W. D. Snodgrass Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) (Vol. 6)

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Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) 1926–

Snodgrass, an American poet, received the Pulitzer Prize for Heart's Needle, his first collection. In 1968 Thomas Lash wrote that After Experience "comes as close as [any poetry to] capturing the mood, and attitude, the characteristic disposition of the decade we have lived through," undoubtedly a dismal one, for Robert Boyers called Snodgrass our most heart-breaking poet after Randall Jarrell. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Snodgrass' Pulitzer Prize-winning first volume, Heart's Needle (1959), communicates feelings stronger than thoughts. It is not that the reader senses anything like what T. S. Eliot called a "dissociation of sensibility." Call it "thought," or "theme," or "idea," or "intelligence," or "mentality"—this abounds in a Snodgrass poem. But the communication is almost wordless, subliminal. (p. 351)

He captures what he has described as the "spooky, modern quality" of Christian Morgenstern and Eliot. Reading Heart's Needle, I feel somewhat the way A. E. Housman's first audience, at least the young men, must have felt reading the plaintive but hard songs of the eternally sad lad from Shropshire. (pp. 351-52)

In general, Heart's Needle is a poetry of experience, of present tense and present tension; After Experience (1968), as its ambiguous title implies, is at once a poetry of the poet's meditation on past happenings and a poetry of his determination to experience new ways of seeing, acting, and feeling. By the time of its appearance—though some of the poems date back to when Snodgrass was composing Heart's Needle—the poet has survived certain experiences and is out, after these, looking for others that will continue to make him feel alive. Snodgrass tells us again and again that one can exist only by living the passionate life, by freeing the soul, though this action itself will inevitably bring grief to those we love the most. (pp. 352-53)

The poet refuses, though he could so easily have fallen into sentimentality, to cry in his beer or look for the reader's shoulder. His verses are tightly rhymed and are rendered, with some variation, in accentual syllabics. Underneath the form is the recognition that there is to be no letting go, no backsliding into bathos. (p. 355)

Heart's Needle remains a poetry without answers, but it is a poetry of total awareness. Inherent in its criticism of the way things are is the ability of the intelligence that informs its lyrics to accept this reality and to struggle against it at the same time. Heart's Needle, without caterwauling, free from what Ezra Pound calls "emotional slither," takes on dimensions of the tragic….

I suspect that whether or not After Experience is as good a book, or worse than, or better than Heart's Needle is a non-issue. It is a different book and moves in a different direction. If less lyrical, as some have said, it is more dramatic; if it does not have a single poem as ambitious as the "Heart's Needle" sequence, it does include several poems whose complexities and subtleties require a more intense reading; if it does not have the same sort of thematic center as does Heart's Needle, it still manages to encompass a world; if the voice of its first fifteen or so poems is now a familiar one, we ought not to criticize a poet because hosts of imitators have sprung up between his two volumes. To be sure, Snodgrass has not suffered a sophomore slump. Even his most virulent critics agree that After Experience includes many poems as fine, from any point of view, as anything in his first book. (p. 361)

Nick, in Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," must leave off, for the sake of his sanity, fishing the swamp until another day. Snodgrass already, with Heart's Needle, cast his line into the most dangerous waters, but it did not snag. In After Experience the swamp is an uncompromising reality, but the poet is more worldly, and, though often heart-deep in mud, he manages to maintain his difficult balance. (p. 368)

William Heyen,...

(The entire section is 1,774 words.)