William De Witt Snodgrass was born in 1926 in Pennsylvania, growing up through the Great Depression and subsequently set to experience the turbulence which engulfed America. This turbulence was furthered in his own experiences from 1944 in the United States Navy, and ultimately shaped the course of his expression – as on demobilisation in 1946 he enrolled in the University of Iowa’s poetry workshop. Perhaps Snodgrass was searching for a way to communicate what for many had been an era of discontented voices, but no clear narrative.
America during the 1940’s and 1950’s faced a rising mood of conservatism, influenced significantly by Cold War tensions and an overt fear of Communism. Yet this was conservatism which culturally appeared to expect a certain degree of inversion, as was seen as ‘decency’ – with the critically established ‘modernist’ tradition invaded by an extent of self-censorship. Whereas in the era of the Great depression, Steinbeck emerged with substantial narratives which gave a voice to the typically unheard – like the wild inhabitants of ‘Cannery Row’ – by the 1940’s, the cultural climate of America was turning to television and technology; means of introducing conformity. However, it could be seen that emerging in reaction were the ‘Beatnik’ writers who were to express the struggle of consciousness in America, at this time, such as Jack Kerouac , and also Science Fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov. Yet Snodgrass can be seen as unique as he did not disengage with literary principle like many of the ‘beats’ and neither did he look he extensively into the future. Instead, Snodgrass looked internally - to the human condition and own experience – and wrote not just about it, but from it.
His collection ‘Heart’s Needle’ in 1959 is historic not only in that it was his first collection of a long and distinguished academic career, but also marked a break with the past through the voice of the present – Snodgrass overturning what was the fashionable approach of the anti-expressionistic New Critics. ‘Heart’s Needle’ itself could be considered a kind of sequence, the lack of determining language (i.e. it is not ‘a heart’s needle’ or ‘the heart’s needle’) leaving the audience open to appropriate what is meant by an image which coveys both warmth and yet a sharpness. The sequence itself actually began to first appear in New Poets of England and America in 1957.
Snodgrass is at pains to reveal the repressed, violent feelings that often lurk beneath the seemingly placid surface of everyday life," David McDuff observes in Stand.
Yet ‘Heart’s Needle’ seemed to allow a certain thread to hold together a sense of admiration and awe. The poem possesses an autobiographical element – profound with a sense both of bewilderment on loss; following his divorce from his wife and his subsequent estrangement from their daughter, Cynthia, to whom the sequence is addressed. It is profound that throughout the poem, he appears to liken his daughter’s absence to a kind of death .
It is this conveyance of lived experience through poetry which often gains the label ‘confessional’, though Snodgrass himself disliked the term. ‘Confessional poetry’ as a genre is often quickly appropriated to writers such as Sylvia Plath, who was writing at a similar time. However, the environments which the poets experienced, especially America, could be considered very different. Snodgrass was raised in Beaver Falls, a prominent location on what is known as the ‘rust belt’ – land once heavily used for iron extraction. It was this area which saw its own losses in the form of a rapidly declining population as the industry deteriorated following the War in the 1940’s – when Snodgrass began to set ‘Heart’s Needle’ into motion. In this light ‘Heart’s needle’ pierces our prejudices in terms of the experience of loss and deepens it, from the individual to the atmospheric. It could be considered in contrast that Plath, growing up in an affluent area of Boston and attending the prestigious Smith college, highlighted the chaos of human high ideals. Snodgrass could be seen to scrape at the lowest sensations, and not in bad way.
The sequence opens with a kind of impersonal reversal “Loingseachan told him, “Your father is dead.” “I’m sorry to hear it,” he said” the internal rhyme conveying death with an eerie simplicity. This itself is actually an extract from the Middle-Irish Romance the Madness of Suibhnne, and thus an allusion to the historical nature of loss. Perhaps it could be seen as Snodgrass himself trying to accept the fact of loss, which he appears to liken in a metaphor to ‘The thick trappers boot trying to restrain the weasel of summer’; an attempt to possibly justify the process. Yet throughout the poem this imagery of nature is increasingly interrupted by aspects of human mechanisation. It is in this way Snodgrass describes the how a child may be suspended from the parents hands, as they Recoil to swing him through the weather/Stiffen and pull apart’. It is difficult not to feel the harsh clash of consonants and subsequent sense of disassociation. In this way Snodgrass could be seen to conjure the various emotions underlying loss – the disbelief, the anger, and yet the continuation of the cycle of life and action. He had lost his daughter yet both their lives continued.
Therefore Snodgrass appears to explore the cycles in life despite the fragmentation of his poem – sewing together what could be considered the two sides of reality through the ‘heart’s needle’; life and death. This could considered evident in that although the poem progresses, the speaker returns to winter in the fifth section, now addressing the child directly as seemingly comes with age ‘You are growing/strange to me’. Here the division of ‘growing/strange’ emphasizes a potentially paradoxical process, leaving the reader to question whether the speaker is referring to his daughter’s absence as a kind of growth into the distance, or actually discussing her adolescence. The possibility for interpretation in ‘Heart’s needle’ is vast – just as the sensation of loss when felt by the human being. Snodgrass is not afraid to amplify feeling, as he does increasingly through imagery such as’ cold air rushed in to fill/them out like bushes thick with leaves’ in terms of the lungs. In this way the human body is projected as part of the natural process, with death and loss an inevitable part of that.
Yet it is a part we struggle to accept – just as the speaker seemingly struggles to accept the role of grieving father. His early fond allusion to a ‘little girl aged three’ invites the mind to play over the ‘three’ and hopes it to ‘free’. Snodgrass plays with the emotion like the little girl plays amongst imagery such as ‘bad penny. Pendulum’ which breaks a stretch of carefree rhythm, indicating the slow but deliberate progression of time always in the background.
Progress comes with pain. Snodgrass perhaps knew this all too well, having married his first wife Lila Jean hank in the post-war euphoria of 1946, though divorcing by 1953. The turbulence he had experienced in the military, having been drafted into the navy serving between 1944 and 1946, thus seemingly continued in domestic life – and it is this continuation of turbulence he explores in the collection through apparent contrasts; nature and the artificial, man and machines, adult and child.
Thomas Lask of the New York Times to wrote, "In Heart's Needle, . . . Snodgrass spoke in a distinctive voice. It was one that was jaunty and assertive on the surface but sombre and hurt beneath. . . . It is one of the few books that successfully bridged the directness of contemporary free verse with the demands of the academy."
In this way it could be considered that Snodgrass’s work was making a confession, even if he did not see it as part of the ‘confessional movement’ – that man continues to be unhappy. This sounds like an overtly-simplistic statement; but writing sat a time of post war euphoria and anticipated growth, Snodgrass’s work highlights the complexity of emotion which still continues as part of human nature and identity. Snodgrass himself was sensitive with his identity, often publishing under the pseudonym S.S Gardons. However, as his first collection ‘heart’s Needle’ gained much critical attention, published in 1959 and winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1960, evidently cultivating a kind of empathy.
Over the years, Snodgrass continued to cultivate his own thoughts and words – though none perhaps held the same situational impact as ‘Heart’s needle’ – the image of the heart and the needle remain profound in the mind –items which bring humans together, but also are capable of injuring them. It is the very human combination of strength and weakness Snodgrass went on to controversially explore in his Fuhrer Bunker poems, based on eyewitness extracts of those who served in the bunker with Hitler during World War II, eventually published as a complete cycle in 1995. This was a work of weighty controversy, highlighting Snodgrass; use of poetry to highlight the depths which the human condition can sink to. One outlook in the American Book Review, believes that the volume is "a rare example of ambitious, on-going verse sculpture. . . . It will be around for a long time to inspire writers who've come to realize the sad limitations of the locked-in, private, first lesson, obsessional poem." Whereas others some called it ‘shameful sensationalism’. The use of Nazi imagery holds a similarity with Plath’s work of the 1950’s – highlighting two poets evidently affected by human atrocities.
In this light, W.D Snodgrass can be seen as an innovator of human expression, often under-discussed. His output was diverse, controversial and deeply affecting, in turn inspiring other American poets such as Robert Lowell. Lines such as from Lowell’s ‘On the Woe that is Marriage’:
Gored by the climacteric of his want,
he stalls above me like an elephant."
Somewhat like Snodgrass, here Lowell has revealed the wild horrors of the domestic and provides the intimate revelation of both love and suffering – like a heart and a needle. That last lines of Snodgrass’ first collection in this light come as a cutting question of the very individuality he seeks to explore:
Dawdling over the remorseless earth,
What evil, what unspeakable crime
Have you made your life worth?
In this way, perhaps Snodgrass was not confessional, but if to be defined by a word, expressional – highlighting human emotion without apology. Whilst Plath and Anne Sexton, commonly regarded as confessional poets, often adopt fantastical speakers such as ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Cinderella’, Snodgrass scrapes away the façade to reveal a human being at the mercy of very human emotion.
By love I could not still,
By fear that silenced my cramped mind.