October 17, 2018KR BlogBlogLiterature

W.D. Snodgrass’s “Heart’s Needle”

With their radically revealing autobiographical tone and their excavation of trauma, the poems in W.D. Snodgrass’s collection, Heart’s Needle, are undoubtedly confessional. What’s interesting about the poems is that this quality is coupled with fear of the exposed emotions that come with confession.The speakers in these poems cope with this fear by seeking to silence their minds or detach from them.

Whenever emotions enter the poems, they are accompanied by debilitating fear that threatens to annihilate them. Describing his emotional state at the time of his daughter’s birth, the speaker of “Heart’s Needle” reveals that he “was torn / By love I could not still, / By fear that silenced my cramped mind.” As this uncontrollable love overwhelms him, fear rushes in to turn his emotional receptors off. Yet the mind is not an easy thing to silence.  In “For R. M. Powell,” the protagonist acknowledges this when he laments the fact that he can’t “silence, somehow, this defiant mind.”  His consciousness is an independent, rebellious force that he can’t control.

Realizing that he can’t suppress his thoughts, the speaker of “Ten Days Leave” then seeks to detach from them. Through his description of the sensation of déjà vu, he elucidates the process by which he disconnects from his experience:

As if he’d slept

And must have dreamed this setting, peopled it,

And wakened out of it. But someone’s kept

His dream asleep here like a small homestead

Preserved long past its time in memory

Of some great man who lived here and is dead.

They have restored his landscape faithfully . . .

How real it all seems! But he comes, wide awake,

A tourist whispering through the priceless rooms.

Instead of being comfortingly familiar, his experience of déjà vu is intensely alienating. This emotional description is so impersonal because he has disowned the experience. He describes the revisiting of the familiar as a dream that he left to another’s care. The fact that it is presumably his memory that preserves this dream is his only remaining connection to the feeling, but he tells us that the man whose memory keeps the dream alive is dead. Only able to relive sentiment as a waking visitor in someone else’s dream, he has become a dead tourist in his own mind.

Finding himself detached from, and unable to control, his reality, he resolves to contemplate it. While observing the motion of the cosmos, the speaker of “These Trees Stand” concludes that he “can’t make any world go around your house. / But note the moon.” Having detached from his emotional reality, he is in a perfect position to study himself as a subject. And the result of this study is a monumental work of confessional art.  By revealing the process by which the poems’ speakers unsuccessfully struggle to evade emotion, Heart’s Needle sets the stage for the confessional poetry movement’s honest examination of psychological struggle.