experience Taught Me …," which pits two voices I'd discovered at the same time (Spinoza and a hand-to-hand combat instructor) against each other. In terms of idea, of course, they're saying the same thing (whatever you do to protect your life is justified), but in actuality it means something far different according to the personality of the speakers. I'd been trying ever since the war to write about those combat instructions, so when I liked the result of this voice-collision, that made a large impression on me.
INT: When viewed as a cycle of poems, the monologues of The Führer Bunker are polyvoiced. This seems to me a perfect way of presenting the Nazi hierarchy: from their own points of view, in their own voices. And yet I wonder whether much of the negative critical reaction to the book doesn't spring from a basic failure of aesthetic distance, i.e., the failure of many critics to separate the speaker of a given monologue from the author himself. Haven't such critics in fact identified you with the speakers of the cycle and thereby associated you with the Nazis' own evil?
SNODGRASS: That depends on what you mean by "identify." To do those poems, I did have to find those characters in myself—and they were there, at least as potentials, though I suspect I'm less liable to violence and direct cruelty than to the self-deceptions of people like Himmler and Bormann. Someone once called these my really confessional poems. Some critics would like to accuse me of somehow approving the Nazis, but the poems won't justify that. I've shown those characters as more wicked than any historian has. But I was careful not to imply that I am, or we are, or that those critics are, immune to such wickedness. When I was young, people still said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian"; later they said, "Better dead than red," and in many places we saw to it that people became dead instead. Only a month or two ago, a man in my post office said, "Hitler should have killed them all, right?" Sadly, we can understand such persons since we have not always been above such actions and sentiments. And I do not believe that to understand is to forgive. That we did not commit all the same vicious actions may be more a matter of luck than of some inherent moral superiority.
INT: There is no easy view of morality in The Führer Bunker, no comfortable equation of Us vs. Them. Rather, the book sees humanity as being universally capable of such evil. Why do you think so many readers have insisted on the more simplistic moral view?
SNODGRASS: People find it lots nicer to abominate others' evil than to examine their own. They'd like to believe, for example, that we fought World War II to free the Jews. We fought the war to preserve our markets. The Jews' salvation was a byproduct which many here did not welcome—anti-Semitism was widespread (and still is, in places).
My views on evil were stated perfectly by Simone Weil: "I suggest that barbarism be considered a permanent and universal human characteristic which becomes more or less pronounced according to the play of circumstances." If we haven't all confirmed that since the war, I must be reading the wrong papers.
INT: One of the most telling of the monologues is "Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda—20 April 1945." In the last four stanzas there you contrast lines from Goebbels's radio speech of 19 April celebrating Hitler's birthday with Goebbels's real thoughts about Hitler, which are cynical and derisive. This contrast is heightened by your use of rhyming couplets, each first line giving the public rhetoric and each second line Goebbels's own thoughts. Are such contrapuntal devices, which occur frequently in The Führer Bunker, meant to point out the moral chasm between the Nazis' rhetoric and the sometimes bestial realities underlying that rhetoric?
SNODGRASS: Oh, sure. And there are other devices that are meant to do that. Bormann's idealistic letters to his wife and his real aims and operations, for example. That's meant to be happening all the time there.
INT: Blank verse, of course, is the traditional medium for the dramatic monologue, and I find it intriguing that you have written the Führer Bunker monologues in lyrical forms such as the triolet, sestina, and villanelle and in the nonce forms you chose for such speakers as Speer and Himmler. I'm wondering whether you were consciously trying to rebel against the expectations of the form or were simply trying to match the form to the character of each speaker.
SNODGRASS: I don't believe I consciously intended to rebel against traditional forms of dramatic monologue, though I suppose one always wants to do something different from what others have done. As you suggest, I was conscious of trying to match form to personality. Those fancy French forms I used for Magda Goebbels were traditionally part of the romantic love paraphernalia. She had always used such things for unscrupulous advantage, and I thought her repetitive lies very similar to those of her husband. I think I've said elsewhere that if it's true, you only need say it once.
INT: I'd like to ask some random questions now. Your poem "Seasoning Barn" employs a very wide line, carefully controlled and modulated. How would you describe that line? Is it loose blank verse, or free verse? Or does it split the difference between the two?
SNODGRASS: It isn't one that I often read … [Studies text of poem for a moment.] Yeah, I think you're right: I am splitting the difference between blank verse and free verse there … I remember the event. My third wife and I had been at an early music collegium up in New England, and we were driving back from there and saw this sign on a big barn that said, "Fantastic tables!" We were tired of driving and said, "Let's go see what's in there." And here was this amazing scene that I describe in the poem. This man, whose name is Roy Sheldon, had been a painter. He had gone with the expatriates to Paris and painted there. And he had commissions for four or five big jobs back in the States. While he was at sea on the way home the market crashed, and of course the commissions didn't come through. He became an economist and the government sent him around to different places to work. When he got to retirement age he decided he'd go back into the arts, or at least into crafts, and he started making tables. And he had people shipping him chunks of wood from all over the world. We ordered a cherry dining room table and a walnut coffee table from a tree that came out of Pennsylvania; it had some kind of rot that made very interesting patterns in the wood. My present wife and I still use the cherry table and we love it. It has a certain amount of sapwood in it, and tiny black dots in places, and some knots. I wanted all those, I didn't want the pure straight stuff. Anyway, it seemed like a long line fit that subject somehow. And I thought, as I wrote it (though I don't think I started out with that idea), that that was the way I'd like to write poems: take material and let it season for ten or fifteen years until it's hardened, and then try to make something out of it.
INT: Has Edwin Arlington Robinson, with his disposition to write narrative lyrics, been an important poet to you?
SNODGRASS: Yes indeed. I'm very fond of "Mr. Flood's Party," which is just marvelous, and quite a few of the others. But I haven't read him very extensively. There's a couple of his very long poems which I read years ago and admired a lot but haven't gone back to for some reason. The same way with Browning. It's been a long time since I read "Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium,"’ although I loved it. Then there's "Bishop Blougram's Apology" and poems like that that must have had a pretty strong influence on me, but I haven't looked at them in so long I don't really know.
INT: What contact did you have with John Crowe Ransom?
SNODGRASS: He used to come to Iowa and give lectures, and he was the sweetest man that ever lived. I sort of thought of him as my grandfather, because his immediate children were Lowell and Jarrell and those people, and I felt like their baby. He did like one poem of mine, much to my surprise; mostly he didn't like my stuff. He was so fond of indirection, whereas I tended to be much more direct, and I think that jarred him a little bit. But he was wonderful, and I loved to hear him read. I just wonder if his poems will ever seem so good to people who haven't heard him read. He had a marvelous voice: very Southern, soft and charming but, underneath, affectionately knowing and skeptical.
INT: You have a great admiration for the work of Walt Whitman. What do you value most in his work?
SNODGRASS: Oh, I suppose breadth of emotion and breadth of identification.
INT: His ability to include almost everything.
SNODGRASS: Exactly. As a matter of fact, at the end of this tour I'm doing a reading of Song of Myself—well, of selections from—a reading of the whole poem would be three hours long! But that's the kind of reading I most like to do. It's just wonderful to read that poem out loud. Whitman really had an ear. A lot of people that you're supposed to like who are said to be like him don't seem to me to be like him at all.
INT: I don't think there's anyone like him.
SNODGRASS: No, there isn't. He's just incredibly gifted—above all, in the musical sense.
INT: The music of a poem is really important, isn't it?
SNODGRASS: Absolutely. I'm inclined to think that reading silently cannot really approximate the poem's full power. For me it is an aural experience: no music, no poem. Some of Cummings's poems, the typographical doodles, for instance, can't be read out loud, and if you can't read it out loud I don't think it's a poem. I think the voice and speech and sound go very deep: even while you're in the womb you're hearing people say things and you're responding to that, and you're surely responding to your mother's heartbeat. For me, when that goes out of the poem, the poem itself is gone.
INT: In your lecture "Tact and the Poet's Force" (In Radical Pursuit: Critical Essays and Lectures, Harper & Row, 1975), you say that the poet "takes some idea, ordinary enough in itself, and represses it from conscious assertion, so that it can spread into the details, the style, the formal techniques" of the poem. And in "Finding a Poem" you observe how necessary it is for the poet to write what he or she really thinks or feels in a given situation. It's very difficult, isn't it, to achieve a balance between tact and honest expression?
SNODGRASS: It is indeed. There was a great problem of that for Whitman, for instance. I mean, you get all those violent sexual scenes, dealing with touch, in Song of Myself—I forget which section it is—that turn into what I think is a description of a gang rape. Bloom said it was masturbation, somebody else said it was something else, butWhitman's very careful not to tell you exactly who's doing what to whom, with what, and yet you know there's some kind of wild sexual thing happening. Well, of course he had to get it printed, and he couldn't have if he had been more specific. And of course he got it printed partly because everybody was very careful not to understand. But he tells you everything you need to know.
INT: You've remarked that your typical way of revising a poem is not to pare or tighten it but to expand it, to write a longer version of the original. You do this, I take it, in order to allow your own voice, your real thoughts and feelings, freer play. But does your sense of poetic tact also assert itself as you revise?
SNODGRASS: I don't know. I don't think I approach it that consciously. I just ask, "Does this sound better?" I don't usually ask in what way is it better. I do know this: if the poem is working, as you revise it it gets to seeming more and more tossed off, freehand, whereas the initial drafts often seem very midnight-oil-covered—labored. If you're any good at revising, as you work at it the poem gets to seeming more spontaneous.
INT: A good deal of your work in recent years—the Cock Robin poems, for example—is in light verse. What freedom and/or restrictions do you experience in writing light verse?
SNODGRASS: I enjoy writing comic and/or light verse but for many years didn't dare indulge myself—we all had to be so serious. DeLoss McGraw's paintings helped spring me. And, like almost nothing else I've written, these came very quickly and without my usual endless revisions. Also causal was a sense of relief and celebration when I found that I could, after all, finish The Führer Bunker. I thought that was the major commitment of my career; if I couldn't finish it, I'd die a failure. When I was sure I could finish, I found an example in Rilke's Duino Elegies. (I'm not suggesting that I rose to those heights.) Before he was quite finished but knew he could, Rilke started the Sonnets to Orpheus and wrote fifty-six of them in eighteen days. They, of course, aren't light verse, but they are elective and gratuitious—not, like the Elegies, mandatory.
INT: Given the hard work of drafting and revising, is the writing of poems fun for you?
SNODGRASS: Except perhaps for those poems based on McGraw, I don't think writing poetry has ever been fun for me. It's just that I feel so much worse if I don't write poems.
Since I've finished The Führer Bunker, I've only written six or eight poems. That's partly because I'm writing prose pieces: first, the autobiographical sketches; now, a book of critical essays; next, a book of what I call de/compositions. These were my favorite teaching device: I'd take a fine poem and make revisions which destroyed its excellences, then ask the students what I'd lost from the original. Handling the poems that closely, they had to experience how little of a poem's greatness lay in its dictionary sense, in the literal, translatable meaning. Of course these projects have taken much more time and effort than I expected—most pages have probably been revised twenty times or so. Maybe I need a classroom full of students taking an exam!
But I also suspect—rightly or wrongly—that I can't write poems now. I have puzzled over this and come up with four or five possible causes; I've no idea which is (or are) actually the case. I don't even know whether it's good or bad—perhaps anything I wrote at my age would be weaker. I do feel that if I could invent a new kind of poem, that would be worth the effort. But that's never guaranteed. We'll see what happens when I finish these books.
Source: Roy Scheele, "A Conversation with W. D. Snodgrass," in New England Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 56-66.
Pratt, William, Review of Each in His Season, by W.D. Snodgrass, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring 1994, p. 375.
Rogoff, Jay, "Shocking, Surprising Snodgrass," in Southern Review, Vol. 42, No. 4, Autumn 2006, pp. 885-86.
Rosenthal, M. L., "Notes From the Future: Two Poets," in Nation, October 24, 1959, pp. 257-58.
Snodgrass, W. D., "Heart's Needle," in Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems, BOA Editions, 2006, pp. 19-34.
Egan, Catherine, "A Cycle of Identity: W. D. Snodgrass" Pseudonym S. S. Gardons," in Journal of Undergraduate Research, University of Rochester, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall 2002, pp. 11-13.
Egan examines the factors that drove Snodgrass, after the resounding success of Heart's Needle, to publish his next volume, Remains, under a pen name.
Royko, David, Voices of Children of Divorce, Golden Books, 1999.
Royko includes dozens of interviews with children of divorced parents, showing the range of emotions that children can experience as a result.
Snodgrass, W. D., W. D. Snodgrass in Conversation with Philip Hoy, Between the Lines, 1998.
This eighty-page book is full of the poet's anecdotes and reflections on other poets.
Turco, Lewis, "The Poetics of W. D. Snodgrass," in Hollins Critic, June 1993, pp. 1-10.
This overview of Snodgrass's work includes thorough analyses of a few of his poems and helps readers understand his overall style.