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Scoundrels and Saints 

To Sound Like Yourself: Essays on Poetry by W. D. Snodgrass. BOA Editions, 2002.

In Radical Pursuit by W. D. Snodgrass. Harper & Row, 1977.

As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau

In 1977 W. D. Snodgrass published his first book-length foray into criticism, In Radical Pursuit, which began with an essay titled “Tact and the Poet’s Force.” The essay must have seemed strange to observers at first glance, for was this not the same poet who played a major role—along with Lowell, Plath, Roethke, Sexton, and Berryman—in the development of so-called Confessional Poetry? And most know Confessional poetry to be, even in its most watered-down and generic sense, anything but tactful. Yet there Snodgrass was, as early as the late 1960s, warning anyone who would listen that “We simply do not believe anyone who talks very easily about matters of great feeling or ultimate belief” and “We know that we must restrain some part of our energies or we destroy ourselves.” The above quotations might lead one to think Snodgrass had undergone a great shift in aesthetic temperament, and for a reader of the day it would be difficult to sense otherwise, but observing from many years on, we can now see more clearly what the Confessionalism of the 1960s was, how it figured into the larger context of American poetry at the time, and why Snodgrass was keen to establish some distance between it and himself.

Much as Voltaire described the Holy Roman Empire (“neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”), the Confessional School had little to do with the Catholic ritual of confession and was still less a school. The term was the brainchild of a clever critic and was simply a poor coinage from the start, for the Catholic overtones of the label are not consistently evident in the work of those poets we have labeled as “Confessional.” Only in the poetry of John Berryman can one see the inkling of a Catholic sensibility consistently played out. Others dabbled in it, notably Lowell, and of course, today, the religious associations we have with “confessional” as it is applied to poetry are next to nothing, which is perhaps the greatest testament to how useless the label is.[private]

In the hagiographies that pass for literary biography Confessional poetry is portrayed as a great opening up, the genesis of a shockingly fresh approach to poetry that utilizes autobiographical detail (never mind that the Beats had beat them to the punch, as it were). Looking back, Confessionalism—that is, the “school” of poets who were labeled as such as the 1960s—was nothing more than a halfway house for poets who didn’t belong to the counterculture, but who were nonetheless writing about things middle-class people weren’t supposed to talk about—mental illness, incest, infidelity, loss of religious faith, drug abuse, the most intimate details of sex, suicidal tendencies, etc. The poets so labeled were primarily lapsed pupils of the Ransom-Tate school (or their students) who had tried, or were trying, their hand at a middle-class existence. They were getting married, having kids, holding down jobs of some responsibility, traveling the world on vacations, sabbaticals, fellowships, etc. They were not tramps. I do not say this derisively, but only to bring to mind what might seem less obvious today than it was 40 years ago: Confessionalism was, in many ways, both a borrowing from and a reaction against certain features of Beat poetry and poetics, and taken together, both modes of poetry were very much a part of the Zeitgeist, of general cultural upheaval.

Seen in this way, Confessional poetry is best understood as a more accessible, more middle-class expression of that larger trend. But Snodgrass could see fairly early on that the newer, “fresher” poetry was a quickly perishable good. “Tact and the Poet’s Force” was written (or delivered, in this case, as it was conceived originally in late 1960s as a lecture) as an exploration of why, just as poetic language was becoming more frank and personal, the potential for intellectual dishonesty and disingenuousness was no less great. In short, this new honesty could be a method of concealment, not revelation.

This deception can be seen on many levels—in the way a poet relates to the audience his life troubles, his politics, his loves, his hates, his fears. Take, for example, Snodgrass’s examination of how a poet can ruin a political sentiment by allowing a sense of moral superiority to get the better of him: in “Tact and Poet’s Force” Snodgrass contrasts two poems—one by Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) and another by Sarah Cleghorn (1876-1959)—to demonstrate that “Until you are willing to admit that you share some part of humanity’s baseness and degradation, you cannot write about humanity’s dignity and gentleness.” Below I quote the text of both poems as Snodgrass presented it.

from The Dragon and the Unicorn

Sitting there, reading this in your
Psychoanalyst’s waiting room,
Thirty-five years old, faintly
Perfumed, expensively dressed,
Sheer nylons strapped to freezing thighs,
Brain removed at Bennington
Or Sarah Lawrence,…
Think this is all just Art—contrast—
Naples—New York. It is not. Every time
You open your frigidaire
A dead Neapolitan baby
Drops out.

The Golf Links

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

As Snodgrass then had it, “I think these four lines [of Cleghorn’s] demonstrate, as little else can, the strength that comes into the poet’s voice when he has the inner strength to let the facts speak….” Both poems attempt to juxtapose affluence and poverty, but Snodgrass finds fault with the sneering tone of the Rexroth poem and the all-too-easy indictment—the sham of the closing image which is meant not so much to reveal but to impress upon us the poet’s passionate disapproval. Snodgrass goes further, stating, “Such a failure of tact could come about, I think, only because of a deep insecurity in the writer. If he really thought his idea were adequate, would he quite so desperately need my agreement?”

For Snodgrass tact is not an excuse to justify a less engagé attitude, a politics of inequality, or any politics whatsoever, but merely to safeguard poets against formulating simple answers to complex questions and problems, for as he writes, “The problem is that most people, once committed to any line of thought, cannot endure the unavoidable weaknesses and complexities of their position. They shout their idea louder and louder, hoping to quiet everyone else’s doubts and especially their own.” But surely, one might say, there is nothing malign in writing an opinionated poem, particularly about the injustices visited upon the poor. Perhaps not, but that’s rather beside the point—a poem is not authenticated because of its sentiment, no matter how vehement or righteous (others might call it sanctimony).

The Aesthetic of Righteous Sentiment is a poor one, for writ large, it supports nothing more than the creation of propaganda. It might be propaganda that one finds appealing on some level, but propaganda all the same. I am led here to think of George Orwell and his horrific experiences while serving in the Spanish Civil War—wounded while fighting right-wing Fascists and then marked for assassination by left-wing Stalinists because he would not toe a party line. How can one be true to such an experience? How can one reduce it to a political slogan? What is a man to say when betrayed in such a manner? In “The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda” (1941) Orwell commented,

Just as many writers about 1930 had discovered that you cannot really be detached from contemporary events, so many writers about 1939 were discovering that you cannot really sacrifice your intellectual integrity for the sake of a political creed—or at least you cannot do so and remain a writer. Aesthetic scrupulousness is not enough, but political rectitude is not enough either.

Of course, Orwell’s situation presents us with a worst-case scenario. But we would be foolish to believe that the intellectual simplicity informing a poem such as Rexroth’s bears no relation to the darker, more malign type of simplicity that underwrites the worst kind of propaganda. Too often—especially today—poets would rather not think of the connection, or are so completely co-opted by one creed or another that they simply don’t care, and it is poetry that suffers the worst for it. That Snodgrass was able to sense this in the 1960s and articulate it in a more or less straightforward manner is to his great credit.

But what about poems more readily identified as “Confessional”? Where a lack of tact contributes to an overweening querulousness in the political poet, in the Confessional poet it creates an equally distasteful quality of voice and sensibility—the overwrought world-weariness of the victim. “See how I suffer,” a poet may say, but who really suffers in this way? A poem with such a simple premise is not really attempting to capture something true to experience. More likely, it is a means of getting attention, the way a child might. Besides, the suffering that has no name is far more terrifying than the one that can be so blunted stated—“See how I suffer.” Snodgrass observes,

“Suicide” is committee language. It is always easy to say “I am a terrible sinner” or “I have suicidal urges” or “I have an Oedipus complex.” You say you have troubles; you sound so superior to them that you belie your own statement in making it. The hard thing, the strong thing, is to say in simple, personal language, how that problem affects the pattern of your life.

To demonstrate his stance vis-à-vis Confessional poetry, Snodgrass falls back on Robert Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Snodgrass sees the poem as the expression of a suicidal urge, although the poem is such a model of indirection that intelligent people could disagree about the poem’s underlying themes; however, the perception is worth noting, and the crux of the matter is not so much a specific explication of the poem, but rather how tact and indirection can make strongly felt emotions or strongly held beliefs more powerful and more truthful to experience.

This might seem counter-intuitive to some who feel that the poet’s direct expression is the sine qua non of power and honesty. But direct expression, especially the kind used in the Confessional mode, requires pure motives. Snodgrass’s dedication to tact and indirection hinges on his mistrust of the conscious mind, for as he explains, “most people simply do not use their conscious minds for the discernment or the revelation of the truth. They use their conscious minds to disguise themselves from others and from themselves, to make themselves look better than they are.” Snodgrass does qualify this statement; he has no desire to turn the notion of a dissembling consciousness into an immutable aesthetic principle. Sometimes, strong feelings do find a genuine and direct expression. More often, they do not.

One might feel that the logical end of Snodgrass’s insistence on an unreliable conscious mind leads us into a despicable trap where we are caught on one side by an unmitigated obscurity and on the other by an extreme detachment from emotion. He briefly anticipates such an objection, stating:

[sometimes poets] mature enough to see that no idea will permit them to be right all the time, so they reject all ideas. They become intellectuals. They live only to demonstrate their detachment from all positions, their utter superiority to any belief or any feeling. To them, the greatest sin is passion or energy. Our problem, I think, is to discriminate, yet not lose the ability to believe and act; to belong energetically to the world without being an idiot. We can do this only if we have the strength to live inside human limitations, to know that it is better to have lived, even though this means being wrong a good part of the time.

That poets should be scoundrels as well as saints, and in more or less equal measures, is an uncomfortable notion for the contemporary poet reared on two-hundred years of Romantic pap, but Snodgrass would rather have us see ourselves stripped of the self-flattery foisted upon our imaginations by our conscious minds.

This method of confession, if one could call it that, is closer in spirit to “Heart’s Needle” (Snodgrass’s poem cycle) in which the persona leaves behind an unflattering, yet sympathetic, record of himself. And isn’t such a revelation the point of confession? After all, no one properly “confesses” to others how great or wise he is—we have other verbs to describe such behavior.

In The Quiet American (1958) novelist Graham Greene has some choice things to say about the nature of confession. Thomas Fowler, Greene’s protagonist, narrates an interesting piece of dialogue involving himself and Inspector Vigot, who is questioning Fowler in connection with a murder. After Vigot offers Fowler a drink, Fowler retorts,

‘Surely it is unwise for a criminal to drink with a police officer?’

‘I have never said you were a criminal.’

‘But suppose the drink unlocked even in me the desire to confess? There are no secrets of the confessional in your profession.’

‘Secrecy is seldom important to a man who confesses: even when it’s to a priest. He has other motives.’

‘To cleanse himself?’

‘Not always. Sometimes he only wants to see himself clearly as he is.’

To see himself as he is. This is the touchstone of In Radical Pursuit, for what is being pursued throughout is an idea of self-knowledge, not the popular poetic version of it, not the poet-as-prophet, but the poet sensitive to his own failings. Midway through In Radical Pursuit, Snodgrass takes up another famous literary confession, that of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in order to demonstrate what he believes to be Raskolnikov’s motivation for confessing:

Porfiry advances from the role of chief inspector into the roles of the priest and father who can help Raskolnikov regain self-respect through, first, confession and, next, punishment or “suffering.” I take it, then, that Raskolnikov’s original motive in murder was to achieve punishment.

Running to nearly 60 pages, the chapter on Dostoevsky is the book’s longest by far, and often, Snodgrass’s discussion of Crime and Punishment touches on the concerns of “Tact and Poet’s Force,” if only in sideways fashion. For example. Snodgrass’s distrust of “revolutionary” fervor is clear when he compares Raskolnikov to other protagonists found in Dostoevsky’s work:

The characters of both novels [The Possessed and Crime and Punishment] tend to be young people actually or effectively deprived of fathers, tormented by newfound freedoms and inactivity, driven into violence by unresolved guilts. Both are likely to confuse aimless violence, rebelliousness, or criminality with political action.

Elsewhere, Snodgrass makes connections between criminality and self-abuse and explores the child-like impulses of rebellion, both of which point back to “Tact and the Poet’s Force” and the shortcomings he identifies in the poetry of the period. While there are several other interesting essays in the book, the two discussed here offer a glimpse at some of Snodgrass’s most cogent and far-reaching criticism and, in many respects, anticipate The Fuehrer Bunker, a volume in which the personae are often completely self-deluded, vain, and evil, an approach running counter to many of his contemporaries who were stuck in traffic while traveling literature’s high road.

While In Radical Pursuit is shot through with Snodgrass’s correctives for bad poetry, his second volume of criticism, To Sound Like Yourself, largely takes a different approach. The book is less one of literary criticism and more akin to so many undergraduate handbooks of poetry, such as John Nims’s Western Wind or Robert Wallace’s Writing Poems. Warm and encouraging, light and congenial—certainly, an instructor could do worse by his students, but within this very specialized genre, Snodgrass does manage to pick up some of the concerns treated in a weightier fashion elsewhere during his career.

The book’s second chapter, “Against Your Beliefs,” most clearly recalls In Radical Pursuit, as Snodgrass introduces his discussion by claiming, “true [poems] are likely to have not only improprieties but, often enough, a bad moral; that is, a meaning counter to the author’s conscious beliefs.” This argument brings us back to the unreliability of the conscious mind as stated in “Tact and Poet’s Force.” In To Sound Like Yourself, the idea is simplified somewhat. To illustrate how to write “against your beliefs” and why it is necessary, Snodgrass draws on the work of the famously agnostic Thomas Hardy and the famously Christian Gerard Manley Hopkins. Both poets, Snodgrass argues, defy a simple reduction to the doctrines of belief (or disbelief, as the case may be). Hopkins is depicted as straining against his monasticism in “Inversnaid” and “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord”; likewise, Hardy is viewed as a High Church Agnostic (indeed, one could say he invented the type) whose poems betray a certain religious sentiment or nostalgia. Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” is given the same interpretative treatment, as Snodgrass sees the poem not as an ecstatic celebration, but rather as a scene of “punishment and sterility.” The poem succeeds because it establishes an expectation and then runs counter to it, or as Snodgrass explains:

We should not let the bright lights and vegetable abundance of the poem’s opening blind us to its ultimate desolation. All that produce, the “wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes,” are merely visions of Tantalus. For all the supermarket’s plenty, the basic thirsts and hungers remain unslaked, unsatisfied—the frozen delicacies are tasted only in fancy.

Snodgrass continuously confronts us with poets taken “out of character”—hence, we have a metrical William Carlos Williams (“Of asphodel, that greeny flower”), a chaste D.H. Lawrence (“The Piano”), and a Robert Frost (“Out, Out—“) who is anything but a sentimental nature poet. We might disagree as to whether Snodgrass has picked the best these poets have to offer, but the lesson is well taken; there is great creative power lurking just outside the confines of belief—no matter whether that belief be religious, ideological, or aesthetic—if a poet has the courage to explore ideas beyond what is comfortable to the conscious mind.

On other matters To Sound Like Yourself offers up discussions of rhythm, of nonsense verse, and of meter, which begins, “I am not messing into those weary squabbles about whether a poet should use traditional meters.” Throughout To Sound Like Yourself Snodgrass is indefatigably undoctrinaire. The chapters move by association and by anecdote and are conversational in tone; however, these elements do not necessarily preclude an occasional provocation, as when he states, “…I am talking about the American middle class and its failure to turn freedom and prosperity into creative individuality—a failure disguised alternately by gaudy self-displays of costume and manner, then by blameful demands for still more freedom, still more unfair advantages.” Such observations are made sparingly (after all, Snodgrass is not a crank), just enough to remind us that writing (and reading) good poetry should make demands on us.

The above quotation sums up, as does the book’s title, Snodgrass’s primary purpose: how an individual can rise above the recent failings of contemporary poetry, and it would seem the first rule is to forego rules, or perhaps more accurately stated, to abstain from the rigid observance of rules, of dicta, of systems. In short, none of them is really necessary, and they’re certainly not sufficient, for as Snodgrass writes, “Could any system tell you how to sound like yourself? That’s what systems aim to modify, even squelch.” Poets seldom live or write according to their own rules (or lack thereof), and at times Snodgrass is no exception; however, one cannot say that he hasn’t charted his own course, for better or worse, and insofar as his criticism is a reaction against artistic conformity, he has at least matched the gesture through the publishing of an idiosyncratic poetic corpus, which is more than can be said for many poets who, like dogs, travel safely in packs.[/private]

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- who has written 12 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

J. S. Renau has published poems in the Paris Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, and The Formalist. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, he currently resides in New York City.

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