The Poem

“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.)

Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 627 words.)