W. D. Snodgrass Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) (Vol. 18)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(e Witt) 1926–

Snodgrass is an American poet, critic, essayist, and translator. Although linked with the confessional school of poetry, Snodgrass prefers to view his work as a reaction against impersonal, intellectual poetry. His poetry, characterized by a straightforward voice, is drawn from personal experience and frequently expresses anguish and despair. Snodgrass received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1960 for his first collection, Heart's Needle. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[W. D. Snodgrass's] lyricism is not only the most consistent among the confessional poets, it is the most insistent…. His syllabics and stresses and rhyme schemes are not meant to rationalize or palliate his subject, but to balance its emotional demands and accommodate contradictory experiences and feelings: a language "alive" to the life it records. That life, in its meter-making argument, does not touch the extremes of madness or longing that heighten the work of Sexton, Lowell, Plath and Berryman…. Just as his verse is the successor to the severe, homely lyrics of Hardy and Frost, so too his losses and betrayals are the familiar ones, circumscribed by the small-town society to which our playwrights and novelists have accustomed us…. In an early essay on D. H. Lawrence, Snodgrass predicts the thrust of all his own later work: "To know one's needs is really to know one's own limits, hence one's definition."… Snodgrass is a poet of learning and unlearning, of conscience and consciousness, of the craft and life both so long to learn. The proprioceptive variety of his verse-forms, especially within a sequence of poems, is his recognition of the relativism of values and relationships in a modern world, even as his responsive formality is a determined effort to both signify and give significance to shifting moral limits. His controlling concerns—identity and choice—are existential in nature, and confessional in revelation, threaded through episodes of often painful experience and woven into still larger patterns of departure and return, both seasonal and human. (pp. 281-82)

[Snodgrass] surfaces the actual experience encountered once in life and again in the poem, always allowing subject to dominate symbol, and trusting his musical substructure to carry the expressive, unconscious force of both the experience and the poem. (p. 284)

The qualities [Snodgrass] cites in the song literature—simplicity and passionate directness, sustained by the unobtrusive subtlety of their settings—are among the most distinctive characteristics of [his] own verse and version of the confessional impulse….

[Style]—"that quality of voice which suggests qualities of mind"—is finally, for this poet, a moral and psychological concern. The "sincerity" he sought for the texture of his verse made similar demands on his subject, and having discovered how he could speak, he had further to discover what he needed to say. The value of the poem as product was inextricably bound up with the process of its composition: to compose is finally to expose. (p. 285)

The three poems which open Heart's Needle comprise an initiatory account of the poet's return home, both chronological and spiritual, from World War II, and introduce themes that in later poems will be felt in his relationships to others and the present, as here they focus on his relationships with himself and his past. "Ten Days Leave" is a study in disorientation and alienation, the artificiality of the past and detachment of the present…. [The war-jarred poet's] new awareness stumbles over the inadequacy of metaphor to restore the familiar; the poem proceeds by analogy, each stanza testing—like, as if, supposing, seems, recalls —a dreamscape at which he wonders: "How real it seems!" It is the principle of unreality that dominates until resolved in the third poem, just as the perspective shifts from the "he" of this poem, to "we" in the next, and...

(The entire section is 5,671 words.)