W. D. Snodgrass




William De Witt Snodgrass


January 5, 1926 – January 13, 2009

Snodgrass probably does not jump to mind immediately when one hears the term “confessional poetry,” but he disliked the term almost as much as his own name.

You know, a name like DeWitt Snodgrass-- 
You know, take it in vain.
Take it away. Take it--just take it!

On the confessional poetry label:

It’s a term I dislike intensely, because I don’t 
think I was doing anything very different from 
what poets have done for years and years and years.

Nicknamed “De” (pronounced “dee”) by his friends, his poetry was not limited to the stereotypical confessional. His first collection of poetry, Heart’s Needle, written in 1959, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the following year and fell under that label, but later in life his worked branched out into Hitler monologues and responses to the surrealist paintings of DeLoss McGraw. His writing was personal but always controlled, usually rhymed and often funny.


Born January 5, 1926 and raised in Beaver Falls, PA, Snodgrass attended Geneva College until ’44. He was drafted by the navy, and in ’46 he attended the University of Iowa for poetry, where one of his teachers was Robert Lowell. He earned his BA in ’49, MA in ’51, and MFA in ’53.

He went on to teach at Cornell (1955–57), Rochester (1957–58), Wayne State (1958–68), Syracuse (1968–76), and the University of Delaware (1979–94), then retired to focus completely on his writing. When asked in an interview if he had any advice for young poets, he said, "If you can be happy doing anything else, do it ... Everything pays better. Everything is more honestly rewarded."

He died January 13, 2009 in his home in New York.

Snodgrass was married four times: to Lila Jean Hank from ’46-‘53 (they had a daughter, Cynthia Jean), Janice Marie Ferguson Wilson from ’54-‘66 (son: Russell Bruce, stepdaughter: Kathy Ann Wilson), Camille Rykowski from ’67-‘78, and he was married to Kathleen Ann Brown from ’85 until the end of his life. His first divorce was the inspiration for Heart’s Needle.


The Pulitzer Prize-winning Heart’s Needle from 1959, which exposes Snodgrass’s feelings about losing his daughter through the divorce, was his first collection. This set of confessional poems is solemn and very concerned with formal control.

The New York Times said:

In Heart's Needle, Snodgrass spoke in a 
distinctive voice. It was one that was jaunty 
and assertive on the surface but somber and 
hurt beneath.

Other rising confessional poets would take this genre in a much more radical direction.

W.D. went on to write the collection After Experience (1968), then Remains (1970), If Birds Build with Your Hair (1979) and D. D. Byrde Calling Jennie Wrenn (1984) all in free verse. His next two collections were collaborations with DeLoss McGraw, including Snodgrass’s poetry and McGraw’s art: W.D.’s Midnight Carnival (1988) and The Death of Cock Robin (1989). The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress, monologues by Hitler and Nazis who shared his bunker at the end of the Third Reich, was published and updated over the years, from ’77-95.

The American Book Review called this work:

a rare example of ambitious, on-going verse sculpture...
It will be around for a long time to inspire writers 
who've come to realize the sad limitations of the 
locked-in, private, first lesson, obsessional poem.

A full bibliography.

Del and De

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Artist DeLoss McGraw, "Del," formed a partnership with Snodgrass that produced a few collections of work. Watch the background on their friendship here and here.


"W.D. Snodgrass." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 17 Oct. 2010 <http://www.britannica.com.ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/EBchecked/topic/550493/W-D-Snodgrass>.

"W.D. Snodgrass." The Poetry Foundation. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/w-d-snodgrass>

"The Original Confessional Poet Tells All." Poetry Foundation. 14 Jan 2009. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=181671>

Alan Wofsy Fine Arts. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.art-books.com/cgi-bin/artbooks/results2.html>

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