The Original Confessional Poet Tells All
Although Lowell, Plath, and Sexton surpassed him in fame, Snodgrass was the one who started it all. Hilary Holladay interviews W.D. Snodgrass.
When W.D. Snodgrass published his debut volume, Heart’s Needle, in 1959, he opened the floodgates for an autobiographical, emotionally raw style of poetry that was quickly—and aptly—labeled confessional. Close on the heels of his Pulitzer Prize–winning book came soul-baring volumes by his teacher Robert Lowell and his contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. It is no small irony, then, that he despised the label “confessional” and rarely let an interview go by without denouncing the term that will always be appended to his memorably humorous name.
Born in 1926 in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, William De Witt Snodgrass grew up in a middle-class home (his father was an accountant; his mother, a former teacher) and served in the US Navy during World War II. He earned a BA, MA, and MFA from the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa). He authored more than 20 books of poetry, translation, and criticism; his last collection was Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 2006). After a long teaching career at several universities, Snodgrass retired in 1994 from the University of Delaware, where he was Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and Contemporary Poetry. Snodgrass died in early 2009, surrounded by his family.
Six feet tall, with penetrating amber eyes and the full beard that were a trademark for most of his adult life, Snodgrass cut an imposing figure when he mounted the stage to read his poems. Audiences perked up even more when he put his formal voice training to good use: his declamatory delivery provided a bracing counterpoint to the countless poets who throw away their own words in a singsong monotone.
In addition to giving frequent readings, Snodgrass was expanding and revising his sequence of poems about the Nazi leader Albert Speer, part of the controversial Fuehrer Bunker cycle, first published in 1977 and rereleased in 1995. Other late projects included a manuscript-in-progress titled The Lively Boneyard—translations of pithy, rhyming epitaphs he discovered in a Romanian cemetery.
He divided his time between a farmhouse near Erieville, New York, and a winter home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with his fourth wife, the critic and translator Kathleen Snodgrass. At his upstate home in August 2007, Snodgrass spoke candidly about what other people insist on calling confessional poetry, the diverse influences on his writing, and his relationships with several of his prominent peers.
Hilary Holladay: I want to play a little word association with you. I’ll say a word or a name, and you free-associate at will. “Confessional poetry.”
W.D. Snodgrass: Well, it’s a term I dislike intensely, because I don’t think I was doing anything very different from what poets have done for years and years and years. One of the major influences that took me toward writing poems about losing, I thought, my daughter surely was Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder [with lyrics from the poems of 19th-century German poet Friedrich Ruckert]. As a matter of fact, all the German poets of that era, even if they’d never been married or had a child, wrote poems about the death of their children; they would make up a child to lose. It became the symbolic center of loss, and losses that might have been of all sorts but were often compacted into that image.
When I went into psychotherapy in Iowa, the doctors there were also very influential in saying, “You’re not writing about what you’re interested in.” I was writing things that had some religious overtones. I wanted nothing to do with religion, and I just put it in the poem because that’s the sort of thing that the models we were given at [the State University of Iowa] would have had. If there was a tiger lily, then surely that had to do with Christ.
So it was confessional, in a sense. You were confessing to your therapist.
Yes, but that didn’t affect the poems. M.L. Rosenthal came up with that term [confessional poetry]—he was a friend—but I hated it because it suggested either that you were writing something religious and were confessing something of that sort, or that you were writing bedroom memoirs, and I wasn’t doing that, either.
And yet the label stuck, and it gave scholars and students a way to categorize you and Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and a few others, and so—
I don’t think it really applies to what I was doing. And you’ll pardon me for saying so, but I was [writing personal poems] first. And Lowell hated it at first. He said, “Snodgrass, you have a brain. You can’t write this kind of tearjerking stuff!” It was all part of a kind of snobbery in the academic world. You weren’t supposed to have love relationships or anything of that sort. You were supposed to be some kind of priest. I decided [writing personal poems] is probably wrong, but it’s what I have to do right now. I don’t like the fact that then that can be made into an argument for the writing of poetry as a form of therapy. It may not be anything of the sort. I don’t know that it served that purpose. It was just where my feelings lay right then.
Here was this baby that I really cared about and that my wife didn’t seem to like very well, until she found out that she could use it as a weapon against me in the divorce. And then she got very interested in the child. And I was writing the poems [that appeared in the title sequence of Heart’s Needle] at least partly in the hope that the child would eventually see them, which indeed she did. She only told me within the last month that yes, she had read those poems again and again when she was a child. It did indeed show her that I cared a great deal about what happened to her.
Frieda Hughes [Sylvia Plath’s daughter] claims that she hadn’t read her mother’s poems until fairly recently. I couldn’t believe that.
I believed that about my daughter. I didn’t think she had read the poems until she was an adult.
Let’s continue with the word association: “Sylvia Plath.”
I don’t remember now whether I ever actually met her. I don’t think I did. My experiences with her usually had to do with my students reading her poems until they finally got sick and tired of them. They finally passed a rule, “No more readings of Sylvia Plath!”
In your oral interpretation classes?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I’m inclined to think those famous poems are not the best ones, although I don’t really know her work, I would have to say.
But “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are not your favorites?
Those are the ones that my students all wanted to read aloud until they all got so sick of them that they couldn’t take any more of it.
Do you get tired of being lumped together with her, with someone who died so young yet casts such a long shadow?
Well, no. I don’t like most of her work so much that I have gone back and gone through the whole thing. I read the standard pieces, the anthology pieces. Well, I don’t know! [laughter] Some of it’s pretty good, but it isn’t that good.
All right, we’ll continue down the list. “Anne Sexton.”
She was my student. This was at a summer writers’ conference at Kenyon College. I beat the drum for her very loudly. I thought she was tremendously talented, although she was very derivative. A lot of her poems showed the influence of Lowell, of Jim Wright, or of me. I thought that in time she would get over that and she would come to her own style. I don’t think that she ever did.
You knew her well?
Yes, and as time went on it became less of a pleasure. There were more and more demands. Oh, she would write me and say, “Here’s a new poem. Tell me, De, is it the real Anne?” And I would feel like, “For Christ’s sake, let’s hope not!” It got pretty troublesome.
Did you have to cut off the friendship?
No, it just became more trouble for both of us than it was worth.
What can you tell me about Robert Lowell that only you would know?
His mind seemed astoundingly immense to me and incredibly active [when he was teaching at Iowa]. Later, though, I saw him when he was in the depression stage, and then I’ve never seen a duller man in my life. It was just incredible. I met with him for a class that he was teaching at Boston University, and I was just astounded. I just couldn’t believe it. He had nothing to say of any interest. And afterwards, he seemed to be conscious of this, because as we left, he said, “I always feel that you shouldn’t be too brilliant in your classes because you overwhelm the students and keep them from turning up ideas themselves.”
You influenced him. Did he influence you?
Early on, yes. I had to quit reading him altogether for many years because I didn’t want to get back under that influence again. He wrote to me and said he was taking those poems of mine [from Heart’s Needle] as a model, and it just scared the hell out of me! I thought, “Holy God! Here I’m doing something that even I think may be a stupid mistake.” In the meantime, he caught hell from his teachers the same way I caught hell from him. He went and read some of his more personal poems to Allen Tate, who gave him exactly the same kind of hell.
[Randall] Jarrell also had a very big effect on moving me toward writing this more personal kind of poetry. He was so brilliant and he also was extremely cruel. He was fierce. [At a writers’ conference in Colorado when Snodgrass was a student] he would read my poems out loud and howl with laughter and slap his thigh! “Snodgrass, you wrote that! You wrote that!” I never treated my students like this, and I don’t know of anyone else who did. The awful thing about it was that he was right. I had to get away from writing that overpacked, Lowellesque kind of stuff.
I should say that one other thing that moved me in the direction of the personal poems was that I became interested in music again after a while. For as much as fifteen years there, I stayed clear away from music. One day I turned on the radio and there was a tenor, Hugues Cuénod. One of his first records that came out in this country was a collection of songs from 16th- and 17th-century Spain and Italy. I listened to this recording, and my hair simply stood on end. I listened to him and thought, “Jesus Christ! My poems have got everything except that kind of passion and that kind of straightforward head-on-ness.”
These two musical influences, that and the Kindertotenlieder—both moved me in [the more personal] direction, as did Jarrell’s criticism, although he didn’t suggest positively that I should be writing about my personal concerns. My doctor supplied that! [laughter]
So the music, Jarrell’s criticism, and then your psychoanalyst were the key influences.
Well, he wasn’t a psychoanalyst. He was just a therapist, a psychiatrist. Later, when I went to Detroit, I did go into psychoanalysis, deep analysis, for about seven or eight years.
How many years were you in therapy or analysis all together?
Oh, I haven’t any idea. I’ve seen a number of doctors over the years.
You’re very open about the things you’ve been through, the difficult times. I think it’s still a little unusual for men to be able to be that open.
I suppose it is. I must say that when I went into that first therapy in Iowa City, this was very strange therapy. The doctor wasn’t in the room with me. He was behind a mirrored glass and there was a loudspeaker in the room, and I didn’t know that he could see me. I suddenly realized I hadn’t cried since I was ten years old—or younger, maybe six. Some of the things I told him—I’d break up. And I must say, since then it’s been much too easy for me to break up. For instance, I have never read the Heart’s Needle poems—the ones about my daughter—I’ve never read those in public.
Oh yes, I would break up. Anne [Sexton] used to give readings and would cry while she was reading. I don’t do that. I have recently made a recording of one or two of these [from Heart’s Needle], and I would like sometime to make a recording of the whole cycle. I did that once right after I got the Pulitzer, I made a recording of that whole cycle for the Library of Congress, but I’m sure that it’s very poorly read. So I would like to do that sometime, and I think I probably could now, although I’d probably get busted up once or twice.
They’re really powerful poems. My students were very moved by them.
Well, thank you. Anyway, for years I didn’t read those in public at all, ever.
Well, that’s the downside of personal poetry, isn’t it? You’re exposing yourself.
Sure. But there’s a difference between exposing yourself and displaying yourself. If you can’t do it without making a display out of it, I don’t think you ought to do it.
Was Anne Sexton displaying herself?
Oh, yeah. Oh my goodness, yes. Like nobody ever did!
Well, she must’ve put on quite the show. I wish I could’ve seen her, at least once.
I didn’t want to see that! I think that she had very great gifts, but if you let your ego get in the way of it, if you hunger for fame—the whole fame game is terribly destructive.
On that note, I want to ask you about Allen Ginsberg. Certainly when he published Howl, Ginsberg became very famous, and I know you had some contact with him.
From time to time I would see Allen. Sometimes we would think we might possibly get to be friends. But I don’t think that was likely. He was such a professional PR man, and I don’t like the big famous poems. They just don’t do anything for me.
Lowell said that he took inspiration from some of what Ginsberg was doing.
I don’t remember that. What affected me about the Beats was that it was all oral, out loud, and that made a great big difference. I found that I wanted to let that influence occur. I wanted to make poems to read out loud even if I don’t read the Heart’s Needle poems! [laughter] I also usually don’t read more than one of the Fuehrer Bunker poems simply because I got such hatred for those. I thought, “I can’t go and take these people’s money and give them something they hate.”
The poems in the Fuehrer Bunker cycle were radically misunderstood.
Absolutely. Oh boy, were they ever! That seems to be passing now. A lot of young people will come to me now and say, “I really like those poems. That’s what I like best.” And that’s what I thought would take place, but I didn’t expect it to take this long! I had no reason to expect to be 81, much less having people beginning to like my work again at that age.
Why did you decide to write poems about Albert Speer and the other Nazi leaders?
This was a subject everyone was reading about, but poets were not treating. In the meantime, I was disgusted by the Allied assumption that our victory proved our righteousness, even though we had helped create the conditions that gave the Nazis power, then committed many wartime acts quite worthy of the Nazis—such as bombing civilian populations, so extending the war six months to a year—and then by [creating] postwar policies which seemed thoroughly fascistic.
What were the primary objections to the Fuehrer Bunker poems when you first published them?
Many responded with outrage and claimed I was sympathetic to the Nazis. They could scarcely have read the poems, which say worse things about [the Nazis] in their own voices than any historian has asserted. The underlying accusation which occasionally surfaced was that I treated the Nazis as human—despicable, but human. But since we consider the Nazis’ claim that the Jews weren’t human to be a basic crime, we must not imitate that crime.
Can we talk about the way that you read in public?
Yes. It seems to me it has to be developed out of the way that you talk in ordinary conversation and that above all, you don’t try to make a special kind of talk as if you were some kind of priest. You do indeed want a poem to have a music of its own, very much. But you can’t impose that onto it, and if the poet hasn’t been kind enough to provide you with a sense of music and rhythm, then you have to do something else.
Let me wrap up by asking you about your name. You use your name, Snodgrass, in a number of your poems, and you told me that the pseudonym you’ve used occasionally, S.S. Gardons, is “Snodgrass spelled sideways.” Why do that? Why put your name in your poems?
Well, why not? It’s one of the things that’s on your mind all the time. Of course, as a child I got kidded about it all the time, and everybody makes up brilliant parodies of it which are so obvious that I don’t think I need to go into that. In a certain sense, you’re always writing about yourself. Although you may not write so directly about yourself and the quality of your mind, that’s ultimately what you’re writing about, always.
Hilary Holladay is a professor of English and the director of the Kerouac Center for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Her recent book publications include Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton (LSU Press, 2004) and a poetry collection, The Dreams of Mary Rowlandson (Loom Press, 2006)....