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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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.