Not for Specialists
W. D. Snodgrass drew widespread critical attention when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection of poetry; at the same time, his reputation as a “confessional” poet was established, principally by the poem that gave the book its title, “Heart’s Needle,” included in Not for Specialists. The poem virtually defined a new kind of personal poetry as it explored the poet’s relationship with his three-year-old daughter. Through ten sections of varying structures and rhyme schemes, it totals 435 lines. Each section of the poem has its own stanzaic pattern, ranging in length from four lines to eight. Lines of two and three metrical stresses combine with lines of four and five stresses, as in the poem’s opening:
Child of my winter, bornWhen the new fallen soldiers frozeIn Asia’s steep ravines and fouled the snows,When I was tornBy love I could not still,By fear . . .
Throughout the poem, meaning often runs from line to line or leaps from stanza to stanza without stop, yet the poem retains a unifying consistency despite the formal variety. Snodgrass uses the interplay of regular and irregular features to enrich the meaning, often for ironic effect. The poem’s regular and traditional elements are made fresh by the irregular features as well as by the intensely personal nature of the subject. Snodgrass builds on the notion that his feelingsanxiety, love, and tender affectionare all consuming and intensely personal yet universal, related contextually (therefore spiritually) to “Asia’s steep ravines,” the snows of winter, and human suffering generally. The poem’s scope is thus both expansive and introspective and personal. The more intense the poet’s feelings are, the more keenly they are felt by the reader, who is drawn into the poet’s experience not only by the meanings of the words but by the use of sound and rhythm. The reader is worked on by the artifice as much as by the poet’s confessional mode. Art dresses as it addresses.
In other poems throughout this collection, arranged chronologically from his first collection to his new poems, Snodgrass continues to vary sound and rhythm, as well as the very look of his poetry. In an early poem, “April Inventory,” for example, the lines all have five stresses each, and all ten stanzas have the same rhyme scheme and number of lines: six. Every stanza also ends on a full stop. This strict regularity encloses the poem’s subject, a college professor’s sense of loss, failure, and inadequacy; the poem’s structure is as confined by traditional features as the professor is by the expectations of those who judge him, including “parents, analyst,/ And everyone who’s trusted me.”
Despite the list of his failures, the speaker evokes sympathy by the mildness of his regret, the sincerity of his emotions, and the subtle undermining of the values of the world that surrounds him. The female students, who grow “Younger and pinker every year” and “Bloom gradually out of reach,” are “sleek, expensive girls.” The speaker feels a greater kinship to nature, beginning his poem on this note:
The green catalpa tree has turnedAll white; the cherry blooms once more.In one whole year I haven’t learnedA blessed thing they pay you for.The blossoms snow down in my hair;The trees and I will soon be bare.The trees have more than I to spare.
Sound and rhythm subtly underscore the meaning of the lines, in which the speaker’s mood is echoed by sounds associated with mourning (and moaning), such as “blooms,” “more,” “whole,” “snow,” and “soon.” The stresses at the ends of lines six and seven also add to the poem’s tone and meaning, “bare” and “spare,” both implying loss and failure. At the same time, words, even whole lines, suggest opposing meaning, as in “The blossoms snow down in my hair,” which represents aging yet suggests nature’s gentle enfolding. Because of such subtleties, the poem creates the feeling that the speaker has...
(The entire section is 1,841 words.)