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This poem is taken from PN Review 187, Volume 35 Number 5, May - June 2009.

W.D. Snodgrass : An Appreciation Tony Roberts

Although there is often playfulness in the poetry of W.D. Snodgrass, he will be remembered more for the pathos of his first two books, Heart’s Needle (1959) and After Experience: Poems and Translations (1968). Whether or not these collections are the best of Snodgrass - and I think they are - their place in post-war American poetry is assured by their centrality to the concerns that M. L. Rosenthal first termed ‘confessional’ in a 1959 review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies.1

With its connotations of guilt or exhibitionism, the term has always been contentious. Nevertheless, it holds loosely together several distinctly individual poets - including Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Sexton and Snodgrass himself - all of whom put their hurt selves centrally in their work. In doing this, they ignored T.S. Eliot’s warning in that most well-thumbed of essays, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919): ‘It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting.’2 In their self-involvement these poets broke free of forty years of the prevailing orthodoxy of Eliot and the ‘New Critics’ (among whom were their teachers John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren).

W.D. Snodgrass was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania in 1926. After attending Geneva College, he served in the United States Navy until 1946. His formative poetic time was spent as a student at the University of Iowa, where he was to graduate as an M.F.A. in 1953. His early work was partly modelled on that of his teacher, Robert Lowell, but a combination of influences (including Randall Jarrell’s and Snodgrass’s experience in therapy) helped him to find his own voice.3

Having to deal with the failure of his first marriage, the ensuing custody battle and his fears that he would be prevented from seeing his daughter Cynthia, Snodgrass turned his anxiety into Heart’s Needle (1959). This won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as possibly influencing Lowell’s own Life Studies (recipient of the National Book Award in 1960).

In the November 1959 issue of Poetry, Hayden Carruth welcomed ‘the best poet to have appeared so far in this decade and probably one of the best of any age now practising in America’. This was high praise indeed for ‘an academic poet in the school of Ransom’, but it was qualified (pace Lowell’s endorsement on the book jacket) by Carruth’s fear that ‘the little girl in the poems of Snodgrass is so patently, so painfully, the daughter of the man himself, the poems contain references so clearly meaningless to anyone but the people who occur in them, that in my mind the question raises itself whether or not the poems should ever have been published at all. This is not simply a matter of propriety, but of the warping sentimentality that is engendered in the recording of experience so little transmuted from private specificity.’4

Privacy and the failure to sufficiently transmute materials of the life are criticisms frequently applied to ‘confessional poetry’, not without some justice. Nevertheless, readers could relate to the fears of the father in the title poem and equally to the craft with which the poet recreated his sense of estrangement. For Snodgrass gives us art as well as heart in a poem that weaves the pain of separation through images of dystopia and dysfunction, of war dead, of stuffed and aborted animals. The image of ‘letting go’ in the seventh part of ‘Heart’s Needle’ is simple and memorable:

Here in the scuffled dust
   is our ground of play.
I lift you on your swing and must
   shove you away,
see you return again,
   drive you off again, then

stand quiet till you come.
   You, though you climb
higher, farther from me, longer,
...


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