Shocking, surprising snodgrass

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Author: Jay Rogoff
Date: Sept. 22, 2006
From: The Southern Review(Vol. 42, Issue 4.)
Publisher: Louisiana State University
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,290 words
Lexile Measure: 1730L

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ALMOST TWO DECADES AGO, when W. D. Snodgrass's last Selected Poems appeared, another poet told me how different she felt revisiting his Heart's Needle sequence after many years. Back in the 1960s, she said, those poems had shocked her--had shocked everyone--with their subject matter: the guilt and anger of the speaker's divorce and the anxious difficulty of maintaining a loving relationship with his estranged young daughter. But the poetry now seemed tame, decorous in its formal restraint, and she had difficulty perceiving what had created such a fuss. And truly, it was quite a fuss: The 1959 Heart's Needle, Snodgrass's first collection, took the Pulitzer Prize over, among others, Life Studies, the now-iconic book by Snodgrass's teacher Robert Lowell that, together with Heart's Needle, brought family trauma and psychological disturbance out of the closet and made them fair game for verse, inspiring M. L. Rosenthal to create the label "confessional poetry." These books shocked readers in 1959 precisely because Snodgrass and Lowell presented themselves not as wild-man outsiders like Allen Ginsberg, who, guided by Blakean vision and elegiac Whitmania, ran naked through America, but strong traditionalists who clothed disturbing personal dramas in technical beauty, so the rawness of the wounds they examined seeped through the gold tissue of their poems' finery.

Our difficulty today in seeing Snodgrass's special quality actually derives from his success and his influence, as well as the influence of Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and others: What looked forbidden in his poetry, what made it new and startling at the time, has become the norm. The wrong turns that in the 1950s counted as dirty secrets of private life--divorce, adultery, and the emotional snarls they make of parent-child relationships--have become common American experiences and, therefore, common poetic subjects. The culture has caught up with Snodgrass and Lowell, and poetry, as always, has pushed beyond the culture, outing all of its skeletons from the closet into cold print.

If Heart's Needle's subject no longer piques our lust for gossip or scandal, its technical mastery still compels us and argues for the sequence's enduring power. Snodgrass has included all ten sections of the title sequence in his new book of selected poems, Not for Specialists, and they demonstrate how, early on, he had achieved an impeccable craft. Here is the opening poem of "Heart's Needle":

   Child of my winter, born
   When the new fallen soldiers froze
   In Asia's steep ravines and fouled the snows,
   When I was torn

   By love I could not still,
   By fear that silenced my cramped mind
   To that cold war where, lost, I could not find
   My peace in my will,

   All those days we could keep
   Your mind a landscape of new snow
   Where the chilled tenant-farmer finds, below,
   His fields asleep

   In their smooth covering, white
   As quilts to warm the resting bed
   Of birth or pain, spotless as paper spread
   For me to write,

   And thinks: Here lies my land
   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.

The poems complex grammar unrolls in a single sentence whose long parenthetical phrases interrupt his address to the child, suggesting the constant interruptions in their love. It embodies the difficult balancing act the speaker has assigned himself: to salvage some harvest in his emotional winter, to control his sometimes violent feelings (the sequence's third poem describes how he "tugged your hand, once" so hard he "dislocated/The radius of your wrist"), and to establish a lasting bond with his daughter (the same poem boasts that "Solomon himself might say/I am your real mother" since he has surrendered her to his rival parent rather than tearing her in half like "Love's wishbone"). If the movement from the Korean War to the divorced couple's "cold war" seems presumptuous, the development of the snow metaphor for the child's mind resonates richly. The "new snow," her tabula rasa, presents a comforting purity but also induces anxiety, implicit in the preceding image of Asian snows "fouled" by death, in the guise of "fallen soldiers" "new" in both their youth and their sacrifice. By turns, her "new snow" recalls the trauma "Of birth or pain" offers itself "spotless as paper" for the poet-father to make his mark upon, and demands protection from "the weasel tracking, the thick trapper's boot" and other predatory dangers.

Yet the speaker also feels temporary and helpless, like "the chilled tenant-farmer" who neither owns the land nor can, in the dead of winter, cultivate "His fields asleep." His lack of rights eliminates any certainty in his life with her: He has "planned" only to leave much between them to chance, realizing that any paternal protection he can provide must be hit or miss. The poems stanza, swelling to four beats in the third line before dwindling to two at the end, plays out his swelling love and shrinking hope, while the language details his restrained and terrible acceptance. Later, in poem seven, set in summer, the rhythm of a playground swing enacts precisely his combined love and despair in their periodic relationship, ending, as she returns through the air to him, with an emblem of their tentative love: "Once more now, this second,/I hold you in my hands" That the subject matter of "Heart's Needle" has grown commonplace reflects on us, not on the poetry, which still succeeds in its skillful designs.

In his letters from the late 1950s, Lowell repeatedly judges Snodgrass "better than anyone [of the new poets] except [Philip] Larkin" and his best early poems warrant the comparison. Snodgrass is more flamboyant than his English contemporary, as in this stanza I often quote to my students from "Mementos, 1" from his second book, After Experience (1968), a poem unfortunately left out of Not for Specialists:

   Sorting out letters and piles of my old
      Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
   That meant something once, I happened to find
      Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
   Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
      Who has turned up a severed hand.

Here is the sense of shock my poet friend missed on rereading Heart's Needle, a rancid memory instantly transforming domestic life into gothic horror. Snodgrass comes closer to Larkin, however, in presenting the accumulated disappointments of modern daily emotional life, cast into formal structures that keep them art, as in "Leaving the Motel" whose mildly despondent, postcoital mood highlights the tawdry side of adultery:

   An aspirin to preserve
   Our lilacs, the wayside flowers
   We've gathered and must leave to serve
   A few more hours;

   That's all. We can't tell when
   We'll come back, can't press claims;
   We would no doubt have other rooms then,
   Or other names.

Yet Snodgrass's particularly American confessionalism--his lack of reticence in appropriating his own life and family for poetry--also distinguishes his early work from Larkin's. Not for Specialists includes six poems from his 1970 chapbook Remains, a bitter expose of unhappy family life centering on the early death of a hopelessly mousy wallflower sister, a sequence apparently so personal that he first issued it under the anagrammatic pseudonym S. S. Gardons:

   The unworn long gown, meant for dances
   She would have scarcely dared attend,
   Is fobbed off on a friend--
   Who can't help wondering if it's spoiled
   But thinks, well, she can take her chances.

This poem, "Disposal" also describes how "One lace/Nightthing lies in the chest, unsoiled/By wear, untouched by human hands," and notes "those cancelled patterns/And markdowns that she actually wore,/Yet who do we know so poor/ They'd take them?" That "actually" serves a vital role, not just filling out the meter, but expressing quiet amazement at her impoverished taste and acceptance of her shriveled emotional circumstances. As in Donne's elegy "Going to Bed" clothing becomes a synecdoche for the woman who wears it, but here creating a scenario of isolation and misery rather than erotic play.

As a student I loved Snodgrass's poetry, especially how its formal elegance domesticated the worst shocks of our emotional lives, intensifying them by ironically pretending they participated in an orderly universe we could endure. I chose Syracuse University's writing program expressly to study with him, and found a man as boisterously outspoken as his poems were movingly restrained. He attended intensively to detail, the minutiae of rhythm, rhyme, and sound, as you would expect from a poet with such an impeccable ear, but he also encouraged a tendency to sarcasm I wished, at the time, to exorcise from my work. He would declaim poetry to us each week, and if his exuberant performances of "Frankie and Johnnie" Wyatt, Wordsworth, and Whitman, designed for a thousand-seat hall with no amplification, felt overbearing at the seminar table, they offered an antidote to 1970s poetry-reading syndrome--a monotonous delivery distanced from expressiveness, punctuated by a rising inflection at the ends of lines or sentences. Snodgrass helped me learn to read aloud by demonstrating that, yes, poetry could stand dramatic emotion in oral delivery, and I borrowed from his approach while softening it by several decibels. When I tested my new style one Sunday, reading at the local art museum, Snodgrass joined our quiet chatter afterwards to congratulate me in his booming voice: "That was WONderful! That was deLISHious! And YOU used to read SO BADly!"

With the first installment of his next poetic cycle, The Fuehrer Bunker (1977), the first book ever published by BOA Editions, Snodgrass's subject shocked us all-interior monologues in the voices of Hitler and his circle during the war's final days--as did its explosive, often obscene language: "if any foe rejects us,/We'll broil their liver for our breakfast/And fry their balls like bacon!" ("Chorus: Old Lady Barkeep"). It showed an encyclopedic understanding of form--ballads, tetrameter couplets for Goebbels, envelope sextets for Goering, a pantoum for Magda Goebbels--in addition to experiments in free verse, especially for Hitler. (Snodgrass had used free verse in After Experience for some of his poems based on paintings. "Van Gogh: 'The Starry Night,'" the lone example included in Not for Specialists, is unfortunately rather slack; I prefer the psychological drama of his Vuillard poem, on "The Mother and Sister of the Artist," which harmonizes chillingly with the tensions of Snodgrass's other family poems.)

As a sequence, a gesture toward a long poem, The Fuehrer Bunker, which Snodgrass kept expanding and revising until the complete cycle appeared in 1995, fails for all the reasons that his other work succeeds: The monstrous nature of many of the characters resists his attempts to humanize them, and we don't feel the force of poetic revelation; a more sympathetic Hitler and company might have created a literary sensation. In Snodgrass's bunker, the most successful poems belong to the women. The pantoum's repetitions circle around Magda Goebbels's mind as she meditates on how to save her children--"Now Joseph's sister's offered us the chance/To send the children somewhere farther West/Into the path of the Americans/To let them live. It might be for the best"--several days before she and her husband will hit on the final family solution of poisoning them all. In contrast, Eva Braun flounces about the bunker, ecstatic at the new life she has defined for herself and Hitler: "Today He ordered me to leave,/To go back to the mountain. I refused./I have refused to save my own life and He,/In public, He kissed me on the mouth."

In the 1980s Snodgrass began a series of collaborations with the painter DeLoss McGraw, resulting in humorously sinister books with titles like The Death of Cock Robin and W. D.'s Midnight Carnival. If Nazi history moved Snodgrass toward the prosaic, McGraw's paintings helped him discover a new musicality, mixed with grotesquely comic intimations of mortality, in a set of nursery rhymes for adults:

      Who'll start out--shebang and applecart
   Go along; so what's wrong? Who'll buy a heart?

   I, said the fly, I go for the eye.
   Me, said the beetle, I'll buy me a bone.
   Mine, said the earthworm, I take the heart.
      ["Auction" from Cock Robin]

   By lurch and stumble change and growth,
      Struggling from all fours, we rise
   Cranking the backbone up, though loath,
      To lift our skull into the skies.
        ["A Strolling Minstrel's Ballad of the Skulls
        and Flowers" from Midnight Carnival]

Snodgrass jumbles into this vaudeville an open embrace of all his favorite traditions, alluding more obviously than before to writers ranging from the seventeenth century cavalier poets, to the troubadours (he has ably translated Provencal poetry), to modern masters like Wallace Stevens ("They say, 'Your songs do not compute./ Your music's mixed; your moral's moot") and W. H. Auden ("In the perspective of the heart/Those dearly loved, when they depart,/Take so much of us when they go/That, like no thing on earth, they grow/Larger ... "). Working with McGraw relieved Snodgrass of the overbearing obligation to seriousness with which The Fuehrer Bunker saddled him, and by letting himself have more fun, he created more interesting and important poetry. In their try-anything, on-with-the-show, shuck-and-jive spirit, Snodgrass's McGraw poems owe something to John Berryman, and while they do not possess The Dream Songs' wild, manic power, they constitute a significant accomplishment.

Not for Specialists concludes with forty new poems, written over the past decade or so, which provide many satisfying symmetries with the early work. Snodgrass has always acknowledged the comical nature of his name ("poor ill-named one," sympathized Randall Jarrell): His early "These Trees Stand ... ," which opens the book, notes, "Your name's absurd," and turns on a delightfully ludicrous refrain, "Snodgrass is walking through the universe." The recent poem "Who Steals My Good Name" returns to the name blame game: It casts spells upon a Snodgrass masquerader "who obtained my debit card number and spent $11,000 in five days" after beginning with a complaint from "My pale stepdaughter": "Well, that's the last time I say my name's/Snodgrass!" Even better, his homage to Marvell, "Chasing Fireflies" exploits his name's literal sense, since "to snod" means "to make smooth, trim, or neat":

   I am the mower, Snodgrass, known
   Through fields and meadows run to seed,
   Undertended and overgrown
   With ragweed, sneezewort and neglect,
   Where moths lay eggs and fireflies breed--
   You are the harvest I collect.

The Heart's Needle sequence also earns a reprise, in "For the Third Marriage of My First Ex-Wife," which speaks once more of the woes of wedlocks past--

   not once in twelve years had we laid
   each other right. What we had made
   were two nerve-wracked, unreconciled,
   spoiled children parenting a child.

--in order to look benignly ahead and wish everyone well. This moving gesture acknowledges all the hearts badly in need of repair, including that of the daughter, as well as providing some comic and benevolent surprises:

   Our daughter, still recovering from
   her own divorce, but who's become
   a father, in her call at least
   as an Episcopalian priest,
   will fly down there to officiate
   in linking you to your third mate;
   only some twenty years ago
   that daughter married me also
   to the last of my four wives.

"Also, save the best for last," the poem ends. Not all the new poems that end Not for Specialists rank with Snodgrass's best, but several decidedly do. All told, they provide a delightful and absorbing range of subjects and moods: splenetic political poems denouncing the Bush administration's war in Iraq, satiric Ben Jonson-like epigrams on a contemporary literary culture designed (his book's title implies) increasingly for specialists, wry observations on the foibles of advancing age, and generous accounts of love for wife, children, and friends. Through it all, Snodgrass remains undiminished in his technical skill and unapologetic about his formalism, the secret subject of "Warning" a poem ostensibly about "rumors that Richard Wilbur has had a hip replacement so he could go on playing tennis":

   Wilbur's ball and ceramic socket
   Propel him like a racing sprocket
   To where his artful serve and volley
   Dole out love games and melancholy.
   Tremble, opponents: learn by this
   What power's secured through artifice.

The poem is not just a charming tribute to his important fellow poet, but a witty manifesto, recalling Robert Frost's quip that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. After more than fifty years refining his "love game," Snodgrass keeps mindful of the rules, and the rules have enabled him continually to surprise and delight us. If his poems dare to commit the occasional fault, they can still move and enchant us with the power artifice can secure.

Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems by W. D. Snodgrass. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd. $27.95 (cloth), $21.95 (paper).

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Rogoff, Jay. "Shocking, surprising snodgrass." The Southern Review, vol. 42, no. 4, 2006, p. 885+. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A156205075