W. D. Snodgrass Essay - Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) (Vol. 6)

Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) (Vol. 6)

Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) 1926–

Snodgrass, an American poet, received the Pulitzer Prize for Heart's Needle, his first collection. In 1968 Thomas Lash wrote that After Experience "comes as close as [any poetry to] capturing the mood, and attitude, the characteristic disposition of the decade we have lived through," undoubtedly a dismal one, for Robert Boyers called Snodgrass our most heart-breaking poet after Randall Jarrell. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Snodgrass' Pulitzer Prize-winning first volume, Heart's Needle (1959), communicates feelings stronger than thoughts. It is not that the reader senses anything like what T. S. Eliot called a "dissociation of sensibility." Call it "thought," or "theme," or "idea," or "intelligence," or "mentality"—this abounds in a Snodgrass poem. But the communication is almost wordless, subliminal. (p. 351)

He captures what he has described as the "spooky, modern quality" of Christian Morgenstern and Eliot. Reading Heart's Needle, I feel somewhat the way A. E. Housman's first audience, at least the young men, must have felt reading the plaintive but hard songs of the eternally sad lad from Shropshire. (pp. 351-52)

In general, Heart's Needle is a poetry of experience, of present tense and present tension; After Experience (1968), as its ambiguous title implies, is at once a poetry of the poet's meditation on past happenings and a poetry of his determination to experience new ways of seeing, acting, and feeling. By the time of its appearance—though some of the poems date back to when Snodgrass was composing Heart's Needle—the poet has survived certain experiences and is out, after these, looking for others that will continue to make him feel alive. Snodgrass tells us again and again that one can exist only by living the passionate life, by freeing the soul, though this action itself will inevitably bring grief to those we love the most. (pp. 352-53)

The poet refuses, though he could so easily have fallen into sentimentality, to cry in his beer or look for the reader's shoulder. His verses are tightly rhymed and are rendered, with some variation, in accentual syllabics. Underneath the form is the recognition that there is to be no letting go, no backsliding into bathos. (p. 355)

Heart's Needle remains a poetry without answers, but it is a poetry of total awareness. Inherent in its criticism of the way things are is the ability of the intelligence that informs its lyrics to accept this reality and to struggle against it at the same time. Heart's Needle, without caterwauling, free from what Ezra Pound calls "emotional slither," takes on dimensions of the tragic….

I suspect that whether or not After Experience is as good a book, or worse than, or better than Heart's Needle is a non-issue. It is a different book and moves in a different direction. If less lyrical, as some have said, it is more dramatic; if it does not have a single poem as ambitious as the "Heart's Needle" sequence, it does include several poems whose complexities and subtleties require a more intense reading; if it does not have the same sort of thematic center as does Heart's Needle, it still manages to encompass a world; if the voice of its first fifteen or so poems is now a familiar one, we ought not to criticize a poet because hosts of imitators have sprung up between his two volumes. To be sure, Snodgrass has not suffered a sophomore slump. Even his most virulent critics agree that After Experience includes many poems as fine, from any point of view, as anything in his first book. (p. 361)

Nick, in Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," must leave off, for the sake of his sanity, fishing the swamp until another day. Snodgrass already, with Heart's Needle, cast his line into the most dangerous waters, but it did not snag. In After Experience the swamp is an uncompromising reality, but the poet is more worldly, and, though often heart-deep in mud, he manages to maintain his difficult balance. (p. 368)

William Heyen, "Fishing the Swamp: The Poetry of W. D. Snodgrass," in Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism, edited by Jerome Mazzaro (copyright © 1970 by David McKay Company, Inc.; used with permission of the publishers), McKay, 1970, pp. 351-68.

Reading the poetry of W. D. Snodgrass is a humanizing experience. The probings of each poem so enlarge one's own sensibilities to turmoil and loveliness that, when one finishes, he stands more likely to risk his intimate feelings publicly. He knows that however doomed these feelings may be, their expression enlists the prospect of a lovelier world—assuredly for himself, possibly for others. This was the experience of Heart's Needle when it appeared in 1959 and of the later volumes After Experience (1969), Remains (1970), and Gallows Songs (1967), the last a translation of Christian Morgenstern in collaboration with Lore Segal. In his poetry Snodgrass moves us not by moral but by precept. One envies the universe through which the poet moves, one envies his time and quiet for meditation, his ability to move among the trees and birds and make their presence felt, and this envy, not moralizing exhortation, prompts the emulation. This ability to work positively—to suggest emulation as the method out of one's current dilemmas—distinguishes Snodgrass' work from the work of most contemporaries and accounts for his peculiar success with the confessional mode.

The usual method for gaining and preserving humanity involves a separation of inner and outer selves so that while, like a Walter Mitty, an outer self conforms to the impacts of technology, the inner self rages unchecked in a secret life. It typifies an approach, perhaps, of a generation of Americans weaned on Batman, Superman, and Captain Marvel as well as a number of writers schooled by the social ironies of W. H. Auden and Randall Jarrell. It was certainly the approach Saul Bellow chose for Herzog. (p. 96)

But this is not the way of Snodgrass,… [whose] affirmation must be in "reality."… Moreover, the "reality" which he is so intent on describing comes very near the notion of "affliction" enunciated by Simone Weil.

The solution that he proposes for one's choosing himself brings him closer, too, to the intersubjectivity of Sartre. (p. 97)

The speakers of all Snodgrass' best poems follow [a] common pattern of enlisting support first for themselves and then for their actions. All, too, have about them the ability to invest these actions with public significance often by appearing initially to do the reverse. "Heart's Needle," for instance, images the disintegration of a marriage against the Korean war, and a poet's disintegrating ability to write, but the problems of the marriage not of the writer or of the war move the reader. Snodgrass says nothing fresh about the actual war; his comments are purposely uninteresting; and his statements about writing are as dull. When he moves to legal and philosophical problems in some of the later sections, they are again rather commonplace. One senses that, despite the often political cast to the lines, there is really little or no politics at work. The sequence itself ends not with a party program but with [a] point of reality … [which] is itself political. It is the point where one's relations with others become most clearly defined and one's acts seem closest to necessity and identity; it is the point at which real politics can begin. (p. 109)

Gallows Songs offers the most sustained example of Snodgrass' having tried to enter "into another man's psyche." In the Morgenstern personae of Palmstrom and Korf he reproduces his own often hostile reactions to technology. Palmstrom's attitudes embody Wilde's beliefs that "Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place" and that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." Snodgrass' depiction of him is properly effete, elegant, and supercilious, and it is complemented by appropriate illustrations from the work of Paul Klee. Like the sensibility of the figure described in Bellow's Recent American Fiction, he is too tasteful to combat the tasteless world about. What delight one derives from him lies in the brittle wit of his having taken seriously Villiers de l'Isle Adam's advice to leave life to one's servants while still feeling a compulsion to philosophize on that life. "The Really Practical People" shows that his neighbors are very little different from the examiners of "The Examination": "He, too, will soon be one of theirs,/A personage of rarest sort,/A solid citizen, in short." His opposite is the drop-out Korf, who, when sent a bureaucratic form, responds in "The Questionnaire": "My dear most high commissioner,/The undersigning herein certifies/That after a personal inspection/He has the honor to present himself/Non-existent under the Legislation."

What other orchestration Snodgrass rings on the originals besides surrounding them with dada animals lies in his having replaced the folk-music rhythms with echoes of nursery jingles, Ogden Nash rhymes, and near nonsense verse. The book closes as the art poems do. Its final poem, "The Wallpaper Flower," tells the reader: "You will pursue/Me round your little room, unspacious,/Bounding as Knights of the Chessboard do,/Till you go nuts, my precious." To go in too deeply is to pursue the little unspacious room of modern life until a kind of insanity like that of the bureaucratic world results. In pursuing that inverse house of the starry night into madness, the Van Gogh poem had similarly directed, "This is the way to go." But insanity cannot be a proper answer for the Snodgrass hero, at least not ultimately, and the voyeurism and impotency which runs through After Experience cannot finally negate the "realities" of Heart's Needle or the optimism which concludes Remains. The inability of the recent Snodgrass hero to act in no way reflects any lessening obligation on the poet or reader's part to uphold the Existential values that underlie the works. (pp. 110-11)

One can see in his later work that, having achieved a certain power, he has begun to question his earlier intentions. What ending in doubt and paralysis and formlessness does is to force both him and the reader to take time to rethink the problems and form which the hero typifies, and this rethinking becomes the first act that must be emulated. Hopefully it will lead to acts as humane and productive as those usually associated with the early poems. The poems published since After Experience show that this has certainly been the case with the poet. He is still praising and meeting that great test by being able to digest both misery and sorrow. (p. 111)

Jerome Mazzaro, "The Public Intimacy of W. D. Snodgrass," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1972 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1972, pp. 96-111.