W. D. Snodgrass

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W. D. Snodgrass
William De Witt Snodgrass.jpg
BornWilliam De Witt Snodgrass
(1926-01-05)5 January 1926
Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, United States
Died13 January 2009(2009-01-13) (aged 83)
Erieville, New York, United States
Pen name
  • W. D. Snodgrass
  • S. S. Gardons
Occupation Poet, professor
Nationality American
Education Geneva College
University of Iowa (1949, BA)(1951, MA)(1953, MFA)
Literary movement Confessional poetry
Notable worksHeart's Needle
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1960)
  • Lila Jean Hank
    (m. 1946;div. 1953)
  • Janice Marie Ferguson Wilson
    (m. 1954;div. 1966)
  • Camille Rykowski
    (m. 1967;div. 1978)
  • Kathleen Ann Brown
    (m. 1985)
  • Cynthia Jean Snodgrass
  • Russel Bruce Snodgrass
  • Bruce De Witt Snodgrass (Father)
  • Jesse Helen Murchie (Mother)

William De Witt Snodgrass (January 5, 1926 – January 13, 2009) was an American poet who also wrote under the pseudonym S. S. Gardons. He won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.



Snodgrass was born on January 5, 1926, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, to Bruce De Witt, an accountant, and Jesse Helen (Murchie) Snodgrass. 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 when he was drafted into the United States Navy. 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 [1] 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. [2]

Snodgrass was known to friends throughout his life as "De", pronounced "dee", [3] 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 (19681977), Old Dominion (1978-9), and the University of Delaware. [3] He retired from teaching in 1994 [3] 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, [3] 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. [2]

Literary career

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. 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". [4] One was The Führer Bunker cycle of poems, monologues by Adolf 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. [5] 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 satirizing contemporary attitudes.


Poetry [6]





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  1. W.D.Snodgrass, After-images: autobiographical sketches, Rochester NY, 1999, p.89ff,
  2. 1 2 See the biographical sketch at
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass dies" Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine , Associated Press, January 14, 2009, retrieved same day
  4. See Philip Raisor's introduction to Tuned and Under Tension (Cranbury NJ, 1998, pp.17-25)
  5. David Metzger, "Medievalism and the Problem of Radical Evil in Snodgrass's The Fuehrer Bunker," in: Medievalism in the Modern World. Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman , ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998), 393-407. Snodgrass made comments to Metzger on early drafts of his essay.
  6. Years link to corresponding "year in poetry" article
  7. preview to p.58
  8. preview
  9. limited preview
  10. See the review here Archived 2011-08-13 at the Wayback Machine ; contents and first three poems at
  11. limited preview to p.29