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 concerned with identity, with discovering one’s own name. Far from being a mere label or external description, a name expresses the profound reality of the being who carries it. In the Old Testament, creation is not completed until all things brought into existence have a name. Further, a name carries with it the possibility of knowledge. By reason of its nature, a name imparts knowledge, and by one’s name, one can reveal to others who one is.
In “MHTIS . . . OU TIS,” which is dedicated to R. M. Powell, Snodgrass’s psychotherapist, the poet uses the story of Odysseus escaping from the Cyclops by a trick, identifying himself as no man (ou tis): “I had escaped, by trickery, as no man.” This surrender of his identity, he realizes, is a much worse fate, and he implores his psychotherapist to restore him. He calls him his “dead blind guide” because Powell’s strategy with him was to remain out of sight at all times, forcing Snodgrass to speak and clarify his problems in his own way and in his own words. The poem closes with these lines: “My dear blind guide, you lead me here to claim/ Still waters that will never wash my hand,/ To kneel by my old face and know my name.”
The problem of a name occurs again in “A Cardinal.” It is about a poet who goes into the woods for inspiration but finds that he cannot complete his verses because he cannot escape the crass, materialistic world even there. In the underbrush are “beer cans and lover’s trash.” He hears the squeal of the mill whistles, the whine of the freight cars, the trucks on the super-turnpike, and the chant of the air cadets marching. When he sees a cardinal above him with a green insect in his beak, he recognizes it as a confirmation of the evil that is in all things. Nature is “red in tooth and claw,” or, as Snodgrass says it, “celebrate(s) this ordinal/ of the red beak and claw.” In the bird-eat-insect, man-eat-man world in which he lives, he is foolish to think that he can write poetry, but then comes the turning point in the poem. He realizes his absurdity in blaming his lack of energy and creativity on something outside himself. When he hears the cardinal sing, he hears it as a song of natural self-assertion: “The world’s not done to me;/ it is what I do.” In asserting himself, the bird sings his name, confident in his identity, announcing it to the world: “I music out my name/ and what I tell is who/ in all the world I am.”
Snodgrass announces his own name in “These Trees Stand. . . .” The line “Snodgrass is walking through the universe” is the natural final step in the process of a very personal poet naming his own name. It is his announcement that he has found his identity and will proclaim it to the whole universe. Snodgrass admits that it is “one of the most absurd and pompous things” he has ever heard, but pomposity has its place in poetry too, as long as one is aware that he is being pompous. He may not be able to reconcile estranged lovers or alter civilization’s downward course, but he can wipe his glasses on his shirt to see himself and the world around him more clearly.
Being able to name one’s own name is an important concern of a confessional poet such as Snodgrass; acceptance of loss is another. A number of his early poems are about loss. “Ten Days Leave” has a young soldier return to his home to find that his childhood is gone forever. In “Orpheus,” he assumes a literary mask in a futile but necessary attempt at rescuing Eurydice, whose only crime was to love, which is impossible in a world ruled “by graft and debt.” His most sustained and profound treatment of loss, however, is in the ten-poem sequence, “Heart’s Needle.”
The title of the poem comes from an old Irish story of a man who, when told of his daughter’s death, says, “And an only daughter is the needle of the heart.” For Snodgrass, the “Heart’s Needle” is the loss of his daughter Cynthia through divorce. The poem in ten parts chronicles a two-and-a-half year period that he spent trying to adjust to this loss. The poem records the two battles that the poet has to wage. The first is external, the fight with his former wife that led to the divorce and continued afterward: “Our states have stood so long at war.” The other is the internal one of love and guilt. He loves his child and does not want to give her up, but in the succeeding years, he marries again and has another child. His attempts to maintain a close relationship with Cynthia are only causing her further emotional harm. He is left with the dilemma: “I cannot fight/ or let her go.”
Images of war, trapped animals, blasted lives, newly planted seeds, and withered flowers are interspersed with the passing of the seasons, which show the breakup of the marriage and the growing distance between him and his daughter. It is the imagery rather than any overt statement that shows the reader that the poet was able to maintain his identity and establish a workable relationship with his daughter. The poem begins in the winter but ends in the spring. The first poem is set within the context of the “cold war,” with soldiers falling and freezing in the snows of Korea, but the final poem is set in the park, where Snodgrass and his daughter roast hot dogs and feed the swans. Earlier, there is an image of a fox with his paw in a trap, but in the final poem, the red fox is trotting around bachelor pens. Together, Snodgrass and his daughter look at the bears imprisoned behind bars, but he has found a way to liberate himself through the knowledge that even though they are separated, “You are still my daughter.”
Each part of the poem is carefully crafted; the third section is a good example. It is still early in the separation, but the unrest and pain are apparent. The poem begins with the image of two parents holding the hands of a child and together swinging the child over a puddle; but as soon as the hurdle is successfully cleared, they “stiffen and pull apart.” He recalls that they were reading in the newspapers about the Korean War, about the cold and pain, about the land that was won and lost, and about the prisoners that were taken. The outcome of the battles, paralleling those of his own marriage, was satisfactory to no one. Then he returns to the child’s hands and remembers that once in a playful game, he tugged too hard, dislocating her wrist. The resolution of the poem recalls the decision that Solomon once had to make in a dispute over a child between two women, each claiming to be its true mother. Like the real mother in that story, Snodgrass offers to give his daughter up for her own good. The three episodes and the conclusion are closely tied together and reflect the inner struggle of the poet. Even the rhyme scheme (aabccb) reflects it. Each stanza begins with a couplet, but the second rhyme is delayed in each to emphasize the separation and loss recorded in the last line of each stanza. To reinforce this, the sixth line of each stanza is shortened from four feet to three.
The seasons mark the passing of time and the changing relationships of a man and his daughter. It is not a sentimental recital of events but rather an honest treatment of hurt, shared blame, and a growing awareness of their separateness. Snodgrass said that a poet must write what he really thinks and feels, and in “Heart’s Needle,” he apparently was successful.
Much of Snodgrass’s life was in the world of academe, and he wrote about it in a number of his poems. “The Campus on the Hill” is based on his life while teaching at Cornell, but it could represent many colleges during the 1950’s, marked by the complacency of the students in a world that seemed to be falling apart. “The Men’s Room in the College Chapel” suggests an inversion of the traditional view of man’s spiritual nature triumphing over his animal nature. Whereas earlier cultures retired to caves to carve totemic drawings to their “dark gods” or to the catacombs to write “pious mottos of resistance,” the subversive humans of today go into the four gray walls to “scribble of sex and excrement,/ draw bestial pictures and sign their name.”
In “April Inventory,” the poet turns to himself as a teacher to list his own weaknesses and strengths. Spring is an appropriate season to watch the catalpa tree and the cherry blossom; but then, so quickly, the blossoms fall. The poet realizes that his own period of productivity will be similarly brief, and so far he has not accomplished much that can be measured. The recognition goes to “the solid scholars” who “get the degrees, the jobs, the dollars,” but they also get ulcers. He cannot bring himself to read secondary sources, plot summaries, or memorize dates. He prefers to teach “Whitehead’s notions” or a song of Gustav Mahler, or to show a child the colors of a luna moth. He prefers to learn “to name my own name,” to give enjoyment to the woman he loves, and to ease an old man’s dying. At the end of the poem, he seems content that gentleness and loveliness are also important, and that these will survive where other accomplishments will fail.
Snodgrass did not often write satire, but he did in “The Examination.” At first reading, the poem appears to be a sinister fantasy of black-robed figures with single eyes and ragged nails performing a lobotomy on a bird man named Garuda. It seems to have happened long ago and far away because they mark on...
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