W. D. Snodgrass Analysis
W. D. Snodgrass once remarked that few American poets ever have a true “mature” period, and perhaps to ensure such maturity, he did not rush into print until he was thoroughly satisfied with what he had written. The result is that he wrote comparatively little, although his work shows continued growth and variety. After the purely “confessional” poems of Heart’s Needle, he developed distance and objectivity in After Experience, but without losing the human voice of the earlier volume. In The Führer Bunker (1977), he made a radical departure in an ambitious effort to draw believable portraits of Adolf Hitler and his principal associates during their final days. In Selected Poems, 1957-1987, he collected the best poems from the three earlier volumes and added a number of new poems, which had mostly appeared in hard-to-find, limited editions. For his achievements, he received a number of poetry awards, and his poems are frequently included in anthologies.
Snodgrass’s style was equally innovative. Breaking from his teachers and from the prevailing trends of contemporary poetry, he chose a simple, lyrical style rather than the obscure, intellectual style that his models provided. His language was plain, colloquial, and candid, and his images and symbols were drawn from nature or ordinary life and experience. In prosody, he was a traditionalist, employing complex stanza forms and intricate rhyme schemes. In most of his poems, the form is wedded to the content so that they work together to reveal the meaning. In addition, the poems are dramatic. They are concerned with real problems of this world—problems of identity, marriage, academia, art, and war—and the persona is faced with a choice. What he decides is usually either the effect or the cause of the action. Snodgrass’s reputation is secure because he spoke so directly about these universal problems.
Henry David Thoreau’s words in Walden (1854), “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,” could easily be applied to most of Snodgrass’s early poetry. It has been called confessional poetry because of the intense focus on the poet’s private life and concerns. Snodgrass, often labeled one of the founders of the confessional movement during the 1950’s, used himself as the subject of his first volume of poetry; but while his poems are an examination of his own experience, he did not fall into the role of the moralist, making generalizations about what he learned and suggesting how others can find happiness through his example. One might think that such poetry would be of little interest to anyone other than the poet. Why should the reader be interested in his problems of adjustment, which are not really extraordinary experiences? Other confessional poets have written about insanity, homosexuality, and suicide, but Snodgrass was concerned with mundane affairs, many having to do with the family—leaving home for the first time, the loss of innocence, illusions, and love. It is this quality of familiarity, however, which accounts for the appeal of Snodgrass’s first volume.
The persona developed in the poems is honest, candid, and sincere. Snodgrass says in his essay “Finding a Poem”:I am left with a very old-fashioned measure of a poem’s worth—the depth of its sincerity. . . . Our only hope as artists is to continually ask ourselves, “Am I writing what I really think? Not what is acceptable; not what my favorite intellectual would think in this situation; not what I wish I felt. Only what I cannot help thinking.”
Most important, the persona is human with a voice that one might expect to hear in the world. At times he is pompous, absurd, and silly, but the poetry reveals that he is aware of this weakness. He speaks in this world, about this world, and the reader is better able to understand his own problems of adjustment by living through them with the poet.
Several of the poems in Heart’s Needle are...
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