He was studying poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1950s when his marriage began to fall apart, and he began writing about it in his poems. He showed some of these personal poems to his teacher, the poet Robert Lowell, but Lowell didn’t like them. He said, “You’ve got a brain; you can’t write this kind of tear-jerking stuff.”
Lowell later recanted and helped Snodgrass get his poetry collection, Heart’s Needle, published in 1959. It was Snodgrass’s first book, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Lowell called it “a breakthrough for modern poetry.”
Snodgrass’s work helped inspire a whole new school of poetry in which American poets began to write openly about their personal lives for the first time in decades. Snodgrass has since been called one of the founders of confessional poetry, but he said, “The term confessional seems to imply either that I’m concerned with religious matters (I am not) or that I’m writing some sort of bedroom memoir (I hope I’m not).”
But in defense of writing personal poems, Snodgrass said: “The only reality which [a poet] can ever surely know is that self he cannot help being . . . If he pretties it up, if he changes its meaning, if he gives it the voice of any borrowed authority, if in short he rejects this reality, his mind will be less than alive. So will his words.”
reposted from Writer’s Allmanac.