Gjertrud Schnackenberg Schnackenberg, Gjertrud - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Portraits and Elegies 1982

The Lamplit Answer 1985

A Gilded Lapse of Time 1992

Supernatural Love Poems 2000

The Throne of Labdacus 2000

Robert McPhillips (review date winter 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McPhillips, Robert. “Reading the New Formalists.” Sewanee Review 97, no. 1 (winter 1989): 73-96.

[In the following excerpt, McPhillips credits Schnackenberg for being one of the few contemporary poets with the proficiency to use traditional techniques, although he points out that she succeeds at this more in her first book than in The Lamplit Answer.]

Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Portraits and Elegies (1982) and The Lamplit Answer (1985) have received considerable attention. Although the first collection was indebted to Robert Lowell, the human feeling underlying the book, combined with a mastery of meter and rhyme and a lyric sense of ordering...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)

Dorothy Barresi (review date fall 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Baressi, Dorothy. “Seeing Divine.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 18, no. 2 and 19, no. 1 (fall 1993): 296-315.

[In the following excerpt, Baressi praises A Gilded Lapse of Time but sometimes finds sincere emotion and meaning sacrificed for concept and allusion at critical moments in the work.]

With her second book, The Lamplit Answer (1982), Gjertrud Schnackenberg secured a place for herself among the so-called “New Formalists,” a title made meaningless by overuse and the notion, misconceived, that poetry had ever been, or could ever be, anything less than “formal.” Of course the reign of “free verse” poetry in the academy set the...

(The entire section is 3481 words.)

Stephen Burt (review date summer 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Burt, Stephen. “Rifled Treasury.” Poetry Review 86, no. 2 (summer 1996): 297-306.

[In the following review, Burt finds A Gilded Lapse of Time inferior to Schnackenberg's prior works.]

Gjertrud Schnackenberg used to be above all a pleasant poet, one who combined high-culture learning, difficult forms (rhymed sapphics, villanelles) and reassuring accessibility; the American New Formalist critics of the 1980s accordingly celebrated her work, though some other readers found anthology-pieces like ‘Supernatural Love’ sugary or slight. Compared to that work, A Gilded Lapse of Time—published in America four years ago—is sprawling,...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Phoebe Pettingell (essay date September-October 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Painful Mysteries.” New Leader 83, no. 4 (September-October, 2000): 38-40.

[In the following essay, Pettingell discusses how mythology and history influence Schnackenberg's poetry.]

The myth of Oedipus, King of Thebes, haunted authors in antiquity. In the 20th century, it became the basis for Freudian psychoanalysis and modernist literature. It is as simple as it is scarifying; Having been told by Apollo that he would kill his father and marry his mother, the young Oedipus resolves not to return home to Corinth. On the road, he meets an old man whom he strikes down in a quarrel. Coming to Thebes, he saves the population from the Sphinx,...

(The entire section is 2226 words.)

Adam Kirsch (essay date 29 October 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “All Eyes on the Snow Globe.” New York Times Book Review (29 October 2000): 27.

[In the following essay, Kirsch focuses on Schnackenberg's ideas regarding fate and her tendency to view her subjects from a great height.]

Gjertrud Schnackenberg stands out among younger American poets for her ambition, in the best sense of the word. 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. Lowellian, too, is her desire to treat history as something more than a stage setting, to make it the medium of thought and...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Daniel Mendelsohn (essay date March 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Breaking Out.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 5 (29 March 2001): 38-40.

[In the following essay, Mendelsohn traces Schnackenberg's artistic progress and credits her for bringing fresh ideas to classical material.]


In a devastating 1920 attack on Gilbert Murray's translation of the Medea. T. S. Eliot bemoaned the fact that “the Classics have … lost their place as a pillar of the social and political system.”1 The complaint, of course, is an old one; writers have been grumbling about the decline of the classics since Aristophanes' Frogs, in which the theater god Dionysus,...

(The entire section is 4341 words.)

Christina Davis (review date summer 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Christina. Review of Supernatural Love and The Throne of Labdacus, by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Boston Review 26, no. 3 (summer 2001): 27.

[In the following review, Davis finds Schnackenberg broadening her talents with each additional work.]

Poetry remains an art of elders, by which I do not mean a bourgeois art of old men in dry months, but an art that—unlike the youth culture around it and the pervasive cultural Alzheimer's—still values the slow accretion of wisdom across a career, the ripening, as Rilke once wrote, in the blood. The publication of Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992 and The Throne of...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Lake, Paul. “Return to Metaphor: From Deep Imagist to New Formalist.” Southwest Review 74 (fall 1989): 515-29.

Draws from various contemporary poems to compare differences between the two successive generations of poets. Includes review of Portraits and Elegies.

St. John, David. “Raised Voices in the Choir: A Review of 1981, 1982 & 1983 Poetry Selections.” In Where the Angels Come Toward Us: Selected Essays, Reviews & Interviews, pp. 82-83. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1995.

Evaluates the strengths of Portraits and Elegies.

Stocking, Marion. Review of The Throne...

(The entire section is 192 words.)