Quick Notes on W. D. Snodgrass

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


W. D. SnodgrassW. D. Snodgrass (1926-2009) was an American poet who studied under Robert Lowell and with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. He is also considered a confessional poet, but his confessions are different in form and content.

In Heart’s Needle (1959, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1960), there is a substantial turn in mood, tone, and language midway through the book in the long poem “Heart’s Needle.” Prior to this, we read of a man’s struggles in war, with a wife, with money, and the free-market economy and its push to “advertise  / the ancient pulse of violence” (“A Cardinal”) and mundane lives, as with his predictable parents in the opening poem “Ten Days Leave.” And in this first half of the book, the language is not labyrinthine, but it is knotted at times with delays in syntax or contorted sentence structure to set up a rhyme. The language seems reflective of who he is – a bit wound up. And then in “Heart’s Needle,” where, for me the confessional poetry begins, the language loosens up. There seems to be ease, or acceptance, and I think it is because he realizes who he is, or can be or needs to be.

In the first half of Heart’s Needle, the “I,” the speaker, the W. D. Snodgrass, has his masculinity and integrity challenged with the previously mentioned struggles. He is conflicted with the world out there, with the easy poetry (“the choirs of pretty / slogans and catch phrases / that rule us by obsession; / praise what it pays to praise” (“The Cardinal”)) and easy houses or with being true to himself – “That I have forces, true to feel, / Or that the lovely world is real” (“April Inventory”).  There is not much sentimentality in the first half of Heart’s Needle, but then there’s the turn in the second half of the book and its poem “Heart’s Needle” right in the opening line of section I, “Child of my winter, born.” In war, Snodgrass “could not find / My peace in my will,” but he finds peace with his daughter, whom he tells “I am your real mother” at the end of section 3 of the poem “Heart’s Needle.” He’s abandoned his masculinity, or has accepted its new manifestation. The poetry in the poem “Heart’s Needle” becomes more sentimental, too, as at the end of section 2, “You should try to look at them,” (the flowers she and he planted) “Because when they come to full flower / I will be away,” or in section 7’s trope of the father pushing the daughter on the swing who with each push goes “higher, farther” from him but returns to him “stronger.” This confession, however, is less shocking than that of Lowell’s or Plath’s madnesses, suicides, and hospital visits, but I wonder if at the time for a man to announce the acceptance of taking on the mother role was not shocking, or if his tenderness was contrary to the manliness gender-role of the time.

Snodgrass’s poems are also more stylized than Lowell’s or Plath’s poems, as Snodgrass employs rhymes, stanzaic forms, and loose iambs, and the effective use of spondees. Perhaps it is because as he notes of the singing cardinals “Assertion is their credo; / style tells their policy” (“A Cardinal”). Perhaps he’s a man looking for some sort of order in the domestic life of a civilian with no wife and little money. I think he’s a bit attached to symbolism, too, which for a Confessional poet reacting against the poetry of New Criticism seems odd to me. One symbol, for instance, is the land. I somewhat pick up on at the end of section I in “Heart’s Needle”:

     Here lies my hand
     Unmarked by agony, the lean foot
     Of the weasel tracking, the thick trapper’s boot;
     And I have planned

     My chances to restrain
     The torments of demented summer or
     Increase the deepening harvest here before
     It snows again.

Here the land becomes symbolic of his daughter and how he will take care of her. Or later in section 6, “We need the landscape to repeat us.” It’s from the land that they will grow, and when I reread to the book’s opening poem, “Ten Days Leave,” I notice “landscape” again. In this third-person poem, this landscape, however, is a reproduction of an old land. He has returned home, I think, but he feels like a tourist in the familiar ground. The land builds and accumulates meanings throughout Heart’s Needle.

Like Lowell and Plath, the reader realizes the “I” is the speaker speaking of events that occurred to them, and what they write feels sincere, and maybe even more sincere in Snodgrass.


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