CHARACTERS | The “Spark-eyed” Vision of WV Poet Bob Snyder

“Characters” is a series profiling people with a West Virginia connection—living or dead & not necessarily natives—worth knowing more about. We define ‘character’ as being one and having some.

West Virginia barn. | photo

“Snake Snyder” by Bob Snyder

__my home county:
the last few dark farmhouses
_whisper my high school name.

(from “Milky Way Accent & Selected Work by Bob Snyder, p 4)

Bob Snyder had the keenest literary mind I ever knew. I first met him in Huntington, WV, when he was the Director of Antioch/Appalachia College, which began at Marshall University, then moved to Beckley, before finally establishing itself at Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was at Beckley that Bob co-founded The Soupbean Poets, and solidified his place in the West Virginia literary landscape.

~ Poet & friend KIRK JUDD

“Hold on to the religion of the old women.”

~ al-Juwayni, (from “We’ll See Who’s a Peasant”)

None of us at Antioch-Appalachia at the time had ever heard of al-Juwayni, an eleventh-century Iranian philosopher and Islamic theologian, who wisely denied universal causality in favor of spontaneity (and miracles) in nature. The larger section of love poems [in his first book of poems, “We’ll See Who’s a Peasant,” published in 1977 under the pseudonym Billy Greenhorn] documents the hazards of passion with inimitable poetic style … Bob’s admiration and sympathy for the plight of working class women in Appalachia is evident in the “Donna Jean” section of “Milky Way Accent,'”which begins with her funeral. In “Dream of Donna Jean,” the final poem in the sequence, we learn that her heart “stopped at twenty-two,” her hand “naked of any wedding ring.”

~ PJ Laska, from Preface to”Milky Way Accent & Selected Work by Bob Snyder,” Dos Madres Press, Loveland, Ohio, 2020.

“Dream of Donna Jean” by Bob Snyder

Secretly, you made light of all mouths, your
clever fingers poking politely
at snaggle canines and stupid molars:
and those teeth you ground on
never guessed what circus touched them.

Sometimes I dream of driving to Marietta
straight to the office where you worked,
and you buff each tooth plump sparkling,
buzz my gums good-naturedly once or twice,
give my big novocaine nose a peart shove:
your hands taste cinnamon and alcohol,
medical bitters and country clay
all the mystical salts and crystals,
naked of any wedding ring and without
whatever would be the taste of death.

You swore you’d never marry, but
you asked after me to my mother every
time you ran into her up the street.
That makes me ponder and worry:
did your thought of life move your way after
you left out from West Virginia?

Your heart stopped at twenty-two,
a naughty mousetrap click in the night.
Only later was I told how you let
the gym girls feel your pounding chest,
the history of dying young in your family.

After high school we met but seldom.
Lordy, didn’t you look good that snowy evening
by Ogdin’s Five and Ten on Main Street,
grinning like a monkey in a war bonnet,
your overswirl of hair right at long last,
with your heartbreaking small town perfume.
And I can’t resist the brute judgment
that in the coming American Dream
it’s your face we will kneel to and worship.

(from “Milky Way Accent,” pp 34-35)

“Follow the Tao” was his guide in poetry, life, music, politics and life.

~ Yvonne Snyder Farley

“Milky Way Accent” contains poems selected by Bob but we felt that there were poems that we liked not included. Some poems from his first book, “We’ll See Who’s a Peasant,” were wonderful and thus came the section of selected poems. The poems in this volume as we have assembled them reflect love, family, West Virginia, crazy wisdom in the Buddhist tradition and countless other themes showing that in spite of (and because of) our hillbilly accents we are part of the Milky Way and the cosmos. “Follow the Tao” was his guide in poetry, life, music, politics and life.”

~ Bob’s sister, YVONNE SNYDER FARLEY, from the Foreword to “Milky Way Accent.”

“Goof Supreme” by Bob Snyder

Love is bold anticipation, mostly:
That hitch in your step
them green omens in your eyes
when you ran up to me
brushing past poor old Lonnie
in front of the Gore Hotel in Clarksburg
me vacating all mental reflexes
forgetting all my wisecracks
squeezing the tear-water out of you

planning then to be with you forever.

(from “Milky Way Accent,” p. 58)

Bob Snyder

BOB SNYDER (1937-1995) was from St. Marys, West Virginia. He was the son of Robert W. and Malwina Snyder, and a graduate of St. Marys High School. A well known poet and literary critic, he was the author of “We’ll See Who’s a Peasant.” He was an Editor of Soupbean Anthology (1977) and the periodical “What’s a Nice Hillbilly Like You…?” He graduated from West Virginia University with a B.A.; the University of Cincinnati with an M.A.; and from Harvard University with an Ed.D. He taught at Lesley College in Cambridge, MA, and from 1972 to 1978 he was the Director of Antioch College/Appalachia in Beckley, WV.

“Night” by Bob Snyder

high hill or clouded moon?
as I walk the hollow’s darkness
with freezing feet
they are fixing to tear down
every house we ever made love in
(good thing we done it on the mountain)

(from “Milky Way Accent,” p 71)

Bob possessed an outstanding intellect and a quick wit.  He was always far ahead of everyone else, but everyone always loved to be in his wake.  Once I was walking a wooded mountain path at dusk to a party up a West Virginia holler when Bob dropped out of a tree in front of me in a gorilla suit.  I mean, the guy had a gorilla suit.  Brilliant … As Pauletta Hansel says in her blurb for the book: “Bob Snyder was an igniting force in the Appalachian Literary Movement of the 1970s… What a thrill, a quarter century after his death, to have been able to hear Bob Snyder’s poetic voice again in this collection …” Every West Virginia writer should know Bob. At least know about him. You may not ever get the whole story, but this book will help you understand some of it.


Photo by HLS 44 on Unsplash

“Doppelganger” by Bob Snyder

__The two-headed goat
____butts and butts
the rain-soaked scarecrow.

(from “Milky Way Accent,” p. 63)

His poetry was very much tied to his background as a native West Virginian who was born and reared in a small Ohio River Valley town of St. Marys. The legend is that this town was founded by the Virgin Mary who appeared in a vision to the founder. (Pete Laska once wrote “for reasons that were best known to herself” … She is mentioned in a poem.) Our parents were working class pro-union people and old FDR Democrats. My Dad worked in the local Quaker State Oil Refinery and my mother worked as a clerk in the county health department. Bob was in High School before we ever owned a car. We lived in a rented house on Barkwill Street and walked everywhere. In those days the town was an isolated and intimate place where people were related and knew each other. During the Quaker State Oil Refinery Strike of the 1950s we ate food provided by the union’s “jot ’em down store” and never forgot the names of the scabs.”

~ YVONNE SNYDER FARLEY, from Foreword to “Milky Way Accent.” illustration.

“Spring in Glen Jean” by Bob Snyder

so when his buddies brought
his lonely lunchbucket home
she looked plumb through
those empty streetclothes
sitting there numb with fumbling
burnt the corners of her twisted hanky
with a Chesterfield cigarette
making her own dogwood legend.”

(from “Milky Way Accent,” p. 68)

By the time he left WVU he had become a Beatnik who remembered exactly where he was when Billie Holiday died. ~ YVONNE SNYDER FARLEY

The Soupbean Poets, 1977, Antioch Book Store, Beckley WV. FRONT ROW: Bob Snyder, PJ Laska; BACK ROW: Bob Henry Baber, David Chafins, Pauleta Hansel, Gail Amburgey. PHOTO by Bill Blizzard.

“Just before he had to quit drinking/Old grandad got a split-tongue crow/And he taught it socialism…”

In the early Nineties, Bob and his wife Peggy were living in Boston. Bob was working toward a doctorate in education at Harvard and was planning to write his dissertation on the philosophy of Susanne Langer. It was a triumphant time for capitalism and a low point for socialism. Harvard economists were in Moscow advising the KGB on how to become millionaire investors overnight. Bob agreed to accompany me to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to read with the Igneus Poets and Vincent Ferrini, the 80-year-old “last Proletarian Poet,” whose book, “A Tale of Psyche,” had just been published by Peter Kidd’s Igneus Press. At Gloucester, and at Portland, Maine, and Boston’s Piano Factory, Bob joined in the reading and closed with his poem “Grossvater,” from “We’ll See Who’s a Peasant.” I remember the reception by audiences was electric. Amid shouts and whistles, he received standing ovations.

~ PJ Laska, from the Preface to”Milky Way Accent.”

“Poem To My Grandfather” by Bob Snyder

My grandfather argued
With bugles of phlegm,
Said gurgle a gurgle a gurgle:
No one could win with him,
He was so full of whiskey
And the sweet juice of human meat.

He could gurgle up a bubble
Of the cold wind whistling
On a poor man’s knife:
He made wine out in the open
In the foreign part of town
Where the cops were scared to go.

Just before he had to quit drinking
Old grandad got a split-tongue crow
And he taught it socialism:
Wellsir, they used to sit up drinking in the kitchen,
The crow saying all men are brothers,
The old man gurgle gurgle, yes yes.

(from “Milky Way Accent,” p. xxi)

He read widely and easily quoted from Basho, Catullus, Ginsberg, Sappho, or Villon. He told me once that if he had “it” (meaning intellectual pursuits) to do over again he would have learned Sanskrit first.

~ YVONNE SNYDER FARLEY, from the Foreword to “Milky Way Accent.”

“Planet Sunflower” by David Imbrogno | @imbrognoarts

“The Night Watch” by Bob Snyder

above it all I’m satellite watching
lonesome cities lighting the Trans-Siberian Railway clusters
of burnpipes on the Persian Gulf
here they come_______here they go
squidlights flooding the Sea of Japan

and even though I’m a speechless object
shoot fire I keep eye on the whole planet
I spy out David Boothe—hey Boothe! you down there
in your bachelor trailer on Fenwick Mountain
between the dazzle of the Eastern Seaboard and the bright
hey Boothe, straighten up! there’s a blue baby mouse
___in that pile of dishes!

and I am ever so concerned about the Enlightened
and Celebes and the lightline of the Nile
(hey! is that Mozart’s face aglow in Central Europe?)
the flames across the African grassland
Amazonia dotted with slash and burn
and the campfire that Boothe and Billy have scattered
a coal shining heree_______another over there
what a spark-eyed sight to see.

(from “Milky Way Accent,” p. 76).

PURCHASE “Milky Way Accent and Selected Poems by Bob Snyder” directly from Dos Madres Press.


CHARACTERS: A Portrait of the Artist in Her Garden: Sassa Wilkes paints every day. Now, she is painting in a different fashion, using the Earth as a palette. A portrait of a West Virginia artist growing things in a big way for the first time, thanks to Covid-19.

CHARACTERS | Recalling Stick Artist-Poet-Philosopher-Shaman Boyd Carr: Boyd Carr, who died at age 88 this summer 2020, was many things. West Virginia-based poet Kirk Judd recalls a man he describes as “one of the few true geniuses I have known. He was brilliant in his use of language and in the art of storytelling.”

CHARACTERS: A Rebel of the Decidedly Non-Confederate Sort: She hated several things, one of which she called“narrowmindedness,” a catchall term for her that included racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, science-denying, disapproval of card playing, abstinence from wine and other offenses against humanity.

CHARACTERS | The One-Armed Bandit of No. 1 Holler, West Virginia: The life story of the “The One-Armed Bandit” is the stuff of heroes and legends. You may not know Gary Mays’ tale, though, as the major league career the West Virginia native might have had may have been blocked by racism. But nothing ever kept Gary Mays down for long.

DON WEST | Part 2: “May It Be So”: Long before it became fashionable, Don West fought the passive hillbilly stereotype by pointing to mountain labor’s traditions of struggle and solidarity.

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