The Peaks of Occult, Calm Passion

Tuesday, September 5, 2006 - 15:49
This review ran in the New York Times Book Review and the International Herald Tribune on Sunday, September 3, 2006.

By Brad Leithauser

W. D. Snodgrass's sharply titled first book of poems, "Heart's Needle," drew blood. Its controlled, intricate stanzas spoke of loss and dislocation with irresistible urgency. The book appeared in 1959, the year its author turned 33, and it won him a Pulitzer Prize. It caused a great stir among poets of a slightly older generation (Lowell, Jarrell, Bishop), as their letters demonstrate, and was a key book for a subsequent generation of aspiring poets, as my memories of creative writing classes taken in the 70's attest. My hardcover copy, in its blood-red dustjacket, was printed some 20 years after the book's initial appearance. It's a 17th printing.

"Heart's Needle" was followed by another book of controlled and intricate stanzas, "After Experience," which was, if perhaps not quite so arresting, more richly varied. And what did Snodgrass do after "After"? He effectively went underground for many years -- under concrete. He wrote "The Fuehrer Bunker," a sequence of verse monologues chronicling the final days of the Nazi central command in their bomb shelter -- as grim and grotesquely unrepentant an environment as can be imagined. The various books that followed, often published by small presses and often in collaboration with the painter DeLoss McGraw, were notable for their hymns to the natural world. In sum, a curious career.

And a marvelous one, as "Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems" reminds us. Snodgrass published an earlier selected poems nearly 20 years ago, but this fuller edition, coinciding with his 80th birthday, clarifies as never before the range of his accomplishment.

Snodgrass -- it must be said -- can be a frustrating poet. Like Marianne Moore, like W. H. Auden, he is an erratic punctuator, creating a level of uncertainty only exacerbated by the slew of typos in "Not for Specialists." It's one thing to ask about a poet, What does he mean by this? It's another to have to inquire, Does he mean what he actually says?

His penchant for sentence fragments (no other major poet of our time relies so heavily on them) can also be off-putting. At times, the result is wonderfully dramatic -- as of a door closing abruptly in the faces of readers more nosily inquisitive than they should be. But where a reader goes struggling through dense syntax in search of a verb and meets in its place a mere period, the effect can be deflating. Even so, all such qualifications happily dissolve before Snodgrass's finest work -- poems like "April Inventory," "A Friend," "Viewing the Body" or the "Heart's Needle" sequence, which belongs, with Yeats's "Prayer for My Daughter" and Frost's "Master Speed," among the 20th century's most touching poetic meditations on father-daughter dealings.

There are some 40 new poems in "Not for Specialists." All are deft. Some are quite amusing. (I laughed out loud at the title of one: "For the Third Marriage of My First Ex-Wife.") Only a few are deeply affecting. And yet the ones that are are real glories. "Lifelong" and "Invitation" not only stand beside his finest work but bring to it new harmonies. While both poems play variations on what prosodists call pararhyme ("last, list, lost"), neither feels like an experiment; both are much too rich in complicated emotion to appear the least bit technical. "Lifelong" offers a toast to a bride and her terminally ill bridegroom, who survived his wedding by less than two years. Snodgrass takes up that staid phrase "so long as you both shall live" -- a painful sentiment under the circumstances -- and wrings from it a music of affirming tones:

    So long as you both shall laugh
    At sworn lies and their catch tunes, laugh
    At all contrived, all forced growths, laugh
    From the peaks of occult, calm passion;
    So long as you both shall leaf
    Through sanctimonious parchments, leaf
    Gold on a new daybook's edges, leaf
    Out, then blossom the nerves' branchings.

Snodgrass's poems often address a "you" of uncertain identity and character. The addressee may shift from poem to poem -- may be a lover, a spouse, a sibling, a child. But if a reader is sometimes left wondering to whom the poet is speaking, there's no doubting the person's reality, or the exigency of the discourse. In this, Snodgrass distances himself from that poetic convention in which an ostensible "you" is actually a stand-in for the reader. Milton's "Lycidas" isn't really pitched to the "woeful shepherds" it exhorts, any more than Shelley in "To a Skylark" is talking to a bird, but 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. Snodgrass draws much of his considerable power from having led us into the intense, almost voyeuristic role of bystander and eavesdropper.

His book's title itself traffics in notions of inclusion and exclusion. Still, one would hate to take this sort of analysis too far, given how antic Snodgrass can be. He's one of the few light verse writers out there (one thinks also of Richard Wilbur, Greg Williamson, Wendy Cope, John Updike) whose formal poems can be truly funny. His title takes a playful poke at the formidable literary critic, armed to the teeth with his somber syllabuses and burgeoning jargon. (One recalls J. D. Salinger's dedicating a book to any "amateur reader still left in the world -- or anybody who just reads and runs.") But it might be seen as targeting in addition another practitioner of formidable speech, the financier.

Like L. E. Sissman, his near-exact contemporary, Snodgrass embraces the locutions of commerce and contract. If most poets instinctively flee from any sector of language that seems zoned for commercial use, Snodgrass revels in lightening its leaden constructions:

    the meadow's
    out of bankruptcy and filled with
    enterprise -- small field mice, moths.

Or:

    On the hill, the white-tailed deer's
    remains are spirited
    away like laundered funds.

Or:

    Deregulated summer rolls on:
    Our meadow's making hay as if
    the national gross product must be
    grass.

Snodgrass's devotees must come away from "Not for Specialists" with deep gratitude -- and a few inevitable grumbles. Author's notes are sporadic; the details of publication, spotty. Snodgrass has been too rigorous in selecting his "Selected," a far less grave shortcoming than being too lax, but a shortcoming all the same. I was sorry to see a number of my favorites ("Mementoes I," "Looking," "Leaving Ithaca") omitted. He also chose to leave out "The Marsh," from "Heart's Needle," whose final stanza crystallizes something quintessential about his particular gift:

    You look up; while you walk
    the sun bobs and is snarled
    in the enclosing weir
    of trees, in their dead stalks.
    Stick in the mud, old heart,
    what are you doing here?

At a stroke, he has taken that tiredest of all clichés, "stick in the mud," and rendered it new -- raw, gritty and sodden. And he has spoken to a "you" that is, in this case, the soul of the poet himself. He asks it, with weariness and revivifying wonder: Why in your desolation do you find desolation so comforting?

Brad Leithauser teaches at Mount Holyoke College. His new book of poems, Curves and Angles, will be published in November.

Related Link:

Brad Leithauser - Faculty Profile