William De Witt Snodgrass was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, on January 5, 1926. He attended Geneva College and then served in the United States Navy until 1946. He then attended the State University of Iowa, where he earned his MFA in 1953. His early work was compared to the work of Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, both of which were his teachers.
His first collection of poetry, Heart's Needle, was published in 1959 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. Since then, he has published numerous books of poetry, including Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 2006); The Führer Bunker: The Complete Cycle (1995); Each in His Season (1993); Selected Poems, 1957-1987; The Führer 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; and After Experience (1968).
He is often credited as being one of the founding members of the "confessional" movement, though he did not consider his poetry as fitting in that school. About his own work, Snodgrass said, "I first became known for poems of a very personal nature, especially those about losing a daughter in a divorce. Many of those early poems were in formal metres and had an 'open' surface. All through my career, however, I have written both free verse and formal metres."
He 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 lived in upstate New York and died on January 13, 2009.