A Cycle of Identity

A Cycle of Identity
W.D. Snograss’ pseudonym S.S. Gardons.
Catherine Egan
Advisor: William Lavigne
Department of English
hat would drive an acclaimed
pioneering poet to publish a collection of his works under a pen
name? When a writer’s work is mass produced and placed on bookshelves in stores
across the country, it seems as though the
writer would want his name conspicuously
scrawled across the cover. This is not always
the case. It is puzzling why some writers
choose to withhold their names and publish
their work under a pseudonym. One might
reason that some writers are shy and prefer
to keep their careers separate from their personal lives. But to publish only select works
under a pseudonym while others bear the
writer’s true identification raises questions.
The subject of the work must be incriminating and of a more personal nature. Following his successful, critically acclaimed first
work, Heart’s Needle, Snodgrass published
under a pseudonym for his second collection of poetry Remains. While both works
were written in a similarly revealing style,
something special is contained in Remains
that set it apart and led Snodgrass to keep
his name from appearing on the cover.
Snodgrass is best known for his confessional poetry, a form which he revolutionalized. In a 1970 interview, Snodgrass spoke
about what led him to write confessional
It seemed to me that this kind of very
personal approach to a poem was
something nobody had taken for a long
time, so it seemed possible that one
might be able to produce something new
and different this way and something
valuable. But as to whether that way of
A detailed look into what caused W.D. Snodgrass’ creation and eventual
abandonment of the pseudonymous character S.S. Gardons
working is more valuable in itself than
another way, I doubt1.
Snodgrass achieved a ground breaking
level of emotion in his poems written in
this style. Poetry had been previously characterized by its symbolism and formal tone.
With admirable talent, Snodgrass was up
for this challenge to explore new ground
in the world of poetry. In the same 1970
interview, Snodgrass expressed a somewhat
pessimistic attitude toward writing this
personal style of poetry even though he
helped develop it. Snodgrass claimed tasks
that one knows are possible to accomplish
are not worth doing. Only those tasks that
may seem impossible are fun. Also, when
attempting something new that will not
necessarily work, there’s no reason to feel
bad if it doesn’t work. Snodgrass did not
have to be concerned with failure2. His
first collection was critically acclaimed.
Many other poets have since followed in
his footsteps and his intimate approach to
poetry has spread.
Snodgrass is not anxious to take credit
for this quite personal style of poetry which
has now become popular. He insisted it is
the same approach that he has always used.
When looking more closely at poets once
thought to be impersonal – Eliot and Frost
and so forth – one realizes they were writing
exceedingly personal poems3. Few will argue
that the feelings expressed in the poems of
Eliot and Frost come even close to matching the emotions expressed in Snodgrass’s
poems. Perhaps the subject of the poems
is similarly personal, but one must look at
Sondgrass’s language. He chose language
that is far less formal and much more accessible than other poets.
Snodgrass’s first collection, Heart’s
Needle, contains work about the many
emotional and trying events of his life. The
poems contained in Heart’s Needle described
his return from serving in the United States
Navy during World War II, the ending of
his first marriage, and his eventual remarriage. Also serving as the subject of a number of poems was the important separation
from his daughter due to his divorce from
his first wife. Snodgrass presents these tragic
events in an emotional way that touches the
reader, but does not evoke pity. He “wears
his heart on his sleeve…but refrains from
blowing his nose with it..”4 Snodgrass is
aware that revealing too much emotion is
the personal approach leaves open
the possibility of a great deal of
sentimentality and foolishness, bedroom
memoirs and that sort of stuff, which
nobody needs.5
Through this statement, it is clear that
Snodgrass set out to write a poem that has
a certain feel to it. He not only wants his
work to be emotional, but also written in an
accessible language. When writing poetry,
Snodgrass claims to first write:
…a very compacted, intellectual, sad,
and obviously symbolic poem with a lot
of fancy language in it. But then, as I
go on working on it, the poem happily
becomes plainer and longer, and seems
much more ‘tossed off.’ The first version
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Freshman Scholarship:
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often seems very labored and literary
and intellectual. The final version, if
I’m lucky, will seem very conversational,
and sort of ‘thrown away.6
In its final version, his poetry take on a
more casual, “tossed off,”7 feeling, neither
over-done nor exaggerated. This balance
–portraying emotion without creating a
sappy poem–combined with his deliberate
use of approachable language, characterizes
Snodgrass’s work.
Heart’s Needle takes on a somber feeling. In a poem entitled “Returned to Frisco,
1946,” Snodgrass describes his return home
after World War II. Instead of taking on the
expected feeling of overwhelming joy that
returning soldiers feel, the poem delivers a
feeling of apprehension:
We shouldered like pigs
along the rail to try
And catch that first gray
outline of the shore
Of our first life.
A plane hung in the sky
From which a girl’s
voice sang: ‘…you’re home one More.’
For that moment, we were dulled and
shaken by fear.8
Snodgrass focuses on his true emotion and
not what is expected of him or what he supposes the reader would want. Because this
poem was not written until years later, the
validity of these emotions is questionable.
Snodgrass’s daughter, Cynthia, is the
subject of much of Heart’s Needle. From
the title alone, one can infer that the poems
contained within the compilation are about
painful events in Snodgrass’s life. The title
is taken from an Irish folktale comparing
the “loss of an only daughter with a needle
puncturing the heart.”9 Heart’s Needle contains ten poems about Cynthia, one for each
season during his divorce and remarriage.10
These ten poems take on a reminiscent tone,
recalling Cynthia’s childhood all the way
back to her birth:
While nine months
filled your term, we knew
how your lungs, immersed
in the womb, miraculously grew
their useless folds till
the fierce, cold air rushed in to fill
the out like bushes thick with leaves.
You took your hour,
caught breath, and cried with
your full lung power.11
Snodgrass’s work is very personal and revealing, because his life’s events, such as the
birth of his daughter, are the basis for his
writing. Thus, the reader discovers many
details about Snodgrass and his family.
Although each of Snodgrass’s collections
of poetry deal with certain private events and
his feelings about them, Snodgrass chose to
withhold his name and published his second
collection, Remains, under a pseudonym.
One might ask why a confessional poet
would publish just one of his collections
under a pseudonym. Confessional poetry
is characterized by honesty and openness,
leading to the conclusion that publishing
such work under a pseudonym runs counter
to the inherent nature of the work. Snodgrass has published other collections before
and since the publication of Remains using
his real name. With this in mind, there must
be something special about this collection of
poetry to warrant the use of the of the pen
name S.S. Gardons.
The fictitious character S.S. Gardons
is quite intriguing. When Gardons was
first created, little biographical information was published about Gardons. With
time, S.S. Gardons became a more complex
character. The notion of S.S. Gardons being the author of such a skillfully written
collection of poetry became less plausible
as more information became available about
his background. Included in the biographical information are details assumed to be
written by Snodgrass himself, suggesting
that Gardons did not have the traditional
education of a writer. A resident of Red
Creek, Texas, Gardons:
worked as a gas station attendant,
although he took a few university classes
in Houston, and later became an owner
of a cycle shop.12
The description continues to include other
fanciful details and claims that Gardons
was “also a musician, he played lead guitar
in the well-known rock group, Chicken
Gumbo.”13 If the object of the pseudonym
was to conceal his identity, it is puzzling
why Snodgrass would make this character
so unbelievable. Writing poetry about such
a trying time in his life, Snodgrass may have
used this publication as a sort of therapy
to get past these tragic events. By makVolume 1
Issue 1
Fall 2002
ing Gardons so implausible, Snodgrass is
further separating himself from the author
of these poems and therefore the events
There is an interesting pair of poems
in Remains. The poems “The Mouse”
and “Viewing the Body” are linked. The
“Mouse” is based on a childhood memory
in which he and his sister find a mouse. It
was “A dusty gray one, lying/ By the side
steps.”14 The poem continues to discuss how
they were “Afraid he might be dead.”15 In
the end of the poem Snodgrass says the
“little animal/ Plays out…Turns from its
own needs, forgets its grief.”16 These lines
foreshadow the death of his sister. The foreshadowing is made clear in the next poem
“Viewing the Body,” as Snodgrass describes
his sister “gray as a mouse.”17 As a short
collection of poetry, Snodgrass clearly and
easily links the poems together. The collection, Remains, gives an inclusive description
of Snodgrass’s family when the individual
poems are read together.
The next few poems in the collection
discuss Snodgrass’s family after his sister’s
death. In “Disposal,” Snodgrass describes
how quickly and casually his sister’s belongings were disposed of after her death. One of
his sister’s dresses was carelessly “fobbed”18
off on a friend. “Fourth of July” carries a
reminiscent tone, recalling past years and
memories when his sister was alive. Finally,
“Survivors” discusses the family as it is without his sister. He claims everything is still
the same without her there, or at least his
parents act as though it is. From this it can
be inferred that the nonchalant attitude adopted by his parents upset him. Snodgrass’s
love for his sister is made apparent through
these poems.
A possible reason for Snodgrass’s decision to publish Remains under a pseudonym
is its intensely personal content, yet the
emotions discussed in Remains are not drastically different from those first described in
Heart’s Needle. Perhaps Snodgrass’s choice
to publish under a pseudonym had more to
do with his subject and less to do with his
own emotions:
To say that the voice in Gardons’s
poems is too close to the voice of the
author’s other work and does not justify
or necessitate a pseudonym…is to miss
the whole point.19
W.D. Snodgrass, in Heart’s Needle,
wrote a slightly longer sequence with
the same grace and control exhibited
in Remains, but Gardons touches
nerves that are more exposed, probes a
subject matter (parents and dead sister
as opposed to wife and child) somehow
deeper, more explosive, less public.20
The incredibly personal nature of the work
can be found by examining any of the poems in Remains. Perhaps the most descriptive poem is “Viewing the Body,” in which
Snodgrass discusses his sister lying in her
casket among “obscene red folds of satin.”21
In this poem, Snodgrass accuses the people
at his sister’s funeral of never deeply caring
for her until after her death:
They all say isn’t she beautiful.
She, who never wore
Lipstick of such a dress,
Never got taken out,
Was scarcely looked at, much less
Wanted or talked about.22
“Viewing the Body” portrays his feelings
of contempt and anger toward the people
at the funeral, presumably his parents,
for never treating his sister correctly. The
condemning tone of this poem expresses
Snodgrass’s disapproval and anger for his
parents’ actions related to his sister’s death.
These emotions may have required Snodgrass to use a pseudonym in order to protect
his parents’ identity.
Another possible explanation for Snodgrass’s use of a pseudonym was the pressure
from his parents. It is clear that Snodgrass’s
parents never fully supported his aspirations
to be a writer, but rather expected him to
continue a family tradition by becoming an
accountant.23 Snodgrass’s choice to study
English and become a writer was a major
source of conflict between him and his
parents, especially during his college years.
Much later, even though they still did not
fully approve of his career choice, Snodgrass’s parents eventually stopped criticizing
him. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for
his first book, Heart’s Needle. Snodgrass’s
success, however, did not curb his parents
harping on other aspects of his life.
Tensions between Snodgrass and his
parents lie deeper than his career choice.
Snodgrass disappointed his father even
during childhood. He failed to pick up
tennis, pool, or even chess, as his father
had hoped.24 Snodgrass’s mother, however,
was the biggest cause of his imperfect family
relations. She was a selfish, shrewish person
who never thought of anyone but herself
and always created distress within the family.25 Snodgrass dedicated an entire poem
to describing his mother’s detestable character. The damning poem, entitled “The
Mother,” is the first in the collection:
If evil did not exist,
she would create it
To die in righteousness,
her martyrdom
To that sweet dominion
they have bolted from.
Then, at last, she can
think that she is hate
And is content.26
Along with his mother’s undesirable disposition were other problems within his family. Equally frustrating to Snodgrass was the
way his father dealt with his mother:
Some part of me really did despise
him—for his weakness, his failure to
rescue any of us from my mother’s grip,
his subtle manipulations of us.27
Snodgrass’s father failed to make any effort
to ease the ill effects his wife had on their
children. Instead, he had an adulterous affair, leaving his children to deal with their
mother’s moodiness.28
Although Snodgrass did not fully respect
his parents, he would not have wanted them
to see his description of his sister as a corpse
with “eyeshadow like a whore”29,30 These
unflattering descriptions of his sister are accompanied by insulting descriptions of his
parents. Despite his obvious contempt for
his parents, Snodgrass still loved them.31 He
recognized their failings and did not hesitate
to write about them. Snodgrass recognized
the difference between writing about his
parents anonymously and revealing the
intimate details of his family life. “I believe
that no subject matter should be barred
from poetry, but that those matters usually
considered personal or private should not
be broached for their own sensational sake,
where they could damage people still living.”32 By publishing under a pseudonym,
Snodgrass spared his parents the humiliation of public exposure:
Snodgrass even attributed the character
of S.S. Gardons to his parents.
“Snodgrass states that he published
the collection under the pseudonymous
anagram S.S. Gardons because it
contains unflattering descriptions of
his parents, whose overprotectiveness…
prevented his shy asthmatic sister from
enjoying life.”33 The meaning of such
accusations is damaging to his parents’
reputation. These statements claim that
Snodgrass’s parents forced their children
to live a life so full of oppression that
is was scarcely enjoyable. In this
description, his parents are oppressive,
harsh, and uncaring. Parents, however
severe, still hold a special place in their
children’s lives. Bearing this in mind,
one can understand Snodgrass’s decision
to conceal his family’s identity by using
a pseudonym.
While his true identity was never a secret,
few people knew or recognized that S.S.
Gardons was W.D. Snodgrass. Snodgrass
came forward only after his parents died,
sparing them public revile. Considering
that Remains was reprinted, bearing his
real name shortly after his parents’ death,
one can infer that the pseudonym was
intended to protect his parents. But what
was the motive to protect is parents? The
use of a pseudonym was perhaps a measure
of respect, or out of fear.
Catherine Egan is a sophomore pursuing her degree in
English with a minor in Spanish. Her research interests
lie largely in works of literature and their authors. She
currently serves on the editorial staff of the “Campus
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It is not the voice of the poem that needs
protection, rather the subject – his family.
The relationships that form the basis of
Remains are too complex, emotional, and
descriptive to leave open the possibility for
the poems to be traced back to its subjects,
at least while they are alive.
While his previous work discussed his
daughter and past marriage, Remains addressed memories surrounding his parents,
the death of his sister, and additional private