In the 1980s, a number of young American poets, Gjertrud Schnackenberg among them, began writing poetry in rhyme and meter rather than in the free verse that had dominated the American poetry scene since the late 1950s. Schnackenberg's "Supernatural Love" is written in iambic pentameter, a meter of five two-syllable feet with the first syllable accented and the second unaccented; it is divided into tercets, or triplets—three-line stanzas in which the last word of each line rhymes with the other two. Thematically, the poem explores the relationship between the history and definitions of certain words and Christian theological doctrine, weaving these elements into a touching anecdote about the relationship between a four-year-old girl and her father.
"Supernatural Love," was first published in Schnackenberg's second collection of poetry, The Lamplit Answer, in 1985. It subsequently has been reprinted in many poetry anthologies, including the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1996). The Lamplit Answer was so well received by critics that during the 1980s Schnackenberg was considered one of the outstanding young poets writing in America. Her later publications have solidified her reputation. Much of her work is difficult, but "Supernatural Love" is one of her most accessible poems.
Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born on August 27, 1953, in Tacoma, Washington. Her Lutheran family was of Norwegian descent. Her father, Walter Charles Schnackenberg, taught at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, a college that was founded by Norwegian immigrants. As Schnackenberg grew up, she enjoyed a very close relationship with her father, and his early death in 1973 affected her profoundly. At the time, she was an undergraduate student at Mount Holyoke College, from which she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in 1975. At Mount Holyoke, students and professors alike were aware of her remarkable talent, and in 1973 and 1974 she won the prestigious Glascock Prize for poetry. This recognition brought her work to the attention of influential poets. Her first published collection, Portraits and Elegies (1982), was enthusiastically received by critics and established her as one of the foremost young poets in America. Many of the poems in the collection were tributes to her late father, recalling the times she had spent with him. In "Nightfishing," for example, she remembers a predawn fishing trip they made together; in "Returning North," she describes a trip to Norway they took when she was ten years old.
During the 1980s, Schnackenberg won many awards, including the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets (1983), the Rome Prize in Literature (1983–1984) from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and an Amy Lowell Traveling Prize (1984–1985), which enabled her to spend two years in Italy. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Mount Holyoke College in 1985, the same year in which her second collection, The Lamplit Answer, was published. This collection contains the poem "Supernatural Love."
Schnackenberg has published her poetry infrequently. It was seven years before her third collection, A Gilded Lapse of Time, appeared in 1992. The Throne of Labdacus, poems based on the Oedipus legend, followed in 2000. In the same year, Supernatural Love: Poems 1976–1992 was published, containing selections from her previously published work.
Schnackenberg's first marriage, to Paul Smyth, ended in divorce. She married Robert Nozick, a Harvard philosophy professor, in 1987. They had met after Nozick read The Lamplit Answer in the Harvard bookstore in 1985 and decided that he wanted to meet the author. They shared a life of art, philosophy, writing, and travel until Nozick's death from cancer in 2002.
In "Supernatural Love," the speaker tells of an incident that involved herself and her father when she was four years old. The poem is set in a dimly lit study in which father and daughter are present. The father is at a dictionary stand, consulting a dictionary, which is illumined by a lamp. He holds a magnifying glass in his hand and scans the dictionary, running his finger down the page in order to find the word he is looking for. Then he holds the magnifying glass still above the definition of the word carnation. He bends closer to the dictionary and puts his finger on the page and reads the definition. The definition of one word seems to help him make some kind of as yet unspecified connection with something much larger.
The child, who is doing cross-stitch on a needlework sampler, imitates her father by bringing her sewing needle to her eye, which allows her to see her father through the eye of the needle "as through a lens ground for a butterfly" (stanza 4). It is likely that she is sitting very near him, to be close to the light; as she looks up at him, she sees his eyes "magnified and blurred" (stanza 3) through the lens of his magnifying glass. The poet then compares the girl looking through the needle's eye to a butterfly probing a flower ("flower-hallways") with its long, tubelike mouth in order to suck up the nectar it needs. Perhaps the nectar is located in the "room / shadowed and fathomed" within the flower, to which the "hallways" lead. These rooms are imagined by the poet to be as dark as the dimly lit study in which the girl sits. Another simile follows, in which the father, poring over a dictionary and reading the Latin derivation of the word he is looking up ("Latin blossom"), is compared to a scholar bending over a tomb to read the inscription on it.
The four-year-old girl then spills her pins and needles on the floor as she tries "to stitch the word 'Beloved'" (stanza 8) in her sampler, cross-stitch by cross-stitch. Although she cannot read, she feels connected by her needle to the word. She refers to her needle as dangerous for reasons that will become apparent later in the poem.
The girl's father is looking up the word carnation in the dictionary to find out why his daughter calls carnations "Christ's flowers." He knows that she can give no explanation for this other than to say "Because." All she knows (the adult speaker's voice explains) is that for some reason, the root meanings of words convey a silent, preverbal message to her, just as the threads at the back of her sampler (themselves like roots) contribute in an unseen way to the word "beloved" she is trying to create, which has as its root the word love.
Her father then reads out the definition of carnation in the dictionary. It is a pink variety of clove, from the Latin root carnatio, meaning flesh. The adult speaker's voice suggests that it is as if the essential oils of the flower are sending the fragrance of Christ through the room. When the girl hears this definition, the odor of carnations floats up to her, and she imagines the stems of the flowers squeaking in her scissors as they are cut. With that cut, the stems seem to speak, or at least a voice is heard, saying, "Child, it's me" (stanza 13).
Her father then turns the pages of the dictionary to the word clove and reads the definition aloud to her. The clove is a spice dried from a flower bud. He reads further that the word is from the French word, clou, meaning "a nail." Twice he rereads the information, as if he has not understood it the first time. Then he gazes, standing completely still, contemplating. He again mulls over the fact that clove, clou, means "a nail."
The girl continues stitching "beloved." Then the girl's needle catches within the threads. An italicized phrase follows, "Thy blood so dearly bought" (stanza 16), which is a reference to the doctrine that Christ's blood bought salvation for all. The relevance of this becomes apparent in the first line of the next stanza.
As she tries to free the needle from the thread in which it has been caught up, the girl accidentally pricks her finger with the needle. It cuts to the bone. She lifts her hand and sees that she has actually driven the needle through her own flesh ("it is myself I've sewn"). Now the threads she sees are threads of her own blood as it trickles down her hand. Startled and in pain, she lifts her hand and calls out for her father, "Daddy daddy."
Her father touches her injured finger lightly, as "lightly as he touched the page" (stanza 19) of the dictionary just a few moments earlier. The poem ends with a reiteration of the significance of the definitions of the words he looked up: the French and Latin roots of the words carnation and clove explain why the four-year-old child was correct in her association of carnations with Christ.
Poetic Symbolism and Theological Doctrine
The theme of supernatural love, the love of God for humans, is emphasized by the activity of both father and daughter. The father investigates the root meanings of words and discovers why the carnation is a perfect symbol for the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ, since carnation comes from the Latin root meaning "flesh" and a carnation is a type of clove, which comes from the French word clou, meaning "nail." Thus a kind of poetic shorthand symbolizing a central Christian doctrine is set up, in which flesh equals incarnation and nail equals crucifixion. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the son of God, sent by God to save humankind from sin. By dying on the Cross, Christ redeemed humans from the curse of the Original Sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Christ was wholly divine but was born into human flesh and was therefore fully human too.
The activity of the four-year-old girl as she stitches "Beloved" in her needlework sampler suggests the inner meaning of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. "Beloved" is a reference to Christ, especially to the passage in the Gospels that follows Christ's baptism. A voice from heaven is heard saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). The incarnation of Christ is a demonstration of God's love for the world, since he sent his only son, whom he loved, to redeem it. The girl's cross-stitches in her sampler, indicated in the poem by the letter X (stanza 8), graphically suggest the cross on which Christ was crucified. Thus, just as her father, in his investigation in the dictionary, unearths a link between incarnation and crucifixion, so does the girl, in her needlework, stumble upon a link between supernatural love (the significance of the word beloved when applied to Christ) and the crucifixion.
Finally, the poem brings father and daughter together in a small but symbolic interaction that not only establishes their close relationship but also echoes the relationship between God and his son Christ in Christian theology. When the girl pricks herself with the needle and bleeds, she re-creates within herself in miniature the drama of the crucifixion, when the nails pierced Christ's flesh. Her call, "Daddy daddy—" (stanza 18) is an echo of the cry of Jesus to his father on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Resurrection and salvation are implied at the end of the poem when the girl's father, now also identified with the heavenly father, touches her lightly to heal her. In a theological context, this suggests the absolute human dependence on God for salvation.
The theological framework of the poem is reinforced by clusters of images. After the girl pricks her finger with the needle, she says, "the threads of blood my own" (stanza 17), which suggests the relevance of the crucifixion to her own experience and also links her stitching of the word beloved to the crucifixion, since the threads she is using are now stained with her blood and the blood associated with Christ's saving death has just been mentioned, in stanza 16 ("Thy blood so dearly bought"). Further, the blood-thread image is linked to the incarnation of Christ, in the words "my threads like stems" (stanza 16), meaning the stems of carnations. In this way, the images all weave together to create a tapestry of meaning that reinforces the theme of supernatural love manifesting through the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. The child speaker, who intuits much more than she understands intellectually, is used by the poet to create and communicate poetic symbolism through the interplay between the root meanings of the words the child's father looks up and theological concepts.
Topics For Further Study
- Write an essay in which you compare and contrast "Supernatural Love" with Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy," from her collection Ariel, or Andrew Hudgins's poem "Elegy for My Father, Who Is Not Dead," in Hudgins's collection The Never-Ending (1991). What does each poem reveal about the relationship between son or daughter and father?
- Write a short poem on any topic in metered verse that rhymes. Try to introduce variations in the meter, so that the poem does not sound monotonous. Then take the same theme and write the poem in free verse. Write a separate brief essay in which you state which is the better poem and why and which was easier to write.
- Make a class presentation in which you discuss the question of whether poetry has any relevance for modern life. What do poetry and other forms of literature add to life that cannot be gained from business, science, or technology? Why are the arts needed at all?
- Consider whether popular song lyrics, for example, rap or country-and-western songs, can be thought of as poetry. What poetic techniques do these songs use and why? Are some advertising jingles poetry? What poetic techniques do they use and why? Make a class presentation, using examples from CDs or music videos to illustrate your points.
Variations in Rhyme
The poem is written in tercets, which are stanzas of three lines that contain a single rhyme. In other words, the endings of all three lines rhyme. In stanza 1, for example, "dictionary-stand," "understand," and "hand" all rhyme; in stanza 2, "lens," "suspends," and "bends" all rhyme; and so on. In some stanzas, the rhymes are approximate rather than exact, and these are known as off rhymes, near rhymes, or imperfect rhymes. Stanza 10, ending with "because," "messages," and "does," is an example in which the vowel sounds are different in each word.
Stanza 11 contains an example of what is called eye rhyme, in which the endings of words are spelled the same and thus look as if they rhyme, but they are pronounced differently. These words are "move," "love," and "clove." In stanza 15, all three lines end in the word "nail," an example of what is called identical rhyme or tautological rhyme. When a rhymed word at the end of a line falls on a stressed syllable, it is known as a masculine rhyme. Examples of masculine rhymes occur in stanza 3 with "blurred," "word," and "heard"; in stanza 4 with "string," "thing," and "bring"; in stanza 6 with "room," "gloom," and "tomb"; and in stanza 7 with "pore," "four," and "floor." When a rhymed word at the end of the line falls on an unstressed syllable, it is known as a feminine rhyme. An example occurs in stanza 18 with "agony, "daddy," and "injury."
Variations in Meter
The overall meter of the poem is iambic pentameter. Meter is the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poetic foot. A foot consists of a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables (sometimes called strong stresses and weak, or light, stresses). An iambic foot (or, in its noun form, an iamb) is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Iambic pentameter is made up of five iambic feet to a line. One of the clearest examples of iambic pentameter in the poem is in stanza 14: "He turns the page to 'Clove' and reads aloud." Another line in which the iambic meter is especially clear is in stanza 10: "The way the thread behind my sampler does."
Poets make subtle alterations to the meter of their poems. These alterations keep the poems from becoming monotonous and sing-song. Often the alterations are used to bring sharper attention to a word or concept. A common variation in iambic pentameter is to invert the first foot in a line. In "Supernatural Love," stanza 1 begins not with an iamb but with a trochee, "Touches," in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed one. Other examples of an inverted first iambic foot (or a trochaic foot, to use the adjective form of trochee), in which the variation stands out against the basic metrical rhythm, occur in stanza 6 ("Shadowed"), stanza 8 ("trying"), and stanza 12 ("Christ's fra-"). In stanza 10, there is another kind of variation in the first foot, a spondee, "Wordroot," in which both syllables are stressed. This spondaic foot (the adjective form of spondee) is then followed by another metrical variation, a trochee ("blossom") rather than an iamb.
A caesura is a pause within the line, often indicated by a comma or a period. Poets will use caesura to create emphasis and variety in a line of verse. In stanza 7, there is a caesura: "Over the Latin blossom. I am four." Stanza 15 contains two caesuras, the second longer than the first: "He gazes, motionless. 'Meaning a nail.'" The caesuras, which slow the poem down, express the sense of stillness conveyed by the meaning of the words. The caesuras in the last lines of stanza 2 ("Above the word 'Carnation.' Then he bends") and stanza 4 ("That's smaller than the 'universe.' I bring") help illustrate another technique the poet uses. The placing of the period near the end of the line ensures that the sentence that follows it carries over to the next stanza. This is known as a run-on line, in which the end of the line does not correspond with a completed unit of meaning. Schnackenberg makes frequent use of run-on lines in this poem, especially in the last lines of the stanzas.
The New Formalism
In the 1960s and 1970s, most poets in America wrote in free verse, which paid no attention to rhyme or meter or traditional poetic form. The predominant form was the personal lyric. During the 1980s, this started to change, and a movement emerged known as the New Formalism, in which poets returned to writing verse in traditional forms. The trend is noted by the poet and critic Dana Gioia in his 1987 essay "Notes on the New Formalism." He points out that two of the most impressive first poetry volumes of the decade are Brad Leithauser's Hundreds of Fireflies (1983) and Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate (1986), both of which were written entirely in formal verse. He might well have added Schnackenberg's Portraits and Elegies (1982) and The Lamplit Answer (1985), since she, too, was a poet working exclusively with traditional poetic forms. Gioia's own first collection of poetry, Daily Horoscope (1986), is also a contribution to the new movement.
Gioia notes that the new development is quite radical because, in 1980, most young poets had been trained so exclusively on free verse that they were unable to write poems in traditional meters. The literary culture in which they were raised emphasized the visual (sight) rather than the aural (sound), and poems were seen as words on a page rather than something to be read out loud. "Literary journalism has long declared it [traditional form] defunct, and most current anthologies present no work in traditional forms by Americans written after 1960," writes Gioia. He argues that the New Formalism, which was a revival not only of rhyme and meter but also of narrative poetry (that is, poetry that tells a story) came about as a reaction to the fact that poetry had lost its broad popular audience. It had become overly intellectualized, and poets were mostly confined to the academy, where they wrote poems that were read only by a small coterie of other poets, graduate students in creative writing, editors of poetry magazines and small presses, and grant-giving organizations. New Formalists, on the other hand, saw themselves as populists, which means in this context that they wrote for people who were not necessarily highly educated. Many of the New Formalists also worked outside the university setting. Gioia, for example, made his living as a businessman. Other poets associated with New Formalism in the 1980s included Marilyn Hacker, William Logan, Timothy Steele, Robert McDowell, Mark Jarman, and Mary Jo Salter.
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: The emergence of New Formalism in American poetry challenges the dominance of free verse.
Today: The coexistence of free verse and formalism in contemporary poetry creates a highly diverse literary culture.
- 1980s: The poetry slam is invented in a jazz club in Chicago in 1986. It treats poetry as a competition, with cash prizes for the winner. Poetry slams spread to other major cities in the United States and attract large audiences, showing that poetry can still be popular.
Today: Poetry slams continue to flourish nationwide. The National Slam attracts teams from all over the United States, Canada, and other countries. Academic credentials are unimportant for success in poetry slams. Performers must be able to project their poetry to an audience, and showmanship counts as much as poetic skill. The vocal delivery of successful poetry slam performers is similar to hip-hop music.
- 1980s: In a decade of political and cultural conservatism, momentum builds for large budget cuts in federal subsidies for the arts, including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). This is, in part, because several controversial artists supported by NEA grants produce work that offends mainstream religious sensibilities.
Today: After the 1990s, in which some Republican congressmen called for the abolition of the NEA and the NEA budget was cut by 40 percent, the NEA and NEH receive relatively favorable treatment from the administration of George W. Bush. At a time of budget cuts, both endowments remain stable in the allocation of federal funds. In 2005, for financial year 2006, Congress approves an increase of $4.4 million for the NEA.
The New Formalism was greeted with some hostility by poets and critics who preferred free verse to traditional forms. The term New Formalism itself was coined by hostile critics, who believed that traditional poetic forms were artificial and elitist and stifled free expression. In his essay "What's New about the New Formalism," Robert McPhillips describes the attack on the new movement by critics who "labeled these new formal poems as the products of 'yuppie' poets for whom a poem is mere artifice, something to be valued as a material object; or, more perniciously, as the product of a neo-conservative Zeitgeist." (Zeitgeist is a German word that can be translated as "spirit of the times.") The argument is that there was nothing new about New Formalism, that it was merely a throwback to what was regarded as the dry, academic poetry of the 1950s, against which free verse was a welcome revolution. McPhillips argues that this is untrue. He believes that the New Formalists' "attention to form has allowed a significant number of younger poets to think and communicate clearly about their sense of what is of most human value—love, beauty, mortality."
Sometimes the New Formalism has been referred to as the Expansive Movement, meaning that poetry was being expanded in terms of the number of forms that were considered acceptable. This term included the attempt to revive narrative and dramatic verse, in what was sometimes called the New Narrative.
When "Supernatural Love" was first published in The Lamplit Answer, Rosetta Cohen, reviewing the book for The Nation, picked it out for appreciative comment: "Through the rigid symmetries of the tercets, Schnackenberg conflates the love of parent with the love of Christ, and the simplest actions—the child embroidering, the father searching out the Latin root of a word—become transcendent by way of the child's sudden, tiny self-inflicted wound." Since publication, the poem has often been reprinted in poetry anthologies and has been posted and discussed on various Internet poetry forums. When it was included in the selection of Schnackenberg's poems published under the title Supernatural Love: Poems 1976–1992, it attracted more favorable comment from reviewers. In Poetry, Christian Wiman declares it to be finest poem in the book and places it with some of Schnackenberg's other poems of the period as "a substantial and rare accomplishment. I think people will be reading some of these poems for a long time." Wiman adds, in a comment that could certainly apply to "Supernatural Love," " Schnackenberg's particular gift is for a kind of clear density, for making many different strands of experience part of a single, deceptively simple weave. Difficulty dissolves into the fluent lines and surprising rhymes of the finished poem."
In the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn has similar praise for "Supernatural Love" as "thematically ambitious … an intricately achieved meditation on poetry, time, love, and faith." Adam Kirsch, in the New York Times Book Review, also admires Schnackenberg for the ambitious nature of her poetry and comments in words that might well apply to "Supernatural Love": "Her verse is strong, dense and musical, anchored in the pentameter even when it veers into irregularity; behind it are formidable masters, Robert Lowell most notably, but also Yeats and Auden."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century poetry. In this essay, he discusses "Supernatural Love" in the context of the acrimonious debate in the 1980s over the respective merits of free and formal verse.
In the 1980s, a virtual civil war broke out in America among those whose job it was to write and discuss poetry. The free-verse movement, which had gathered strength in the late 1950s as a rebellion against what it perceived as the lifeless academic poetry of the literary establishment, now felt compelled, having become an establishment itself, to defend its turf against the New Formalists. The acrimonious debate between those who favored "open" or "closed" poetic forms had political overtones. In a decade that was dominated politically by conservatism (the Reagan era), some advocates of free verse denounced the New Formalists as cultural and political conservatives.
In an essay published in Writer's Chronicle in 1984, Ariel Dawson refers to the New Formalists as yuppies intent on reviving elitist traditions. (Yuppie was a term used in the 1980s to describe young, high-earning urban or suburban professionals.) In "The New Conservatism in American Poetry," a notorious essay published in 1986, the poet Diane Wakoski, whose work was heavily influenced by the free verse of Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, argues for the centrality of Walt Whitman and Williams to American poetry. She attacks John Hollander, a poet who writes in traditional forms and who defended the new movement, and she insists that it is un-American to write in traditional forms. Dana Gioia responds by suggesting that Wakoski's position is the literary equivalent of "the quest for pure Germanic culture led by the late Joseph Goebbels" (quoted by Robert McPhillips in "Reading the New Formalists").
In the midst of these blistering accusations and counter-accusations—neutral onlookers were no doubt surprised to see people who happened to prefer one type of poetry over another denounce one another as Fascists or Nazis—some New Formalists took to defending their poetic practice by appealing to their understanding of human physiology and biology. In their 1985 essay "The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time," Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel use the latest scientific knowledge about how the human brain works to shed light on what they regard as the universal pleasurable appeal of poetic meter. They argue that in numerous cultures in the world, the most common unit of poetry is a metrical line that takes about three seconds to recite. This corresponds to the three-second rhythm of the human information-processing system; in other words, it is how the brain best processes information. Metrical variations, the authors argue, also encourage whole-brain functioning, uniting the linguistic powers of the left hemisphere with the musical and pictorial powers of the right hemisphere. They claim that poetic meter produces positive subjective sensations, such as "a profound muscular relaxation yet an intense alertness and concentration" that can produce an "avalanche of vigorous thought, in which new connections are made." Turner and Pöppel also claim that metered verse may promote "biophysiological stress-reduction (peace) and social solidarity (love)." In a swipe at their opponents, the authors insist that free verse does not engage the whole brain and produces none of these benefits. Free verse suits the needs of a bureaucratic and even totalitarian state, because it tends to restrict poetry to a narrow range of personal lyric descriptions that do not threaten existing power structures.
In his 1988 essay "Strict Wildness: The Biology of Poetry," the poet Peter Viereck argues in similar fashion that the iambic or trochaic foot, with its two beats, corresponds to various biological processes and is therefore fundamental to human life. The heart beats to an iambic rhythm, and the inhaling and exhaling of the lungs is iambic, as is "the open-shut of nerve synapse, the alternating current of electric shock, the ebb-flow of the moon-leashed tides." Viereck also contends that even the pentameter line (containing five feet of two beats each) corresponds to a physiological rhythm, since the inhale-exhale of the lungs takes five times as long as two heartbeats (the systole and diastole) of the heart; there are five heartbeats per breath. Thus, in a sense, the iambic pentameter is in our pulse and our breath. Viereck uses these and many more examples drawn from natural processes to proclaim the necessity of metered rather than free verse. He does not denounce all free verse but advocates what he calls a "strict wildness" in poetry, which he defines as "a living, biological, content-expressing form," and he names Schnackenberg, among others, as a poet who exemplifies this ideal.
Schnackenberg herself took no part in the polemics that flew back and forth regarding the claims of formal or free verse. She preferred to let her poetry, itself consistently formal, speak for itself. But others drew her into the dispute. The critic Vernon Shetley, in his book After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (1993), argues that the New Formalists were wrong to believe that "poetry can stand aside from the general tide of culture and restore an earlier form of community by resurrecting earlier poetic forms." He singles out Schnackenberg's "Supernatural Love," a poem praised by so many, for stinging criticism. Taking up one of the common complaints about the New Formalism, he claims that the poem exhibits metrical monotony.
In particular, he quotes the last four stanzas and argues that they are especially marked by lack of metrical variation. He points out that all the lines are perfect pentameters, with "largely unadventurous" variations. The accented syllables in the lines are very close to each other in the degree of stress they are given. The lines are also made up mostly of monosyllables, meaning that boundaries of words and feet coincide. Finally, Shetley states that there is little variety in the placement of the caesuras, which in these lines occur after the fourth, fifth, and sixth syllables. His conclusion is that this "repetitious line structure" gives the "impression of stiffness and monotony in the handling of meter." Readers may judge for themselves whether Shetley's criticisms are valid. It should be noted, however, that the earlier part of the poem, which Shetley does not quote, shows considerably more metrical variety as well as more variety in the placing of the caesuras.
Meter, of course, is only one aspect of the formal structure of "Supernatural Love." Many readers may feel that Schnackenberg deserves plaudits for the skill with which she handles the demands for triple rhymes that her chosen stanza, the tercet, places on her. English is not a language rich in rhymes, and a stanza that calls for three rhyming words will tax the ingenuity of the best of poets. There surely cannot be many (or perhaps any) poems of this length in the English language that consist solely of tercets. (A tercet, in which all the lines of the stanza rhyme, is distinguished from the more common terza rima used by poets such as John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, W. H. Auden, and T. S. Eliot, in which only the first and third lines of the three-line stanza rhyme.) Examples of poems written in tercets include Robert Herrick's "Upon Julia's Clothes," and, among modern poems, Louis Untermeyer's "Long Feud" and Alfred Kreymborg's "The Ditty the City Sang." John Masefield's "A Consecration" is also written in tercets, with the exception of the final stanza. None of these poems is more than six tercets in length, however, and all employ perfect rhyme, unlike Schnackenberg's, which contains many imperfect rhymes.
Schnackenberg's achievement in "Supernatural Love" is to work within the strict formal structure of tercets in iambic pentameter, whether lacking variety or not, while maintaining the naturalness of the speaker's tone as she tells her anecdote of what happened when she was four years old. This impression of relaxed naturalness in the midst of great artifice is a sure sign of a poet who is fully in command of her demanding craft.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Supernatural Love," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following review of the poetry of Schnackenberg, Maxwell notes that she is a poet who is attuned to the "white space" of the poem, which he likens to a kind of soil in which the language of the poem grows. The "sustained dignity" and "tuned quality" of her poems derive, he notes, from her ability to counterpoise light against dark, "utterance," and "nothing."
What Do I Read Next?
- Schnackenberg's first book, Portraits and Elegies (1982), marked her emergence as a poet who had mastered a wide variety of types of formal verse. Reviewers hailed this collection as evidence of an exciting new voice in American poetry. Many of the poems in this collection are more accessible for the general reader than some of Schnackenberg's complex later work.
- Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism (1996), edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason, is an anthology that brings together most of the major poets of the New Formalism. Curiously, the editors omit Schnackenberg. The poets represented include Tom Disch, Timothy Steele, Mary Jo Salter, Brad Leithauser, Marilyn Hacker, Molly Peacock, Sydney Lea, Dana Gioia, and Andrew Hudgins.
- In his introduction to The Direction of Poetry: An Anthology of Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language since 1975 (1988), Robert Richman describes this collection as a celebration of a particular group of poets whose work is marked by their use of rhyme and meter. This is an important anthology that marked the rise of New Formalism in the 1980s. Seventy-six poets are represented, including Schnackenberg.
- Poetry after Modernism (1998), edited by Robert McDowell, is a collection of fourteen essays by poet-critics who discuss contemporary poetry from a variety of points of view. The poets write for the general reader, without indulging in obscure critical jargon. Many of them are associated with New Formalism.
How good is any verse? What is going to be good enough, strong enough? When the anthologies of fifty years hence fall into the hands of the few of us still present, Time, to paraphrase Auden's useful acknowledgment of uselessness, will say nothing but that it told us so. Well, whatever it told us it told us very quietly, and we didn't quite catch it. Critics claim they did, but no two transcripts are the same. What will tell us now how good any verse is? Science has not cracked it. Higher education seems no longer even to believe in the question. Linguistics has come up with verse that is rigorously theoretical and looks as if a child arranged it on the door of the refrigerator. Popularity, insofar as there exist instruments that can pick up the noise of verse in America at all, tells us nothing, except perhaps that the best new poetry is written by people who are famous.
Here is a suggestion. It might be a hairsbreadth easier to tell worthwhile verse from worthless verse if, instead of the negative reproduction that is observed in every book—the convention of black markings on white—the words were accorded shades that more accurately represented them. Namely, the reverse: white for the words, black for the paper. Pale for the sound, dark for the silence. Coherent signals across crackling space. Lamps in the windows of inhabited houses. The lines would end in darkness, hush, terror of cold—not in what so many contemporary poets mistake for blankness, carte blanche, and an open invitation to keep going.
For it is hard to keep going. It is sometimes wrong to keep going. There is often nothing to say, or nothing to say yet. Blackness would remind one of that, and would be a friend to do so. Blackness would push against the line, lean hard against it, make it warm itself to survive, make the dash to the next line vital, a dodge, bring a gasp to the breath. The chill of the leapt darkness would enliven us, make us shiver. We would think we were in the arms of somebody who could hold us, who could swipe a meaningful light through the gloom. We would think we were in a world where we needed holding and light, which is indeed where we are.
If this sounds peculiar, try copying out Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" in white chalk on a blackboard. This is an act of restoration. Or the death-row speech of Claudio in Measure for Measure: "Ay, but to die, and go we know not where!" The edges that you come to will feel like they did on the day they were made. When Edward Thomas ends "Old Man" with the line "Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end," one feels almost compelled to put one's fingers to the black words, as if they were twigs in the snow, some last vestige of life. To reverse the white and the black would at least remind us that the words are lamps in the night, and may mean a place to stay.
Vitality in poetry consists in a marshalling of the two elements that the eye can see: something and nothing. The ear, too, at the deepest level, contributes only something or nothing. The poet's ancestor is the man outside the cave on guard, and these words were his only essential tools—What do you see? Nothing. What do you hear? Nothing; or as Frost, our chief cave-guard of recent times, reported: "For once, then, something." He, who wrote of verse as the overhearing of a muffled conversation in the next room, meant that the ear could register all manner of human feeling in little more than something or nothing.
Most verse falls short of being poetry because it is incapable of hearing or seeing nothing, so it is hearing with one ear, it is one-eyed, it is building with one hand. A poet must see and hear the white space for nothing, for cold, for the end, for the before-us and the after-us, for the people who will never know or care that we existed. Otherwise that space misleads. It says anything is next. Free verse says that, too. Free verse says: So what's next? You are! Verse without form says that whatever is next is whatever you think. What is there but what you think? White space, which it thinks is nothing.
But what you think is going to have to grow in soil other than you, and so it is going to have to have what is needed. Language grows its own flowers, and a black cold air around the bed of the line will either make its flowers die or force them to be stronger than death. That will be verse that outlives the gardener, and Time, at least in this eavesdropper's opinion, is mumbling something along those lines. In the meantime, white paper and free verse and the frictionless rapidity of the word processor continue to turn most American verse into badly paid prose.
The poetry of Gjertrud Schnackenberg has always seemed to be written white-on-black, not only because her lines have the tuned quality of work that has absorbed how sheer is the drop from white to black, from utterance to nothing, but also because the wellsprings of her art seem connected at some profound level to the witnessing of light against dark or dark against light. These two factors are both the cause and the effect of the work's sustained dignity and strength.
The changes that Schnackenberg has wrought upon the shapes of her verse over the years attest to an essential struggle with the nature of form itself, of art and artifice, resulting in a sort of flowering through anxiety. Each book, from the confident young display of Portraits and Elegies to the tremulous, fractured repetitions of The Throne of Labdacus, seems to indicate a changed attitude to the art itself, a genuine pause for thought in the silence between volumes. This is rare, for most contemporary poets take as few breaths between books as they do between lines. But Schnackenberg's aesthetic remains constant: after twenty-five years of published work, she is still gazing from darkness into lamplight and giving voice to those whom she imagines are warmed by it.
Though her first book, Portraits and Elegies, appeared in 1982, the two long sequences that comprised much of it ("19 Hadley Street" and "Laughing With One Eye"), and are now included in Supernatural Love, were written in 1976 and 1977. Those years were not particularly receptive to the wielding of a heavy, decorous pentameter in the hubbub of American verse, which was in large measure splashing in still-fresh delusions of liberty and rebellion. But any young poet who has placed faith in form at the outset of a career is merely doing what sprinters do: looking ahead up the lane, never across. That lane connects one to both the distant past and the distant future, and in the confines of our language those poles of time become the same: Lowell's work may stand in both places for Schnackenberg, where she has come from and where she is trying to get to; so may Auden's, or Donne's. The young poet who makes rhymes and stanzas because she must—not because she thinks that she ought to make them, or because she thinks that it is time poetry did again—is in the eyeline of all the other poets who ever had to make them, who were ever moved in utter stillness and anonymity to make sounding shapes. This is why the humility of the best poets is commonly mistaken for arrogance by the rest. Schnackenberg has rarely seemed to be in dialogue with any contemporary, and perhaps for this reason she is one of the few American poets whose voice one might recognize in a line.
Portraits and elegies showed a young poet still enthralled by her newfound ability. It has the successes and the failures of early work—the freshness and the impact, along with the overgrown lines ("We'd hear jazz sprouting thistles of desire") and hasty closures, often in the sequence of poems to the poet's father, as if the packed and polished squares of verse were not quite ready to open further, to expose or to be wounded. In retrospect, it is not Schnackenberg's facility with forms that is striking in her early work (for one can sometimes sense promise as keenly in a failed line as in a finished one), but rather the high quality of her attention. This is what enables her to prevail in the territories of the freeversifier. "Inhaled smoke illuminates his nerves" is a line of extraordinary precision, but it needs no formal context to bolster it. She feels the candy-box vertigo of America's "Halloween": "Out of his bag of sweets he plucks the world." She can already laugh in form, as when she has the elderly Darwin yearn "to immerse/Himself in tales where he could be the man/In once upon a time there was a man." In "A Dream," she writes of her father with a sorrow that is all the richer for being unsparing, firm: "And marveling, I watch the face you wear,/Hardened into remote indifference,/Become my own."
Whatever stillness or darkness Schnackenberg happens upon, whether an empty house, a death, or a daguerrotype, the need to light it and to animate it is irresistible. It is the nature of her force. She fills a home, "19 Hadley Street," with two centuries of recorded inhabitants, until the rooms, and the mind, are teeming with lives. She both inhabits and observes the schoolgirl alone in a bedroom with a ravenous imagination; she places herself as a bookish child marching alongside her father, wondering anxiously what he's thinking of: "Turks in Vienna? Luther on Christian love?" This plays comically—the poet as exasperating co-ed; but it speaks more broadly of the early Schnackenberg, rummaging for subjects, never staying long in the moment, her satchel bursting with both textbooks and fairy tales.
A poem such as "Bavaria" exemplifies it all: Schnackenberg's eye tracks rapidly across history, like the old camera-trick of taking us miles by way of an accelerating blur, but again it is the still eye and the fine ear that rescue the poem from that blur:
A small eraser rubs a list of names
To rubber bits; now, as the Fuhrer naps,
Dreaming of Wild Westerns in his chair
Till early morning, now, in North Berlin,
An apartment building shatters from within,
And, like a tooth, a bathtub dangles there.
Nobody who has read Auden's "The Shield of Achilles," or Anthony Hecht's poems in The Hard Hours—or Gloucester's blinding, for that matter—can still peddle the old nonsense that there is some innate consolation to poetic form. "Bavaria," in contrast to Auden's featureless dystopian plain seen far away, simply goes in close (and not appropriatingly close, as Plath did in "Daddy"). It may take the innocence or the bravado of a young poet to throw open the door of the bunker, or to write pentameters such as "The burning baby carriages of Jews"; but this is material for poetry, because how we cope with knowing it is material for poetry.
The Lamplit Answer appeared in 1985, which was the last time Schnackenberg published a collection of poems, as opposed to a book-length poem. The unresting animator is at work again, notably in the sequence about Chopin in Paris called "Kremlin of Smoke," which is typically ornate but also more guarded, straining less for immediate significance:
At which high-sign the grand piano is rolled in,
Its curving wing unfolded, like a great black butterfly
That slowly sails toward charades by candlelight
Across the polished chasm of parquet.
The lines are slightly plainer than before, more patient, more intelligently withholding, but the book shows the poet already sailing outwards into uncharted waters.
The "Two Tales of Clumsy," for example, suddenly drain away all reference and echo—not an easy thing to do, if you have hitherto sought them so assiduously—and play on a weirdly blank canvas, ending up as scarifying oddities in the domestic-Gothic strain of Auden's "Victor" or Edward Gorey. This tentative journey reaches its destination in the very good "Imaginary Prisons," a compassionate and genuinely funny pan around the hapless statues of Sleeping Beauty's frozen castle:
The kitchen boy distracted by a quarrel
Is dreaming that he opens up a box
Of banished knives blinding even at twilight
And this way makes his adversary cower,
But ducks in fact before the furnace-stoker
Around whose lifted shovel embers sparkle
And hang like bumblebees around a flower.
And though you laugh, to them it greatly matters….
Too much can be in motion sometimes; but success in Schnackenberg is all about finding focus, and this poem works so well because she is keeping some things still, so that her eye can work on them there, rather than sweeping past a stanza with a turn of the head and a skip across the centuries. The last line quoted above has absorbed the authentic lightness of Frost, whose favorite line in Shakespeare was "So have I heard and do in part believe it." Sometimes the comic velocity sounds like Pope trapped in the modern world, a wasp in a glass: "Assigned to live next door because he's silent,/Though under lock and key, because he's mad…."
The sequence "Sonata," meditating on unrequited love inside a musical structure, seems a kind of superfluous doodling, which at some level all love poetry is, except that in this case the wrong thing—the poet—is being kept still. The logic of unrequited love demands of the poet a false pose of adequate consolation, and it seldom rings true for longer than a sonnet. Still, among the shorter poems in The Lamplit Answer are three of Schnackenberg's finest early lyrics, which is to say three of America's finest lyrics from the last twenty years. "The Heavenly Feast" threads itself beautifully around Simone Weil, expiring in wartime in an English sanatorium: "To sing you in their way,/I swear I can hear the words,/Send it to them, they say,/Send it to them, it is theirs." "Supernatural Love" is the best of Schnackenberg's poems about her father: it might be prescribed to students as an antidote to the ubiquitous "Daddy." And "Advent Calendar" returns to Schnackenberg's primary scene of a child gazing into light from shadow, but deepens and widens until the child is the watcher of all, and the images behind the little cardboard windows seem to be both Bethlehem under the star and a late nineteenth-century Austrian town oblivious to its own new arrival.
A poet's apprenticeship is about finding the right bandwidth, the distance from objects at which her senses act most vitally. Schnackenberg seems to have started with a sense of herself as a panoramic poet, a conductor of allusion and historical echo. This is evident in early poems such as "Bavaria" and "There Are No Dead," and it reaches its apogee in A Gilded Lapse of Time; but much of her best work, even in the poems that most obviously manifest such width and perspective, is in the exquisite accuracy with which she beholds details, as if the bright child did her true apprenticeship not in the beam of the study lamp, but in the glow of the dollhouse windows.
A Gilded Lapse of Time, which takes up the last third of Supernatural Love, appeared as a book in 1992. It is a winding odyssey through the tombs, the monuments, and the galleries of the ancient world, drifting in and around historical facts and legends pertaining to Dante, the Crucifixion, and Mandelstam. It is extremely allusive, in that it rarely steps far without the clank of footnotes. Yet it is more difficult and more ambitious than what went before. In the work of poets still learning their trade, the word "ambitious" is associated with arrogance, but in truth the undertaking of a poem such as A Gilded Lapse of Time is an act of homage, and therefore an act of humility. And the greater the figure to whom homage is being done, the deeper the humility.
If one loves Dante, writing at length about him is not a literary gesture or a professional ambition: it is a creative compulsion. But in a culture that has slid so far toward a leveling of art and a rejection of the possibility that aesthetic endeavor creates a hierarchy, trying hardest to grow is routinely mistaken for strutting one's stuff. The humility of voice in this poem—which risks at times tugging the verse below audibility as verse at all—is a rare sound indeed in contemporary poetry. Homage is no more arrogance than confessional poetry is humility.
Schnackenberg seems to have felt the need to set her work alongside the most astonishing things that she so far knew—Dante, the Gospels, a great poet who died for ridiculing Stalin—and then to quiet it to a hush among them by jettisoning the very things that had hitherto come most easily. Whether in homage or in fear or in uncertainty, she seems to have approached A Gilded Lapse of Time almost mute with reverence. She relinquishes rhyme at the outer gate. The forms in which she has attained such facility, the pentameters and the tetrameters, are beaten out into a miscellaneous, often awkward jumble of lengths. Some of the verse sounds almost left in its note form, still chatting with prose out of politeness. She writes of her own work after reading Dante's, both describing and enacting the kind of genuflection that ensues:
… a glimpse of that sound,
After which everything I had scribbled
In my own hand came to a weightless bundle,
But what foundered beyond the page was more
Than I could lift, more than could be enshadowed
Even in a private script in the margins—
Still, at several points, by way of reticence, Schnackenberg reaches further heights. This contemplation of Dante's death-mask, as well as being a simile of genius, reminds one of her acute sensitivity to light falling on faces. It also shows metrical precision so considerable that it can stand back and seem to have departed: "The likeness of a man who, closing his eyes,/Holds still in order to discern/A very faint sound."
And not all of the poem is so hushed. Flaring up through almost penitent passages are moments of formidable power, as when she feels a star sweep past her, each of its points a sulphurous whiff of the letter "p":
Only a raindrop
On my lashes into which
I look in time to see
A black star drawing near
Plunge past my peripheral sight,
The variations of speed and scale in these lines put one in mind of an example given by Mandelstam in his "Conversation About Dante": "Of all our arts only painting, and at that only modern French painting, still has an ear for Dante. This is the painting which elongates the bodies of the horses approaching the finish line at the race track."
Schnackenberg's quest for Dante becomes a wiping away of palimpsests: of her own voice, of the places as they look now, of the paving stones or the rotting wall behind which Alighieri (it is said) hid the last cantos of Paradiso, of the volumes of footnotes, of Eliot's fragments; and what she reaches beneath them is not The Divine Comedy at all, but the lonely figure of Osip Mandelstam. The final section of the poem, "A Monument in Utopia," is devoted to him.
Nobody who has read "Conversation About Dante" can help but feel themselves brought nearer to the gates of The Divine Comedy, if only to vow silence; or to the gates of all creative impulse, if only to vow infinite pains. Mandelstam's burning intelligence seems to shrivel away the barriers of three languages, largely because it moves by glittering crystals of revelatory metaphor, touching only on things that lie beyond language or before it: stone, weather, water, flight. And Schnackenberg reaches Mandelstam; she doesn't just choose to go there next. Searching for the great poet who wrote of Hell, she finds naturally enough a great poet who also lived and died in it. Long before we reach the sanctuary of Mandelstam's desk in a Paris to which he fictionally escapes, he is a presence in Schnackenberg's poem. But then, of all the prematurely dead poets of the last century, he is the best to have been, as it were, sacrificed to its inferno. To where but a utopia would the consolation of the dead poet's living work drive a living poet?
It will have evaporated,
That whiff of the scaffold, the siege tower,
Of vaults sealed so long that no one
Would wish to break them,
That sense that a bone is being broken
Somewhere in the world,
That one's number is called out.
Mandelstam, in a way, saves A Gilded Lapse of Time. For all the many moments of beauty and power in the first two sections, Schnackenberg is playing to her weakness for rapid allusiveness and shifting viewpoint, and her thirst for the next image hauls us away before we have absorbed the last. Until "A Monument in Utopia," we lack the fixed point we tend to need in her work, because as a host she is an ethereal presence, liable to disappear down a tunnel and find a library at the end. We may have to leaf to the notes to find her. And we drift too, particularly in the central "biblical" section, from legend to landscape to invention to fact; and the effect is unsettling, centrifugal. There are so many monumental creatures through whom our eyes are flashing, angels and emperors, painters and poets—often we have to stop for breath in the heat, like tourists.
These sections are so heavily footnoted that when one finds that a certain legend ("When they met face-to-face, both/God and the worm laughed") has been untraceable, one feels the poem itself deflate. The poems are still drinking from their sources when we reach them. The Mandelstam sections are footnoted, too—but usefully rather than essentially. What the Russian poet's presence gives Schnackenberg is the constant of physical space. The most exquisite passage of all floats in through the window of his imagined Paris apartment, takes in the old man at his desk, then departs again, now tethered loosely to a single created consciousness that can illuminate all detail:
And through the streets of the city, the cold pink cliff
Of afternoon's glacier will press its path,
Dropping at its forefront the crumbling
Particles of twilight's mauve, pushing past
The momentarily lustrous glass panes
Of eternity where you had laid
The humid whorls of childhood's breath.
Those hoping for a return to the jaunty elegance of the younger Schnackenberg will not find it in The Throne of Labdacus, in which her style is pared down to a flinty austerity of foreshortened rhymeless couplets, stalling and reiterating. Cold air is blowing in. At times it could be the bone-dry mutter of Ted Hughes in his very late Alcestis—a comparison that speaks to the sheer distance Schnackenberg makes herself travel in search of apposite sound. Unlike A Gilded Lapse of Time or the early lyrics, the new work is without passages of quotable, haunt-the-mind beauty—it is, arguably, shunning them; but it has the quality of that work's best sections, which is a rootedness in the notions or the actions of a single figure, in this case Apollo. That stability works against Schnackenberg's appetite for cascades of allusion, and the cold air of quickly recurring stanza-breaks holds things still, lets them shine, or speak, or expire:
And, stalled in his crimson wooden cart,
He peered ahead, vexed,
At the narrow, sun-dazzled road
Where a pedestrian,
Double-striking and deadly-footed,
Raised his walking-stick and struck him
In the skull, too soon, too soon—
Experiment with form is one method of curbing one's habits and developing new ones, but a more important method here is narrational: Schnackenberg's sense of how a god, existing outside of time, would experience chronology. (Set against the many poets who these days feel they have the right to experiment with narrative virtually from the cradle—often prior to having a narrative with which to experiment—Schnackenberg's endeavor seems profoundly considered.) This aspect of the poem explains its repetitions and its uncanny sense of being motionless. Not that nothing happens: it is the Oedipus story that Apollo is contemplating; and we know what always happens. What matters in Schnackenberg's poem, rather, is the curious feeling that nothing ever has happened—or if anything has, it has happened only in language. And language, in the stillness, is suffering a sea-change, or a sand-change, into something interestingly altered, a medium of faded significance but heightened tactility:
Things done blindly, things, things
Done on earth; human things; with a gap
Between what is done and what is seen,
What is seen and what is known,
Whereas, in the gods' reality
The same things are done, but with
With open eyes they fasten on what is.
Nearly all these words and phrases have been and come back again in the work, particularly the word "things," like a touchstone one's hand just passes through. The italics give the sense of vainly trying to make words have edges. Again, Schnackenberg has traveled the whole way to the point. She has earned the right to make a word, for once, do nothing. There are young writers in America who begin there and it turns them to stone.
Where language is being set difficult questions, the most vexatious interrogator in literature cannot be far away. The Sphinx's riddles here are characterized by language that barely holds its head above the surface of babble: "If you acquire an aura, an oracle, a horror, a laurel,/For Apollo as if an oracle were an inherited jewel…." The surface is unruffled. Moments drift by unanchored: "The god's face/Is a gray windblown room which no one enters/ And no one answers the door/Though the heart pounds and pounds—" Whose room? Whose heart? Rumors pass through Thebes: "Somebody heard that somebody heard/That somebody heard that such-and-such happened…." And, perhaps inevitably, the poem, the poet, Apollo, and we meet an entity even stranger than the Sphinx—someone else's alphabet, and the arbitrariness of its sudden appearance is finely judged, bleak, unsparing:
Into OI?I1/2OY …: the Greek letters,
Waiting in silence to be rearranged
Into comedies and tragedies,
Waiting to turn the people into gods
Who gaze at things tied
Into sequences of knots….
If The Throne of Labdacus is Schnackenberg's most black-on-white book, composed as it is of two-line stumps in the hot shimmering noon of the ancient world, it is not without abrupt splashes of color. The gong that begins the premiere of Oedipus Tyrannus "[turns] the wind red," which is magnificent. The diadem of Laius "darkens…. As if gold were a flame that could go out." That latter transmutation speaks to a sense of fragility and re-placeability that informs what is, paradoxically, the poet's harshest, most unyielding work to date.
Lightning is black in the poem, "dirtied, dark." Its shape is made by the meeting of two broken halves of a prophecy. One departs The Throne of Labdacus with a sense that this outstanding poet of lamplight-in-darkness has reached a kind of antipodes of bleakness and intractability. Looking for enlightenment and finding the word "things"—things—Schnackenberg has reached a point beyond which lies silence, a silence littered with the wreckage of numberless futile experiments, and her only way back to us may be to hold a flame to the things and begin naming them again. In the meantime the quiet will matter to the poet; and what comes of her quiet ought to matter to poetry.
Source: Glyn Maxwell, "Things Done on Earth," in New Republic, Vol. 225, November 12, 2001, p. 53.
In the following review, Cohen praises Schnackenberg for broadening her range of subject matter while, at the same time, keeping it within the context of her usual ordered and detailed universe.
Gjertrud Schnackenberg's The Lamplit Answer is the first full-length collection by a young poet whose work has appeared widely in recent months and who has been much praised as a gifted stylist since the publication, in 1982, of her chapbook Portraits and Elegies. Tightly formal and consistently elegiac in tone, Schnackenberg's earlier collection showed her to be a poet of enormous control, capable of working small miracles with cadence and rhyme. In this recent volume Schnackenberg seems to have made an attempt to move beyond the limits of subject and style on which her reputation is based. A number of long poems appear here, including a historical portrait in free verse and a lengthy fairytale parable. The selection also contains a beautiful elegy to the poet's father, a pair of humorous pieces and a series of light, less successful, love poems.
But despite the broadened range of subject the essence of a good Schnackenberg poem is still quite the opposite of far-reaching. In fact, much of the delight one derives from her work comes from its capacity to create a limited, ordered universe that transcends, by way of intricate detail, the larger context of the subject itself. The most imposing historical figures—Chopin or Darwin—are reduced to the domestic intimacies of tea sets, backgammon and naps "beneath a London Daily tent."
It is this talent for creating small, intricate worlds that seems to place Schnackenberg within a tradition that has less to do with a particular poetic mode than it does with the nineteenth-century novel. There is a Jamesian pre-occupation here with the nuances of small gestures and quiet moments. And the parallels to James or Austen or Eliot are reinforced by the numerous nineteenth-century settings in which her dramas are played out: the salon, the garden, the gentleman's study.
Nowhere is the novelistic quality of Schnackenberg's work better exemplified than in the most successful poem in the book, "Kremlin of Smoke." The poem is composed of a series of fictional frames from the life of Frederic Chopin. Using fragments from the composer's letters and journals, Schnackenberg creates eight subtly cadenced "etudes" in which we see Chopin alternately as a young child and as a 20-year-old exile from Warsaw during the Russian invasion of 1831. The opening poem in the series is set in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where the protege holds court amid the beau monde:
The swan's neck of the teacup, her black vizard Plunged underwing, conceals her face like a modest cocotte Who can't bring herself to look up at the honored guest, As the silver hammer of the tea service practices Chings in runs of triplets, and the tea steam hangs Phantom chrysanthemums on long, evaporating stems In the air of the winter apartment. The guests, Having gathered for games, for mimicries, For gossp's intricate, expensive inventions, Crowd toward the pianist who, leaning forward, Clasps his hands, like a child's prison for butterflies, To begin a tale, perfected in his room, of his Reception on a tour in the South, where they had hired A sedan chair with servants to bear him to the theater, "Like a captured king from a remote, Saxon metropolis," And then killed him in the reviews—a smashing joke, and his hostess snaps her fan shut when she laughs, In the city of slaves to mirrors, of rivalries Championed for less than a day by charlatans, Of politics lending heat to the rented rooms Of exiled virtuosos, and of cholera warnings affixed To the posts of the streetlamps, whose heads Flare with fever from here to the outermost districts.
The catalogue of ironic detail here, most of it rendered in a single breathless sentence tied together with internal rhymes, is wonderfully effective at conjuring up Chopin's own imagined ambivalence to the scene—a mixture of egocentric pleasure and quiet unease.
Schnackenberg's novelistic style also works well with more personal, lyrical subjects. In the last poem of the collection, "Supernatural Love," she deflates her perspective literally to the nearness of a magnifying lens:
My father at the dictionary-stand Touches the page to fully understand The lamplit answer, tilting in his hand His slowly scanning magnifying lens, A blurry, glistening circle he suspends Above the word "Carnation." Then he bends So near his eyes are magnified and blurred, One finger on the miniature word, As if he touched a single key and heard A distant, plucked, infinitesimal string, "The obligation due to every thing That's smaller than the universe." I bring My sewing needle close enough that I Can watch my father through the needle's eye, As through a lens ground for a butterfly.
Through the rigid symmetries of the tercets, Schnackenberg conflates the love of parent with the love of Christ, and the simplest actions—the child embroidering, the father searching out the Latin root of a word—become transcendent by way of the child's sudden, tiny self-inflicted wound:
I twist my threads like stems into a knot And smooth "Beloved," but my needle caught Within the threads, Thy blood so dearly bought, The needle strikes my finger to the bone. I lift my hand, it is myself I've sewn, The flesh laid bare, the threads of blood my own, I lift my hand in startled agony And call upon his name, "Daddy daddy"—My father's hand touches the injury As lightly as he touched the page before, Where incarnation bloomed from roots that bore The flowers I called Christ's when I was four.
Almost all the best poems in The Lamplit Answer deal in one way or another with this kind of intense scrutiny. There is a piece about the artist Ivan Generalic, for example, whose painting style is characterized by the tight, hard-edged precision of the miniaturist. Another shows an aging Darwin, weary at last of a lifetime spent looking into "beetle-jaws" and "bivalve hinges." Unfortunately, however, the collection is not entirely devoted to poems at close range such as these. One whole section of the book, which includes mainly love poems, falls flat. Here, the rhymes suddenly become predictable, and the glorious detail is replaced by bathos or coy banter:
Dear love, though I'm a hopeless correspondent, I found your letter habits lacking too Till I received your card from H.-lulu. It made me more-than-slightly-less despondent To see how you transformed your ocean swim Among dumb bubble-blowers ito meters And daffy rhymes about exotic tweeters Beyond your balcony at 2 a.m.
One can only wonder at the inclusion of these pieces: They have a certain scraped-together quality and make for a strange contrast to the rest of this soberly disciplined volume.
Source: Rosetta Cohen, Review of The Lamplit Answer, in Nation, Vol. 241, December 7, 1985, pp. 621-23.
In the following review, Pettingell cites Schnackenberg's gift of absorbing herself in contemplation and her use of rhyme and pattern to heighten emotional complexity in her poems.
Like Clampitt, Schnackenberg has a religious, metaphysical mind, but she is more of a formalist. Rhyme comes so naturally to her that you would hardly be surprised to find she converses in it. Even in the new volume's opening sequence, "Kremlin of Smoke," a fictional portrait of Chopin, blank verse keeps breaking into rhyme. Most often, as in the conclusion to "Darwin in 1881," she employs it unaffectedly:
He lies down on the quilt,
He lies down like a fabulous headed
Fossil in a vanished riverbed,
In ocean drifts, in canyon floors, in silt,
In lime, in deepening blue ice,
In cliffs obscured as clouds gather and float;
He lies down in his boots and overcoat,
And shuts his eyes.
How simply, how humorously she summarizes the geologic records that buttressed Darwin's evolutionary arguments.
Patterns symbolize emotional complexity for Schnackenberg. "Love Letter," about the comic, heartbreaking indignities of being a slave to one's feelings, uses the jaunty rhyme royal of Byron's "Don Juan"—an ironic yet rueful commentary on the same subject. Musing on the impulse to distance ourselves from those we love, she observes: "Tonight the giant galaxies outside/Are tiny, tiny on my window pane."
"Paper Cities" concerns intersections between life and art, and the way they intensify under the pressure of powerful emotions. The poet, reading a collection of Flaubert's letters, identifies her own lover's withdrawal with Flaubert's treatment of Louise, the mistress he neglected for his writing. She envisions Louise raising her eyes from one of the letters to watch clouds that soon float into the poet's world. "My books are towers," she says, "Rooms, dreams whose scenes tangle." Later, while she is reading a fairy tale, a goose feather plucked by a weeping kitchen maid also drifts into the poet's surroundings. Afraid that misery may be destroying her sanity, she picks King Lear off the shelf and imagines him as he "sits in his jail, cut to the brains' by his own reverses:
He spreads his drenched map
And waits till it dries,
Then folds it into a pointed hat,
And the faded countries wave in his hair
Like tattered butterflies.
The images of "Paper Cities" poignantly demonstrate how grief can suppress all other feelings: Everything serves to remind the sufferer of despair.
Schnackenberg possesses a child's ability to wholly absorb herself in whatever she contemplates. "Advent Calendar" revives a girlhood memory of paper representations designed to teach children the meaning of this Christian season of anticipation: "Picture boxes in the stars/Open up like cupboard doors/In a cabinet Jesus built," she marvels. The secrets to be revealed behind each door, though, cannot live up to the excitement of expectation. Drawings of ordinary toys, "Wooden soldier, wooden sword…. Hints of something bought and sold,/Hints of murder in the stars" lead the child to a darker religious mystery—the revelation of a suffering world.
Schnackenberg and Clampitt represent a change in current poetic style. They both recognize a universe of ideas outside their own personal impressions and treat form as an enhancement and delight, rather than a trap. This is not backsliding toward the Modernism that dominated the first decades of the 20th century. These women are true Romantics. But the battles fought by poets in the '50s and '60s against Modernist values need not be taken up again by writers in the '80s. Amy Clampitt and Gjertrud Schnackenberg are two outstanding members of a growing poetic movement devoted to both sound and sense.
Source: Phoebe Pettingell, Review of The Lamplit Answer, in New Leader, Vol. 68, No. 15, September 23, 1985, p. 15.
Cohen, Rosetta, Review of The Lamplit Answer, in the Nation, December 7, 1985, p. 621.
Dawson, Ariel, "The Yuppie Poet," in Writer's Chronicle, Vol. 14, No. 5, 1984.
Gioia, Dana, "Notes on the New Formalism," in Expansive Poetry: Essays on the New Narrative & the New Formalism, edited by Frederick Feirstein, Story Line Press, 1989, p. 164; originally published in the Hudson Review, Autumn 1987.
Kirsch, Adam, "All Eyes on the Snow Globe," in New York Times Book Review, October 29, 2000, p. 27.
McPhillips, Robert, "Reading the New Formalists," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 97, Winter 1989, p. 75.
――――――, "What's New about the New Formalism?" in Expansive Poetry: Essays on the New Narrative & the New Formalism, edited by Frederick Feirstein, Story Line Press, 1989, pp. 195, 207; originally published in Crosscurrents, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1988.
Mendelsohn, Daniel, "Breaking Out," in the New York Review of Books, March 29, 2001, p. 39.
Schnackenberg, Gjertrud, "Supernatural Love," The Lamplit Answer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985, pp. 81-83.
Shetley, Vernon, After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 157, 190.
Turner, Frederick, and Ernst Pöppel, "The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time," in Expansive Poetry: Essays on the New Narrative & the New Formalism, edited by Frederick Feirstein, Story Line Press, 1989, pp. 240, 241, 249.
Viereck, Peter, "Strict Wildness: The Biology of Poetry," in Poets & Writers Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, May-June 1988, pp. 8, 11.
Wakoski, Diane, "The New Conservatism in American Poetry," in American Book Review, Vol. 8, No. 4, May-June 1986.
Wiman, Christian, Review of Supernatural Love: Poems, 1976–1992, in Poetry, Vol. 179, No. 2, November 2001, p. 91.
Finch, Annie, ed., After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative and Tradition, Story Line Press, 1999.
This collection of twenty-four essays explores the formal possibilities of contemporary poetry and the implications of formalism for poetic history, practice, and theory. Contributors include Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, David Mason, Marilyn Nelson, Molly Peacock, Adrienne Rich, and others.
Lake, Paul, "Return to Metaphor: From Deep Imagist to New Formalist," in Southwest Review, Vol. 74, Fall 1989, pp. 515-29.
Lake explores the different use of figurative language between the so-called deep image poets of the 1960s and 1970s and the New Formalists. He includes an analysis of Schnackenberg's poem "The Paperweight," from Portraits and Elegies.
McPhillips, Robert, The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction, Textos Books, 2005.
This study of New Formalist poetry and poetics includes chapters on Schnackenberg ("Gjertrud Schnackenberg and the High Style"), Dana Gioia, Timothy Steele, and the verse satire of Tom Disch, R. S. Gwynn, and Charles Martin. There is also a comprehensive bibliography.
Schnackenberg, Gjertrud, "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians," in Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, edited by Alfred Corn, Penguin, 1990, pp. 189-211.
In this engaging, elegantly written essay, Schnackenberg discusses the historical and theological aspects of Paul's letter to the Colossians. The book as a whole includes similar essays by other writers and poets, including Dana Gioia, Amy Clampitt, John Updike, and Annie Dillard, in which they give their personal responses to other New Testament books.
Shapiro, Alan, "The New Formalism," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 14, No. 1, Autumn 1987, pp. 200-13.
Shapiro argues that much of the poetry written by the New Formalists is metrically monotonous.