W. D. Snodgrass Biography


William DeWitt Snodgrass was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, on January 5, 1926. After a normal boyhood, he enrolled at nearby Geneva College in 1944. Two years later, he was drafted into the Navy and sent to the Pacific. For the first time, he was truly on his own, away from home and familiar surroundings. World War II and its aftermath carved itself into his memory, and he would draw material from this experience for his poetry.

Following his discharge, two events occurred that were very important in his development as a poet: his marriage and his transfer to the University of Iowa to join the writers’ workshop. At the workshop, he found a group of talented students and skilled teachers who encouraged him to perfect his technique. Although he eventually broke with his teachers, who preferred highly intellectual poems following the traditions of the French Symbolists and the English Metaphysical poets, he would later tell an interviewer that he would never have written poetry if he had not gone there. He remained at Iowa for seven years, completing work for an undergraduate degree, an M.A., and an M.F.A. While his years there might have made him into a poet, they had a disastrous effect on his marriage, which ended in a divorce and separation from his young daughter in 1953. Snodgrass tried to adjust to this experience through his writing and through psychoanalysis; the result was the long poem “Heart’s Needle,” a two-and-a-half-year chronicle written while the events were taking place. The immediacy of the experience and the intensity of his feeling of loss help to give the poem its power.

After leaving the University of Iowa, Snodgrass was a college professor and writer-in-residence at several universities, including Cornell, Wayne State, and Syracuse, as well as a frequent participant in writing conferences. In 1979, he became distinguished visiting professor of English at the University of Delaware in Newark, and he remained at that institution, retiring as distinguished professor emeritus in 1994. After retiring, he taught and lectured at writers’ workshops and conferences across the United States. He died of inoperable lung cancer in 2009.


Along with Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, William DeWitt Snodgrass is one of the most important of the so-called confessional poets who heavily influenced American poetry in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Snodgrass grew up in Beaver Falls, a small town in western Pennsylvania, and began his college career at Geneva College, located in his hometown. His studies were interrupted by a term in the Navy near the end of World War II, and when he returned he spent one more year at Geneva before transferring to the University of Iowa, where he earned his B.A. degree in 1949. He stayed at Iowa to complete the M.A. in 1951 and the M.F.A. in 1953. At Iowa one of Snodgrass’s teachers was Robert Lowell, who significantly influenced the young poet’s early work.{$S[A]Gardons, S. S.;Snodgrass, W. D.}

Like many mid-twentieth century American poets, Snodgrass made his living teaching at universities, beginning as an instructor at Cornell University in 1955, then moving on to the University of Rochester, Wayne State University, Syracuse University, Old Dominion University, and the University of Delaware, where he began teaching in 1979.

Without question Snodgrass’s most important and influential volume of poetry has been his first, Heart’s Needle, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and the British Guinness Award in 1961. Both Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton have referred to Heart’s Needle as an important influence on their poetry. The title poem is a ten-part sequence addressed to his daughter, Cynthia, on the subject of Snodgrass’s divorce in 1953 and remarriage in 1954. Part of the poem’s epigraph, from an Irish romance, reads, “And an only daughter is the needle of the heart.” Each of the poem’s ten parts is set in one of the four seasons, from the winter of 1952 to the spring of 1955, and each concerns the speaker’s overpowering emotions of guilt and suffering revolving around the loss of his daughter. Sometimes these are directly expressed; at other times they are expressed indirectly by means of everyday images—the day’s newspaper headlines, helping his wife to lift their daughter over a puddle, or pushing Cynthia on a swing. Although at times the poem grows sentimental or nostalgic, for the most part it is a moving depiction of heartbreaking, even violent, emotional pain....

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