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Breaking Out

The Throne of Labdacus

Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,101 pp., $23.00

1.

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, dismayed by the sorry state of the Athenian theater, descends to the Underworld to fetch back Aeschylus and Euripides from the dead.

Still, times do change; it’s hard not to think that the deterioration of the classics’ influence between Eliot’s time and our own is even more marked than that between Aristophanes’ and Eliot’s. You suspect that the average English university student of the 1920s knew what language the ancient Romans spoke; as the poet Dana Gioia points out in a recent essay, the average American college student doesn’t. (Nor, apparently, does he know in which century the American, let alone the Roman, Civil War took place.2)

It’s this deterioration that makes the rest of Eliot’s essay seem almost touching now. Here is his prescription for the ailing health of the classics:

If [the classics] are to survive, to justify themselves as literature, as an element in the European mind, as the foundation for the literature we hope to create, they are very badly in need of persons capable of expounding them. We need some one…to explain how vital a matter it is, if Aristotle may be said to have been a moral pilot of Europe, whether we shall or shall not drop that pilot. And we need a number of educated poets who shall at least have opinions about Greek drama, and whether it is or is not of any use to us…. Greek poetry will never have the slightest vitalizing effect upon English poetry if it can only appear masquerading as a vulgar debasement of the eminently personal idiom of Swinburne.3

Good teachers, then, are what we need; but good poets, too. The irony is that starting almost exactly at the time of Eliot’s death in 1965—beginning, that is, with the intellectual upheavals and academic identity crises of the Sixties and Seventies, and continuing on through the Eighties and Nineties when the ” Culture Wars” raged inside and outside the academy—classics as a discipline has been faced with a dilemma that even the gloomy Eliot couldn’t have foreseen. Over the past forty years, the question hasn’t been (or hasn’t merely been) whether the Greek and Roman masterpieces justify themselves as literature, but whether high literature itself, to say nothing of “the European mind,” is still a legitimate and central object of study and of cultural preoccupation—whether they’re worth “expounding” in the first place. Because the very premises of Eliot’s argument about the importance of the classics are themselves now contested, his further assumptions about the “uses” to which we might reasonably expect the classics to be put—that, for instance, the works of classical culture ought to serve as the “foundation” of contemporary literature; that classical poetry could have a “vitalizing effect” on poetry now being written—will strike some readers as naive; others, as poignant.

When Eliot talks of “poets,” he means contemporary poets who might translate classical texts in a meaningful way for today’s audiences. (H.D.’s renderings of Euripides rightly come in for high and—at Murray’s considerable expense—quite funny praise: “much nearer to both Greek and English than Mr. Murray’s.”) But translations come in many forms. If the past twenty years have seen particularly intense confusion in some quarters about the meaning and importance of the classics, the same period has also witnessed some remarkable new work that is based, in one way or another, on the Greek and Roman masterpieces. Here I am not thinking of straight translations—although serious poets continue to wrestle with the classics. (Ted Hughes, for instance, devoted his last years to the creation of translations and looser “adaptations” of Greek and Roman masterpieces, from Aeschylus’ Oresteia to Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the Englishman Christopher Logue and the American Stanley Lombardo have produced striking new renderings of Homer over the past few years.)

More significant, at least with respect to what Eliot was worrying about in his essay on Murray’s Medea, is the work of contemporary poets for whom the classics are not (as it were) the conclusion, but the premise of a poetic project—the basis for a thorough engagement not only with the classical works but with the issues they continue to raise about selfhood, desire, politics, and poetic production itself. Very few contemporary poets are seriously committed to this project, partly because the classics are, to some culture warriors, embarrassingly “canonical,” and partly because few poets are sufficiently intimate with the classics to be able to work confidently with them (as opposed to merely quoting them, say, or making pro forma obeisance to them).

Principal among those contemporary writers who do know how to make use of the classics to fashion strong and original poetry is the Canadian Anne Carson, who is a classicist as well as a poet, and whose familiarity with her sources is so profound that she is able to move with great confidence beyond the originals, keeping the classical texts (Thucydides, Stesichorus, Sappho) before your eyes even as she toys with them, stretching them to accommodate new meanings, new possibilities. (Her extraordinary book-length poem Autobiography of Red is an extended meditation on the seventh-century BCE lyric poet Stesichorus’ treatment of the Geryon myth; it manages to retain the verbal intensity and narrative amplitude of Greek choral lyric while sounding bracingly contemporary.) Neither slavishly “respectful” paraphrases of the originals nor crudely “relevant” updatings of them, Carson’s verses arise organically from the classics—and in so doing implicitly reflect upon the ways in which the classics may, in Eliot’s sense, be “used.”

To Carson’s singular achievement as a poet involved in deep and meaningful refashioning of the classics we may now confidently add Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s new book-length poem, The Throne of Labdacus. Happily, this splendid new work has been issued at the same time as a volume that comprises not only her two earlier collections—Portraits and Elegies (1982) and The Lamplit Answer (1985)—but also the poet’s 1992 three-part religious epic, A Gilded Lapse of Time. I say “happily,” because ready access to the earlier work allows you to track a remarkable and difficult artistic progress, one that raises some interesting questions about the current state of poetry and its audience—and, to some extent, about the legacy of Eliot himself.

2.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s early career wouldn’t necessarily have led you to expect from her a mini-epic that’s largely preoccupied with the aesthetic and intellectual implications of Greek tragedy, religion, and philosophy. Along with Dana Gioia and Timothy Steele, both of whom are her almost exact contemporaries (all were born around 1950), Schnackenberg emerged in the early Eighties as one of the leading voices of the New Formalism, a movement that began, in large part, as a reaction to the entrenchment of free verse as the orthodoxy in academic taste. Eschewing the solipsistic free-form emoting that had too often become the hallmark of verse composition in the Sixties and Seventies, the New Formalists rediscovered and put to use again traditional forms (sonnets, sestinas, aubades, villanelles) and rhetorical modes (narrative, argument).

But if the forms these young poets embraced were “classical,” the content was anything but Olympian. What distinguished the “New” Formalists from the academic formalists of the previous generation—that is, from the poets influenced by the New Criticism—was their rejection of ironic personae, literary allusiveness, and abstruse diction and syntax in favor of vigorous colloquial speech and everyday subject matter. Dana Gioia, who (like Wallace Stevens) has managed to be a successful businessman as well as a serious poet, has written tart lyrics about money and about poetry workshops (“teaching them to write their boot-camp sestinas”); and in coolly delicate, sometimes elaborately argued lyrics that recall the metaphysical poets, Timothy Steele has done much to give back structural stability to (it sometimes seems) love itself as well as to love poetry, sagely rejecting excesses of passion, both poetic and emotional, in favor of the comforts of form (“peace rests in form and nomenclature”).

Schnackenberg’s very fine first collection, Portraits and Elegies, mapped her own struggle for what you could call peace through form. If these early poems are a little too well behaved at times, they also announce an artist with a remarkable gift for channeling difficult feelings into ideal forms. A group of twelve poems called “Laughing with One Eye,” an extended elegy for her father, a history professor who died when the poet was twenty, admirably navigates between deep emotion and impressive formal control in a way that heightens your appreciation of both. Schnackenberg’s powerful endings have attracted attention, and it’s not hard to see why: she knows how, in her closing lines, to take odd elements of her settings and short narratives—in the first poem of the sequence, “Nightfishing,” it’s an old kitchen clock and a predawn fishing trip with her father—and spin them into verbal figures with impressive climactic heft (“Clock hands sweep by it all, they twirl around,/Pushing me, oarless, from the shore of you”). Her use of repetitions and echoes can be dazzling but are never idly flashy, as witness these lines from yet another elegy, “Intermezzo,” this one about her father’s piano-playing:

Steinway in German script above the keys,
Letters like dragons curling stiff gold tails,
Gold letters, ivory keys, the black wood cracked
By years of sunlight, into dragon scales…

The last word of the quatrain suggests that we are to hear, in the hammered trochees with which the lines begin, in the stuttered repetition of “keys,” “letters,” “dragons,” and “gold,” and in the assonance of “tails” and “scales,” and of “black” and “cracked,” the sound of someone practicing—scales. (Schnackenberg also has a way with fashioning rhymes that are both thematically apt and quite witty. “Bavaria,” a recollection of a 1962 father-daughter trip abroad, offers the sublime pairings “Neuschwanstein/decline,” and “Bavaria/hysteria.”)

In these early productions there are, inevitably, awkwardnesses. From the beginning—influenced, you can’t help thinking, by her father—Schnackenberg has liked to ruminate about history, but in the early poems her abstract mode can sound grandiose, however glittery her figures may be. (In “Bavaria,” Wagner’s music is a “Tree of lightning [that] bears a politics/Of acid fruit….”) When the poet uses small, concrete things to get at big historical questions—as she does in a fine sequence called “19 Hadley Street,” which gives voice to the inhabitants of a Connecticut house over the course of two and a half centuries of small domestic pleasures and bigger traumas (the Civil War, the extermination of native peoples by the settlers)—she achieves much greater success. Schnackenberg has a vivid historical imagination, but it’s the imagination of a historical novelist, rather than a historian.

  1. 1

    T.S. Eliot, “Euripides and Professor Murray,” in Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot (Harcourt, Brace, 1932; reprinted 1950), p. 47.

  2. 2

    Dana Gioia, “The Poet in an Age of Prose,” in After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition, edited by Annie Finch (Story Line Press, 1999), p. 33.

  3. 3

    Eliot, “Euripides and Professor Murray,” pp. 47–48.

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