The Original Confession (Almost) Tells All

An interview with W.D. Snodgrass.

By Hilary Holladay
Poetry Media Services

Hilary Holladay: I want to play a little word association with you. I’ll say a word or a name, and you free-associate at will. “Confessional poetry.”

W.D. Snodgrass: Well, it’s a term I dislike intensely, because I don’t think I was doing anything very different from what poets have done for years and years and years. One of the major influences that took me toward writing poems about losing, I thought, my daughter surely was Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder [with lyrics from the poems of 19th-century German poet Friedrich Ruckert]. As a matter of fact, all the German poets of that era, even if they’d never been married or had a child, wrote poems about the death of their children; they would make up a child to lose. It became the symbolic center of loss, and losses that might have been of all sorts but were often compacted into that image.

When I went into psychotherapy in Iowa, the doctors there were also very influential in saying, “You’re not writing about what you’re interested in.” I was writing things that had some religious overtones. I wanted nothing to do with religion, and I just put it in the poem because that’s the sort of thing that the models we were given at [the University of Iowa] would have had. If there was a tiger lily, then surely that had to do with Christ.

HH: So it was confessional, in a sense. You were confessing to your therapist.

WDS: Yes, but that didn’t affect the poems. M.L. Rosenthal came up with that term [confessional poetry]—he was a friend—but I hated it because it suggested either that you were writing something religious and were confessing something of that sort, or that you were writing bedroom memoirs, and I wasn’t doing that, either.

HH: And yet the label stuck, and it gave scholars and students a way to categorize you and Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and a few others, and so—

WDS: I don’t think it really applies to what I was doing. And you’ll pardon me for saying so, but I was [writing personal poems] first. And Lowell hated it at first. He said, “Snodgrass, you have a brain. You can’t write this kind of tearjerking stuff!” It was all part of a kind of snobbery in the academic world. You weren’t supposed to have love relationships or anything of that sort. You were supposed to be some kind of priest. I decided [writing personal poems] is probably wrong, but it’s what I have to do right now. I don’t like the fact that then that can be made into an argument for the writing of poetry as a form of therapy. It may not be anything of the sort. I don’t know that it served that purpose. It was just where my feelings lay right then.

HH: You influenced [Robert Lowell]. Did he influence you?

WDS: Early on, yes. I had to quit reading him altogether for many years because I didn’t want to get back under that influence again. He wrote to me and said he was taking those poems of mine [from Heart’s Needle] as a model, and it just scared the hell out of me! I thought, “Holy God! Here I’m doing something that even I think may be a stupid mistake.” In the meantime, he caught hell from his teachers the same way I caught hell from him. He went and read some of his more personal poems to Allen Tate, who gave him exactly the same kind of hell.

I should say that one other thing that moved me in the direction of the personal poems was that I became interested in music again after a while. For as much as 15 years there, I stayed clear away from music. One day I turned on the radio and there was a tenor, Hugues Cuénod. One of his first records that came out in this country was a collection of songs from 16th- and 17th-century Spain and Italy. I listened to this recording, and my hair simply stood on end. I listened to him and thought, “Jesus Christ! My poems have got everything except that kind of passion and that kind of straightforward head-on-ness.”

These two musical influences, that and the Kindertotenlieder—both moved me in [the more personal] direction, as did Jarrell’s criticism, although he didn’t suggest positively that I should be writing about my personal concerns. My doctor supplied that!

HH: Let me wrap up by asking you about your name. You use your name, Snodgrass, in a number of your poems, and you told me that the pseudonym you’ve used occasionally, S.S. Gardons, is “Snodgrass spelled sideways.” Why do that? Why put your name in your poems?

WDS: Well, why not? It’s one of the things that’s on your mind all the time. Of course, as a child I got kidded about it all the time, and everybody makes up brilliant parodies of it which are so obvious that I don’t think I need to go into that. In a certain sense, you’re always writing about yourself. Although you may not write so directly about yourself and the quality of your mind, that’s ultimately what you’re writing about, always.

Hilary Holladay is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where she teaches African American literature, literature of the Beat movement, and modern poetry. This article originally appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about W.D Snodgrass, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org

© 2009 by Hilary Holladay. All rights reserved.

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~ by ericedits on June 4, 2009.

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