The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 668 words.)