Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Sniper-Style: W.D. Snodgrass |
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Sniper-Style : W.D. Snodgrass

A poet in a country, America, where anything can be turned in for a new one, W. D. Snodgrass stays loyal to his unpoetic surname, and the essential claim his poetry makes is that it is necessary to write beautifully in spite of circumstances. Reading his list of acknowledgements in After Experience (they have already been quoted by British reviewers, to whom names like the Corporation of Yaddo will always sound as if a homeward-bound Dickens is contemptuously pronouncing them) and remembering earlier awards and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Hudson Review, the reader is more than mildly put off, as by the abstractly unimpressive multiple rows of fruit salad on the chests of American generals. But the crucial point is that all this information is available: Snodgrass does not cover up. It is nowadays very difficult for an American poet of manifest talent to be put out of business by want or by neglect. Snodgrass does not pretend otherwise. Hemmed in by endpapers and wrappers proclaiming his jobs, honours and awards (naturally the Foundation will bear your expenses), his poetry steers clear of the poet’s condition, which is obviously in A1 shape, and concentrates on the personal condition, which seems to be in a fruitful state of permanent confusion.

If ‘confessional’ poetry exists at all (and if it does, Snodgrass and Lowell are still the two best Americans writing it), its basic assumption is that the time-honoured separation of the private man and the public artist can now be closed: the pose is over, and all the masks can be put away. The trick is worked, when it works, not by lowering the universal to the level of personality, but by elevating the vicissitudes of private life to the level of the universal. Insofar as the poet succeeds in convincing the reader that his personal suffering has an impersonal resonance his work will chime: insofar as he does not, it will grate. Snodgrass grated badly in passages like this, from the title poem of his first book, Heart’s Needle:

In their smooth covering, white
As quilts to warm the resting bed
Of birth or pain, spotless as pages spread
For me to write,

Or this, from the same poem:

Like nerves caught in a graph
the morning-glory vines
frost has erased by half
still crawl across their rigid twines.
Like broken lines
of verses I can’t make.

Years later, in the work collected in After Experience, the same slate is scratched:

Now I can earn a living
By turning out elegant strophes.

The reader’s first and sound reaction is that he does not want to hear this: just read the news, please. The reaction is sound because this new habit of calling attention to the practical business of putting words on paper is the trivialization of what for some centuries has correctly been regarded as a divine act, an act which no decent practitioner should regard as his own preserve. The effect is childish, even in a poet of Snodgrass’s abilities: he is joined in this to those academically-environed hordes of giftless poets who utterly fail to realize that man is not the measure of art. But before we come to that general point, it can be put beyond doubt that Snodgrass is a poet capable of extraordinary effects. His acute, sparely employed (in fact under-indulged) metaphorical sense can put an era into an image:

This moth caught in the room tonight
Squirmed up, sniper-style, between
The rusty edges of the screen;

Faster and neater than that you don’t get: a whole background comes over in a flash. The well-known virtuoso effort ‘The Examination’ (once ‘the Phi Beta Kappa ceremonial poem at Columbia University’, save the mark), detailing the ghastly victimization of a generalized Otherness and recalling the eerie dismemberment of angels in the film by Borowczik, has an exquisitely schooled timing in its local effects that creates for the reader a nightmare he cannot stop.

Meantime, one of them has set blinders to the eyes,
Inserted light packing beneath each of the ears
And calked the nostrils in. One, with thin twine, ties
The genitals off. With long wooden-handled shears,

Another chops pinions out of the scarlet wings.

You can see how each line of the stanza infallibly brings something worse to life, and how, after the qualification ‘wooden-handled’ has placed your own garden-shears in your hands, the jump across the gap to the next stanza tells you that the next thing is the worst of the lot. In an age of fake rough-stuff turned out by those youngish poets who seem fascinated by greased hair and high boots this poem, and another called ‘A Flat One’ about an old man dying, are evidence that Snodgrass is capable of genuine tragic power — a power that the fashionable preoccupation with violence tends to dissipate. And it is not accidental that in these two instances the viewpoint is impersonal: the crippling assumption that one man can be a world is not in evidence.

Of those poems referring to a life meant to sound like his own, the best are those in which the experience has a general applicability to a time, to a culture. ‘What We Said’, a gently singing reminiscence of estrangement, is a good example. When he tries extra hard to supply the specific detail which will give the sense of a particular life (this is really me talking) he tends to be in the first place flimsy (‘Mementos I’ fades right out beside Larkin’s poem using the same properties, ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’) and in the second place dishonourable, since the theme, reduced to the loss of happiness, seems to assume a right to happiness — which for sound reasons has never been counted among an artist’s legitimate expectations. Betraying themselves technically by a prevalence of shakily cantilevered rhymes (bringing the reader as near as he will ever get to groaning at poetry of this accomplishment), such poems demonstrate that a necessary consequence of abolishing the distinction between private life and public life is that ordinary privacy ceases to exist as a concept: characterized with a ruthless hand and unable to answer back, the true sufferers in ‘confessional’ poetry are the poets’ wives.

The contradiction inherent in ‘confessional’ poetry which goes beyond its scope is damagingly evident in Snodgrass’s attempt at a poem about Eichmann, ‘A Visitation’. Technically very interesting, it creates an effect of jammed dialogue by interlacing two monologues, one by Eichmann, the other by the poet. (This exceedingly difficult trick of stereo voicing is used by Snodgrass elsewhere in ‘After Experience Taught me...’ and he may be said by now to hold the copyright on it.) But examined close to, the poem reveals itself to be dependent on all the usual weary banalities that would trace the phenomena of mass-murder to tendencies in the artist’s own soul, provide the illusion of debate and flatter the pretensions of the liberal spirit towards a forgiving generosity. In view of this it is particularly unfortunate that the poem should carry as an epigraph a quotation from Hannah Arendt, who has certainly declared (in the very book from which Snodgrass quotes) that these events can be understood in the long run only by the poets, but who equally certainly, and as long ago as the appearance of her monumental The Origins of Totalitarianism, made her views known about those who thought ‘that inner experience could be given historical significance, that one’s own self had become the battlefield of history’.

‘Confessional’ poetry has taken a small, previously neglected field among all the possible fields of poetry and within that field pushed on to a new adventure. It becomes absurd when it usurps the impersonal fields with the language of the personal — when it fails to recognize its limitations. Eichmann’s crimes, for example, were in the public realm; they are not to be traced to the sadistic impulse which is in all of us or to any other impulse which is in all of us; they can be understood only in history. When the poet pretends to contain, mirror or model history within his own suffering, his talent gives out for jus, as long as the folly lasts; the better he is, the worse the work he does; and even a first-rate talent like Snodgrass’s produces the smoothly ‘distinguished’ work which is the bane of our lives and to which we do not normally expect a man of his powers to contribute.

(TLS, 1969)


Looking back, it distresses me how long it took to get souped-up adverbs like ‘utterly’ out of my system. In ‘utterly fail’ the ‘utterly’ is utterly unnecessary. Nor did ‘distinguished’ need its inverted commas: a weak ironic device which I was slow to abandon. But all that was just deafness. Snidery is less excusable. I had no call to sneer at the mere idea of a Phi Beta Kappa poem: in America there have been some very good prize poems. The allusion to Larkin (‘Naturally the Foundation will bear your expenses’) shows two things: how hard I had been hit by Larkin, and how much easier it was then than now to get an unflagged literary reference into print. The most understandable mistake proved in the long run to be the most regrettable: I paid only fleeting attention to the chief drawback of confessional poetry, when I should have made it the whole point of the piece: ‘the victims in confessional poetry are the poet’s wives’ is as well put as I could put it now but too brief, because the confessional poets hadn’t just forgotten their manners, they had found an aesthetic justification for ruthlessness — always one of the signs of the totalitarian mentality getting into its stride.