This Old Poem #67:
W.D. Snodgrassís Monet: Les Nympheas
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/10/03

  Recently I did an essay critiquing W.D. Snodgrassís role as poet & critic, boostering him as the former & chiding him as the latter. Well, the worm has reared its ugly head- this time Iím gonna show that even a good poet like WDS can write crap.
  But, in case youíve not read the prior essay- hereís an online take of WDSís life:

  William De Witt Snodgrass was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1926. His more than twenty books of poetry include The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle (1995); Each in His Season (1993); Selected Poems, 1957-1987; The FŁhrer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress (1977), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and produced by Wynn Handman for The American Place Theatre; After Experience (1968); and Heart's Needle (1959), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He has also produced two books of literary criticism, To Sound Like Yourself: Essays on Poetry (2003) and In Radical Pursuit (1975), and six volumes of translation, including Selected Translations (BOA Editions, 1998), which won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. His honors include an Ingram Merrill Foundation award and a special citation from the Poetry Society of America, and fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in upstate New York.

  WDSís rose to fame after his, it turned out, uncharacteristic delve into Confessionalism with his 1st book- Heartís Needle- in 1959. Since then the books that have trickled in to print have been mostly small chapbooks as antipodal to Confessionalism as could be. Even more oddly are the individual poems that have been printed in magazines, such as this poorly written little ditty- seemingly scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin:

No Use
No doubt this way is best.
No doubt in time I'd learn
To hate you like the rest
I once loved. Like an old
Shirt we unstitch and turn
Until it's all used out,
This too would turn cold.
     No doubt... no doubt...

  5 minutes- tops- for him to have spent penning that poem. Just compare that to a typical stanza from 1 of his early great poems- April Inventory:

The girls have grown so young by now
I have to nudge myself to stare.
This year they smile and mind me how
My teeth are falling with my hair.
In thirty years I may not get
Younger, shrewder, or out of debt.

  Need I even point out the manifest decline? & I wonít hear the everyoneís entitled to a bad poem defense. That only applies to the act of writing- NOT publishing! Other than a bunch of these poor little echoes of former excellence WDS has obsessively worked on his Fuehrer Bunker cycle of poems- no doubt a Deathbed Edition is in the works! About the only poems that heís written in the last few decades that even attempt depth have been a series of poems on paintings, such as the poem- Matisse: "The Red Studio"- below. If you want to see how well the work adheres to its inspiration click on

There is no one here.
But the objects: they are real. It is not
As if he had stepped out or moved away;
There is no other room and no
Returning. Your foot or finger would pass
Through, as into unreflecting water
Red with clay, or into fire.
Still, the objects: they are real. It is
As if he had stood
Still in the bare center of this floor,
His mind turned in in concentrated fury,
Till he sank
Like a great beast sinking into sands
Slowly, and did not look up.
His own room drank him.
What else could generate this
Terra cotta raging through the floor and walls,
Through chests, chairs, the table and the clock,
Till all environments of living are
Transformed to energy--
Crude, definitive and gay.
And so gave birth to objects that are real.
How slowly they took shape, his children, here, Grew solid and remain:
The crayons; these statues; the clear brandybowl;
The ashtray where a girl sleeps, curling among flowers;
This flask of tall glass, green, where a vine begins
Whose bines circle the other girl brown as a cypress knee.
Then, pictures, emerging on the walls:
Bathers; a landscape; a still life with a vase;
To the left, a golden blonde, lain in magentas with flowers scattering like stars;
Opposite, top right, these terra cotta women, living, in their world of living's colors;
Between, but yearning toward them, the sailor on his red cafe chair, dark blue, self-absorbed.
These stay, exact,
Within the belly of these walls that burn,
That must hum like the domed electric web
Within which, at the carnival, small cars bump and turn,
Toward which, for strength, they reach their iron hands:
Like the heavens' walls of flame that the old magi could see;
Or those ethereal clouds of energy
From which all constellations form,
Within whose love they turn.
They stand here real and ultimate.
But there is no one here.


  At least a dozen major clichťs abound in this whirl of wordliness, but does it really take off from the painting? Not to the degree the poems in my own 49 Gallery painting poem series do. Then, again, poems about other artworks need to stand without reliance on the progenitor piece. Letís look at the titular poem, sans any idea of its provenance:

Monet: Les Nympheas

  The eyelids glowing, some chill morning.
O world half-known through opening, twilit lids
  Before the vague face clenches into light;
O universal waters like a cloud,
  Like those first clouds of half-created matter;
O all things rising, rising like the fumes
  From waters falling, O forever falling;
Infinite, the skeletal shells that fall, relinquished,
  The snowsoft sift of the diatoms, like selves
Downdrifting age upon age through milky oceans;
  O slow downdrifting of the atoms;
O island nebulae and O the nebulous islands
  Wander these mists like falsefires, which are true;
Bobbing like milkweed, like warm lanterns bobbing
  Through the snowfilled windless air, blinking and passing
As we pass into the memory of women
  Who are passing. Within those depths
What ravening? What devouring rage?
  How shall our living know its ends of yielding?
These things have taken me as the mouth an orange-
  That acrid sweet juice entering every cell;
And I am shared out. I become these things:
  These lilies, if these things are waterlilies
Which are dancers growing dim across no floor;
  These mayflies; whirled dust orbiting in the sun;
This blossoming diffused as rushlights; galactic vapours;
  Fluorescence into which we pass and penetrate;
O soft as the thighs of women;
  O radiance, into which I go on dying....

  This poem is simply overwritten, & the need to describe should be curtailed, to heighten the break in to an original artistic thought- a revery not unlike the poem describes. Letís cut some of the lines that query boldly into nihility, as well the excessive modifiers, & explications on explications. Instead of a trite neo-Georgianism we are left with this poem:

Monet: Les Nympheas

  Before the vague face clenches into light;
Like those first clouds of half-created matter;
  From waters falling, O forever falling;
Downdrifting age upon age through milky oceans;
  Bobbing like milkweed, like warm lanterns bobbing
As we pass into the memory of women
  Who are passing: Within those depths 
How shall our living know its ends of yielding? 
  These lilies, if these things are waterlilies
Pass and penetrate; as the thighs of women....

  The 10 remanent lines are nearly 1/3 the originalís length- but look at the increase in power, forced by making the reader imbue, & playing ideas & images off of each other in a quicker, rougher way. Instead of the trite start & the wan neo-Georgianism at the end we now begin with a mnemonic start that really leaves a visual cue, & end the poem with a novel metaphor. The change from period to colon in line 7 also forces the poem into a dream-like structure, without the pallid artifices of the original. This is what good poems do- they provoke in new ways. WDS apparently forgot that after his heart was darned all those decades ago!

Final Score: (1-100):

W.D. Snodgrassís Monet: Les Nympheas: 60
TOPís Monet: Les Nympheas: 88

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