W.D. Snodgrass

William DeWitt Snodgrass, born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 5, 1926, was known to his friends as 'De'. He attended Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., then later served in the United States Navy. In 1949, he graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, staying in Iowa City afterwards to study with Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Randall Jarrell.

His honors include an Ingram Merrill Foundation award and a special citation from the Poetry Society of America, as well as fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the National Endowment for the Arts.

His first collection of poetry, Heart's Needle, was published in 1959 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. Since then, he has published numerous books of poetry, including Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 2006); The Führer Bunker: The Complete Cycle (1995); Each in His Season (1993); Selected Poems, 1957-1987; The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress (1977) (a collection which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and produced by Wynn Handman for The American Place Theatre) and After Experience (1968).

Before Iowa City       

Prior to coming to Iowa City, W.D Snodgrass attended Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania in 1942 and initially studied music, playing timpani as his primary instrument.  He was offered admission to the Julliard School of Music in New York in 1944, but was drafted into the Navy before he could attend.  He served in the Pacific during the final years of World War II and was demobilized in 1946. 

Snodgrass returned to the United States and married his first wife, Lila, who had his daughter, Cynthia.  When he returned, he decided to steer away from music, believing his time had passed.  Snodgrass struggled with the decision of what to do now that he had returned from the Navy.  His father, the owner of an accounting firm in his hometown in Pennsylvania, urged his son to become an accountant and work with him.  However, he happened upon an ad in Life magazine about Paul Engle’s Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.  On funding from the GI Bill, Snodgrass and his family packed up and moved to Iowa City in 1946.[fn]Snodgrass, W.D. (1999) Mentors, Fomenters, and Tormentors. In R. Dana (ed.) A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press[/fn]

Arrival in Iowa City 

Snodgrass came to Iowa with the intention of becoming a playwright.  He started out in the Theater Department, but quickly grew a dislike for the program. Snodgrass' anger was toward then-director Edward Mabie: “… a crude and bullying businessman-type who had championed a costly new theater building with advanced stage machinery and elaborate equipment.”[fn]Snodgrass, W.D. (1999) Mentors, Fomenters, and Tormentors. In R. Dana (ed.) A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press[/fn]  Snodgrass disagreed strongly with his professors, openly criticizing their teaching and writing techniques.  Over time, Snodgrass decided playwriting was not the profession for him, claiming his plays were terrible. As a substitute for the lack of inspiration in the Theater Department, Snodgrass started sitting in on classes in the Poetry Workshop. Initially, he had no intention of writing poetry; rather, he attended because he admired the teachers. During the classes Snodgrass took a greater liking towards poetry and was eventually admitted into the Poetry Workshop.

When Snodgrass began his time at the Workshop, his father was not completely opposed, but thought his son would change his mind and become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) like himself.  However, Snodgrass knew this was not likely to happen. He was deeply under the influence of the cultural richness of the small midwestern college town:  "Iowa was saturated…” with the arts. While he was at the workshop, he studied under some of the poetic greats of the day, including Paul Engle.  Snodgrass had a mixed relationship with the former director of the Writers’ Workshop.  Engle had high praise for making the environment at the Workshop what it was. However, Snodgrass had his criticisms of Engle as well, claiming that his teaching and writing were not as strong as his administration of the program: “If Paul had a choice between two ways to do a thing – a simple, straightforward way and a complicated, difficult, underhanded way that was nearly as effective – he would always take the latter.”[fn]Snodgrass, W.D. (1999) Mentors, Fomenters, and Tormentors. In R. Dana (ed.) A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press[/fn]  Engle was rarely present during the years that Snodgrass attended the Workshop. Engle was often traveling to recruit prospective writers for the workshop.  With Engle’s absence, Snodgrass had the opportunity to study under many other prominent poets of his day.


In his years within the workshop, Snodgrass learned from the great poets of the time.  Some of these included Reed Whittemore, Karl Shapiro, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, Randall Jarrell, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Lowell. Upon hearing of Lowell’s upcoming arrival, Snodgrass was very excited.  He had modeled many of his earlier poems off of Lowell’s style. Snodgrass admired Lowell’s teaching style and the way he would go about pulling in ideas from various different genres, such as mythology, classical literature, and religion. 

Snodgrass also said “…you would run into Lowell on the street and he’d say, hunching over you with a concerned smile, ‘I’ve been thinking about that poem of yours…and I was all wrong about it.  Now what it’s really about is…’”.[fn]Snodgrass, W.D. (1999) Mentors, Fomenters, and Tormentors. In R. Dana (ed.) A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press[/fn] Snodgrass admired Lowell’s dedication to his student’s work. 

One summer, W.D. attended the Rocky Mountain Writers’ Conference in Boulder, Colorado. One of the primary instructors at the conference was Randall Jarrell.  He read some of Snodgrass’s work and commented: “Do you know, Snodgrass, you’re writing the very best second-rate Lowell in the whole country?  The trouble is there’s only one person writing any first-rate Lowell: Lowell.”  Despite this criticism from Jarrell, Snodgrass felt as if the three weeks at the conference had improved his work. 

Leaving Iowa City

When Snodgrass returned to Iowa City in the fall, things became more troublesome.  He and his first wife, Lila, divorced in 1953.[fn]Gaston, Paul L. (1978) W.D. Snodgrass Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers[/fn] He was distraught from this divorce, mainly because Lila took full custody of his daughter, Cynthia, so Snodgrass rarely had the opportunity to see her. 

In addition to these personal troubles, Paul Engle abruptly cut off Snodgrass’s fellowship money. Luckily, Rhodes Dunlap, a Renaissance literature instructor, put Snodgrass on his fellowship list. Although he now had money to continue his studies, Snodgrass had to pick up various jobs to pay for support payments, working in such places as a small hotel and the Veterans’ Hospital. At the hospital, the stress became too great and hindered his work. Snodgrass went into psychotherapy to deal with his trouble and to put himself back on track with his writing. In 1953, W.D. Snodgrass finished his work in the Writers’ Workshop.

In his time at Iowa, from 1946 to 1953, Snodgrass earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949, Master of Arts in 1951, and Master of Fine Arts in 1953.

Prior to leaving Iowa City, W.D. Snodgrass married his second wife, Janice Wilson, in 1954.[fn]Gaston, Paul L. (1978) W.D. Snodgrass Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers[/fn] Together, they had one son, Russell, and a stepdaughter, Kathy.  Snodgrass and his family left Iowa City in 1955 when he was offered to lead the Poetry Workshop at the Morehead Writers’ Conference. Later, he was offered an instructor position in the English Department at Cornell University. He left Cornell in 1957 for the same position at the University of Rochester.[fn]Gaston, Paul L. (1978) W.D. Snodgrass Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers[/fn]

Heart’s Needle

In 1959, W.D. Snodgrass published his first poetry collection, Heart’s Needle.  The collection was starkly different from the previous poetry he wrote while at Iowa.  The poems have a strong, formal style, unlike the free-flowing poems he modeled after Robert Lowell’s poetry.  The centerpiece of the collection, “Heart’s Needle”, caught the eye of many critics. The 10-part poem in the collection is based on Snodgrass’s experiences and emotions in the three years following the divorce of his first wife, Lila.  The poem mostly focuses on the rare times he spent with his daughter, Cynthia, describing how much she changed between visits and how he longed to spend more time with her.[fn]Gaston, Paul L. (1978) W.D. Snodgrass Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers[/fn] Snodgrass dedicated the poem to his daughter.

Critics were astounded by Heart’s Needle in terms of both content and style.  As reviewed by David McDuff for Stand: “…Snodgrass is at pains to reveal the repressed, violent feelings that often lurk beneath the seemingly placid surface of everyday life.”  Many considered this collection of poetry to be the start of “confessional poetry”, a style that focuses on the details of the poet’s personal life.  Other “confessional” poets include Sylvia Plath and her contemporary Anne Sexton, whom Snodgrass later mentored. Other poets related to the confessional tradition are Snodgrass' own former instructors John Berryman and Robert Lowell. Though Snodgrass disliked the "confessional" label, his name is tied to the movement.

Heart’s Needle earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1960.  W.D.’s popularity grew, so much so that the State Department sent him on a tour of Europe to give poetry readings. 

Later Career

In his later years, W.D. continued to publish various collections.  In all, he released 19 different collections of poetry, including Remains in 1970 and The Fuher Bunker in 1977.  Snodgrass also published several poetry collections for children under small presses. These include The Boy Made of Meat, D.D. Byrde Callying Jenny Wrenn, The Kinder Capers,  The Death of Cock Robin and many others. These rare editions remain precious collectors items today. Snodgrass also continued to teach at various universities, making stops at Wayne State University in Detroit from 1959-1968, Syracuse University from 1968-1977, Old Dominion University from 1978-1979, and the University of Delaware, retiring in 1994.  His personal life had its changes as well, divorcing Janice in 1966 and marrying two more times, to Camille Rykowski from 1967 to 1978 and then to Kathleen Brown in 1985.  W.D. Snodgrass passed away in 2009 at his home in Erieville, upstate New York, following a battle with lung cancer.

Further reading: Iowa City in the early 1950s: incubator of great poets

(A collage that contains excerpts from: 1) Philip Levine’s essay “Mine own John Berryman,” from The Bread of Time, copyright 1993 by Philip Levine; reprinted by permission of the author; 2) Robert Dana’s essay “Far from the Ocean: Robert Lowell at Iowa, 1953,” from A Community of Writers, copyright 1999 by Robert Dana; reprinted by permission of Peg Dana; and 3) W. D. Snodgrass’s essay “Mentors, Fomenters, and Tormentors,”, from The Southern Review, copyright 1992 by W. D. Snodgrass; reprinted by permission of Kathleen Snodgrass.)

Text: Zlatko Anguelov

United States
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