Gjertrud Schnackenberg 1953-
(Full name Gjertrud Cecilia Schnackenberg) American poet and essayist.
Schnackenberg is regarded as one of her generation's leading American poets. Her ability to support new ideas with fluid technique in traditional forms, language, and meter categorized her with the New Formalists, a group of poets that emerged in the early 1980s to challenge the dominant free verse, free-form fashion of the time. In her relatively small body of published work, Schnackenberg portrays numerous recurring elements, including the dynamics of family interaction on both personal and historical levels, the transmutation of epic material from a contemporary perspective, and the use of traditional poetic forms to convey emotional restraint. Schnackenberg has received several awards for her writing, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1987.
Schnackenberg was born in Tacoma, Washington, to Doris Storm and Walter Charles Schnackenberg. Her father was a professor at the local university in Tacoma who taught Russian and medieval history. Schnackenberg began writing poetry while a student at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The house where she resided during her years at Mount Holyoke, “19 Hadley Street,” would later become the subject for one of her most well-known poems. She twice won the college's prestigious Glascock award for poetry; prior recipients of this award include Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and James Merrill. Schnackenberg graduated summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke in 1975 and won a poetry fellowship four years later from the Bunting Institute at Radcliff and Cambridge. Following the fellowship, an opportunity arose for Schnackenberg to give lectures in writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The next year, she published her first book of poetry, Portraits and Elegies (1982). This significant debut was enthusiastically received by critics and was followed by more important awards, including the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1982, the Rome Prize in literature for 1983-84 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the 1984-85 Amy Lowell Travelling Prize, which Schnackenberg used to spend time in Italy. She published her second book, The Lamplit Answer in 1985 and subsequently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1987, she married Robert Nozick, a distinguished Harvard professor and award-winning philosophical writer. This same year, Schnackenberg received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two years later was awarded the Academy award in literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1989. During this year she and several other poets each wrote an essay on the poems of T. S. Eliot for the Yale Review. Shortly after the first article, Schnackenberg contributed to another collection of essays, this time focusing on the New Testament. Seven years after The Lamplit Answer, her third collection was published, A Gilded Lapse of Time (1992). Schnackenberg continued to receive recognition during the following years, including a Writer-in-Residence position at Smith College, a visiting fellowship at St. Catherine's College in Oxford in 1997 (where her husband was also giving lectures), and another fellowship at the Getty Research Institute in 2000. The long narrative poem The Throne of Labdacus was published in 2000, along with a collection of poems from her previous books, titled Supernatural Love Poems. Although she has resided in several locales including Tacoma, Italy, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Schnackenberg continues to live and work in the Boston area.
Largely inspired by memories of her father's life and a love of history, Portraits and Elegies established Schnackenberg's fondness for combining themes of family and the past, something she has explored throughout her career. “Laughing With One Eye,” her most biographical work, reflects influences of Robert Lowell with its dependency on meter and form to both channel and contain her emotional state. This opening sequence of elegies focuses on Schnackenberg's father, and influences the rest of the collection. “19 Hadley Street,” the third section of the book, traces the inhabitants of a house over two hundred years. While focusing on the household members and their lives, her verse also conveys shifting points-of-view regarding significant historical events, such as the American Civil War and the Salem witch trials. The Lamplit Answer finds Schnackenberg revisiting memories of her father again. Her lyrical language and eloquent use of rhyme are also evident in this book. In “The Advent Calendar,” Schnackenberg began to explore religious themes, a trend which carries through in her third book, A Gilded Lapse of Time. In this volume, Schnackenberg resisted any autobiographical references and instead chooses to focus on a trip to Dante's tomb in Ravenna, Italy. In the third section of this collection, Schnackenberg selects an entirely different subject—Russian poet Osip Mandelstam—but continued to explore themes of spirituality, faith, and corruption, using more complicated language and ideas than those included in any of her previous works. The verse in The Throne of Labdacus is simplified into couplets, while the volume takes its subject from classical Greek mythology by recasting the story of Oedipus. This passionate piece of work further develops such favorite themes as examining the idea of predetermined fate and the artist's moral and creative responsibility.
Critics have often commented on Schnackenberg's outstanding debut in Portraits and Elegies. Most reviewers have praised her literary techniques in language, rhyme, and meter, and her ability to balance these with surprising intimacy and accessible ideas. The Lamplit Answer elicited greater controversy. Some critics have praised her for taking artistic risks in the work, others criticized her for expanding beyond her reach or being too cautious. Most contemporary scholars, however, have shown patience with Schnackenberg and tended to balance their dissatisfaction with anticipation of better forthcoming work. Opinions on A Gilded Lapse of Time differed greatly. Some reviewers have judged its language as overly heavy and melodramatic, while other readers have found it eloquent and moving. In his review of The Lamplit Answer, William Logan called Schnackenberg “the most gifted poet of her generation.” He elevated his praise to “simply one of the best we have” in his review of The Throne of Labdacus but also found the work indirect and lacking in passion. Many critics have since noted what they feel to be Schnackenberg's artistic failures as necessary steps toward the future fulfilment of her poetic potential.