With its soaring cathedral ceilings, buttercup walls, and gleaming hardwood floors throughout the lobby, the University of Delaware’s Roselle Center for the Arts welcomed several hundred guests to the WD Snodgrass Memorial Symposium Wednesday afternoon April 27, 2011. W. D. Snodgrass was both a teacher and an acclaimed poet who won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection of poems titled The needle of the heart. This event was sponsored by several departments of the University of Delaware where De (as was his name for family and friends) was recognized as a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and Contemporary Literature until his death on 13 January 2009.
Among the keynote speakers was XJ Kennedy, acclaimed poet, children’s book author, novelist and college professor, whose name is familiar to all English graduates in America (he was editor-in-chief of Norton Anthologies and author of several text for the past few decades). As a friend, colleague and huge fan, Kennedy shared a short personal anecdote that elicited a soft laugh from the audience inside the theater. He was first attracted to De after reading The needle of the heart, at which point he wrote De a “fan letter” praising his verse. After receiving the letter and realizing they were both currently living in the same city, De went to Kennedy’s bachelor pad, knocked on the door, and introduced himself to the man who would become a longtime friend and fan of his work. . Kennedy, who was preparing dinner, invited him in, but De politely declined, since the dinner Kennedy served wasn’t exactly De’s idea. fan appreciation. Over the years, however, they shared many dinners together and their friendship continued to grow through mutual respect and admiration.
Speaking of WD Snodgrass’ famously aberrant poetry, Kennedy says, “De was a great lover of bad poetry; he thought it might teach you something.” And thanks to De, he has in fact taught many of us something. One of the best teaching tools available today was written by De (published by Graywolf Press) and is titled De/Compositionsin which De took a selection of classical and contemporary poems and “deconstructed” them, rewrote them in a way that teaches students of poetry how to Not write. This, however, is only one of many contributions. Kennedy refers to De as “one of the best American poets of our time” and says his influence on other poets has been enormous. Once a student of Robert Lowell, De’s early work could be said to strongly imitate that of his mentor, who was at the forefront of the sectarian movement; however, according to Kennedy, “Lowell ended up imitating him [Snodgrass].”
A former student of De and now an associate professor at UD, James Keegan recited “These Trees Stand,” a poem that clearly characterizes De, his sense of humor and ultimately his first internal battle with the acceptance of himself, who won in a clear way. With the infamous metaphorical line “Snodgrass is walking across the universe” completing each stanza, the poem affirms De’s amusement with his name and ultimately his life. New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik, also a keynote speaker at the event, went on to point out that it simply would not have had the same impact or conveyed the same meaning with any other name, such as Lowell, Bishop or Browning. This same amusement with one’s faults is wittily and thematically displayed in much of De’s work, and especially in one of his most popular poems, “April Inventory,” which was also recited and often quoted at the ceremony.
One thing all of De’s colleagues will agree on is that he fully embraced who he was: he was his own poet. He colored outside the lines and wrote about what he thought was important regardless of what may or may not have been deemed acceptable at any given time. As Kennedy mentions, De wasn’t afraid to broach controversial topics, he wasn’t afraid to express emotion, and his writing wasn’t “mechanical.” He wrote whatever suited him, whether it was a series of dramatic monologues by some of the most evil and hated Nazis of Hitler’s regime (Fuehrer Bunker) or a collection of poems fully exposing De’s love of trifles (The Kinder Capers). At a time when her thoughts were largely occupied by her relationship with her daughter, she brought a revolutionary style of poetry to the confessional table. However, her name became closely associated with confessional poetry much to her chagrin, as it is a term she utterly detested, one with which she could not disagree more. “Confessional” connotes religious matter and De was not religious in any sense of the word. More apropos of his writing is what his wife Kathy knowingly called “uncommon tenderness.” However, the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection was deeply sentimental, and his confessional style had a profound impact on contemporary poets of the time.