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Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems

Review by Mike Doyle

Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems. WD Snodgrass, BOA Editions, 2006

Author of Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems, W D Snodgrass died recently aged eighty-three. He used occasionally to make jokes about his surname, on the assumption that it was ‘unpoetical’, which of course it was if one had romantic ideas about names. Names do matter, as I have found for myself. Many writers from the beginning of their careers choose pen-names, though this apparently did not occur to Snodgrass, nor to me.

I remember, some fifty years ago, the pleasure of reading his first collection, Heart’s Needle (1959), which won a Pulitzer prize and perhaps contributes to Snodgrass sometimes being dubbed “the father of confessional poetry”; indeed in that mode he may have preceded his teacher Robert Lowell. A self-deprecatory poem in that first collection, “These Trees Stand…”, has the ironic refrain: “Snodgrass is walking through the universe”. Its final stanza confesses: “Your name’s absurd, miraculous as sperm/ And as decisive”. Snodgrass opens Not for Specialists, a book presumably published to mark his eightieth birthday, with this same poem. Culled from earlier titles, some very small, the new book ends with a substantial body of uncollected work.

The title sequence, ”Heart’s Needle” is an elegy for the virtual loss, by divorce from her mother, of his small daughter, Cynthia, born apparently during the Korean war. In an epigraph taken from the Middle-Irish romance, The Madness of Suibhne, a messenger tells Suibhne that various members of his family are dead. Part of this grievous recital goes: ‘“‘Your daughter is dead’, said the boy. ‘And an only daughter is the needle of the heart’, said Suibhne”. This sequence gave Snodgrass instant literary fame, for the intensity of its grief and its elegance of formal presentation. It should said that Snodgrass was a more measured and reticent confessionalist than his contemporaries, Plath, Sexton, Berryman and Lowell. Indeed, notwithstanding his confessionalism, Snodgrass throughout his career as poet was a succesful formalist almost the calibre of, say, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and Amy Clampitt. Not heeding the Poundian cry to “break the pentameter” or the excellent free verse, open form, and triadic line of William Carlos Williams, Snodgrass chose to cleave to longstanding tradition, so the second and third poems in the Heart’s Needle selection for Not for Specialists are in well-turned iambic pentameter quatrains with alternating abab full rhymes. They lack the elegance and intellectual penetration of Anthony Hecht, but are worthy if not sparkling. Indeed, ‘not sparkling’ seems of Snodgrass’s temperament, though at times he can funny ha-ha. Wondering how he came by the title of his last book, I found the answer in a poem I used to teach, “April Inventory”, fourth poem in this selection, one of his anthology pieces; a poem in ten classical six-line stanzas, rhymed ababcc and in tetrameters. The last two stanzas go:

While scholars speak authority
And wear their ulcers on their sleeves,
My eyes in spectacles shall see
These trees procure and spend their leaves.
There is a value underneath
The gold and silver in my teeth.

Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives,
We shall afford our costly seasons;
There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons.
There is a loveliness exists,
Preserves us, not for specialists.

One might meanly deconstruct this and find weaknesses in the framing, but that is not to the purpose. What “not for specialists” intends here is the opposite of the label on Herman Hesse’s Magic Theatre in Steppenwolf: “Not for Everyone”. The “gentleness” and “loveliness” Snodgrass speaks of are potentially part of the common stock, of our inner lives.

Despite occasional slight weaknesses, “Heart’s Needle” is a splendid sequence of poems and represented here, as it must be. Its presence alone justifies the book and may bring it to the attention of new, younger readers. Following this, some of the early poems are given their form as if being forced into a Procrustean bed, others, like “Lobsters in the Window” are neatly, satisfyingly achieved, others still are well enough but the sort of thing done long before and with greater feeling by Thomas Hardy. When Snodgrass loosens up and finds a freer form, as in “Van Gogh: ‘Starry Night’,” he explores interestingly, similarly in “Old Apple Trees”, a little later, the longer line and blank verse help to add richness and texture to the poem’s substance, but these comments are not meant disparage his formalism, which at its best has its own value and validity. Snodgrass can also be satifyingly epigrammatic, as in ‘Viewing the Body’.

What tends to lower somewhat the overall ‘presence’ of Snodgrass’s work is a shortage of ‘oomph’ or, if you prefer, glamour. His villanelle, “Mutability”, for example, is a tame outing when placed alongside another villanelle on the same topic, Dylan Thomas’, “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”.

When The Fuehrer Bunker “cycle of poems” came out in its 1977 instalment, I had mixed feelings about it, and seem to remember its general reception as mixed (though I can’t recall the details.) As a highschooler, then a drop out and factory worker (on radar), I spent the whole war in London, which left me with a cluster of vivid memories. By the time of The Fuehrer Bunker I’d read Shirer, Bullock, Trevor Roper and others, and did not see what such a “cycle” might do for that huge cycle of events, including what (in the 1960s) came to be named the “Holocaust”. Subsequently I’ve read two complete prose books on the bunker, plus the memorable anonymous diary, A Woman In Berlin, written about the first two months of Soviet takeover of the city. This last work alone has far more depth and relevance than anything in The Fuehrer Bunker. Of the forty-two pages of “Bunker” here I like the parodistic “Chorus: Old Lady Barkeep”. What follows is a series of takes on the situation by various prominent Nazis, such as Goebbels, Bormann, Hitler, Himmler, and Eva Braun, who at the very last moment before cataclysm became Hitler’s wife. (Angela Lambert, in The Lost Life of Eva Braun, gives an evenhanded, essentially sympathic portrait of a woman who was a deeply loyal victim.) The first Goebbels meditation seems tame, one would expect a rant, at least at some point. Perhaps Snodgrass studied these characters in depth, but my reading on Bormann, for example, leads me to imagine a quite different kind of person, and so on. Perhaps the idea of the cycle was to diminish them? Perhaps I’m missing the frisson of American humour? For me, the ultimate effect of this cycle is that the subject has not been taken seriously enough

The section “from Kinder Capers”, a congeries of smaller work - 1986-2004, probably would have benefited from inclusion of examples of the paintings by Snodgrass’s collaborator, “the painter, DeLoss McGraw”, the only example on show being the faux primitif cover portrait, “W D Under Arrest”, which hints at an attractive body of painterly work. This section appeals to me as a grouping of occasional poems, including four seasonal sonnets, the especially appealling song qualities of “The Midnight Carnival” poems, some featuring a persona, “W D”, a mode I once liked to tinker with. Next, the twenty-seven pages “from Each in His Season” sometimes find a different register. Almost always there is a sense of distance between poet and material (after Heart’s Needle) which can take different forms, many suggesting an underlying cynicism. Snodgrass is at his liveliest when he is being raunchy and/or funny. As to the “distance”, Brad Leithauser made an interesting point in a New York Times article: “…in Snodgrass’s universe the reader can feel like an interloper: the poem is speaking directly to somebody else, and only indirectly to the wider world.” Leithauser goes on to say that this leads the reader or audience into the role of “eavesdropper”. It argues a sometimes problematical detachment.

The last section, the final fifty pages of text in Not for Specialists, leaves an impression of assured competence and, at times, considerable power. To return to lines quoted in my opening “‘Snodgrass is walking through the universe”. That’s it, walking! Apart from his light, “capering” pieces, Snodgrass is a “walking” poet and no bolt of lightning. In these last poems, though, he walks at times to some purpose. The common thing, for a long time now, is shortlined poems, largely without punctuation, to afford the poem rapidity and hold the reader’s attention. In such a poem as “The Discreet Advantages of a Reichstag Fire” (something better than a “walking” title) Snodgrass is not afraid of long lines and lingering sentences, and when he uses them it is to some purpose. On a related theme, in somewhat lighter mode, “Talking Heads”, on the subject of communication, works well. One poem’s theme is “remembering history”; the other, that it is written by the victors. As well to remember both!

One other poem has poignancy mixed with a hard-edged calm. The three-part, ‘For the Third Marriage of my First Ex-Wife’, takes us right back to ‘Heart’s Needle’ as it begins the third section with reference to, ‘Our daughter, still recovering from/ her own divorce’, but ends positively, and with a graceful compliment:

This spin off of our unspent lives
Still joins us (though to others) saying: clamp fast
To what’s worth holding. Also, save the best for last.

Snodgrass then is a “walking” poet with a sense of humour, not least about himself, and a sense of history. This latter sense is embodied in his chosen formalism, sometimes flat, often adroit, occasionally clumsy, at times elegant. Not perhaps a perfect poet then, “for specialists”, but one of a kind and a poet of some relevance and consequence.

Mike Doyle has lived in Victoria since 1968. His most recent book is Paper Trombones: notes on poetics, in which he shares his thoughts on poetry, drawn from informal journal notes of the past thirty years.