W. D. Snodgrass

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Date: 2020
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,393 words

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About this Person
Born: January 05, 1926 in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: January 13, 2009 in Erieville, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Snodgrass, William De Witt; Gardons, S.S.; Snodgrass, W. De Witt
Updated:July 28, 2020

Born January 5, 1926, in Wilkinsburg, PA; died January 13, 2009, in Erieville, NY; son of Bruce DeWitt (an accountant) and Jesse Helen Snodgrass; married Lila Jean Hank, June 6, 1946 (divorced, December, 1953); married Janice Marie Ferguson Wilson, March 19, 1954 (divorced, August, 1966); married Camille Rykowski, September 13, 1967 (divorced, 1978); married Kathleen Ann Brown, June 20, 1985; children: (first marriage) Cynthia Jean; (second marriage) Kathy Ann Wilson (stepdaughter), Russell Bruce. Education: Attended Geneva College, 1943-44, 1946-47; University of Iowa, B.A., 1949, M.A., 1951, M.F.A., 1953. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Navy, 1944-46. Memberships: National Institute of Arts and Letters, Academy of American Poets (fellow), PEN.


Worked as hotel clerk and hospital aide in Iowa; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, instructor in English, 1955-57; University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, instructor, 1957-58; Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, assistant professor of English, 1959-68; Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, professor of English and speech, 1968-77; Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, visiting professor, 1978-79; University of Delaware, Newark, distinguished visiting professor, 1979-80, distinguished professor of creative writing and contemporary poetry, 1980-94; distinguished professor emeritus, beginning 1994. Leader of poetry workshop, Morehead Writers' Conference, 1955, Antioch Writers' Conference, 1958, 1959, and Narrative Poetry Workshop, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1977. Lectures and gives poetry readings.


Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, 1958; Hudson Review fellowship in poetry, 1958-59; Longview Foundation Literary Award, 1959; Poetry Society of America citation, 1960; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1960; Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1960, British Guinness Award, 1961, both for Heart's Needle; Yaddo resident award, 1960, 1961, 1965; Ford Foundation grant, 1963-64; Miles Poetry Award, 1966; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966-67; Guggenheim fellowship, 1972; Bicentennial medal from College of William and Mary, 1976; centennial medal from government of Romania, 1977; honorary doctorate of letters, Allegheny College, 1991; first prize for translations of Romanian letters, Colloquium of Translators and Editors, Siaia, Romania, 1995; nominee for National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism category, 2001, for De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong.




  • Heart's Needle (poetry), Knopf (New York, NY), 1959.
  • (Translator, with Lore Segal) Christian Morgenstern, Gallows Songs, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), 1967.
  • After Experience, Harper (New York, NY), 1967.
  • (Under pseudonym S.S. Gardons) Remains: A Sequence of Poems, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1970, revised edition published as W.D. Snodgrass, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1985.
  • In Radical Pursuit (critical essays), Harper (New York, NY), 1975.
  • (Translator) Six Troubadour Songs, Burning Deck Press (Providence, RI), 1977.
  • The Fuehrer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress (poetry; also see below), BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1977, revised edition published as The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle: Poems, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1995.
  • (Translator from the Hungarian) Traditional Hungarian Songs, Seluzicki Fine Books (Portland, OR), 1978.
  • If Birds Build with Your Hair, Nadja Press (New York, NY), 1979.
  • The Boy Made of Meat, William B. Ewert (Concord, NH), 1982.
  • Six Minnesinger Songs, Burning Deck Press (Providence, RI), 1983.
  • D.D. Byrde Calling Jennie Wrenne, William B. Ewert (Concord, NH), 1984.
  • Heinrich Himmler: Platoons and Files, Pterodactyl Press (Cumberland, IA), 1985.
  • A Colored Poem, Brighton Press (San Diego, CA), 1986.
  • The House the Poet Built, Brighton Press (San Diego, CA), 1986.
  • A Locked House (poetry), William B. Ewert (Concord, NH), 1986.
  • Selected Poems, 1957-1987, Soho Press (New York, NY), 1987.
  • (With DeLoss McGraw) W.D.'s Midnight Carnival, Artra (Encinitas, CA), 1988.
  • The Death of Cock Robin, University of Delaware Press (Newark, DE), 1989.
  • To Shape a Song, Nadja Press (New York, NY), 1989.
  • Snow Songs Nadja Press (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Each in His Season, (poetry), BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1993.
  • Spring Suite, Nadja Press (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Selected Translations, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1998.
  • After-Images: Autobiographical Sketches, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1999.
  • (Translator) Five Folk Ballads, Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House (Bucharest, Romania), 1999.
  • De/ Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2001.
  • To Sound like Yourself: Essays on Poetry, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 2002.
  • Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2005.
  • Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 2006.

Also author, sometimes under pseudonym S.S. Gardons, of fourteen limited fine press editions, including These Trees Stand, Carol Joyce, 1981, Autumn Variations, Nadja Press (New York, NY), 1990, and the translations Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Tarq, 1984 (also published in Syracuse Scholar), and Star and Other Poems, by Mihai Eminescu, W.B. Ewert (Concord, NH), 1990.


  • (Translator) Max Frisch, Biederman and the Firebugs, produced at the Regent Theater, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, 1966.
  • The Fuehrer Bunker (play; adaptation of book of his poetry of the same title), produced at River Playhouse, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, 1978, then Off-Broadway at American Place Theatre, 1981.
  • Dr. Joseph Goebbels, 22 April 1945, produced at West Gate Theatre, New York, 1981.

Author of introductions to books, including For They Are My Friends, by Tom Marotta, Art Reflections, 1976, Alice Fulton, Dance Script for Electric Ballerina, by Alice Fulton, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1983, and The Education of Desire, by William Dickey, Wesleyan (Middletown, CT), 1996. Contributor to books, including From the Iowa Poetry Workshop, Prairie Press, 1951, New Poets of England and America, Meridian, 1957, and Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1965. Also contributor to Syracuse Scholar. Contributor of poems, poetry translations (from the German, Romanian, French, Provencal, Italian, Hungarian, Dutch, and Danish), literary criticism, essays, and reviews to magazines, journals, and newspapers.


Several of Snodgrass's song translations have been performed by early music groups, including the Waverley Consort, Columbia Collegium (New York, NY), Persis Ensor (Boston, MA), and the Antiqua Players (Pittsburgh, PA).



W.D. Snodgrass is often credited with being one of the founding members of the "confessional" school of poetry, even though he dislikes the term confessional and does not regard his work as such. Nevertheless, his Pulitzer Prize-winning first collection, Heart's Needle, has had a tremendous impact on that particular facet of contemporary poetry. "Like other confessional poets, Snodgrass is at pains to reveal the repressed, violent feelings that often lurk beneath the seemingly placid surface of everyday life," David McDuff observed in Stand. The style was imitated and, in some cases, surpassed by other poets. This fact led Yale Review contributor Laurence Lieberman to comment that a later book, After Experience, reveals "an artist trapped in a style which ... has reached a dead end," because the group style had taken a different direction than Snodgrass's own. However, later works by Snodgrass show him widening his vision to apply the lessons of self-examination to the problems of twentieth-century Western culture. His poems also present, beyond the direct-statement and sentimentality common to confessional poetry, an inclusiveness of detail and variety of technique aimed to impact the reader's subconscious as well as conscious mind.

Regarding Snodgrass's translation (with Lore Segal) of Christian Morgenstern's Gallows Songs, Louise Bogan wrote in New Yorker: "German ... here takes on a demonic life of its own. ... To translate Morgenstern is a very nearly impossible task, to which the present translators have faced up bravely and well."

Paul Gaston pointed out that Snodgrass's critical essays and translations help develop his talents and prevent him from reaching the complete dead end of Lieberman's prediction. "These endeavors," wrote Gaston in his book W.D. Snodgrass, "reveal a poet intent on carefully establishing his creative priorities and perfecting his language." He continued: "Snodgrass's criticism gives the impressions of a mind reaching beyond the pleasures of cleverness to the hard-won satisfactions of wisdom." And finally, "[His] work with translations ... has encouraged the increasing linguistic, metrical, and structural diversity of his own work."

This diversity is apparent in Snodgrass's third volume of original poetry, The Fuehrer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress, which uses dramatic monologues to recreate what was said by the men and women who shared Hitler's bunker from April 1 to May 1, 1945. "In these poems," wrote Gertrude M. White in Odyssey: A Journal of the Humanities, "we are overhearing people talking to themselves, each character speaking in a verse form expressive of his or her personality, revealing who and what they are with a dramatic power that carries conviction almost against our will." Robert Peters, writing in the American Book Review, believed that the volume is "a rare example of ambitious, on-going verse sculpture. ... It will be around for a long time to inspire writers who've come to realize the sad limitations of the locked-in, private, first lesson, obsessional poem."

However, the subject matter of the poems troubles critic Laurence Goldstein, who fears that the writer's choice of subject overwhelms the artistry of the writing. Goldstein, writing for the Southern Review, believed that writing about Nazism in the way that Snodgrass does in The Fuehrer Bunker violates the poetic aesthetic. "When a poet as skilled in sweet rhetoric as Snodgrass," Goldstein wrote, "who can charm and disarm his audience at will, presents twenty-two dramatic monologues spoken by the most despised Nazis, nothing less than ultimate questions about the enterprise of contemporary poetry loom before us." "Is there a shameless sensationalism involved in trying to change belief on that dreadful subject?" the critic asks. "Shouldn't the poet pass by the Medusa head of that modern horror lest he petrify, or worse entertain, himself and his readers by staring at vipers?" The Fuehrer Bunker, which was first published as a work in progress in 1977, was finally released as a completed cycle of poems in 1995. Critics who reviewed the revised edition recognized its power, but their conclusions differed from Goldstein's fears. Frank Allen wrote in Library Journal that "to hear these voices imaginatively re-created is purgative," while Booklist contributor Elizabeth Gunderson called it "an astonishing work that lets us see with clarity the fall of the Third Reich--and wonder."

Snodgrass's collection Each in His Season also raised questions among critics. New York Times Book Review contributor Bruce Bennett called the work "a large-scale, free-wheeling roller coaster of a book," adding that the poet "displays his life and art in often contradictory guises." A Publishers Weekly reviewer was less favorable, declaring that it "is almost completely stripped of content, with a few notable exceptions." William Pratt, writing in World Literature Today, declared that " Each in His Season does no credit to W.D. Snodgrass or to any of his models." Ben Howard, a reviewer for Poetry magazine, offered a different assessment, asserting that "among the major poets of his generation it would be difficult to find a wittier or more exuberant writer--or one more committed to the making of verbal music." "If Snodgrass is not always convincing as plaintiff or prosecutor," the critic concluded, "he is both pleasing and persuasive in his role as lyric poet, the 'robin with green face,' singing exquisitely of 'all things vile and ugly.'"

Snodgrass provided lessons in what makes poetry more or less successful in his book De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong. To do so, the poet selected 101 poems he feels are truly great, then rewrote them with small changes that completely undermine their impact. They are placed into five categories, including "Metrics and Music," "Structure and Climax," and "Undercurrents," with a short essay on each of the themes. Other than the essays, there is no additional prose commentary; the poems, and Snodgrass's revisions, stand on their own as teaching aids. "The bad ones are sometimes so bad as to be funny," remarked Lisa J. Cihlar in a review for Library Journal. Chilar also felt that Snodgrass's approach works well in demonstrating how to write good poetry. The poet took a different approach to analyzing and explaining poetry in his 2003 publication, To Sound like Yourself: Essays on Poetry. The book is a collection of six essays that discuss the elements of a unique voice. Snodgrass analyzes the work of other poets and also shares descriptions of the things that have provided him with inspiration over the years.

In 2006, Snodgrass published a collection titled Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems. The title is "both an appropriate and ironic title for this rich retrospective of Snodgrass' poetry," according to Henry Hughes in Harvard Review. "One might say the language is simple and the rhythm conventionally formal, yet any poet who can write fifty years' worth of musically pleasing verse confessing life's failures and ecstasies is surely some kind of specialist." Hughes finds in the poetry of Snodgrass a "human sensitivity and sympathy," along with a healthy skepticism regarding authority. This attitude is "the guiding attitude in much of his work," stated Hughes. Not for Specialists presents selections of the poet's work ranging from the 1960s into the twenty-first century. His highly experimental work "The Fuehrer Bunker," in which he wrote monologues depicting the inner worlds of Adolf Hitler and his closest associates, is included, as are his collaborative works with Deloss McGraw, which move "from preciously cute pieces on young love and the four season to bold self interrogations and dark ballads," stated Hughes. Not for Specialists "clarifies as never before his range of accomplishment," stated Brad Leithauser in the New York Times Book Review. "Snodgrass's devotees must come away from Not for Specialists with deep gratitude." Noting that the personas used in these verses often shift or are ambiguous, Leithauser commented that "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."

With Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, Snodgrass presents a collection of his translations of old ballads and troubadour songs. He explained, in an interview with Julianna E. Thibodeaux for the Kenyon Review Web site, that his interest in this area may have started with his grandfather, who used to sing old Scottish songs and ballads. Lark in the Morning contains "the first 'talking blues song,' the earliest European song where a peasant girl gets to reject and scorn a highborn seducer, the earliest example of what Beethoven called 'die fernste geliebste,' the earliest half-nonsense song, and the earliest 'Hooray--I'm out of love' song. There are also several quite funny and at least one quite irreligious song."




  • Boyers, Robert, editor, Contemporary Poetry in America, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1974.
  • Carroll, Paul, The Poem in Its Skin, Follett (Chicago, IL), 1968.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 68, 1991.
  • Gaston, Paul, W.D. Snodgrass, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1978.
  • Haven, Steven, editor, The Poetry of W.D. Snodgrass: Everything Human, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1993.
  • Mazzaro, Jerome, editor, Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism, McKay (New York, NY), 1970.
  • Phillips, Robert, The Confessional Poets, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1973.
  • Raisor, Philip, Tuned and Under Tension: The Recent Poetry of W.D. Snodgrass, University of Delaware Press (Newark, DE), 1998.
  • Rosenthal, M.L., The New Poets, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1967.
  • Spiller, Robert E., editor, A Time of Harvest, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1962.
  • White, William, compiler, W.D. Snodgrass, A Bibliography, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 1960.


  • American Book Review, December, 1977, Robert Peters, reviews of Six Troubadour Songs and The Fuehrer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress.
  • Booklist, March 15, 1995, Elizabeth Gunderson, review of The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle: Poems, p. 1303; March 15, 2006, Ray Olson, review of Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems, p. 18.
  • Book World, April 14, 1968, review of After Experience, p. 6.
  • Harvard Review, December 1, 2006, Henry Hughes, review of Not for Specialists, p. 227.
  • Library Journal, April 1, 1995, Frank Allen, review of The Fuehrer Bunker, p. 99; July 1, 2001, Lisa J. Cihlar, review of De/Compositions: 101 Good Poems Gone Wrong, p. 103; January 1, 2003, Vivian Reed, review of To Sound like Yourself: Essays on Poetry, p. 112.
  • Modern Language Review, October 1, 2006, Catherine Leglu, review of Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, p. 1106.
  • New Yorker, October 24, 1959, Louise Bogan, review of Gallows Songs.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 3, 2006, Brad Leithauser, "'The Peaks of Occult, Calm Passion'," p. 17.
  • Odyssey: A Journal of the Humanities, April, 1979, Gertrude M. White, review of The Fuehrer Bunker.
  • Poetry, November, 1994, Ben Howard, review of Each in His Season, pp. 97-101.
  • Publishers Weekly, June 12, 1987, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Selected Poems, 1957-1987, p. 79; August 9, 1993, review of Each in His Season, p. 471; December 19, 2005, review of Not for Specialists, p. 41.
  • Southern Review, winter, 1988, Laurence Goldstein, review of The Fuehrer Bunker, pp. 100-114.
  • Stand, autumn, 1988, David McDuff, review of Selected Poems, 1957-1987, p. 61.
  • Yale Review, autumn, 1968, Laurence Leiberman, review of After Experience, p. 137.


  • Kenyon Review Online, http://www.kenyonreview.org/ (July 5, 2008), Julianna E. Thibodeaux, interview with W.D. Snodgrass.*


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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000092973