Crafting evil in W. D. Snodgrass's The Fuehrer Bunker

Citation metadata

Date: Fall 2007
From: TriQuarterly(Issue 130)
Publisher: TriQuarterly
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,595 words
Lexile Measure: 1210L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

The beauty of The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle by W.D. Snodgrass lies in the crafting. Otherwise, the word beauty does not lend itself to this monumental work, for in it Snodgrass presents an evil so pervasive among a particular group of people that it is sometimes difficult to take in too much of the poetry at one time. And so with no relief, no Dantesque quest for virtue, Snodgrass builds a structure of solid evil, poem by poem, layer by layer, and in the process of building, he tears down the Third Reich and the people who made it happen.

Rhyme, meter, and music--and the poetic rhythms that result from these--as well as song itself, permeate the work. Song, in fact, seems at times inappropriate to the subject matter, but it is that type of mismatch--prosodic, musical, and rhythmic--with content that brings about a subversive effect on content and is very much a part of Snodgrass's conscious crafting.

The Fuehrer Bunker started as "A Cycle in Progress" in 1977. "The Complete Cycle" appeared in 1995. In an interview in 1998, Snodgrass said that The Fuehrer Bunker was his most accomplished piece of work up to that time. (1) It consists of eighty-seven poems, seventy of which are persona poems in the voices of thirteen Nazi leaders and their associates or relatives during the last month of the Third Reich, from April 1 to May 1, 1945. The work exposes these Nazis as the poet sees them--criminal, twisted, demonic, infantile--in their final days. Most of the personas are at times in Hitler's underground bunker in Berlin, and they all know that Germany has lost the war. Snodgrass gives the setting in parentheses at the start of each poem, and further stage directions in brackets appear inside the poems, becoming integral to the poetry itself.

He wrote the cycle poems in various forms. "I set out using different verse forms just to catch the personal language of different specific minds," he has said. (2) "As I worked on these materials, it seemed that they worked best as a cycle of monologues and that the whole became a sort of oratorio for speakers." (3) An oratorio often concerns itself with the story of the Passion, i.e., Eastertime, which is significant here.

From a craft standpoint, the mortar that binds The Fuehrer Bunker poems to one another lies in the seventeen chorus poems that introduce individual personas and/or events. These chorus poems are based on a figure from Renaissance song and verse, whom the Berliners during the war revived as Frau Wirtin (innkeeper) in satirical songs about their leaders. (4) And so, The Fuehrer Bunker opens with something like a limerick about Old Lady Barkeep, which bawdily introduces Joseph Goebbels, whose persona, along with that of his wicked wife Magda, will be examined here.

Goebbels, being Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, earns his living by inventing a reality for the Fuehrer to live in. In other words, Goebbels lives by the lie, making sure that the public sees only the good picture, that newspaper headlines are positive.

In an earlier version of The Fuehrer Bunker , subtitled "A Cycle of Poems in Progress" (1977), Snodgrass included an "Afterword," in which he discussed how historically accurate he was in depicting the personas. He admits that his Goebbels "has a playfulness and malevolent glee unlike anyone's recollection of the actual man." (5) This is typical of Snodgrass's sense of irony: as creator of liar Goebbels' voice, Snodgrass writes the last lie about him. Hypocrisy and self-delusion are such major themes in the cycle that it isn't surprising Snodgrass lays his foundation with Goebbels as the first persona of the cycle in the poem, "Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda, 1 April i945."

It is 9:30 on Easter morning, a day that evokes images of resurrection, or of ascendance to heaven, which alerts one immediately to the irony that plays an important role in the cycle. (That April 1 is also April Fools' Day is not lost on Snodgrass.)

Goebbels is at his villa, not yet in the bunker. He is watching an air raid on Berlin. Snodgrass's musical instinct led him to choose an iambic tetrameter here, which is basically a ballad meter. The rhyme scheme is predominantly couplets. Snodgrass chose syllabic-stress verse, in which syllabic count and stress are equally important to the rhythm. Most lines are of eight syllables. All of this is deceivingly benign, producing an ironic sing-song rhythm in stark contrast to what the poem is saying. In this mismatch of Goebbels' introspection with the poem's rhythm, Snodgrass effectively belittles a man who feels powerful. Goebbels only appears to be substantive.

   First time
 | I saw
 | a bombed
- | out city-- Dres
den- | corrupt
- | ted me
 | with pity
   Some suf
- | fo- cat
- | ed, oth-
 | ers burned
   A- live
 | for lack
 | of air
, | some turned Black
 | and hard
 | their bod-
 | y fat ran Out
 | like goose
 | grease
 | in a pan

Snodgrass enhances the effect of the whole poem with the intermittent introduction of lines from a German folk song, or lullaby, from the religious wars of the 1600s. (He uses this interrupting device in abundance throughout The Fuehrer Bunker . Interrupters always appear in italics or a font different from the main body of the poem.) The song might be one a father would sing to his children. This shift in point of view from first to third person heightens the effect of the interrupter and establishes a narrator external to the persona. Following the "goosegrease" line, Snodgrass inserts interrupting lyrics that make their own poignant statement:

Then  he'll roast  the fat,  young pul  lets; Melt  church win  dows down  for bul  lets

This musical interruption of the external narrator into Goebbels' stream of consciousness as he watches Berlin bum embodies Goebbels' own wickedness. The rhyme, "bullets" with "pullets," is unexpected and emphasizes the inappropriateness of such words in a lullaby. Although the song cuts into the organic quality of the persona poem, it reveals the whole man, a liar and a father of unconvincing paternal instinct.

In this poem, Snodgrass gives the lullaby lines first in English, and later--most likely for sound--in German, mixed in with English. Historically, this lullaby was meant to frighten children about the arrival of the blood-thirsty Swedes, particularly a man named Axel Oxenstierna.

 | gen komm 
 | der Ox- 
 | en stjer. 
 | na Once,
 | my news-
 | cast-ers would
      Each loss
 | as a tri-
umph. | Those
      Were mere
 | truths
 | we mis-
      under-stood: There's
 | no ev-
 | il we can't
      find good
 | der kin- 
 | der bet- 
 | en ler-  ne
                [turns back to the window]
      Let it all
 | fall in,
 | burn
 | and burst
      Blest be
 | who dares
 | act out
 | his worst Im-
 pulses, | give
 way | to the | thirst
      For blood
 | and show
 | this for
 | the
no we | took
 it for, | right
 from the |
   Bet,  kinder, bet;  Pray
 children, pray

The rhyme "lies" with "disguise" is almost preordained. The monosyllabic stress groups, "Those" and "lies," on the heels of an end stop, syncopate the rhythm and amplify the meaning of what Goebbels is saying about truth--how, to him, truth and lies are interchangeable. He turns back to the window; a rhythmic lilt sets in with "Let it all fall in," and the lines seem to pick up speed that is not hindered by the alliteration of "burn," "burst," and "Blest be." The last line of the stanza, which is syllabically longer than any other in the poem, has a hickory-dickory-dock sound to it created by three dactyls, which point up Goebbels' inconstant thoughts. Enjambment, especially combined with the five-time rhyme of the -irst sound, moves things rapidly and headlong to the prayerful, heavy, shocking end.

   Our Fa-
 | ther who art
 | in Ni
hil | [ ' ]
       We thank
 | Thee for
 | this day
 | of trial
       And for the loss
 | that teach-
 | es self-

Goebbels' hypocrisy is complete. "Pray, children, pray" has not been an exhortation to his own children or the children of Germany. It is to himself (and it will be seen how Goebbels' rapid decline embodies childlike behavior). Indeed, here Goebbels ends up praying, although his prayer is all lie. The first line is a mockery of "The Lord's Prayer": "Our Father who art in Nihil." Clearly, "Nihil" is pronounced with a long i and silent h, not only for the rhyme with "trial" and "self-denial," but for the slippery sound, the elision and smoothness that the short i and hard h in ni-hil would not obtain. The line ends in an unrealized beat [ ' ], sometimes called a virtual beat, a metrical pause in the place of a stress to keep the meter. The second line is also tetrameter, which sounds childlike (akin to "and we thank him for our food, Amen"), while the third line opens with a paeon, a metric foot made up of three short beats and one long, and stretches the rhythmic movement for the impact of the pseudo-religiosity and sanctimonious message.

In another Goebbels poem, "16 April 1945," the man is destroying diaries and finds a picture of himself at five years old. There are two poems going on in this poem. One is the persona poem itself in the first person, interrupted at key places by the other, in italics, which is written in the third person about the five-year-old; and in three lines the voice of the poem actually addresses the child. The four-stress meter in both is effective in infantilizing Goebbels. In the persona poem the adult language contrasts with a childlike bounce, as Goebbels reminisces about the various "selves" he's had during his life:

   When we
 talked po
, I'd choose
   Whichever side
 seemed sure
 to lose;
   I'd win
. Then I'd
 switch sides
 to oust Ev
ery cred
o I'd just
               * *  *
   I wrote
 a no
vel and
 two plays,
   Then fifty So

Snodgrass has created here syllabic-stress verse in iambic tetrameter that subverts the content by its upbeat rhythm and energy. He has used rhyme, predominantly couplets with a few tercets. He ends it with a sonnet-prayer that proclaims Goebbels' unrealistic take on himself: "I've been somebody." Then, realizing he'll be subjugated to the Russians, he cheerfully says he will change himself into a nobody:

   I'm free
 to not
 be--be no
   Who's true
 to No
thing. Their will
 will be done

Most noteworthy about this persona poem are the eleven interspersed lines of the secondary poem about the five-year-old, and partly addressed to the child. These lines function as interrupters again like the lullaby in the April I poem. They are not a song, however. They are very similar in construction to the persona poem itself, but the point of view shifts to that of a second party looking objectively at the little boy in the photo. They begin as a child's rhyme and end in a frightening image that only an adult would understand. The lines are reassembled here to present the poem as a whole:

Paul Joseph Goebbels, five years old:
   Small body, large head, the eyes cold.
   Dark velvet suit; white lacey collar.
   Fit for a parish priest or scholar.
   Paul Joseph Goebbels. So you waited
   For gods or heroes who, if they did
   Not exist, could be created.
   Paul Joseph Goebbels at five years:
   Too small; yet this whole world fears
   Mere atoms whose unstable, fierce
   Alterability can shake the spheres. 

In the first quatrain, Snodgrass uses a four-stress meter and couplets, which move the poem along innocently enough, reminiscent of a jump-rope jingle. The masterful rhyme of the following tercet, however, with its feminine-masculine-feminine endings ("waited," "they did," and "created"), as well as the enjambment, hurries the poem toward the end quatrain, which starts as a jump-rope-type refrain that subverts words, such as "mere atoms," as well as the wonderful--and interesting--rhyme of "fears," "fierce," and "spheres." Of course, it has to be remembered that the lines of this poem are used as interrupters, two, three and four at a time. Their placement in the larger persona poem is crucial to the overall structure and the continuity of the mismatches between rhythm and content. The last quatrain, for instance, follows these two lines about Hitler:

   He showed
 us how
 to hate
 and who
   Turned all
 bad blood
 the same
 way: Jew

One of the most complex poems in The Fuehrer Bunker is Goebbels' monologue of "19 April 1945." He is again at his villa and destroying documents, as Snodgrass shows in a parenthetical setting and bracketed stage directions, which have, effectively, caesura-like properties, i.e., deliberate pauses. In this poem, Snodgrass combines stress verse and syllabic-stress verse. Mostly in iambic tetrameter, it is filled with musical energy, as actual songs interrupt it. Even newspaper headlines and biblical quotations are used as interrupters. Two paragraphs of prose also interrupt it, which, if this were the oratorio that it so much resembles, would be a recitative.

Goebbels finds things in his desk that remind him of former lovers. He drops them on the fire. Anka: "that fool." And Elsa:

   But that time I came out on top
   And dropped her first.
   [drops these, then many others, in the fire]
                 The trash! You get
   Possessed with ownership.
                                And yet 

Just before "And yet," left here for the rhyme, stress, and meter, Snodgrass interjects the biblical: "Give all thy world ly goods [ ' ]/un to the poor and fol low me ." These two lines, in Fraktur-like typeface, definitely interrupt--both visually and sonically--the rhythm of the line, "Possessed with own ership ," while they emphasize its meaning. Snodgrass repeats the phrasal movement of that line (with its three beats and suspended fourth beat, "And yet ") in the first line of the biblical quotation, a good example of how he merges these many interrupters with the persona poems. The interrupters effect fragmentation, which embodies Goebbels' break with reality. The Biblical me in this particular interrupter is--in Goebbels' mind--Hitler.

Goebbels is reptilian, specifically like a chameleon. He admits it's easy to change "Your shape, your loyalties; estrange/Your past." And about friendship:

                               What a loss
   To us--Gregor Strasser, my old boss.
   And Ernst Roehm. You can't help make friends.
   Things you'll just have to turn against. 

The s's of this quatrain lend a hissing snake-like sound that heightens the irony of the unusual rhyme: friends and against. Snodgrass then inserts a newspaper headline interrupter that amplifies this train of thought about Goebbels' former boss and friend, and the s-sound continues: NAZIS DUMP STRASSER/ESCAPES TO ITALY. In an earlier Goebbels poem ("15 April 1945") Snodgrass informs parenthetically that "imaginary headlines run through Goebbels' mind," so it is not clear that this is a real newspaper he is reading, or just wishful thinking that his one-time friend has escaped. With this headline, however, Snodgrass interrupts the rhythm of the poem. In so doing, he creates a pause, during which Goebbels changes course in his thoughts. They turn to a lover. The next headline, obviously imaginary, appears in the midst of Goebbels' meditation on the fast life he led: NAZI WHORELORD/ COUNTS CONQUESTS. Again, there's a change of subject matter: Fat Hermann (Goering), amplified by another interruption, this time from the Bible: "Behold a camel shall/more easily pass ..." combined with a bracketed stage direction. Snodgrass does not complete the quotation. He is inserting interrupters more frequently into the poem until they have a significant impact on meter, which is becoming fragmented. The poetry itself, then, embodies Goebbels' increasing disorientation. He sits down at the piano. (Snodgrass has him calling himself "Emperor Zero," who tickles "the keys while Berlin bums.") He sings a war ditty (ballad-like in tetrameter) that ends: "Farewell, both Father and Mother [ ' ]." Now thinking about his parents, he returns to his meditation, repeating the line and adding a fourth beat to replace the earlier virtual beat:

 both Fa
ther and Mo
ther. Today
   I sent
 my poor
 old mo
ther away

Then he composes the headline for today's story, which is not a typical interrupter, as it picks up without interrupting: FAREWELL TO THE PEASANT MOTHER [ ' ]/WHOSE SIMPLE FAITH INSPIRED HIM. With seven more lines of tetrameter, Snodgrass rushes the Goebbels' persona into a mentally exhausted, blithering fool. He slips into prose (the recitative) addressing his mother as if more poetry, rhyme, and meter would be too much for him to handle.

After this address to his mother a biblical-sounding interrupter evokes his marriage to Magda, "Leave both father and/mother and follow after me," and immediately a dramatic caesura-like stage direction follows that says about his mother's picture: [breaks her picture and throws it in the fire] . Snodgrass with all of these devices has built up to a climax of text-embodied mental confusion in the persona. Goebbels' wife, Christ, and Hitler are merging into one in Goebbels' mind.

Relief comes at this point in a two-stanza song, almost a genuine ballad. It is in tetrameter, with all its lines ending in an unrealized fourth beat:

   The nutmeg flowers are lovely [ ' ];
      The cloves are sharp and sweet [ ' ].
   Now comes the time of parting [ ' ]
      Never again to meet [ ' ].
   The winter's snows are melting [ ' ];
      Far off these streams will flow [ ' ].
   Now out of my sight you vanish [ ' ];
      Out of my thoughts you go [ ' ].
             [gets up] 

After he "sings" this song, he continues the tetrameter, and the first two lines echo the dactyl of the song's last line, "Out of my," by beginning with the dactyls, "Out of sight, out of mind." He ends the whole poem with three lines of fairly strict iambic tetrameter and an interrupter stage direction that slows the movement down for the zinger of a last line.

 of sight, out
 of mind. We're pur
er,[ ' ]
 of her. What's
 left now? My Fuehr
er, [ ' ]
   My used wife
, my daught
ers, and one Part
ed son
sy enough,
 these ties
 of mine
 we break
 off one
 more line
   That lashed
 us to
 this pit
 of vio
              [closes the piano] No
 more songs
. We must prac
tice si

Here, Snodgrass continues to emphasize Goebbels' hypocrisy. He gives him the arrogance and audacity to rhyme "Fuehrer" with "purer." He has him singing childlike songs with frighteningly un-childlike words, and the interrupting stage direction is the very embodiment of the content about breaking off one more line. Closing the piano does exactly that, as well as it breaks up the rhyme of "silence" with "violence."

                             *   *   * 

Goebbels' wife, Magda, evolves in seven persona poems as a woman of many faces--so many that it becomes clear she doesn't know who she is. As Snodgrass did with her husband, he shows that self-delusion is very much a part of Magda's persona, and he relies heavily on verse forms to embody her confusion and disintegrating personality. For her, Snodgrass writes, "who had always traded on her beauty and had been notably unfaithful to those who loved her, I chose the fancier French love forms--rondels, triolets, villanelles, etc. The repetition and seductive guile of such poems seemed like that of Nazi (or any other) propaganda; if it's the truth, you say it once." (6)

In a beautifully constructed pantoum, "Magda Goebbels, 15 April 1945," Snodgrass depicts a mother who superficially contemplates how to save her children's lives. She comes to no conclusion other than to keep the children with her.

Snodgrass wisely chooses the pantoum for her indecision and ambivalence. The interlocking lines of a pantoum (the second and fourth lines of a stanza become the first and third of the next) keep the stanzas tightly related to each other. That tightness, rather than moving the poem meticulously from one point to another, accentuates the deficit of action on the part of the Magda persona. Almost every line is decasyllabic, iambic pentameter, the strictness of which also serves to limit the action. Out of twenty-four lines, there are only six rhyming sounds: -ance, -est, -eason, -oo, -ame, and -air. This is limiting to Magda, and in so emphasizing her limits, Snodgrass does not use the brilliant, unusual rhymes he crafted at times with Joseph Goebbels' persona. On the contrary, Magda's rhymes are simple words like "best" and "West," "shame" and "name," "bear" and "there." But Snodgrass manages to create a waffling Magda by manipulating the language through the use of punctuation, so that the meaning of the repeated line is seldom the same. An example of this is in the cross-rhyme ("somewhere" and "there") of these two lines:

   To send the children somewhere; farther West--
       They could surrender there. It stands to reason ... 

The "there" is no more than a "somewhere." When that second line becomes the first line of the next stanza, however, Snodgrass changes

the punctuation, so that "There" becomes a eureka-type word for Magda, as if she's actually coming to a conclusion about what to do:

   They could surrender. There: it stands to reason
      You ought to save the few souls dear to you ... 

It stands to reason to let the children live. But "treason" rhymes with "reason."

Yet our Fuehrer would brand that as flat treason.

Period, end stop, until this line appears again in the next stanza and continues:

   Yet our Fuehrer would brand that as flat treason
       to all we've thought. To be upright and true, 

And this last sentence continues in the next stanza, where again punctuation changes the meaning:

   You ought to save the few souls dear to you,
       Though their survival could no doubt bring shame
   To all we've thought to be upright and true. 

With this pantoum and a brilliant application of syntax, language, and punctuation Snodgrass has introduced a woman of little character. He has made her repeat herself, made her think sloppily, and made her change thoughts in mid-sentence. Snodgrass uses this repetitive form to embody her mental state and to foreshadow her further deterioration.

Magda's thinking processes never come to sound conclusions. In the poem, "Magda Goebbels, 24 April 1945," made up of four triolets, Snodgrass has Magda thinking about whom she should be loyal to. This could be a heavy topic, and yet with the triolet form, Snodgrass vents his love of the ironic mismatch in his effort to subvert Magda's self-image.

A triolet is an eight-line poem in which a refrain appears three times, usually the first, fourth, and seventh lines. The crux of the triolet is the refrain. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics quotes E. Gosse from 1877, who describes the triolet: "... nothing can be more ingeniously mischievous, more playfully sly, than this tiny trill of epigrammatic melody, turning so simply on its own innocent axis." (7)

The triolet lends itself to music, but its musicality subverts the content of the poem (slyly turning it on its axis) and renders Magda's thinking untidy, as can be seen in the way Snodgrass crafts the music.

   No one would dare stay constant to                        A
   The sort who've kept good faith with me.                  B
      They hang on, need to lean on you;                     a
   No one would dare stay constant to                        A
      Weaklings. With your
 life to squeak through,    a
      What use could some such milksops be?                  b
   No one would dare stay constant to                        A
   The sort who've kept good faith with me.                  B 

The rhyme is simple, like Magda. There are only two rhyming sounds per triolet. (Snodgrass has used only three rhyming sounds in the total of four triolets.) Here there are two very easy-to-sing sounds: -oo and -ee. The eight syllables per line (with no exceptions) and the repetition of triolet lines serve to expose a limited persona. The rhythm stems from the iambic tetrameter, which, as in several Joseph Goebbels poems, has a ballad-like effect.

How this form turns itself on its axis is inextricably related to content and shows how deliberate Snodgrass was in choosing the triolet for Magda's muddled contemplation of opposites: weak and strong, loyalty and disloyalty. She confuses these qualities, identifies herself with the weak, herself with the strong, herself with the one declaring allegiance, herself the one to whom allegiance is declared.

Snodgrass continues to expose Magda's muddled thinking. In the poem "Magda Goebbels, 27 April 1945," she is almost hallucinating now, thinking that Hitler is in love with her and how she would never be unfaithful to Him in spite of how He sometimes scorned her company. (Note the upper case H, Snodgrass's sign that she considers Hitler along the lines of an almighty.)

For this monologue, Snodgrass has turned to a rare verse form, the rondeau redoublé. A rondeau suggests a dance in the round, and indeed from the content of this poem there is a sense of a dizzying madness. The rondeau redoublé consists of six four-line stanzas. It has two rhyme sounds, in this case -ay and -ee, with a strict iambic pentameter. Each line of the first stanza becomes the last line of the following four stanzas. The sixth stanza is a summation, and its fifth line, the rentrement , is a repetition of words from the first line of the poem. Thus, with this verse form Snodgrass once again uses repetition to craft a deranged mind.

The last line of the first stanza is "I stand restored: His heir, His deputy, ... " (Magda won't betray Hitler as some of his men have done.) This line becomes the last line of the fifth stanza, followed by the ambiguous beginning of the sixth stanza:

   Though I'm their keeper, too. I can't help see
      Their eyes wavering toward me while they play. 

This thought about young soldiers dissolves into one about her children:

   I break down sometimes, still. How can this be
       The breast that fed them once? And yet today
          I wear His badge. 

The fourth line picks up from the first line of the whole poem, and goes into the rentrement of the rondeau redouble, "I wear His badge." These four syllables abbreviate the first line of the poem, quickly bringing Magda back, as in the pantoum, to where she started. With this rondeau, its repetition and simple rhyme, Snodgrass has managed to divest a mother of all maternal instincts and has her moving rapidly now toward the murder of her six children.

By the time the reader gets to "Magda Goebbels, 30 April 1945," it is clear that Magda is in a childlike trance. Snodgrass builds a nursery-rhyme poem in twelve stanzas. Again there is an effective mismatch between poem and content, or another example of how form can subvert content. At first she explains to her children, "This is the needle" (for morphine), "This is the spoon" (for the potassium cyanide), "This is the room" (where the children will die), etc. (Although this poem is not constructed like "This is the house that Jack built," the hint of that nursery rhyme is obvious.) Magda begins to digress by thinking about the children and their medicine, implying that by giving them medicine she will make them strong and well. She administers the poison in the seventh stanza:

   I set
 this spoon
 your tight
 as I gave
 you your
 first bite
   This sat
 your ap
       For oth
er nour
. [ ' ]             b
   Take this
 on your tongue;
 this do
 your mo
ther who
   So loved
 her Lead
er she
 stayed true
       When all
 the oth
ers went
, [ ' ]          b 

Snodgrass has turned Magda into a priest at the Eucharist, as if she were putting bread on a tongue and saying, "Do this in remembrance of me." This is a Last Supper gone crazy. "So loved her Leader" immediately evokes "so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son," whereby Magda equates the Christian God and Hitler.

With this syllabic-stress verse, in which syllabic count and stress are equally important, Snodgrass has crafted a rhythm that highlights Magda's mental breakdown. It is in iambic tetrameter, and there is a rigidity in the form that parallels her obsession with strength. The first three lines and lines 5 through 7 of each stanza are usually eight syllables each. Lines 4 and 8 of each stanza have six or seven syllables (depending on whether the rhyme is masculine or feminine), and to maintain the tetrameter there is an unrealized beat that infuses the poem with interesting syncopation. There is movement in the poem, as in many nursery rhymes, although some syllables are stressed more than others. Enjambment and cross-rhyme counterpoise the rather simple rhyme:

 is the ser
um that
 can cure
   Weak hearts;
 these pure
, clear drops
   You'll face
 what comes
 and can
       The test;
 you'll ne
ver falt

In the poem "Magda Goebbels, 1 May 1945," Magda is about to join her husband in the garden where they will die together. She has killed their children. She is drinking champagne and playing solitaire.

This poem is in syllabics, which means that Snodgrass has counted the syllables and ignored the stresses. His admiration for Marianne Moore's syllabic verse is an apt reference here: "Perhaps, as she [Moore] grew older and her mother's strictures against the physical intensified her own demands for self-abnegation, the use of stress in her speech ... may have diminished." (8)

Snodgrass deliberately chose syllabic verse to make Magda negate herself card by card. He built these verses in layers, so that the lines form a pattern poem that resembles a solitaire hand. Each line in each of the seven stanzas is of decreasing length, the first with twelve or thirteen syllables, the last with two. The rhyme scheme is abcbca , except for the second stanza, which has only five lines with the scheme abcca . Without stressed syllables beyond what would be common pronunciation in English prose, there is a lack of pitch, an intended monotone voice.

However, there is a rhythm in this poem that defies what often happens in syllabic verse. The two-syllable last line enjambment of each stanza pushes one inexorably into the next stanza. It is the five-line stanza that is of particular interest to me because it embodies a sense of lacking. A line is missing, like the eye of a jack. Either Magda is drunk and having trouble counting or she's cheating (later she misses the four altogether).

   ............. We link these cards, now, building always
   Down; we call them "marriages." The black eight, there
   On the red nine; red goes on black.
   The one-eyed jack,
   There, plays
   On the queen of hearts or diamonds. Kings fill any space
   Left vacant.... 

There is a downward trend in both form and content here. Magda's marriage--and everything else in her life--is in the final stage of plummeting. She is building a house of cards down, not up, just as one goes down into the bunker, or to hell. Magda is finished. Her husband is finished. Her family is finished.

And Snodgrass has finished them off with his consummate, relentless craft.

Selected Bibliography

Attridge, Derek. Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hecht, Anthony. "On Rhyme," in Melodies Unheard . Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Hollander, John. Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Hoy, Philip, ed. W. D. Snodgrass in Conversation with Philip Hoy . London: Between the Lines, 1998.

Preminger, Alex, et al., eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics . Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Smith, Pete. "The Rorschach Bunker," in Agenda , 34, no. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 112-120.

Snodgrass, W.D. After-Images: Autobiographical Sketches . Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 1999.

--. In Radical Pursuit . New York: Harper & Row, 1975, pp. 276-319.

--. The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress . Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1977.

--. The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle . Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1995.

--. To Sound Like Yourself: Essays on Poetry . Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2002.

(1.) Philip Hoy, ed., W.D. Snodgrass in Conversation with Philip Hoy (London: Between the Lines, 1998) 34.

(2) Hoy 34.

(3) W.D. Snodgrass, After-Images (Rochester: BOA Editions, 2002) 192.

(4) W.D. Snodgrass, The Fuehrer Bunker, the Complete Cycle (Brockport, N.Y.: BOA Editions, 1995) 15.

(5) The Fuhrer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems m Progress (Brockport, N.Y.: BOA Editions, 1977) 69.

(6) Snodgrass, After-Images 153.

(7) "Triolet," The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics , 1993 ed.

(8) W.D. Snodgrass, To Sound Like Yourself (Rochester: BOA Editions, 2002) 203.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A178532688