One of the most important aspects of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s career has been her role as a leading voice of the New Formalism movement, which developed in the 1980’s. Writers such as Schnackenberg, Dana Gioia, and Timothy Steele, all born around 1950, made their literary debuts about that time and, both individually and as a group, reacted against the loosely organized, free-verse, and often highly emotional poetry that had been the legacy of the Beats and the writers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In its place, the New Formalists advocated a return to traditional poetic forms that ranged from the relatively simple sonnet to the intricately patterned and rhymed villanelle. For many of these writers a self-conscious, ironic stance was also part of their poetics. However, Schnackenberg used her formalism to control and shape a content of strong, often intense personal emotions that are a fundamental part of her poems.
Portraits and Elegies
Schnackenberg’s first collection, the poetry chapbook Portraits and Elegies, consists of three parts: “Laughing with One Eye,” a section of twelve poems that are memories of the poet’s father; “Darwin in 1881,” a portrait of the British naturalist the year before his death; and “19 Hadley Street,” a section of sixteen poems about the legacy and inhabitants of a Massachusetts house from the present time back to the early eighteenth century. The section’s chronology moves backward against the flow of time, the same way in which historians, such as the poet’s dead father, discover the past.
The poems in Portraits and Elegies are marked by a careful handling of form and rhyme and an apt choice of appropriate words, especially those that evoke the past, either personally for the poet or universally for humanity. At times the two intersect, as in the poem “’There Are No Dead,’” which uses the Bayeux Tapestry and its story as a symbolic link between present and past, living and dead, William the Conqueror and Walter Charles Schnackenberg:
There William of Normandy remounts his horseA fourth time, four times desperate to driveOff rumors of his death. His sword is drawn,He swivels and lifts his visor up and roars,Look at me well! For I am still alive!Your glasses, lying on the desk, look on.
The Lamplit Answer
By the time The Lamplit Answer was published, Schnackenberg’s sense of loss for her dead father had been transformed into a more general contemplation of the passage of time and the persistence of human memory. To express this complex relationship, she developed a poetic form that used characterization, description, and setting in an almost novelistic fashion.
“The Kremlin of Smoke,” a sequence of eight poems about the Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin, is one outstanding example of this technique. In these short, lyrical pieces Schnackenberg alternates between the “present” (Chopin’s life as an émigré in Paris) and his “past” (memories, perhaps idealized, of his childhood in Warsaw). A second and even more technically impressive example is the long poem “Imaginary Prisons,” which retells the Sleeping Beauty story. “Supernatural Love,” the poem that concludes the book, brings Schnackenberg back to her own personal recollection of her father as he bends over a large dictionary to find for her the etymology of...
(The entire section is 1494 words.)