The Enigma of W.D. Snodgrass
Gilbert Purdy

After two hours of torrential rains, the crowd began to trickle into the ornate Flagler Room, at Flagler College, to sit and chat and await the arrival of the man with the great white Mennonite beard whom they had seen on the posters hung everywhere throughout little St. Augustine, Florida. Promptly at a half hour past the scheduled start, William Dewitt Snodgrass, and his host, Dr. Carl Horner, arrived. A glowing introduction was made by the Doctor for the seventy-ish man who appeared average in every way except for his Mexican tan and that great white beard.
"Thank you," Snodgrass began, "you brave submariners, for turning out on such a night as this." The room was gratifyingly full.
It was not likely that many there knew the strange story of his journey through poetry: the first book winner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize (which would guarantee him top-flight teaching positions for more than thirty years) and the more recent volumes published by small presses. In between, a book, The Fuhrer Bunker (1977), which would raise a furor of a different sort.
The volume is composed of poems in the voices of the arch-villains of the Third Reich (and their wives). They are deeply flawed individuals -- and their flaws are recognizably our flaws. As a result they are sympathetic characters, and, however much the fact is clearly not meant as an apology for their actions, the public was not prepared to have them portrayed in such a light.
"In effect it has ruined my career," he replies, when asked about the reaction. He does not mention his bold answer to the critics: to continue to write up to seventy poems on the same theme. A second volume was intended (perhaps even a third) but mysteriously could not find a publisher.
"I thought I was being paranoid about that for a while, but people have come to me who were at meetings for prizes where people got up and said: 'That man wins any award over my dead body!' "The magazines refused all my work. I've had no awards for twenty years. In this country. Out of the country I have, yes. I must say that my reputation continues to pick up in England."
The Fuhrer Bunker itself was a radical change from the work he'd published to that time. Snodgrass, a writer in traditional forms to that point, had come to be known as the first of the "Confessional Poets": the popular style in which the poet takes his or her material directly from the incidents of his daily life. It can fairly be said that he is now one of the few poets who does not write in the style.
Confessional poetry (seldom in traditional forms) and the much more free-wheeling Beat poetry still command the American scene today - as mortal enemies. Emotions ran high. Such volumes as Heart's Needle (1959), Remains (1970) and After Experience (1967) brought a now infamous attack, during a panel discussion, from the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Imiri Baraka.
"The moderator said to them: 'What's so wicked about American poetry?' Baraka pointed to me and said: 'He is!'
"Part of it was that he was angry that I happened to be there with a black girl that night.. I said: gee, he has a white wife. I didn't think he would be mad at me but he was.
"The moderator pulled me aside, then - we took an intermission and she pulled me aside - and said: 'Don't you answer that. They don't care what they say and they will just try to make you look foolish.'
"Well, I should have taken her advice, probably, but I didn't. I remember I went back in front of them. I said I didn't really believe that I'd managed to encompass the total evil of America yet, but that any poet who could do anything so vast as that certainly must be a pretty powerful kind of writer. I was smart-alecky, I admit, but it shut them up."
If Baraka thought that W. D. Snodgrass's three volumes, to that point, accepted life as he found it, he was mistaken. Wandering among the nature images is a cynicism, a darkness, which makes them exceptional for traditional poems.
Perhaps as a young man in World War II he had been shocked by the violence of life - perhaps he always had. For whatever reason, he had become as enigmatical as so many of the soldiers of that war who flooded the country's universities on the new G.I. Plan and changed the mind of America. The burgeoning poet was struck by the violence and disregard of the world.
Remains is about the suicide, at an early age, of his sister. In it memories are interwoven with the absurdity of death. The lines are still tighter and harder than in Heart's Needle (itself about the aftermath of war and divorce) and the book may be his best.
It is only in the aftermath of The Fuhrer Bunker that the tone has grown considerably lighter (and returned to traditional forms). It may be still more recently that the world received the W. D. Snodgrass who loves to tell stories about birds, punctuated by self-deprecating comments, during his readings; who generally selects his less challenging work to read, now and then, as he does so.
Asked, however, he reveals that the old and the new are one and the same: "Here most of the people have not experienced actual Nazism. The Nazis are figures of their imagination. And they feel that pointing to someone else's wickedness they prove their goodness. "I think just the opposite. Pointing at someone else's wickedness merely shows something about your potential...."
"I started out thinking as everybody else did. How could those people have done those things?... If you go back to history, the Nazi extermination camps were designed directly from American Indian reservations. They studied them: how they were operated."
One would hardly imagine that the elderly gentleman with flushed cheeks and a booming laugh, who speaks of playing Sir Toby Belch in a San Miguel, Mexico, production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, of having worked at some length with Lily Tomlin, in Detroit, and of catching the birds which enter in at the chinks of his farmhouse walls, might be struggling inside to understand such losses. Perhaps the frequency with which he refers to therapy is the one loose thread, the one clue.
The bulk of his poems now remind the reader of the New England poet, John Wheelwright: replete with nature imagery and observations which are deceptively direct. Like Wheelwright's, they are perhaps considered too simple.
"If you can be happy with anything else," Snodgrass had earlier advised a prospective poet, "do anything else. Everything else pays better, is more honestly rewarded, will cause less trouble in your life.
"It's not worth it unless doing it itself can make you feel so rewarded that you can give up all kinds of other things that one would want.... If I had gone into my father's business, become an accountant, taken over his firm, I would have many of the things that I look around at now and envy. "On the other hand, I think I've had a lot more fun than most of the people I went to highschool with. And I think I've cried a lot more, too.
"It's a very difficult game."
Just what this all comes down to even W. D. Snodgrass doesn't necessarily know. For the time being there will be more accessible and only slightly disconcerting poems. Presumably there will be many more years of semi-retirement and driving the van down to little San Miguel. Some day he will be rediscovered. The poetry and the story will be too perfect for some Ph.D. student to resist. He or she will write of the poet's periods: map the tides of cynicism, rebellion and (partial) acceptance. Like Wheelwright, he will be praised for having achieved, in his later years, a simplicity which we habitually underrate, and which, on the battlefield of the self, always is hard won.
"Quitting Time?' he asks, as the room grows silent of questions. "Everybody cheerful?" His laughter rings through the high-ceilinged room followed by a long round of applause.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank Flagler College, and Vice President William T. Abare, for permission to use their facilities during a long and constructive summer spent in St. Augustine, Florida. The reading referred to above, and the composition of this essay, (and a good deal more,) were accomplished during that time.