You don’t have to be brilliant to read Gjertrude Schnackenberg’s poetry – but you do need to surrender to her word music! Her new book, Heavenly Questions, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2011 (paperback), is a set of six linked long poems written in iambic pentameter – a pulsing drumbeat of syllables – blank verse enriched by occasional rhyme. She comments: “…poetry is an effort to communicate meaning. It’s doing it through feeling and emotion rather than through the ideas it presents.”*“It is perhaps the most powerful elegy written in English by any poet in recent memory, and it is a triumphant consummation of Schnackenberg’s own work.” Carl Kirchway
The emphasis in the Web reviews is her stunning elegy for her husband. For me the real beauty is in her confident stride even more than the content; it is the way she travels with words– entrancing the reader by means of iambic pentameter, that –/ –/ –/ –/ –/ rhythm, which does to the mind what riding a camel or a horse does to the body. Schnackenberg’s poems avoid both the archaic as well as distortion in the natural order of words, which – in less skilled hands – leads to the feeling of ‘manufactured’ lines.
…Reading this book is like reading the ocean, its swells and furrows, its secrets fleetingly revealed and then blown away in gusts of foam and spray or folded back into nothing but water. Heavenly Questions demands that we come face to face with matters of mortal importance, and it does so in a wildly original music that is passionate, transporting, and heart-rending... Judges Citation, Griffin Poetry Prize.
She carries an invisible inherited poetry: the blank verse vehicle of Shakespeare’s plays, of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” I’ve been in the light rain of meter and occasional rhyme most of this year now, and all but well-written free verse strikes my ear as dry or un-musical. What happened to that ancestral rhythm and rhyme that rocks us? Musicians and Spoken Word artists have picked it up in this dominant culture of un-formal poetry, but now with Schnackenberg and AE Stallings too, here is poetry in form, a read that’s fresh, yet carries the ancestral link forward. Here is a taste of the nearly 6 page poem “Fusiturricula Lullaby,” from Heavenly Questions. (Fusiturricula is pronounced few-see-tur-IK-ula – a sea snail).A shell appears––Fusiturricula–– And uses its inherited clairvoyance To plot a logarithmic spiral round An axis of rotation evermore And evermore forevermore unseen….
This triple repetition coils the reader through the shell. She often uses repetition as a climactic devise in her long poems. She says: “Repetition can be hypnotic.”* Trance-like. In the poem of her husband’s death, “Venus Velvet No. 2,” six pages into the poem she begins the negation –no one, nothing, never, never again, and not, not; then the negative goes further with unscrolling, unwheeling, historyless, and nothing less. You can see her life with her husband unwinding to its conclusion, without the least bit of sentimentality. The result is paradoxically beautiful and haunting. Blank verse serves the longer poems well. • If you are a poetry lover, read Heavenly Questions. It’s elevated enchantment. <>
*AUDIO INTERVIEW – [This one is great!] from the series: New Letters on the Air (30 minutes): <http://www.prx.org/pieces/60701-poet-gjertrud-schnackenberg>
The following are links to other Web sites with information about poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg. (Note: All links to external Web sites open in a new browser window.)
- Gjertrud Schnackenberg profile (Poetry Foundation)
- Review of Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schnackenberg (Quarterly Conversation)
- For more on formal poetry, see West Chester University Poetry Conference, 2011 on this blog.
- The End!