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W. D. Snodgrass

By Donald Hall

On January 13th of 2009, W. D. Snodgrass died at his house in Erieville, New York, eight days after he turned 83. With him at his death was Kathy, his wife of 28 years, and the daughter of his Heart’s Needle—published fifty years earlier. When Snodgrass learned, in September 2008, that he had incurable lung cancer, he undertook no treatment for the disease but committed himself to the care of hospice. His widow has written about the tender palliative care he received and the ease of her husband’s death.

In 1954, by chance, I first read Snodgrass poems in manuscript. I was dazzled. The work was witty, accomplished in metrical form, written in vivid common language. It did not resemble the ponderous pentameters of its time. The poems were public about feelings, intimate and self-exposed. I wrote him, and a friendship began. We met, read our poems together, picnicked, and talked—but mostly our friendship expressed itself in letters. We wrote about the work of other poets, about each other’s work, about the birds he saw out his window, and about disasters of personal life. There must be a thousand letters, even after disasters turned into contentment.

When Snodgrass published Heart’s Needle (1959), he invented what M. L. Rosenthal called confessional poetry. De—as his friends called him—came to dislike the term. The title sequence concentrates on his misery in losing his daughter to divorce. Unlike earlier autobiographical poems, Heart’s Needle was wretched, guilty, and negative in its revelations. It was also affectionate and tender: “Winter again and it is snowing; / Although you are still three, / You are already growing / Strange to me.”

His Iowa teacher Robert Lowell spoke of Snodgrass as the first confessional poet, and acknowledges that Snodgrass influenced his own Life Studies. On the jacket of Heart’s Needle he wrote, “Snodgrass is the best new poet for years…” The early poems were well made, clear and plain spoken, but without great formal invention. Snodgrass became foxier. Following Heart’s Needle, he wrote a better book, After Experience (1967). Because the first book won the Pulitzer (1960), no one paid attention to the second.

Maybe the formal intricacy of his ongoing work came from attention to music. He played several instruments, and translated songs from German (and other languages) with painstaking ingenuity. In his multiplication of rhyme and alteration of line length, he developed more stanzaic invention. In 1977 he published The Fuhrer Bunker about the evil leaders of the third Reich, perhaps his best and least appreciated work. Over many years he tinkered with his Bunker, adding and changing, and The Complete Cycle did not appear until 1995. Some critics complained that the book humanized the Nazis. In effect, he Nazified humans. If Nazis were men and women, Snodgrass noted, perhaps we share something with them. The book contains villanelles and sonnets executed with customary brilliance, but his form was not limited to forms. Here, and in further poems, he invented new ways to march lines down the page, counting not only syllables but letters, doubtless with numerical schemes that I have never deciphered. In our correspondence we agreed: the efficacy of such devices had nothing to do with the reader. Such self-imposed obligations benefited the poet, enforcing minute attention to the text, making the writer constantly re-think, re-invent, re-vise.

Snodgrass wrote more than thirty books including memoir and critical essays. He collaborated with the artist DeLoss McGraw, producing sequences, poems and paintings that were often witty and even funny. His De-Compositions—101 Good Poems Gone Wrong (2001) was comical and instructive. On the left-hand side of the page was the real poem, perhaps a sonnet by Shakespeare, and on the opposite page his own revoltingly, inventively bad reduction.

In 2006, he published a new and selected poems, Not for Specialists. The new poems, almost 60 pages, contain some of his best work. A week before he died, W. D. Snodgrass dictated his last revisions to his last poem.

Read by Charles Wright at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 12, 2009.

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