W. D. Snodgrass Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(eWitt) - Essay

Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(eWitt)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snodgrass, W(illiam) D(eWitt) 1926–

Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, best known for Heart's Needle. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

W. D. Snodgrass, whose first volume, Heart's Needle …, has been widely acclaimed, wears his heart on his sleeve, unashamedly. Yet his superb artistic control mutes the lyric cry in his poems and makes the emotion bearable. The content of his poetry seems to have been found almost entirely in his own experience….

Willard Thorp, "Poetry, Raw or Cooked?" (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Robert E. Spiller), in A Time of Harvest, edited by Robert E. Spiller, Hill & Wang, 1962, pp. 154-64.

Snodgrass' … poetic stand is something to behold. For all I know, it marks a new series of attitudes in American poetry. For example, it can establish the new poet, the university poet, only to recall us to an ancient ideal of education that has all but disappeared. It also condemns our bustling, moneyed civilization only to expose it as less vigorous and alive than the poet. And it mocks the received belief in America's world superiority only to show us to be a world minority of frightened upstarts who deny our souls and content ourselves with looking down. I think specifically of the poems "A Cardinal," "April Inventory," and "The Campus on the Hill."…

To be sure, Snodgrass has gone to school with Auden, Robert Lowell, and Marianne Moore. His wit is that of most modern poets. He can load his poems with the best of them. His verses abound with the metaphoric crockery of mid-century life, realistic diction, symbolic landscapes, double-dealing language, outrageous puns, partial rhymes, stretches of dead-pan prose, syllabic metres, sudden line breaks, accent groupings, and a most polished surface. But he has not stopped there, as have so many of his workshop compatriots. He has assimilated his influences; these devices are not ends in themselves. He doesn't play solemn games with words, and hence with life. Nor is his facility that of the schoolboy at his exercises…. In his current effort to write poetry in the larger tradition of Wordsworth, Hardy, and Chaucer, he has gone beyond his Iowa mentors, especially after working with Randall Jarrell at Colorado. Consequently, you can find in his work the unabashed presence of Midwest farmland, the deceptively simple rhythms and statements of nursery rhymes, along with many an unblushing use of such words as "loveliness" and "gentleness." This combination of hard indirection and simplicity gives a tone of dreamy precision to his work, especially in his momentary human scenes, like snowdrops in water, that are so full of implications.

Donald T. Torchiana, "Heart's Needle: Snodgrass Strides Through the Universe," in Poets in Progress, edited by Edward Hungerford, Northwestern University Press, 1962.

In his first book of poetry, "Heart's Needle," (1959) W. D. Snodgrass spoke in a distinctive voice. It was one that was jaunty and assertive on the surface ("Snodgrass is walking through the universe"), but somber and hurt beneath. His work had a colloquial ease but was traditional in form. It was one of the few books that successfully bridged the directness of contemporary free verse with the demands of the academy. His poetry was appealing in that the poet stood in front of the work—there was no need to hunt for the man in the lines….

[Snodgrass'] new book [After Experience],… comes as close as [any] in capturing the mood, and attitude, the characteristic disposition of the decade we have lived through.

Thomas Lask, "Where No Prospect Pleases," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1968.

Heart's Needle … immediately placed Mr. Snodgrass in the front rank of American poets…. Heart's Needle is a book of great charm, humor and poignancy in which the poet-speaker emerges as an appealingly harassed and humane man who wears his heart on his sleeve, but, unlike some of his contemporaries, refrains from blowing his nose with it. Written with a simplicity and lucidity reminiscent of Housman (though richer) the poems, often a hairsbreadth this side of banality, move with a nearly pendulum-like formality through elegaic or comic moments that invariably engage the eye and ear….

After Experience is larger (there are twice as many original poems as well as a cluster of translations), more ambitious, more varied, and in many respects even stronger, which means that it is a remarkable book indeed. The collection, it seems to me, is made up of four distinct units—personal lyrics, occasional poems on various topics, poems about paintings, and the translations. The first two dozen poems, the lyrics, seem to be arranged chronologically, suggest an autobiographical thread, and consist of several distinct sequences, each exploring a significant love relationship….

The early assumption that the book will mirror Heart's Needle soon gives way to the realization that the nine year interim has appreciably darkened the poet's vision and toughened his craft….

If the new vision is consistently darker, however, there is still much in these poems characteristic of the earlier, less unsettling Snodgrass: the superb technical control, the exact figure ("slow / as the hands of a schoolroom clock"), the run-on line separating adjective from noun, the quirky double rhymes perilously skirting the brink of doggerel—Heron-errand, strophes-trophies, estrangement—the change meant. And he has, if anything, an even sharper eye for the glory of "unimproved" nature….

If my enthusiasm seems excessive, the fault lies with this fine man who tends to evoke superlatives. He is one of our finest poets.

Joel Conarroe, in Shenandoah, Summer, 1968, pp. 81-4.

[As] with most books by so-called "confessional" poets [After Experience is] a dilution of [Snodgrass' first volume, Heart's Needle]. Snodgrass deserves our gratitude for the fine writing in Heart's Needle, but surely in the years since that book was published he might have changed a little and taken a few risks.

Louis Simpson, "New Books of Poems," in Harper's (copyright © 1968, by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the August, 1968 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), August, 1968, pp. 73-7.

There is a harsh clarity and a harsh morality in [W. D.] Snodgrass' best poems. It is born of his sense that a person must totter and go under before he can live….

Snodgrass began his career during the doldrums of the fifties when it seemed that every other poet was sitting in a confessional box or lying on his analyst's couch, composing some wry or decorous plaint about the latest domestic row. And while the talent was more brusque, Heart's Needle had all the marks of fashion: clever craftsmanship, witty rhymes, careful irony, the cultivation of private sentiment. What is news about After Experience is that without sacrificing what Henry James called the "felicity of scale" Snodgrass gives promise of shaking free of the academic (and those well-made quatrains) and regraduating his lute.

Herbert Leibowitz, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1968, pp. 561-63.

All of [the] poems [in After Experience] suffer by comparison with the brilliant "Heart's Needle" sequence, and most of them seem like so many feebly smoldering embers of a dying fire. The meters are limp, the forms pre-digested, and the despairing voice is halfheartedly one-toned….

It is heartening to find that, in a number of ambitious new poems, he is able to fight free of obsolete habits of introspection that, in his early work, had fostered a magnificent power of structuring poetry, but in more recent work has inhibited his sense of structure. Snodgrass is at a crossroads in his art.

Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1968, pp. 137-49.

Autobiographical candor gives strength and authority to many of the best poems of W. D. Snodgrass….

In addition, what impresses me is how American his poems are: the best are straight and well-made. Occasionally, his concern with homey vocabulary and nuances of technique get in the way, however, coercing the poem to conform to dull talk or some preordained stanzaic or rhyme pattern until the lines begin to jingle-jangle-jingle like verse canned by Muzak.

Paul Carroll, in his The Poem in Its Skin, Follett/Big Table, 1968, pp. 222-23.

The title of W. D. Snodgrass' new volume, his first in eight years, would seem to point to a cooling of those intensely personal concerns he developed with such great care and skill in the earlier Heart's Needle. In fact, and here one does not know whether or not to include "alas," the concerns remain, as urgent as ever; the voice persists, no less whimsical and pathetic than it was; the landscape has not improved. The poems in After Experience are different, though, more depressing, if that seems possible. The poet's experience has structured perception in such a way that what once in the poems seemed peculiar to Snodgrass, if nonetheless mundane and familiar, no longer seems merely a personal problem at all. Snodgrass' more recent poems reverberate with irony and dismay at the downward drift of an entire culture, and we attend as much to patterns of hopelessness and betrayal as we once did to the particularities of obstructed intimacy….

There have been a number of complaints already that Snodgrass' "despairing voice is half-heartedly onetoned," as one reviewer put it. I should speak instead of control, the poet's unyielding stranglehold on the ordering of events in his poems, events which otherwise might threaten to tear to shreds the fabric of the poet's sanity. I don't know that singleness of tone need be a liability, at least not insofar as the poet is the maker of individual poems, complete unto themselves, rather than the maker of a whole range of poems that together constitute his opus. It is certainly too early to speak of Snodgrass as a major figure in the poetry of our time, precisely because he has not written enough for us to make such judgments, and because there is relatively little variety in his approach to his craft. What we can say is that he has written a number of exquisite poems that seem destined to be remembered as part of the finest lyric poetry of our time. Certainly he has succeeded the late Randall Jarrell as our most heart-breaking poet, this being a title originally ascribed to Jarrell by his friend Robert Lowell. In fact, Snodgrass' poetry has consistently evoked from readers a degree of pity and sympathy that has made it all but impossible to consider the poems with any kind of detachment. The voice has been so honest, so very familiar in its way that we have experienced it almost as a revelation of our own imminent possibilities.

Robert Boyers, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1969 by Partisan Review, Inc.), No. 2, 1969, pp. 306-09.

In the poem whose beginning line furnishes the title for his third book, After Experience, W. D. Snodgrass has written three poems—no, four—all in one, to be read separately and together. It is a great poem. Out of the private mouth of one man it speaks for all self-examining men, were they eloquent. It does this in the language of poetry (a concise and ordered structure, at once rich and plain, in which are joined sound with sense, image with act). He draws a composite portrait of the hawk and the dove, the thinker and the slugger, by weaving together a poem of fourteen lines with one of twelve lines; a four-line coda constitutes a third autonomous poem; the whole, read in sum, provides a fourth dimension, the subject self-survival, body with soul.

May Swenson, in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 954-55.