Old Lady Barkeep found a mistress
To comfort Hitler in his distress
When all plans went to ruin.
But for prestigious, high style wooin’,
Disclosure to the public’s viewin’,
Even old-fashioned bill and cooin’
Or just plain screwin’,
William De Witt Snodgrass is the poet for our generation. Of course, he is not of it: had he been alive he would have turned ninety-five in January. Then he might have been rediscovered by any number of America’s newest masters of fine art, fitted to a pillory in the town square and expected to unburden his soul before the volunteer vicars of artistic orthodoxy. The early instalments of The Führer Bunker—from which the exquisite piece of doggerel above is excerpted—would have more than sufficiently warranted that. But being lambasted—alongside others recently exhumed for the purpose, like Walt Whitman—is not the most important way in which Snodgrass could belong to these moaning twenties. His poetry is the paragon of the self-engulfed, self-infatuated style that is the literary flavour of our season.
For much of the first half of the twentieth century in Britain and the United States, the regnant school of philology was New Criticism. Reacting against the saccharine and the political in Romantic art, young formalists regarded the poem as an independent object to be appreciated through close reading (as if the main Victorian affliction had been farsightedness). They sought value in structure, in syntax, in language. Disregard what you might think you can read beyond the full stop, what you might see outside the stanza or behind the pen. Forget the author’s historical context and intent, the insecurities and dissonances that comprise every thinking person. In the essay from 1919 which accidentally initiated the movement, T. S. Eliot makes the case for impersonality: the poet (if he’s any good) is an inert vessel in which the literary tradition that precedes him is synthesised into a novel element, as in a chemical reaction, thus reordering the totality of literature.
If at least part of this makes you uneasy, know that Snodgrass must have felt the same way. He thought it natural and unoriginal when he hollowed himself out in “Heart’s Needle,” agonising over the distance between him and his young daughter, from whose mother he was divorced in 1953: “Winter again and it is snowing / Although you are still three, / You are already growing / Strange to me.” The authorities at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were at first unmoved by the confessional voice. “Snodgrass, you have a brain. You can’t write this kind of tearjerking stuff!” Robert Lowell fretted, when shown drafts of pieces that later constituted the collection Heart’s Needle. By the time it earned Snodgrass the Pulitzer in 1960, Lowell had converted and—after his Life Studies won the National Book Award the same year—become the ordained patriarch of the new confessionalist order. Their disciples would soon include Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who during their short lives would vastly expand the realm of what can acceptably be put into verse.
A few decades later and we’re rolling down deep, unpromising valleys. Snodgrass stands on the summit to which we might have hoped our twenty-first century aesthetic inclination would have led. This is not merely because he happened to have ascended there first but also because we overshot the mark. (Septuagenarian Snodgrass ended up experimenting in mediocre visual art with watercolourist DeLoss McGraw, which for many contemporary writers might as well be their apogee.) The old boy revived an ancient impulse but also laboured over language technique as his formalist milieu demanded, which tempered his sentimentality and allowed him to preserve an eye for the beautiful and timeless. The result is inward-looking but not esoteric content and irregular yet metred form. See, for example, the opening of “A Locked House” (1986):
As we drove back, crossing the hill,
The house still
Hidden in the trees, I always thought—
A fool’s fear—that it might have caught
Fire, someone could have broken in.
As if things must have been
Too good here. Still, we always found
It locked tight, safe and sound.
The paranoia has that palpable familiarity each time you reread it. You need not be a middle-aged and divorced (thrice, eventually) American father in mid-century upstate New York. “Poetry deals in general truths,” as Aristotle put it. Readers cannot be expected to know the unique events that prompted this recollection and yet instantly they find that they know every salient thing about it. There is not a moment’s disconnection from his fine pen until the final word—a sharper image of remorse has scarcely been captured in a poet’s Parthian shot:
The house still stands, locked, as it stood
Untouched a good
Two years after you went.
Some things passed in the settlement;
Some things slipped away. Enough’s left
That I come back sometimes. The theft
And vandalism were our own.
Maybe we should have known.
In our unusually self-obsessed moment, lived experience has displaced our oxygen. Turn anywhere in poetry, film, fiction and especially nonfiction: there is an abundance of trauma. In pursuit of a distinctive voice, all roads lead to private distress—often politically tinged but personal nonetheless, especially as the divergence between the two becomes increasingly unpopular. To our callow eyes, the many dimensions of classic literature seem unrecognisable, unintelligible. To be sure, it would be too much to ask that artists not mirror themselves in their work. Bright young things Evelyn Waugh had met at Oxford invariably became amalgamated characters in his novels. Saul Bellow’s bipolar poet Von Humboldt Fleischer is a portrait of the author’s mentor, Delmore Schwartz (coincidentally an early confessional poet, among other things). Martin Amis is a minor character in his own novel Money. His protagonist (John Self, to both complicate and make things obvious) toddles into an uproariously miserable brothel scene similar to an account of an evening he and his chum Christopher Hitchens had spent in a New York massage parlour—arranged specifically for inspiration and research. But irreparably in our generation, the self has consumed everything. It has become the sole dramatis persona; the artist as solipsist. “They not only talk to themselves,” writes Mark Edmundson of the senior poets of our time, which is truer of the more junior ones, “they frequently talk to themselves about talking to themselves.” Instead of adding texture and colour, the personal touch stomps poetry flat.
The postmodernist as author forwent craftsmanship for enigmatic emotion and, as reader, learned to look for little else. There is neither appetite nor need for general truths when there are more immediate things like my truth and yours. And, if there are no general truths to express, why assume that there can be any about aesthetics—about how to express? Enter thick round ballpoints such as Anne Carson (“Each morning a vision came to me. / Gradually I understood that these were naked glimpses of my soul. / I called them Nudes. / Nude #1. Woman alone on a hill. / She stands into the wind.”) or Stephen Dobyns (“Stiff as a fireman’s spray his urine smacks, / into the toilet bowl to spatter against / the two-inch remnant of a cigarette, either / a Camel or a Lucky Strike both of which / his parents smoke. Perhaps he is eight.”), followed by crippled keyboards like Rupi Kaur’s: “how can i write / if he took my hands / with him.” Notice how form doesn’t follow function and the only function is to emote opaquely about the banal. But even worthwhile content can only briefly be original. Once the reader’s pity, curiosity or shock has subsided, our literature will go unread because it will lose its use; it will lose its use because the reader will grow emotionally desensitised, and she will grow emotionally desensitised because it is stylistically poor.
Today’s confessionalists—which is to say nearly all poets by definition—should beware the inward imperative. The extreme corollary is that one cannot write about anything but oneself: that authors are incapable of knowing truths about certain others and shouldn’t attempt to (unless permitted by a new breed of ferrymen who might guide them across the identitarian chasm). This would obliterate the poetry and leave the confessional, a wooden booth in which the artist is forced to endlessly and abstractly bewail his transgressions or divulge those committed against him. The quicker the politically salient aspects of identity multiply and compound, the more frequently will artists find their creative spaces claustrophobia-inducing and inhospitable.
When he set out to publish The Führer Bunker in 1977 (a series in progress completed in 1995), Snodgrass had to turn to a friend: the poet and translator Alfred Poulin, who had recently founded BOA Editions. No one else was willing to pick up twenty-two monologues ventriloquising Nazi officials as they contemplated their own extinction. The New York Times remembers that Snodgrass was accused of “humanizing monsters.” (Our censorial itch, you see, is never satisfied.) In an interview with author Hilary Holladay, published the day after his death, the poet notices that those most infuriated by the collection hadn’t bothered to read it. Not all art is panegyric. Why should literature be denied what is a fine subject for history, social science and philosophy—and why should we be denied that literature? This is from Goebbels’ first soliloquy: “Once my newscasters would disguise / Each loss as a triumph. Those lies / Were mere truths we misunderstood: / There’s no evil we can’t find good.” And here is Hermann Goering just before he presses the detonator’s handle to demolish his estate, Karinhall, to prevent the Reds from seizing it: “Are soccer balls like an ideal? / You pump them full of emptiness; / boot them around until they soften; / shove down that handle once too often, / Though… / What’s left you can still depress? / Yourself. You come down to what’s real.”
William De Witt Snodgrass (despite his preposterous name—though who am I to speak?) is the deep voice of our shallow selves. Since our arts have now irreversibly taken the self-regarding direction, the best poetry we can hope for is that which most closely approximates what he achieved. Namely, the fusion of our past and starting point—old-school formalism—with such an acute, novel awareness of the particular that it maintains unobstructed access to the non-negotiable subject: the universal. By so profoundly inhabiting himself and others, Snodgrass both consummated the confessional style and subverted it. He pioneered and pushed the paradigm to its limit. We should have realised by 1995—as he imagines his privileged university students admitting—that “We have nowhere to go but down; / The great destination is to stay.” Hence even T. S. Eliot might have seen Snodgrass as fitting into the grand tradition. Twenty-first century English-language poetry will progress only when confessionalism is synthesised into something truly unorthodox. Until then, all our verse is stasis: “The clock just now has nothing more to say.”