Kathleen Snodgrass
W.D. Snodgrass

William De Witt Snodgrass, 82, is one of the most prolific poets of the 20th century and early 21st century.

His early work has been compared to that of Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, both of whom were his teachers at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His first collection of poetry, "Heart's Needle," was published in 1959, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1960.

His most recent book is "Not for Specialists," published by BOA editions, 2006.

Snodgrass is credited with being a founder of the "Confessional" movement of poetry, but he disavowed that during a phone interview from Mexico, where he lives part of the year, with his fourth wife, Kathleen Brown, also a poet.

"I hate the term 'confessional' — it suggests a religious connotation, and I'm not religious. I just wanted 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."

One of the things Snodgrass wrote about was his first divorce and how his ex-wife forbade him to see their daughter. It literally broke his heart. His Pulitzer was controversial because the judges had previously decided to give it to someone who wrote light verse.

"Louis Untermeyer, the poet and anthologizer, was fond of my work," said Snodgrass. "As one of the judges, Untermeyer essentially gave me the Pulitzer."

The Pulitzer changed Snodgrass' career overnight.

"Schools that wouldn't take me as a student the year before invited me to teach a class or give a reading," said Snodgrass. "The State Department sent me overseas to give readings all over Europe and North Africa. It changed the whole tenor of my life. It also made it very difficult to write a second book. It sent me into deep analysis for eight years."

As a young man Snodgrass had wanted to be a musician. Growing up in Pennsylvania, he played the timpani in the school band and orchestra. "I would have become a timpanist if there had been any jobs in the United States at that time. I did some conducting, too. But there were only 10-12 orchestras in the country at the time."

Then he was drafted. After the war, he thought about writing plays, "but my plays were terrible. So, I switched to a marvelous poetry workshop and had wonderful teachers."

Even though he discovered poetry writing to be his niche, it 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," Snodgrass said.

Snodgrass also found a way to utilize his musical interests. He made many connections with musicians overseas. Soon he was working with them to translate ballads and poems in 20 languages, "none of which I could speak or read, but working with brilliant people helped me."

Then Snodgrass began working on a series of poems about the Third Reich. In 1977, he published "The Fuhrer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress," which included alleged dramatic monologues from Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Speer and Goering. It triggered a firestorm of criticism from those who feared Snodgrass had become a Nazi apologist.

"I expected a certain amount of trouble," Snodgrass said, "but it made me into a pariah. I was kept out of anthologies and critical discussions for years because of it. A lot of people wouldn't touch me. That's beginning to change as more young people have become interested in my poetry."

Snodgrass had no intention of defending Nazis. He wanted to explore their mindsets, to understand why they did what they did. "Many people believed that you should do to Nazis what they did to Jews, treat them as inhuman, but they were human! In many ways, we've done some awful things ourselves and disgraced ourselves," said Snodgrass.

Snodgrass has always wanted to find "a completely different way to write a poem, but so far I have not been able to do that." Recently, he wrote a poem about his daughter, the one he was unable to see when she was tiny, because she has had problems of her own, including a difficult divorce, "and now she has become an Episcopalian minister and teaches Sanskrit classes."

"Twenty-five years ago, she performed my marriage to my fourth wife, Kathy, and we are still very happily married. Then, two years ago, she performed the marriage of her mother, who is the same age as I am, to a man three years older. I wrote a letter/poem to her called 'The Third Marriage of my Third Ex-wife.'"

Snodgrass has written serious poems about the breakup of his third marriage. "After 12 years, it blew up overnight. That was 30 years ago. I should have forgotten it by now, but it stays in my mind, so I write poems to get it out of my system."

Although he thinks he was "very bad at public readings" in his initial outings, Snodgrass now enjoys doing readings with dramatic flair. "I also give fairly long introductions to each poem I read, giving permission to the audience to laugh or cry and to establish a personal relationship. Sometimes, my wife and I do readings together. You can learn to do good readings, and I had some good teachers."

If you go...

What: W.D. Snodgrass, widely acclaimed poet, will speak and read from his work at the Utah State Poetry Society's annual festival

Where: Salt Lake City Airport Hilton Hotel

When: Friday, 7 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m. (workshop)

How much: Snodgrass' speech and reading is free; the workshop is $10 (sponsored by Utah Arts Council)

Also: N. Colwell Snell, 2007 Poet of the Year, will give a reading, Saturday at noon

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com