W.D. Snodgrass in Conversation with Philip Hoy
This volume is invaluable. It is the most important document we have toward understanding the central enterprise of Snodgrass's work, especially the intentions behind and misunderstandings of The Führer Bunker. When the post-modern American poets are re-evalued, Snodgrass's reputation will surely rise to the top, and this volume will be cited as justification.– Robert Phillips (Moores Professor of English in the University of Texas and author of The Confessional Poets) wrote:
W.D. Snodgrass in Conversation with Philip Hoy … is rich in anecdote and memory – of Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, William Empson and others; it is fascinating, too, on Snodgrass's experience … of creative writing classes; it is good on Snodgrass's own work - especially when he discusses his extraordinary cycle The Führer Bunker - and its reception by readers (and others). There is, in short, much to enjoy and learn from here. Though the questions are asked by Hoy, he also has things to say that aren't questions addressed to Snodgrass; what is presented is, that is to say, more of a conversation than interviews often are, and seems better for it. The book's value is increased by the inclusion of what seems to be a pretty thorough bibliography of Snodgrass's work, and of critical writings on him. Warmly recommended.– Glyn Pursglove, Swansea Review (1999)
Do you think that some of the criticism [The Führer Bunker] has attracted may have sprung from the idea that understanding must lead on to forgiveness, so that, if we’re not to forgive, we must not be able to understand?
I’m sure it did.
A lot of people do seem taken with the idea – it’s to be found in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, for example, and in the afterword to Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Truce – but it’s surely unsound …
You can understand why someone did something and still want to see them punished. But there’s a more important reason why people might dislike The Führer Bunker, and it goes back to what I was saying a moment ago. It’s comforting to believe that the Nazis were utterly different from the rest of us, so different that we can describe them as inhuman – or bestial or fiendish or whatever – and so different that any attempt to understand their behaviour is bound to fail. The Führer Bunker assumes that this is false.
Hence the epigraph: ‘Mother Teresa, asked when it was she started her work for abandoned children, replied, “On the day I discovered I had a Hitler inside me.’’’
There’s a fine book by Ian Buruma called The Wages of Guilt, in which he talks about the ways in which Germany and Japan have tried to come to terms with the outrages they committed during the ‘30s and ‘40s. And I’d like to quote from a part of the book where he seeks to explain why it is that the Nazi leaders have received so little attention from writers, fictional and non-fictional. He’s talking of German writers in particular, but I think the point he makes has more general application: ‘This fear of biography, in fictional or documentary form, is due possibly to an idea common in the 1960s and the 1970s - that structures and institutions, not human beings, explain the past. But it must also have something to do with the fear of identification; what Germans call Berührungsangst, literally the fear of making contact.’ I wonder if this doesn’t help to explain the difficulties some people have had with The Führer Bunker?
I very much agree with Buruma’s statement about the fear of contact. But even stronger, I think, is the fear of recognition, which is what I was talking about just now. In other words, it’s not only the fear that bad luck, or bad morals, are contagious and may rub off, but also, and more importantly, the fear that the disease is general and innate. I hate to agree with the church about anything, but they were right in seeing evil as innate and universal.
Did your own experience during the war contribute to The Führer Bunker in any way? James Fenton says in the piece he wrote for Agenda that you didn’t have any terrible experiences at the hands of the enemy …
The Navy is very foolish, but not so foolish as to send me into combat! The only Japanese I got to see were prisoners.
But according to Fenton, you hated what life in the Navy involved. What did it involve, for you?
Well, let me describe an incident for you. I was a brig guard for a time, and one of the prisoners we had was a huge black guy – we nicknamed him Heavy – who shouldn’t have been there at all. He’d been playing craps on board an aircraft carrier, and somehow became involved in a fight. He hit the other guy once, and thought – quite reasonably, given his size – that it was all over. But the other guy managed to pick up a fire-axe, and hit him in the back, giving him a huge gash. He was in hospital for months. But then, when he came out, they sent him to the brig. What had he done? Nothing! He was the victim!
Then, one day, a new prisoner, who’d been put in the same room as Heavy and a lot of other prisoners, claimed he’d been gang-raped during the night. Some of them admitted having anal intercourse with him, but said that he’d been a willing partner, that he’d even suggested it. No formal charges were made, because it could have been embarrassing for us and our officers if it had got out that the Brig hadn’t been properly check-ed that night. Instead, these guys – and Heavy was amongst them – were made to do heavy labour. They were also made to sleep in an absolutely bare room, under bright lights, with no furnishings of any kind, just a bucket for shitting in. And as if that weren’t bad enough, I had to go in every night, every hour on the hour, get these guys on their feet, bring them to attention, dismiss them, and then leave ….
You had to torment them?
This obviously goes deep with you …
They were all Black guys from the south … They’d had pretty wretched lives …
And there you were, making their lives still more wretched. How long did the punishment go on for?
Oh, about a week.
And what effect did it have? On them, I mean …
They grew steadily more exhausted, steadily more angry …
Well, one night, I arrived late, which meant that I had to call them on the half-hour, rather than the hour, and, the next day, someone told them I’d wakened them once too often. That wasn’t true – in fact, I’d wakened them one time too few – but they believed it, and when I went in again, I found Heavy looming over me, angry as hell, convinced that I was getting pleasure out of all this … I wasn’t so much scared as sorry, sorry that he could think that.
You feel guilty about what you did as a Brig Guard? That you should have refused to be a party to it?
I should have, but I didn’t have the courage. By then it would have meant my going to prison, because I’d lost my religious beliefs.
Like a lot of other people, you were just following orders.
You said earlier that, after the war was over, and you became a student, you joined the Quakers for a while. Was this because of what you’d found yourself willing to do, or not unwilling not to do, while in the Navy?
Sure … Well … It’s hard to talk about …
We can move on to other things …
No – if it isn’t hard to talk about, it’s probably not worth talking about ... While we were still in training, out in California, near San Francisco, a combat instructor took a bunch of us out and gave us a lesson in how, if you’re caught without any weapons, you can blind a man with your bare hands, and then … rip off his face … I sort of … I’m sorry …
You wrote about this in ‘After Experience Taught Me …’
But it troubles you still …
I recovered that scene some years later when I was in shallow-level psychotherapy … It was a strange situation, because the therapist was behind a mirror, and couldn’t be seen … Anyway, we went back to that incident, and I simply broke up, went all over the room ... It may be that they didn’t really expect us to do that, that they were testing us, to see how willing we were to be stripped of our former attitudes …
But you didn’t think that at the time?
No, no. I believed that’s what they expected us to do. I also believed that I had no business being someplace I might have to do such a thing.
Would you have, do you think?
I think I might have …
Maybe none of us knows what he’s capable of, until he sees what he actually does?
But you know, I heard somewhere that in WWII, a very high proportion of the guns ‘jammed’.
You mean people couldn’t bring themselves to open fire?
It would be nice to believe that that was true!
Except that I kind of like the fact we didn’t lose that war!
Well, you wouldn’t have wanted to lose that war because of your better instincts, but maybe there’s something to be said for having won it despite them!
And the Quakers?
Okay, well, later on, when Korea was starting to hot up, I knew I couldn’t go back into the military. I knew I couldn’t go to jail either, because by then I was married and had a child to think of. The only alternative was to find support from some religious group, and that’s how I ended up going to the Quakers. I’d gone to the Unitarians first, but they were so naïve, always believing the best of people. The Quakers were very different, very courageous, quite prepared to believe the worst about everybody!
When the war did break out, were you called up?
As I recall, I sent in my draft card, telling them I wouldn’t be prepared to serve. And they said, ‘Look, if things were that bad, we’d ring you up and tell you all about it! But for now we don’t need people your age, so please: Go away!’
We’ve moved rather a long way from The Führer Bunker, but it’s not hard to see how someone who’s had the sorts of experiences you’ve described might be disposed to take an interest in the evil that men do, and to make it a subject of his poetry. In one way or another, the foul rag-and-bone shop of the human heart has always been pretty close to the centre of your concerns.
I’ll want to come back to this later, but it seems to me that the urge to conform, the pressure to conform, and the dangers of not resisting the urge and the pressure, are never very far away from your concerns as a writer.
You won’t get an argument out of me over that!
The Waywiser Press
W.D. Snodgrass was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1926, and was educated at Geneva College. His studies were interrupted when, during WWII, he was drafted into the Navy, and sent to the Pacific. After demobilization, Snodgrass resumed his studies, but transferred from Geneva College to the University of Iowa, eventually enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which had been established in 1937, and was attracting as tutors some of the finest poetic talents of the day, amongst them John Berryman, Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell. Snodgrass’s first poems appeared in 1951, and throughout the 1950’s he published in some of the most prestigious magazines (e.g. 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. He wrote to Elizabeth Bishop, saying: ‘I must tell you that I’ve discovered a new poet, W.D. Snodgrass – he was once one of my Iowa students, and I merely thought him about the best. Now he turns out to be better than anyone except Larkin.’He also wrote to Randall Jarrell, this time calling Snodgrass Larkin’s equal, and comparing him to the great French poet, Jules Laforgue. The point was developed in an interview he gave the Paris Review rather later:
‘I think a lot of the best poetry is [on the verge of being slight and sentimental]. Laforgue – it’s hard to think of a more delightful poet … Well, it’s on the verge of being sentimental, and if he hadn’t dared to be sentimental he wouldn’t have been a poet. I mean, his inspiration was that. There’s some way of distinguishing between false sentimentality, which is blowing up a subject and giving emotions that you don’t feel, and using whimsical, minute, tender, small emotions that most people don’t feel but which Laforgue and Snodgrass do. So that I’d say he [Snodgrass] had pathos and fragility … He has fragility along the edges and a main artery of power going through the center."
As well as writing to Bishop and Jarrell, Lowell wrote to Snodgrass, saying how much he admired the anthologized poems, and offering to help him find a book publisher. By the time Heart’s Needle was published, in 1959, Snodgrass had already won the The Hudson Review Fellowship in Poetry and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Poetry Prize. However, his first book brought him something 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 verse. Snodgrass dislikes the term, and is quick to point out that the kind of verse he was writing at that time – a ‘searingly personal’ verse, as Ann Sexton called it – was hardly unprecedented. This is true, but it is also true 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, and most importantly, Robert Lowell. The evidence for this is on display in Lowell’s most accomplished volume, Life Studies, which appeared in the same year as Heart’s Needle, and enabled its author to carry off the other great literary prize for 1960, the National Book Award. The effect on other poets, on both sides of the Atlantic, is fairly described as liberating. As one English critic was to put it later on:
”'Confessional' was an unfortunate way of describing what was new about Life Studies and Heart’s Needle – the term reeks of guilt and ingratiation – but it does recall the general surprise that such poetic vibrance and composure could be won from subjects that seemed doomed to privacy or narcissistic inflation."
In the almost forty years since this auspicious debut, Snodgrass has gone on to produce an impressively diverse body of work, including After Experience, Remains, A Locked House, W.D.’s Midnight Carnival, The Death of Cock Robin, Each in His Season, The Führer Bunker, seven volumes of translations, and a large number of essays too, some of which were collected in In Radical Pursuit. These books have seriously divided the critics, bringing bouquets from some and brickbats from others. Most controversial of all was The Führer Bunker, a book which not only pitted critics against each other, but in one notable case pitted a critic against himself. Snodgrass has a long and distinguished academic career behind him, having taught at Cornell, Rochester, Wayne State, Syracuse, Old Dominion, and Delaware Universities. He retired from teaching in 1994, and now devotes himself full-time to his writing. He lives with his ‘fourth, last and best’ wife, the writer, Kathleen Snodgrass (née Browne), spending six months of each year at their home in New York, and the other six months in Mexico.
– Philip Hoy, 1998