William De Witt Snodgrass was an American poet who also wrote under the pseudonym S. S. Gardons. He won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
W. D. Snodgrass was born on January 5, 1926 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania; the family lived in Wilkinsburg, but drove to Beaver Falls for his birth since his grandfather was a doctor in the town. Eventually the family moved to Beaver Falls and Snodgrass graduated from the local high school in 1943. He then attended Geneva College until 1944 and had an offer from the Juilliard School for admission because of his musical abilities on the timpani, but he was drafted into the United States Navy before he could accept. After demobilization in 1946, Snodgrass transferred to the University of Iowa and enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, originally intending to become a playwright but eventually joining the poetry workshop which was attracting as teachers some of the finest poetic talents of the day, among them John Berryman, Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949, a Master of Arts degree in 1951, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1953.
Snodgrass was known to friends throughout his life as "De", pronounced "dee", but only published using his initials. He had a long and distinguished academic career, having taught at Cornell (1955-7), Rochester (1957-8), Wayne State (1959–68), Syracuse (1968–1977), Old Dominion (1978-9), and the University of Delaware. He retired from teaching in 1994 to devote himself full-time to his writing. This included autobiographical sketches, essays, and the critical verse 'deconstructions' of De/Construct. He died in his home in Madison County, New York, aged 83, following a four-month battle with lung cancer, and was survived by his fourth wife, writer Kathleen Snodgrass.
Snodgrass had married his first wife, Lila Jean Hank, in 1946, by whom he had a daughter, Cynthia Jean. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1953 and it was the separation from his daughter as a result that became the subject of his first collection, Heart's Needle. The following year Snodgrass married his second wife, Janice Marie Ferguson Wilson. Together they have a son, Russell Bruce, and a stepdaughter, Kathy Ann Wilson. Divorcing again in 1966, he married his third wife, Camille Rykowski in 1967 but this ended in 1978. His fourth marriage to Kathleen Ann Brown was in 1985.
Snodgrass's first poems appeared in 1951, and throughout the 1950s he published in some of the most prestigious magazines: Botteghe Oscure, Partisan Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and The Hudson Review. However, in 1957, five sections from a sequence entitled 'Heart's Needle' were included in Hall, Pack and Simpson's anthology, New Poets of England and America, and these were to mark a turning-point. When Lowell had been shown early versions of these poems, in 1953, he had disliked them, but now he was full of admiration.
By the time Heart's Needle was published, in 1959, Snodgrass had already won The Hudson Review Fellowship in Poetry and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Poetry Prize. However, his first book brought him more: a citation from the Poetry Society of America, a grant from the National Institute of Arts, and, most important of all, 1960's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. It is often said that Heart's Needle inaugurated confessional poetry. Snodgrass disliked the term. Still, it should be pointed out that the genre he was reviving here seemed revolutionary to most of his contemporaries, reared as they had been on the anti-expressionistic principles of the New Critics. Snodgrass's confessional work was to have a profound effect on many of his contemporaries, amongst them, most importantly, Robert Lowell.
Being tagged with this label affected his work and its reception and forced him into small-press publication for many years. Two new themes (eventually) restored his reputation, although at the time they first began to appear there was a perception by some that Snodgrass had 'wrecked his career'. One was The Führer Bunker cycle of poems, monologues by Hitler and his circle in the closing days of the Third Reich, a 'poem in progress' that began to appear from 1977 onwards and was finally completed in 1995. An adaptation of these for the stage was performed in the 1980s. The other theme was the series written in response to DeLoss McGraw's surrealistic paintings, which eventually grew into a partnership. In these poems, often uproariously rhymed, Snodgrass stood his former confessional style on its head at the same time as satirising contemporary attitudes.
The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherry blooms once more.
In one whole year I haven't learned
A blessed thing they pay you for.
Child of my winter, born
When the new fallen soldiers froze
In Asia's steep ravines and fouled the snows,
When I was torn
Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
The eyelids glowing, some chill morning.
O world half-known through opening, twilit lids
Before the vague face clenches into light;
O universal waters like a cloud,