Heart's Needle Themes
by W. D. Snodgrass

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 605 words.)