Heart’s Needle, 1959
After Experience: Poems and Translations, 1968
Remains: Poems, 1970 (as S. S. Gardons), revised 1985 (as Snodgrass)
The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress, 1977
If Birds Build with Your Hair, 1979
The Boy Made of Meat, 1983
Magda Goebbels, 1983
D. D. Byrde Callyng Jennie Wrenn, 1984
A Locked House, 1986
The Kinder Capers, 1986
Selected Poems, 1957-1987, 1987
W. D.’s Midnight Carnival, 1988 (with paintings by DeLoss McGraw)
The Death of Cock Robin, 1989 (with paintings by McGraw)
Each in His Season, 1993
The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle, 1995
Gallows Songs, 1967 (with Lore Segal; of Christian Morgenstern)
Miorita, 1975 (of Romanian ballads)
Six Troubadour Songs, 1977
Traditional Hungarian Songs, 1978
Six Minnesinger Songs, 1983 (of high middle German poems)
The Four Seasons, 1984 (of sonnets including Antonio Vivaldi’s music score)
In Radical Pursuit: Critical Essays and Lectures, 1975
W. D. Snodgrass in Conversation with Philip Hoy, 1998
After-Images: Autobiographical Sketches, 1999
De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong, 2001
Along with Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, William DeWitt Snodgrass is one of the most important of the so-called confessional poets who heavily influenced American poetry in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Snodgrass grew up in Beaver Falls, a small town in western Pennsylvania, and began his college career at Geneva College, located in his hometown. His studies were interrupted by a term in the Navy near the end of World War II, and when he returned he spent one more year at Geneva before transferring to the University of Iowa, where he earned his B.A. degree in 1949. He stayed at Iowa to complete the M.A. in 1951 and the M.F.A. in 1953. At Iowa one of Snodgrass’s teachers was Robert Lowell, who significantly influenced the young poet’s early work.
W. D. Snodgrass
Like many mid-twentieth century American poets, Snodgrass made his living teaching at universities, beginning as an instructor at Cornell University in 1955, then moving on to the University of Rochester, Wayne State University, Syracuse University, Old Dominion University, and the University of Delaware, where he began teaching in 1979.
Without question Snodgrass’s most important and influential volume of poetry has been his first, Heart’s Needle, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and the British Guinness Award in 1961. Both Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton have referred to Heart’s Needle as an important influence on their poetry. The title poem is a ten-part sequence addressed to his daughter, Cynthia, on the subject of Snodgrass’s divorce in 1953 and remarriage in 1954. Part of the poem’s epigraph, from an Irish romance, reads, “And an only daughter is the needle of the heart.” Each of the poem’s ten parts is set in one of the four seasons, from the winter of 1952 to the spring of 1955, and each concerns the speaker’s overpowering emotions of guilt and suffering revolving around the loss of his daughter. Sometimes these are directly expressed; at other times they are expressed indirectly by means of everyday images–the day’s newspaper headlines, helping his wife to lift their daughter over a puddle, or pushing Cynthia on a swing. Although at times the poem grows sentimental or nostalgic, for the most part it is a moving depiction of heartbreaking, even violent, emotional pain.
Several critics have professed disappointment with both the quality and quantity of Snodgrass’s later poetry. His second volume, apart from some translations, did not appear until 1968, and although its reviews were not nearly as enthusiastic as were those of Heart’s Needle, the book showed Snodgrass’s characteristic diversity: It included several poems in the “confessional” mode of Heart’s Needle but also contained translations of such poets as Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), an excellent satire called “The Examination” (in which a university is depicted as an operating room in which surgeons shape the beliefs of the patient into dull conformity), several poems about specific Impressionist paintings, and a remarkable dialogue poem called “After Experience Taught Me,” in which excerpts from the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) are interspersed with a military drill instructor explaining very graphically how to kill an opponent with one’s bare hands.
Snodgrass’s diverse interests, and his repeated contention that his poetry is not “confessional,” are clearly reflected in his next major book, The Fuehrer Bunker, a series of dramatic monologues in which the speakers are prominent Nazis who were living in Hitler’s Berlin bunker in April, 1945. Each poem’s title names its speaker–Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler, Eva Braun, Magda Goebbels–and the sequence is chronological, so that the reader knows the date and sometimes the hour of each monologue. The form of the poems varies with the speakers; for example, Goebbels speaks in rhymed couplets, whereas Braun’s monologue is interspersed with lyrics from her favorite American song, “Tea for Two.” Like Robert Browning in “My Last Duchess” (1842), Snodgrass focuses attention on the speaker’s character. Whereas Browning’s villain is a fictional character, however, Snodgrass’s are historical figures. The poems have been criticized for humanizing the Nazis, for depicting them too sympathetically. The speakers come across not as war criminals or ethical monsters but as psychological case histories. Two limited-edition additions to the cycle appeared in 1983, and the complete cycle was published in 1995.
Shifting course dramatically once more in the 1980’s, Snodgrass published The Death of Cock Robin and W. D.’s Midnight Carnival, two volumes in which his poems are paired with paintings by DeLoss McGraw–often a poem and painting will have an identical or very similar title, and a poem will serve as comment on a painting, or vice versa. Both paintings and poems are comic, whimsical, childlike–very close in spirit to folk art–but that playfulness is balanced by serious concerns: in The Death of Cock Robin, the problematic connection between art (and the artist) and freedom, and in W. D.’s Midnight Carnival, the ways in which the light and dark, the comic and tragic, enfold one another. Although in some readers’ minds Snodgrass has failed to live up to the early promise of Heart’s Needle, he is widely acknowledged to be a central figure of mid-twentieth century American poetry, especially within that vein in which the poet’s self serves as both object and subject. His critical eye has also been recognized: his book of criticism De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for literary criticism in 2001. In it, he rewrites well-known “good” poems to make them “bad” and uses the comparison as a tool to understanding the subtleties of good poetic writing.