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.)
[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...
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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 finally to "I" in the third. "Returned to Frisco, 1946" resumes the stance and structure of "Ten Days Leave" to describe his last landing. (p. 289)
The next twelve poems gather into a section which explores the ruins of his first marriage, and the reconstruction of his life with new love…. This theme—a term which, for a confessional poet, corresponds to a sense of his life—is more convincing in later poems to his daughter, where the loss that allows song is combined with a more realistic guilt. (pp. 290-91)
This entire group of poems rises from "the burned out bed / of ashes" ("September in the Park") to tell, in Robert Phillips's phrase, "about human recovery and resilience." Guilt is not only purified through sacrifice … but through more vitalistic and seasonal cycles which turn memories into hopes, and which naturalize the necessity of suffering. Despite the self-addressed caution in "Seeing You Have …," Snodgrass grounds these poems in joy, and in "Riddle" even turns his pride into a series of conceits—self-consciously echoing the metaphysical poets—and puns on the "divorce" that has united the lovers. And while poems like "Winter Bouquet" and the two titled "Song" are domestic and erotic, "The Operation"—another of the hospital poems favored by the confessionalists—works towards its simple recognition through ritual … and allusion…. It is a remarkable poem, blending the realistic and the visionary into an account of his struggle towards the still point of a confident marriage: his wife's gift crystalizing the dark, rushing world he watches through it…. (pp. 291-92)
If the first two groupings of the book's poems deal with Snodgrass's sense of "new life," with himself after his return from war, and with his second wife after his divorce, then a third group—"A Cardinal," "The Campus on the Hill," "These Trees Stand …," and "April Inventory"—move still further out to sift the continuing life of his social and professional relationships. "A Cardinal" is the book's pivotal "crisis poem," Snodgrass's version of "Resolution and Independence," which both sums up the poems that precede and prepare for it and summons up those that follow and exemplify it. (p. 292)
Everything he has learned through [the third group of] poems is relearned in the second half of the book, the "Heart's Needle" sequence, ten poems to Cynthia, his daughter by his first marriage, one for each of the seasons during the two and a half years, from the winter of 1952 until the spring of 1955, of his divorce and remarriage. As both a completely other person and still a part of himself, his daughter provides Snodgrass a unique occasion to confront his self at a point where all its relationships converge. That point is also an extremely painful one…. To maintain such a developing complexity within the scheme of a single poem is a difficulty Snodgrass overcomes, first of all, by the voice he has achieved, which William Heyen has described as "urgent but controlled, muted but passionate, unassuming but instructive." And in addition to his voice, there is the verse; each poem is given an independent rhythmical structure—sometimes elaborate, sometimes simple—which varies the angle of feeling and perception, and can accommodate rather than avoid his naked revelations of loss and resolve. At the same time, the poems are closely linked, not only by the central relationship which they trace, but by a series of motifs—bed, snow, fox, trap, bird, color—which recur, gathering new meanings into old. And these techniques combined finally to portray a world of self-willed, separate individuals whose shared—and disillusioned—experience makes possible a tentative but necessary union. (pp. 296-97)
[The poems in Remains, published under the anagram S. S. Gardons,] are raw poems, but not heartless: their forgiveness persists in their understanding. The rage of his memories and the intensity of his analysis are controlled in a verse which turns a revenging wit into a necessary search for origins. His own survival—prior to that of war and divorce—has depended on escape, just as his alternative self, his sister, retreated beyond will into a suicidal surrender. This book is Snodgrass's unflinching view of the remains. (p. 303)
Nine years elapsed after Heart's Needle until the publication of After Experience (1968). Perhaps that length of time itself accounts for the variety of work in that later volume, but Snodgrass was probably also intent on displaying his interests and achievements apart from those confessional. The diversity of After Experience is reminiscent of the example of Snodgrass's old master Lowell. Nearly half of the book is occupied with twenty-four translations and a series of long poems which are interpretative recreations of the subjects and energies of five impressionist paintings. And of the remaining poems, several are set-pieces, which their titles alone indicate…. The influence of Vietnam is felt in an increased political note to the work, in such poems as "Inquest" and "A Visitation."
Snodgrass seems, then, intentionally to have restricted his confessional impulse, but it does shape a significant portion of the book even though the poet's use of it has changed along with his intervening experience. The book's title hints at Snodgrass's personality in these poems: it is wary, hardedged, guarded, perhaps more pessimistic, certainly more experienced…. [The] shift between books has been from awareness to understanding. The title poem is an extreme example of the essentially dramatic nature of this process…. [This] is finally the function of the book's "ideas," and the effect of its probing hesitancy: Snodgrass sets … his actual experience to a moral scrutiny, in order to discover and evaluate the real feelings and motives beneath the disguises and rationalizations, the autobiography beneath the theory. His concern is not for belief, but for character, and if this deprives the book of the immediacy of Heart's Needle, it does lend a larger, more penetrating perspective which is apparent when the poems in After Experience about his daughter and his first wife are compared with earlier ones.
The cumulative narrative arrangement of poems in Heart's Needle was concentrated and consistent. In this book, it is more oblique, but a reader can still easily follow the chronology of events in Snodgrass's experience…. What Snodgrass has done … is to intersperse his narrative poems with lyrical, depersonalized ones, which nevertheless do not impede but serve as choric interludes by framing his experiences with more distance. In fact, the opening poem of the collection, "Partial Eclipse," seems addressed, at first, to the generalized "you" of the traditional lyric, until later we see it, along with the three, more direct poems that follow it, as a continuation of the "Heart's Needle" address to his daughter. They would be harsh poems, if they were not hardened. (pp. 308-10)
[A] reaching back into his past for isolated episodes in order to illustrate his moral concerns points the direction towards Snodgrass's most recent work. Though he has not entirely abandoned the confessional mode, he has sharply modified it for his own purposes. For a poet so concerned with survival, perhaps this was a necessary tactic in view of the enormous success and influence of Heart's Needle. But regardless of that decision, Snodgrass's earlier work remains perhaps the most distinguished … contemporary confessional poetry for the integrity of its commitment to life and craft. (p. 314)
J. D. McClatchy, "W. D. Snodgrass: The Mild, Reflective Art," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1975 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.), Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 281-314.
W. D. Snodgrass' The Fuhrer Bunker is a rare example of ambitious, on-going verse sculpture…. There are twenty monologues. They constitute, as Snodgrass calls them, "a cycle of poems in progress." I gather that he is not exactly certain of the final count—there are already nearly a dozen completed monologues not appearing in this collection. I admire Snodgrass's courage in presenting an incomplete work for public scrutiny. Since he is a poet of stature (Heart's Needle remains one of the handful of fine books of its decade) he will be widely reviewed, and there is a danger, I should think, that the reviews may discourage or dissuade him from further writing in this mode. The Fuhrer Bunker is gargantuan: few poets have the energy or the daring to attempt work on this scale…. In a real sense, Snodgrass seems to be working at what seems possible for him as an almost epic form. And despite the flaws in The Fuhrer Bunker it will be around for a long time to inspire writers who've come to realize the sad limitations of the locked-in, private, first person, obsessional poem.
The problems raised by the poems are these: There is a general sameness of voice. The monologues are usually long (the best—the Hermann Fegelein, for example—are short). The cadences of succeeding lines border on the monotonous, a monotony the frequent end-rhymes, well-turned rondeau (spoken by Magda Goebbels) don't quite modify…. I've concluded that the fault is primarily one of voice: Snodgrass' technical skills are as much in evidence as ever, but I rarely feel in these Bunker poems that the master's voice has a real chance to be heard. He seems to strive for the manner and presence of a stageable work; as a result the voice is too often in language and timing Shakespearean….
Yet, despite my quibbles over a sameness of tone and a stagey language, the sequence is complex in brilliant forms….
[I] see some of the enormous problems Snodgrass confronts, and I empathize with him, and greatly admire his achievement, despite my reservations. I am sure these poems (and the completed version when it appears) will be widely read, discussed, and imitated. They deserve much attention. In converting these slabs of marble into sculpture, Snodgrass may not be Rodin or Giacometti; but he is a St. Gaudens, and that is no mean achievement. (p. 14)
Robert Peters, "'The Fuhrer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress' and '6 Troubadour Songs'," in The American Book Review (© 1977 by The American Book Review), Vol. 1, No. 1, December, 1977, pp. 14-15.
Twenty poems: 20 Nazi monologues (Hitler, Speer, Goebbels, Eva Braun, Martin Bormann, et al.) presumed to have been spoken "1 April-1 May, 1945." It doesn't work, for the reason Mr. Snodgrass himself pinpoints: "A reader unfamiliar with history of World War II may find many details in these poems outrageous, chilly, monstrous, downright incredible." And "Eva Braun's favorite song was 'Tea for Two.'"
The facts are everywhere so bizarre there is little for a poet to invent…. This is "A Cycle of Poems in Progress," meaning there will be more; and why Snodgrass should be wasting his gift on attempts to outdo "the banality of evil" I can't begin to guess, any more than he can guess what really went or ought to have gone through those minds, that month…. Those deaths, in that bunker, were self-conscious bad art—perhaps the one thing poetry can't transcend.
Hugh Kenner, "Three Poets: 'The Fuhrer Bunker'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 1, 1978, p. 23.
In this handsome book [6 Troubadour Songs], Snodgrass has matched six translated troubadour texts with period melodies which fit their verse forms. Snodgrass has admittedly opted for expediency rather than precise authenticity in his task; these melodies and verses can easily be played and sung. The translations are graceful, buoyant, and bawdy and the melodies appropriate for recorder accompaniment. Snodgrass has vowed to stop translating anything except songs, a vow which promises only more verse with such delightful practicality.
"Notes on Current Books: '6 Troubadour Songs'," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1978, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 54, No. 2 (Spring, 1978), p. 58.
In the preface to his Six Troubadour Songs, W. D. Snodgrass writes: "In the last two decades, our vision of the Provençal Troubadour and his songs has almost completely changed. Gone is the wistful figure singing sweetly in the twilight of his spiritual devotion to a far-off, idealized lady. Under the impact of certain crucial musicologists and performers—especially Thomas Binkley's Studio for Early Music in Munich—we have accepted a heavy Arabic influence in this music; nowadays, our performances sound more and more like belly-dance music or, more accurately, the Andalusian music of North Africa. Our sense of the texts has altered comparably. By now, we are almost ready to say that Troubadour songs have only two subjects: one, let's go Crusading and kill lots of Moors; two, let's go get in the boss's wife."
Now this is ridiculous on several counts. Naturally in recent studies of medieval Occitanian literature and music we have experienced a movement toward deromanticization similar to what we know in other sectors of scholarship; but no serious student would go as far as Snodgrass suggests. In the first place, what's wrong with Arabic music?… I know nothing of Thomas Binkley, but if he has discovered a Moorish explicit element in Mediterranean art, thought, and life, he has discovered what has been know to everyone concerned for hundreds of years. (p. 383)
The first translation in Snodgrass's booklet is of the famous "L'Aventura del Gat," by Guilhèm de Peitieu, which is uncharacteristic of the poetry as a whole. It is out-and-out bawdry…. But bawdry it may be, sophisticated vulgarity it is not—and the difference is essential. (p. 384)
[Snodgrass's translation] is much too overwritten…. But mainly the tone is wrong. I don't think it is simply the similarity of stanza forms that makes me think of Robert Burns; not the Burns of the lovely folk restorations, but the Burns of the comic narratives, epistles, and satires. Yet it's a lang, lang way from 12th-century France to 18th-century Scotland. And the translation shows further overlays as well: Byronesque irony, the jiggery of The Ingoldsby Legends, something of Carroll and Lear, a good deal of the archness of Samuel Hoffenstein and Noel Coward; in short, the culture of "high pops" for the past two hundred years. So it goes throughout Snodgrass's versions.
Toward the end of the poem Guilhèm says, "Tant las fotèri, m'ausiretz, / cent e quatre-vint uèit fes." Snodgrass writes: "I screwed them, fairly to relate / A full one hundred eighty eight." Forget "fairly to relate" and "a full"; forget the jingly meter; "fotèri" means "fucked," a good old Indo-European word (see Partridge, Origins). Why does Snodgrass write "screwed"? I presume exactly because it has the quality of cute sophisticated vulgarity which he likes but which has nothing to do with Guilhèm's straightforwardness or with the practice of trobadors in general.
As for the musical part of Snodgrass's work, since far fewer tunes than poems survive from the culture of Languedoc, he has shifted melodies which originally went with other poems to the poems he has translated and then to his own translations as well. The first part of this seems more or less reasonable; the old texts are singable in the tunes he has given them. But the second part? Why translate the texts but not the music? In fact Snodgrass's lyrics would go much better to something by Cole Porter than they do to the old Catalan airs. (pp. 384-85)
Hayden Carruth, "The Spirit of Lo lenga d'òc," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 383-86.
[Though unfinished, The Führer Bunker is] complete enough to guarantee that the finished product will be a singular accomplishment. Snodgrass's project is audacious enough to keep most poets from giving it a second thought, but it has given him an occasion to which his passionate curiosity about human nature, his architectonic powers, his prosodic finesse, and his evident capacity for research allow him to rise….
Nothing could quite have prepared us for these poems, but looking back we can see how Snodgrass's earlier experiments with the antagonistic persona and the sequence were preparing him. Moreover, the new book is "confessional" in two senses. First, as Snodgrass notes in his "Afterword," his characters "are much more open and direct about their destructive feelings and intentions than their historical counterparts ever were…. The Nazis—like some others one may have encountered—often did or said things to disguise from the world, sometimes from themselves, their real actions and intentions…. My poems, then, must include voices they would hide from others, even from themselves." This comment also gives us a glimpse of the second sense in which these poems are confessional…. [As] Snodgrass had it in "A Visitation," the poem about Adolf Eichmann in After Experience, "There's something beats the same in opposed hearts." Not to understand that, not to acknowledge our human kinship with the likes of the Nazis, is to incubate the potential for evil: that is the conviction behind the book…. (p. 87)
There is much to choke us with disgust from the very beginning of this volume, where Hitler ruminates in characteristically revolting images on the various enemies who now "rise up like vomit, flies / Out of bad meat, sewers backing up."… Snodgrass never lets us avert our eyes. In effect Albert Speer tells us why when he recalls a recent meeting with a doctor, "Our most acute diagnostic mind," who has cancer but does not recognize the symptoms. The obvious comparison is with Hitler, who refuses to see that he is beaten, but he is not the only one who "neglects his knowing." (pp. 87-8)
Snodgrass's prosodic forms are part and parcel of his characters and themes. Except when singing some sweetly melancholy folk song, Goebbels, master of duplicity, speaks in caustic tetrameter couplets riddled with puns. The couplets accent a tone that, as Snodgrass admits, has "a playfulness and malevolent glee" not characteristic of the actual man, but that tone is an inextricable element in a personality that is richly satanic…. Magda Goebbels's three monologues are a set of four villanelles, a set of four triolets, and a rondeau redoublé. The ceaseless repetition of refrain and rhyme—through all 175 lines of her verse Snodgrass uses only three rhymes—comports with a mind whose obsessiveness is a response to intolerable feelings. She too knows more than she thinks she knows, and her forms are nearly hysterical little rituals that keep her fear and self-disgust at bay.
Other poems derive from Snodgrass's previous work with multiple voices. Eva Braun's first monologue dovetails musings on her happiness at being inseparably united with Hitler with quotes from "Tea for Two," her favorite song. Almost incredibly, Snodgrass makes her a touching figure, sensitive within chilling limits. He devises a complicated mise en page for Hitler's monologues, where he juggles several trains of thought, made easier to sort out by indentations that align related fragments and yet interlocked by recurrent images. In Hitler's poems Snodgrass means to sketch a plausible psychobiography—and this aspect of the volume might well be its weakest. We gather that Hitler's attempt to devour Europe, which takes a sublimated form in compulsive eating of chocolate cake and also manifests itself in scatophilia, can be traced to a fear of death, itself inspired by the death of his doting mother. Rather than be swallowed up as she was by the earth, he had meant to "Swallow all this ground / Till we two are one flesh." Snodgrass works this notion out more interestingly than can appear in a brief summary, but we still might wonder whether the pieces—for the layout suggests a pied puzzle—do not fit too neatly, whether this part of the sequence does not smack of clever psychologizing.
Speer's four monologues make up a tour de force. His twelve-line normative stanza, as befits the Reich's chief architect, is shaped: through its penultimate line it makes a right triangle—and then the last line shortens. This odd form is surely a visual pun: the stanza spreads out like diseased cells looking for Lebensraum and then suddenly collapses like the Reich itself…. [Perhaps] enough has been said to suggest the care and inspiration at work. Metaphysics cannot hold chaos in a goblet, his Van Gogh said in After Experience, but in this book Snodgrass's poetics comes very near being able to do so. (pp. 88-90)
Stephen Yenser, "Recent Poetry: Six Poets," in The Yale Review (© 1978 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXVIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1978, pp. 83-102.∗
Snodgrass is not … as well and favorably known as he ought to be. The reason, I think, lies in his most striking characteristic; his resolute, uncompromising, almost frightening honesty. Far from the lies for which Plato banished poets from his ideal republic, Snodgrass's verse tells the truth, however painful to himself or to others. It neither fakes, evades, exhibits ego for the sake of exhibitionism, nor grinds the axe of fad or ideology. It demonstrates what he himself has declared to be requisite for "the terribly hard work that writing is … a complete removal from any ulterior motive, an absolute dedication to the object and the experience." (p. 10)
[It] is not subject matter only that separates Snodgrass from the confessional tribe. From the beginning his verse exhibits a mastery of technique and form, a control of metrics, an ability to use conventional poetic structures for unconventional purposes that sharply distinguishes it from much if not most contemporary poetry. "Free" verse too often means poetry as shapeless and runny as soup. Snodgrass can write stanzas that actually scan and rhyme in the most unexpectedly traditional way. He likes melody, and can handle a long, swinging line and a refrain, as in many of the folk songs he translates. He uses such seemingly out-moded forms as octosyllabic couplets and terza rima. And—yes—when he abandons rhyme and meter for a less structured pattern, he does not abandon form itself but shapes lines and stanzas as controlled as, though different from, those of traditional verse….
From the beginning,… Snodgrass seems to me to have been different in attitude and purpose from the typical confessional poet. Even his most private poems are poems not of statement but of discovery. That is, although they are personal they are not truly subjective, for they move from the self into the world, using the self not to exhibit a private world—like, for example, the poems of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—but to illuminate the public world we all share. (p. 11)
"The healthy organism grows not in accordance with what has been done to it, but what it wants to become." Snodgrass's paraphrase of the words of an unnamed American biologist, as he himself must know, is a description of and commentary on his own poetic progress and achievement. It is his eye-on-the-experience, on the object of knowledge, on the self not as end but as means, his constant effort to understand and accept the realities of experience and to find the strength to live inside human limitations, that has kept him balanced, sane, humble, humorous, and—within reason—hopeful, where so many others have spun off into exhibitionism, neurosis, madness, despair, suicide. (p. 12)
Concerned above all else with truth-telling, and convinced that it is neither possible to tell the truth nor to be believed through rational statement and surface meaning, [Snodgrass] has sought ways of telling it through the qualities of language itself, through the connotations and sounds of words, through rhyme, rhythm, and cadence, the musical sub-structure of verse, through tone and voice and persona. "There is always a kind of invented persona," says Snodgrass, even in his earliest and most personal poems, and as he developed so did his use of many voices. Strongly influenced by Browning's dramatic monologues, Snodgrass came to feel that "the most interesting poems of the last fifteen years have all been poly-voiced poems," and that all voices are, in a sense, "angles of yourself." So even the characters of The Fuhrer Bunker, far removed as they seem from the personal voice that speaks in Snodgrass's early poems, are in some sense "a distillation of one's self." In fashioning these characters on the basis of historical knowledge, the poet conceives them truly only through faithfulness to his own experience and the truth of his own imagination….
Heart's Needle, After Experience, and Remains are poems of discovery: efforts to understand, evaluate, and come to terms with often agonizing personal experience…. Their verse forms are varied but always tight and controlled, the emotion present in image, in rhythm, in tone—not in assertion. Their subjects—alienation, failure, loss and grief, guilt, bitterness, anger, survival—poignant in themselves, gain emotional power through both the precision and the restraint of language and form. And, finally, all qualities work together to achieve astonishing moral power. (p. 13)
To turn from these volumes to the Six Troubadour Songs and the Traditional Hungarian Songs is to enter a different world…. These translations of the troubadours of Provencal and of Hungarian folk songs are not explorations, poems of probing and discovery, but celebrations, simple, sensuous, and passionate, as Milton said poetry should be. They are joyous poems, plain and vigorous in speech and racy in situation, or bawling and striding along with swinging meters, or singing sweetly of the ineffable sweetness of love. They are full of the drama of human relationships, of the concreteness of the physical world, of the joy of living. Variable in scene, in mood, in voice, they are alike in the passion, the energy with which they proclaim the glory of life. (pp. 13-14)
Simplicity of emotion and relationship after complexity and ambiguity; release after restraint; passion and joy after pain; drama after analysis; song after speech: these translations and their settings must have been a restorative and therapeutic experience for this passionately honest, painfully scrupulous poet.
As these songs are a contrast to the world of the earlier poetry, so The Fuhrer Bunker contrasts with both. In this series of dramatic monologues Snodgrass comes closest to achieving his own statement of the aim of a work of art. "The aim of a work of art surely is to stretch the reader's psyche, to help him to identify with more people, with more life than he normally does. He is only going to be able to do that if you get him past his beliefs about right and wrong … if the work of art doesn't bring the observer to see more of himself than he was aware of before, what use does it have to exist?" So in these poems we are overhearing people talking to themselves, each character speaking in a verse form expressive of his or her personality, revealing who and what they are with a dramatic power that carries conviction almost against our will. (pp. 15-16)
Of these poems, those which Goebbels speaks seem to me most successful, both in their imaginative realization of character and in their astonishing wit. Wit is not the most outstanding feature of that sort of verse called confessional; Snodgrass's wit is one of the qualities that separates him from his fellows. (p. 16)
Few of us, perhaps, would go so far as to agree to any great likeness between The Fuhrer Bunker and home sweet home. But it is clear enough that the poet who began by trying to understand himself, and through himself the world, has arrived at the point where he has earned the right to say, "I am a man; nothing human is alien to me." And by moving from the self out into the world, he has become more fully both a man and a poet. (p. 17)
Gertrude M. White, "To Tell the Truth: The Poems of W. D. Snodgrass," in Odyssey: A Journal of the Humanities (copyright 1979 by Oakland University), Vol. 3, No. 2, April, 1979, pp. 10-18.
One can rightly complain that poets like Snodgrass and Lowell in choosing [the] monologue form commit themselves to a moral and psychological perspective on history that is at best confining and at worst anachronistic (since individual characters shape history less directly now than they did in pre-industrial eras). Yet these poets have little intention of bringing contemporary historiography into poetry. They seem rather to conceive of themselves as renovators of history. They try to address exactly what's missing in contemporary historiography: put broadly, a sense of justice and of humanity, or character. (p. 118)
Snodgrass once indicated that to render the death-camps even credible was almost beyond the power of literature; in [The Führer Bunker], he focuses instead only on those people who visited Hitler's bunker between April 1 and May 1, 1945. The result is a book that is, in view of its ambition, disappointing.
Snodgrass intends this gallery of Nazi ghosts to be psychologically revealing, and the book does have telling moments. The best psychological portrait, "Hermann Fegelein," follows the frantic last thoughts passing through the mind of a mediocre man going to his execution…. Snodgrass captures the way his mind, while frantic and desperate, has time for irony, regret and petty lechery. Yet Snodgrass's success with minor characters, like Fegelein and Magda Goebbels, is more than offset by his failure to render Hitler interesting in psychological terms. Here is a passage in which Hitler reproaches his victims for ingratitude:
Gypsy: four hundred … four … four hundred thousand. Not one truly grateful. French: five hundred …
Hitler's thinking here is simply ludicrous; not fascinating, not even outrageous, just incredible. And Snodgrass knows that, in this case, an incredible character indicates that this gargantuan subject has gotten the better of the poetry.
Snodgrass has always gone to some trouble to set even conversational diction and syntax to meters, but in this book his meters and stanzas seem to cause more trouble than anything else. The "visual" prosody of the Speer poems, set in cute triangular blocks of type, for the Nazi architect, is flat and arbitrary to the ear…. Snodgrass … resorts to limp redundancies and dislocated prepositions to get … those clanking rhymes. Yet despite some stretches of lame exposition … and flat verse, there are some good lines in the book. These seem to come easiest when Snodgrass's own irony finds a spokesman…. If more of his characters could speak with [equal] vigor, the book would be more successful. (pp. 118-20)
Robert von Hallberg, "W. D. Snodgrass's 'The Führer Bunker'," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1980 by Chicago Review), Vol. 31, No. 3, Winter, 1980, pp. 118-20.