W. D. Snodgrass Essay - Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) (Vol. 18)

Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) (Vol. 18)


Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) 1926–

Snodgrass is an American poet, critic, essayist, and translator. Although linked with the confessional school of poetry, Snodgrass prefers to view his work as a reaction against impersonal, intellectual poetry. His poetry, characterized by a straightforward voice, is drawn from personal experience and frequently expresses anguish and despair. Snodgrass received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1960 for his first collection, Heart's Needle. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)


[W. D. Snodgrass's] lyricism is not only the most consistent among the confessional poets, it is the most insistent…. His syllabics and stresses and rhyme schemes are not meant to rationalize or palliate his subject, but to balance its emotional demands and accommodate contradictory experiences and feelings: a language "alive" to the life it records. That life, in its meter-making argument, does not touch the extremes of madness or longing that heighten the work of Sexton, Lowell, Plath and Berryman…. Just as his verse is the successor to the severe, homely lyrics of Hardy and Frost, so too his losses and betrayals are the familiar ones, circumscribed by the small-town society to which our playwrights and novelists have accustomed us…. In an early essay on D. H. Lawrence, Snodgrass predicts the thrust of all his own later work: "To know one's needs is really to know one's own limits, hence one's definition."… Snodgrass is a poet of learning and unlearning, of conscience and consciousness, of the craft and life both so long to learn. The proprioceptive variety of his verse-forms, especially within a sequence of poems, is his recognition of the relativism of values and relationships in a modern world, even as his responsive formality is a determined effort to both signify and give significance to shifting moral limits. His controlling concerns—identity and choice—are existential in nature, and confessional in revelation, threaded through episodes of often painful experience and woven into still larger patterns of departure and return, both seasonal and human. (pp. 281-82)

[Snodgrass] surfaces the actual experience encountered once in life and again in the poem, always allowing subject to dominate symbol, and trusting his musical substructure to carry the expressive, unconscious force of both the experience and the poem. (p. 284)

The qualities [Snodgrass] cites in the song literature—simplicity and passionate directness, sustained by the unobtrusive subtlety of their settings—are among the most distinctive characteristics of [his] own verse and version of the confessional impulse….

[Style]—"that quality of voice which suggests qualities of mind"—is finally, for this poet, a moral and psychological concern. The "sincerity" he sought for the texture of his verse made similar demands on his subject, and having discovered how he could speak, he had further to discover what he needed to say. The value of the poem as product was inextricably bound up with the process of its composition: to compose is finally to expose. (p. 285)

The three poems which open Heart's Needle comprise an initiatory account of the poet's return home, both chronological and spiritual, from World War II, and introduce themes that in later poems will be felt in his relationships to others and the present, as here they focus on his relationships with himself and his past. "Ten Days Leave" is a study in disorientation and alienation, the artificiality of the past and detachment of the present…. [The war-jarred poet's] new awareness stumbles over the inadequacy of metaphor to restore the familiar; the poem proceeds by analogy, each stanza testing—like, as if, supposing, seems, recalls—a dreamscape at which he wonders: "How real it seems!" It is the principle of unreality that dominates until resolved in the third poem, just as the perspective shifts from the "he" of this poem, to "we" in the next, and finally to "I" in the third. "Returned to Frisco, 1946" resumes the stance and structure of "Ten Days Leave" to describe his last landing. (p. 289)

The next twelve poems gather into a section which explores the ruins of his first marriage, and the reconstruction of his life with new love…. This theme—a term which, for a confessional poet, corresponds to a sense of his life—is more convincing in later poems to his daughter, where the loss that allows song is combined with a more realistic guilt. (pp. 290-91)

This entire group of poems rises from "the burned out bed / of ashes" ("September in the Park") to tell, in Robert Phillips's phrase, "about human recovery and resilience." Guilt is not only purified through sacrifice … but through more vitalistic and seasonal cycles which turn memories into hopes, and which naturalize the necessity of suffering. Despite...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)

Robert Peters

W. D. Snodgrass' The Fuhrer Bunker is a rare example of ambitious, on-going verse sculpture…. There are twenty monologues. They constitute, as Snodgrass calls them, "a cycle of poems in progress." I gather that he is not exactly certain of the final count—there are already nearly a dozen completed monologues not appearing in this collection. I admire Snodgrass's courage in presenting an incomplete work for public scrutiny. Since he is a poet of stature (Heart's Needle remains one of the handful of fine books of its decade) he will be widely reviewed, and there is a danger, I should think, that the reviews may discourage or dissuade him from further writing in this mode. The Fuhrer Bunker is gargantuan: few poets have the energy or the daring to attempt work on this scale…. In a real sense, Snodgrass seems to be working at what seems possible for him as an almost epic form. And despite the flaws in The Fuhrer Bunker it will be around for a long time to inspire writers who've come to realize the sad limitations of the locked-in, private, first person, obsessional poem.

The problems raised by the poems are these: There is a general sameness of voice. The monologues are usually long (the best—the Hermann Fegelein, for example—are short). The cadences of succeeding lines border on the monotonous, a monotony the frequent end-rhymes, well-turned rondeau (spoken by Magda Goebbels) don't quite modify…....

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Hugh Kenner

Twenty poems: 20 Nazi monologues (Hitler, Speer, Goebbels, Eva Braun, Martin Bormann, et al.) presumed to have been spoken "1 April-1 May, 1945." It doesn't work, for the reason Mr. Snodgrass himself pinpoints: "A reader unfamiliar with history of World War II may find many details in these poems outrageous, chilly, monstrous, downright incredible." And "Eva Braun's favorite song was 'Tea for Two.'"

The facts are everywhere so bizarre there is little for a poet to invent…. This is "A Cycle of Poems in Progress," meaning there will be more; and why Snodgrass should be wasting his gift on attempts to outdo "the banality of evil" I can't begin to guess, any more than he can guess what really went or ought to have gone through those minds, that month…. Those deaths, in that bunker, were self-conscious bad art—perhaps the one thing poetry can't transcend.

Hugh Kenner, "Three Poets: 'The Fuhrer Bunker'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 1, 1978, p. 23.

In this handsome book [6 Troubadour Songs], Snodgrass has matched six translated troubadour texts with period melodies which fit their verse forms. Snodgrass has admittedly opted for expediency rather than precise authenticity in his task; these melodies and verses can easily be played and sung. The translations are graceful, buoyant, and bawdy and the melodies appropriate for recorder accompaniment. Snodgrass has vowed to stop translating anything except songs, a vow which promises only more verse with such delightful practicality.

"Notes on Current Books: '6 Troubadour Songs'," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1978, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 54, No. 2 (Spring, 1978), p. 58.

Hayden Carruth

In the preface to his Six Troubadour Songs, W. D. Snodgrass writes: "In the last two decades, our vision of the Provençal Troubadour and his songs has almost completely changed. Gone is the wistful figure singing sweetly in the twilight of his spiritual devotion to a far-off, idealized lady. Under the impact of certain crucial musicologists and performers—especially Thomas Binkley's Studio for Early Music in Munich—we have accepted a heavy Arabic influence in this music; nowadays, our performances sound more and more like belly-dance music or, more accurately, the Andalusian music of North Africa. Our sense of the texts has altered comparably. By now, we are almost ready to say that Troubadour songs have...

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Stephen Yenser

[Though unfinished, The Führer Bunker is] complete enough to guarantee that the finished product will be a singular accomplishment. Snodgrass's project is audacious enough to keep most poets from giving it a second thought, but it has given him an occasion to which his passionate curiosity about human nature, his architectonic powers, his prosodic finesse, and his evident capacity for research allow him to rise….

Nothing could quite have prepared us for these poems, but looking back we can see how Snodgrass's earlier experiments with the antagonistic persona and the sequence were preparing him. Moreover, the new book is "confessional" in two senses. First, as Snodgrass notes in his...

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Gertrude M. White

Snodgrass is not … as well and favorably known as he ought to be. The reason, I think, lies in his most striking characteristic; his resolute, uncompromising, almost frightening honesty. Far from the lies for which Plato banished poets from his ideal republic, Snodgrass's verse tells the truth, however painful to himself or to others. It neither fakes, evades, exhibits ego for the sake of exhibitionism, nor grinds the axe of fad or ideology. It demonstrates what he himself has declared to be requisite for "the terribly hard work that writing is … a complete removal from any ulterior motive, an absolute dedication to the object and the experience." (p. 10)

[It] is not subject matter only that...

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One can rightly complain that poets like Snodgrass and Lowell in choosing [the] monologue form commit themselves to a moral and psychological perspective on history that is at best confining and at worst anachronistic (since individual characters shape history less directly now than they did in pre-industrial eras). Yet these poets have little intention of bringing contemporary historiography into poetry. They seem rather to conceive of themselves as renovators of history. They try to address exactly what's missing in contemporary historiography: put broadly, a sense of justice and of humanity, or character. (p. 118)

Snodgrass once indicated that to render the death-camps even credible was almost...

(The entire section is 434 words.)