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Training to kill with bare hands

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Writing about what matters: Heart's Needle
WD Snodgrass Poet
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The other… the other thing is that… the breaking up of that marriage — which did then break up completely — took my daughter, and that really ripped me. You know, our teachers had been telling us that we had to write about the things that TS Eliot was supposed to be writing about; they weren't really what he was writing about, he was writing about his own fear of sex and his own hatred of it and so forth; but they… they all believed the critics who said,  'Oh he's writing about the loss of myth in our time, how we must all have a myth', you know, 'Go back to God'. I'd been trying so hard to get rid of that stuff, I mean ever since I was in the war, you know. That… that changed my… my beliefs totally right then. It wiped them out. I thought, you know, every… there's 5000 sailors on this ship alone and how many ships are in this convoy? One… one Japanese torpedo sends 5000 of us in the water at once, and we're all clamoring all over each other and drowning each other, and I'm supposed to pray? Didn't everybody prayed, whoever went… whoever went down with a ship, and how the hell many ships are there in the bottom of that ocean? So, you know, the whole thing just died right then; this is nonsense and I don't want any of it. But my teachers were telling me I must… get myths back into my life; I said, 'Jesus Christ I grew up with lies, I don't need any more', and, so I… I started… the break-up of that marriage was… that you know…I talked about this with my doctor that, you know; I don't give a damn about those ideas, why am I trying to write about them? Now, that of course, is the reason I'd been for two years unable to write.

What do I care about? Losing my daughter. And I think I was much closer to her then probably than my wife was. But she had recognized, as most wives do in that situation, that suddenly that child was valuable to her as a weapon, that she could keep me from seeing that child. So I started writing poems about that. Oh, but there’s a… there was another piece of music behind that and that's Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, — Songs for the Death of Children — and I thought: Jesus, after all, things like this, the people that you love, the death of somebody dear to you, this is what poets have always written about. It's only after TS Eliot misled everybody and so did Robert Frost about what he's writing about, that people thought you ought to write about something else. You ought to write about what you really do care about, so I started writing the poems about my daughter and those were the ones that first got me any kind of notice. Much of it disapproval, as a matter of fact I went to Lowell with these and showed them to him and he said,  ‘Snodgrass…’ —I had become a kind of favorite pupil of his and I…I quite adored him, I… I thought he was a wonderful man, well he was. He had some terrible aspects but… but he also… he also… he's the biggest brain I've ever been around — He looked at it, he said, 'Snodgrass, you can't write this kind of tear-jerking stuff; you've got a brain'. I thought: He's probably right, at least about that… that I shouldn't do this, but it… it's sort of what I have to do right now, and so I went ahead and did it.

And, you know, about two years later he changed his mind and wrote me a letter saying, ‘I'm… I’m taking you as my model’. And that scared me so bad, I mean, this, you know, to have somebody that you’ve adored as I had, almost worshipped him, say that… oh Jesus, it really… it really kind of flipped me. Anyway, those poems at first didn't… didn’t get any notice. Finally Donald Hall and Louis Simpson and Bob Pack brought out an anthology where they put some… some of that cycle, and that, that's where I began getting some notice and got the first prize that I… the first big prize that I got.

American poet WD Snodgrass, entered the world of poetry with a bang winning several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, for his first collection of poetry, Heart's Needle. A backlash followed his controversial fifth anthology “The Fuehrer Bunker”, but in recent years these poems have been reassessed and their importance recognised.

Listeners: William B. Patrick

William B. Patrick is a writer and poet who lives in Troy, New York. Among his work are the poetry volumes "We Didn't Come Here for This" and "These Upraised Hands", the novel "Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family" and the plays "Rescue" and "Rachel's Dinner". His most recent work is the non-fiction book "Saving Troy", based on the year he spent following the Troy Fire Department.

Mr. Patrick has been Writer-in-Residence at the New York State Writers Institute and has taught at Old Dominion University, Onondaga Community College, and Salem State College, and workshops in Screenwriting and Playwriting at the Blue Ridge Writers Conference in Roanoke, Virginia. He has received grants from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Tags: Kindertotenlieder, Songs for the Death of Children, New Poets of England and America, TS Eliot, Gustav Mahler, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Donald Hall, Louis Simpson, Bob Pack

Duration: 5 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008