W.D. Snodgrass dies at 83; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, teacher

Associated Press

W.D. Snodgrass, the prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who had a nearly 40-year teaching career, has died in upstate New York. He was 83.

His family said he died Tuesday at his home in Erieville, N.Y., just east of Syracuse, after a four-month battle with inoperable lung cancer.

Snodgrass won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1960 for his first book, “Heart’s Needle,” which grew from heartbreak at losing custody of his daughter in a bitter divorce.


Although widely credited as a founding member of the “confessional” school of poetry, Snodgrass himself dismissed the label.

“I hate the term ‘confessional’ -- it suggests a religious connotation, and I’m not religious,” he told the (Salt Lake City) Deseret Morning News in April. “I just want to write about my own personal life, but a poet was not supposed to have a public life. For quite awhile I had trouble getting them published, but then some poets put them in an anthology and they got a lot of notice. Today, Mark Doty is one of the best young confessional poets.”

Born William DeWitt Snodgrass in Wilkinsburg, Pa., on Jan. 5, 1926, he briefly attended Geneva College in Pennsylvania before he was drafted into the Navy during World War II.

Although he aspired to a career in music before the war, Snodgrass enrolled afterward in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, hoping to become a playwright. Instead, he drifted into poetry classes and studied with such greats as John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, John Crowe Ransom and Karl Shapiro.

After earning two master’s degrees in writing, Snodgrass embarked in 1955 on a nearly 40-year teaching career, which included stints at Cornell University, the University of Rochester, Wayne State University, Old Dominion University and, from 1968 to 1977, Syracuse University. He retired from teaching in 1994.

Snodgrass was the author of more than 30 books of poetry and translations.

He told the Deseret News that poetry writing was never easy: “I still stack up work sheets and just once in awhile something comes quickly. But sometimes it takes days or even years. I don’t work on the same thing every day. I put it away for awhile and when I’ve forgotten it I try again.”

Survivors include his fourth wife, Kathleen; a daughter, son, sister and brother.