Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

“Heart’s Needle” is about possibilities and limits. On the narrative level, Snodgrass asks if it is possible for a father and daughter to be physically separated, with the attendant distortions of the psyche for both, and still remain a father and daughter. At various points it appears impossible, particularly when the child has asthma attacks, quarrels with her new stepsister, or goes off to another state. Similarly when the father remarries, has a new child, or sinks into paralyzing bitterness, the odds for maintaining a family relationship diminish.

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Snodgrass finds that the continuing union, on this level, remains either mysterious, unexplainable, or the result of willful action alone. In section 10, father and daughter go on a picnic and feed the animals, where he reaffirms that “you are still my daughter.” The narrative throughout, however, has been sustained by a pattern of interlocking images which from the beginning raises this question: Is it possible in this world for the world to stay together? In Snodgrass’s realm, father and daughter are microcosms, parts of a broader network of actions and meanings.

The answer to both questions is finally yes; however, the affirmation is painfully won and quietly expressed. One misses the point of the struggle if one does not understand the connections between different forces at work in the universe. Everything “wails on its oval track.” Seasons, war, the food chain, festival holidays, birth and death—all, within the experience of the poet and his daughter, come “back once more/ like merry-go-round horses.” That means that shattering storms, frozen soldiers, trapped foxes, cramped minds, and inert emotions—as well as all the viciousness manifested in the fixed, stuffed animals in the museum—are inescapable. “The malignancy man loathes/ is held suspended and persists,” the poet says.

The change of seasons brings spring, however; Canada geese return, Easter arrives, peace replaces war, and a child, new seeds, and piglets “come fresh.” This, too, remains ineluctable. Monotonous and mechanical the cyclic process may be, but it is experienced reality.

In an early essay, Snodgrass says about ideas in poetry that the discovery of them comes in a variety of ways. The most common and significant ones are inherent in the patterns and language of the poem. To discover that idea, says Snodgrass, “is one of the most exciting events in our world; it has a value quite distinct from any value inhering to the idea as idea.” He means that paradigms and systems of ideas (political, economic, or theological) are not important, because they are imposed on reality; they frame attitudes and conduct, requiring that a person subordinate individual experience to them. Those ideas that are real and useful actually happen to a person.

The relevance of this observation to “Heart’s Needle” is that the experience of father and daughter teaches the father an idea which he applies. He did not come to the relationship with established ideas of The American Family or prescribed codes of conduct. Their particular situation forces them to come to terms with each other. When he tells her that “We try to choose our life” (quite different from saying we are free only when we choose our death), he affirms a range of possibilities that he has discovered: One can choose separation and bitterness, because that is natural and one is free to do so; however, one can also choose union, because that choice is real and as deeply embedded. Thus, the final line, “And you are still my daughter,” understood in this context, is both the father’s expression of his choice and the undeluded reality that his experience confirms.

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