Nationality: American. Born: Tacoma, Washington, 27 August 1953. Education: Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, B.A. (summa cum laude) 1975. Family: Married Robert Nozick in 1987. Career: Visiting fellow, St. Catherine's College, Oxford University, 1997; visiting scholar, Getty Research Institute, 2000. Awards: Radcliffe College Bunting Institute fellowship, 1979–80; Lavan award, 1983; American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters Rome fellowship, 1983; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1986; Guggenheim fellowship, 1987; Academy Award in literature, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998. H.D.L.: Mount Holyoke College, 1985. Member: Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1996. Address: c/o Farrar Straus and Giroux Inc., 19 Union Square West, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.
Portraits and Elegies. Boston, Godine, 1982; revised edition, New York, Farrar Straus, 1986; London, Century Hutchinson, 1987.
The Lamplit Answer. New York, Farrar Straus, 1985; London, Century Hutchinson, 1986.
A Gilded Lapse of Time. New York, Farrar Straus, 1992; London, Harvill, 1993.
The Throne of Labdacus. New York, Farrar Straus, 2000.
Supernatural Love: Poems 1973–1992. New York, Farrar Straus, 2000.*
Critical Study: "Return to Metaphor: From Deep Imagist to New Formalist" by Paul Lake, in Southwest Review (Dallas, Texas), 74 (4), autumn 1989.* * *
In the mid-1980s a new American formalism was signaled and discussed. By 1987 Alan Shapiro was able to declare in Critical Inquiry, "Open the pages of almost any national journal or magazine, and where, ten years ago, one found only one or another kind of free verse lyric one now finds well-rhymed quatrains, sestinas, villanelles, sonnets and blank verse dramatic monologues or meditations." Perhaps this New Formalism had something to do not only with a dialectical reaction to dominant modes of American poetry but also to the proliferating creative writing programs in universities. In any event, the American renaissance in formal strategies led to poems being published that were neither better nor worse than most verse available at any time. For most poetry published is, alas, tedious and unlit.
But some of the poets associated with the New Formalism demand serious attention, not least Gjertrud Schnackenberg, who has used meter and rhyme without subduing emotional currents. She has, to adapt a phrase of Richard Wilbur, employed her cadences and rhyme not as ornament but as emphasis.
Her first book, Portraits and Elegies—well named, for that is what the poems in it exactly are—was published in 1982. Her elegies, though corseted, are full of feeling. Through the telling of anecdotes they conjure up a once-loving father-daughter relationship. The touching memories of her father are a form of celebration as well as a requiem. In twelve separate poems she celebrates her father's piano playing; his ability to extract a significant lesson from some mundane incident, such as a bird dropping excreta on his head; his courteous behavior during a brush with a bow-tied English cyclist at Cambridge; father-and-daughter trips that involve night fishing and visits as tourists to Norway, Rome, and Germany. The total effect of these dozen beautifully composed elegies is to hear the speaking voice of a young woman in controlled mourning, rather than one displaying a "grief approaching lunacy."
There is a second notable sequence in Schnackenberg's first book, sixteen poems called "19 Hadley Street." These prove to be snapshots of the denizens of an affluent house over two centuries. The album's initial pages reveal a married couple in 1960, the husband fatally ill with cancer. We turn the pages and return to voices of the past, first to the wife as a child in 1905, then to earlier generations who have lived in that same house on Hadley Street. These sepia poems of domesticity, happy or tragic, are set against the appropriate historical background until we are led to the root, to the engendering guilt that is intrinsic to American history:
...Your mother lost her wits
When news came that a squaw was torn to bits
By village dogs in Hockanum...
After this dazzling debut, we were not disappointed by the poems in Schnackenberg's second volume, The Lamplit Answer, though here some of the narratives and portraits seem overlong and labored. Apart from empathetic glimpses of Chopin, Simone Weil, and Darwin, we are surprised by such grim, Grimm-like, fairy-tale variants as "Two Tales of Clumsy" that feature death's representative, a certain No-No. By the way, it is surprising that this poem contains an occasional aural error, as in the fourth line below:
To Mrs Clumsy since that happy time
She summoned Clumsy with her dinner chime.
And there is Clumsy's darling lying dead.
How like a rubber ball bounces her head
As No-No drags her feet-first from this life.
Then No-No dresses up as Clumsy's wife...
The humorous tone of this macabre fairy story is extended to a sequence of love poems. These, addressed to a lover who has abandoned her, though ostentatiously witty and clever, cannot be current of feeling that motors them, and thus the sequence is saved from frivolity. Moreover, Schnackenberg has the knack of being able to lift the conclusion of her poems with a striking image or simile—"window squares like Bibles closed forever, squares of black"—or with sheer eloquence, as in her first book in the ending to the elegy called "Bavaria," where she recalls how she stood outside Neuschwanstein castle, accompanied by her father, a professor of history:
We linger, for a moment, at the gates:
Here Ludwig, in his grisly innocence,
Plucked water lilies planted an hour since
By silent gardeners, hurled his dinner plates
At statue niches peopled with assassins,
And wept that Nietzsche called his love a Jew.
It is November 1962,
A siren from the village rises, spins
Itself into a planet of alarm
That hangs a moment in the wilderness,
And dusk comes through the forest with Venus,
Star of emergency, upon its arm.
Schnackenberg is at her best when her historical perspectives are personalized in this way and when emotion is recollected in tranquillity. Those suspicious of the possibilities of the New Formalism should turn, for instance, to "Supernatural Love," the final impressive poem in The Lamplit Answer. Here the poet reinhabits a scene from childhood in which, once again, the dramatis personae are father and daughter. The poem resonates in the mind long after the book is closed because of its rhymes and meter, because of theme, feeling, and telling image, because of the evidence of an intricately organizing mind that skillfully stitches all of these together.