William DeWitt Snodgrass was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, on January 5, 1926. After a normal boyhood, he enrolled at nearby Geneva College in 1944. Two years later, he was drafted into the Navy and sent to the Pacific. For the first time, he was truly on his own, away from home and familiar surroundings. World War II and its aftermath carved itself into his memory, and he would draw material from this experience for his poetry.
Following his discharge, two events occurred that were very important in his development as a poet: his marriage and his transfer to the University of Iowa to join the writers’ workshop. At the workshop, he found a group of talented students and skilled teachers who encouraged him to perfect his technique. Although he eventually broke with his teachers, who preferred highly intellectual poems following the traditions of the French Symbolists and the English Metaphysical poets, he would later tell an interviewer that he would never have written poetry if he had not gone there. He remained at Iowa for seven years, completing work for an undergraduate degree, an M.A., and an M.F.A. While his years there might have made him into a poet, they had a disastrous effect on his marriage, which ended in a divorce and separation from his young daughter in 1953. Snodgrass tried to adjust to this experience through his writing and through psychoanalysis; the result was the long poem “Heart’s Needle,” a two-and-a-half-year chronicle written while the events were taking place. The immediacy of the experience and the intensity of his feeling of loss help to give the poem its power.
After leaving the University of Iowa, Snodgrass was a college professor and writer-in-residence at several universities, including Cornell, Wayne State, and Syracuse, as well as a frequent participant in writing conferences. In 1979, he became distinguished visiting professor of English at the University of Delaware in Newark, and he remained at that institution, retiring as distinguished professor emeritus in 1994. After retiring, he taught and lectured at writers’ workshops and conferences across the United States. He died of inoperable lung cancer in 2009.