The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668

“Heart’s Needle” explores a father’s struggle to remain a father to his daughter who, though separated from him by her parents’ divorce, maintains regular visits over a two-and-a-half year period. The child is almost three years old at the beginning.

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The title comes from an old Irish tale, “The Frenzy of Suibne,” about the death of an only daughter, who is “the needle of the heart.” In the poem, W. D. Snodgrass suggests that the daughter’s presence as well as her absence is a needle in the heart, since both intensify his sense of loss. In a sequence of ten poems, the father speaks to his daughter as she develops into a petulant, asthmatic child whom he must scold. At the same time, her curiosity and independence bring him as much pleasure as pain. In the end, he cannot imagine his world without her.

The poem begins in the winter of 1952, during the Korean War and after the speaker’s first marriage has collapsed. Snodgrass is often grouped with the “confessional” poets of the 1960’s who wrote autobiographical poems, and parallels with his own marital breakup and separation from his daughter Cynthia are apparent. Throughout the poem, however, Snodgrass clearly establishes that his concerns are as much universal as personal and particular.

In the first four sections, both father and daughter suffer the consequences of the divorce. The daughter (in section 1), once like “a landscape of new snow,” gradually forms (in section 2) similarities in behavior with destructive forces (strange dogs, moles). Between a mother who must be appeased and an unhappy father, the child swings like a heavy weight. Her father realizes that she is “love’s wishbone” (section 3) and that he, as the seasons pass, remains a nerveless man and an unproductive poet (section 4).

In sections 5 and 6, as a chilling winter turns into spring, the relationship becomes more complex. The child begins to “chatter about new playmates, sing/ Strange songs.” He tells her that he has “another wife, another child.” As she forgets their old songs, he remembers in more detail—when she was first born, a storm on July 4, a pigeon they caught and let go. The more he remembers, the more he cannot free her, and the more he feels that he should.

The potential destructiveness of this relationship becomes quite evident in section 6. The father says, “You bring things I’d as soon forget”; one of those things is her severe asthma attack one fall. He recalls the scene and believes that she is giving up, passively drowning. He urges her to understand that one is only free when one chooses the time and place for one’s death. Yet a major gap exists between what he says and what he does: “Yet I,/ who say this, could not raise/ myself from bed how many days/ to the thieving world.” The danger is that they will try to live their lives on ideas unfounded on experience.

Sections 7 through 9 are dominated by increasing emotional contortions for them both. Delightful times remain, but they diminish in number and intensity. The child whines more; she becomes more willful and demanding. He, rising “back from helplessness,” becomes “local law” and punishes her (section 8). In the ninth poem, after a three-month absence from his daughter, the poet/father finds himself writing bitter poems and wandering “among enduring and resigned/ Stuffed animals” of a natural history museum. Among the fixed postures of bobcat, bison, elk, and malignancies encased in jars, the father projects his self-loathing onto the world and its history, wishing that nothing had ever been born. He and the world’s “diseased heart” become one.

In the tenth and final poem, the father’s experience confirms that only change is permanent: “The vicious winter finally yields/ the green winter wheat.” Among the stirrings of spring, father and daughter are together again, briefly but happily. They will not leave each other to separate lives, but like the coons “on bread and water” reach after each other.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

In an essay on his revisions of “Heart’s Needle,” particularly of the sixth section, Snodgrass says that he sought a poem that would be both personal and universal, and styles and forms that would adequately express its depth of feeling. The relationship between father and daughter and the considerable grief in the poem, he knew, could lead to sentimentality. He met the challenge, in part, by establishing a formal structure and developing rhymes, accentual syllabics, and varied verse forms that would balance the emotional content. Thus, the poem gives a sense of deep but controlled feeling.

He also made the poem a metaphor. For example, from the outset, section 1, the poet begins to establish the process of seeing one thing as another. The child is born in winter during a war, and her mind is like new snow; here, she is contrasted with the “fouled” snow in which the soldiers freeze. The father’s mind is cramped in “that cold war” of marital stand-off, thus connecting him with inert soldiers. Innocence versus experience is suggested. The personal parallels the global. Other images expand this motif: The father is analogous to a tenant farmer viewing his unplowed field or a poet his uncreated drafts. In a world in which survival of the fittest is the norm, the speaker relishes a brief moment of tranquillity before the new variation begins. Throughout the ten sections, the father/child relationship is persistently connected to broad human and natural processes. A matrix of images is established that expands the limits of possible interpretation.

One of Snodgrass’s favorite devices is the leitmotif—an image that reappears and becomes more complicated in its associations and meanings. The soldier image, for example, which is identified in section 1 with adults at war and reaffirmed in section 3 through the figure of soldiers grinding their teeth in trenches, reappears in section 8. This time it is associated with the daughter who, for not eating her evening meal, is sent to her room where, as prisoner, she grates her teeth. The father says that “Assuredly your father’s crimes/ Are visited on you.” The human and natural processes continue, and she inevitably enters a cold war.

When grinding teeth is linked to cavities, the meaning is modified. The father’s reaction to his daughter’s pain is as it was for the soldiers—rotting teeth are an expression of sympathy. In section 8, however, when her departure from him as well as her growing independence provide him both pleasure and pain, he says, “Indeed our sweet/ foods leave us cavities.” In the civilian world, and especially in that of father/daughter relationships, cause and effect are more ambiguous than on the frozen turf of war.

Other motifs that Snodgrass develops in this way are the bird, fox, bed, and snow which define event and emotion and provide the sense that meaning evolves from image rather than generalization.

Snodgrass’s voice—his tone and attitude toward his subject—is aptly described by critic William Heyen as “urgent but controlled, muted but passionate, unassuming but instructive.” To this should be added “reflective but wry.” Snodgrass is a witty poet whose language resonates with tropes that deepen one’s sense of his sincerity rather than deflect it. His exaggerations—“We huff like windy giants,” or “Bad penny, pendulum,/ you keep my constant time,” or sitting “like some squat Nero at a feast”—not only are playful but also define mood and relationships at particular moments. Since such figures appear throughout the ten sections and interact with harsher images, the overall tone is not only ironical—balancing between humor and horror—but also consistent with the narrator’s search for the basis on which father and daughter can honestly relate to each other.

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Themes