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.
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.
As time pushed Schnackenberg further and further from the shore of her lost father, and from the clocks and outings and apple trees and dead eminences, so feelingly observed in her early work, that reminded her of him, her work became more overtly preoccupied with time. A haunted sense of the way time mocks human aspirations (“…we’re the emblems standing for/ The consequence of what we cannot master”) dominates Schnackenberg’s second collection, The Lamplit Answer, in which historical events and personages, as well as myth, become the vehicles for extended poetic meditations on this favorite theme. This almost Cavafian fascination with, and deployment of, intimately detailed historical narrative is what would come to distinguish Schnackenberg from her New Formalist peers.
Indeed, critics who found “Kremlin of Smoke,” an eight-poem sequence about Chopin, to be too academic were, I think, judging Schnackenberg by standards she had, by that point, outgrown; these shortish, rather hothouse lyrics, which oscillate between the composer’s Parisian exile and flashbacks to his childhood in Warsaw, are an ideal vehicle for thinking not only about the difference between what we might call individual human time and historical time, but about some other, related themes that started to assert themselves in Schnackenberg’s poems at this time: the isolation of the artist in society, the relationship between imperial politics and art. After Warsaw falls to the Russians, the child prodigy Chopin is plucked out of the “cultural debris” to be a trophy for a culture-vulture Russian grand duke “in an amusing, minor act of war.” Eventually, the prodigy ends up in Paris, a setting that draws from Schnackenberg lyrics that are, while exquisite, always apt, beautifully and imaginatively conveying the vaporous emptiness of the artist’s sojourn in the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain (“…the tea steam hangs/ Phantom chrysanthemums on long, evaporating stems/In the air of the winter apartment…”).
The most technically dazzling of these reflections on time and art is the long poem “Imaginary Prisons,” a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend, in which Schnackenberg’s always-elegant form and the poem’s content are perfectly wedded. With its sustained, onward-pushing periods that seem to climb tirelessly from tercet to tercet like Beauty’s roses climbing the palace’s abandoned arbors, and with its many sighing feminine line-endings, the poem seems to defy the inexorable logic of time while simultaneously conceding to it.
Equally impressive, and even more thematically ambitious, is the final poem in this collection, “Supernatural Love,” which reunites daughter and father in an intricately achieved meditation on poetry, time, love, and faith: as the daughter sits working on a needlepoint sampler, her father seeks the “lamplit answer” to a question about the etymology of the word “carnation,” which the young Gjertrud has intuitively identified as “Christ’s flowers.” The word is derived from the Latin for “flesh”; at the moment we learn, further, that the flower itself is a variety of clove, whose name comes from the French clou, “Meaning a nail”—a nail such as those that pierced Christ’s hands—the little girl pricks her finger on the needle that is stitching the word “Beloved” and bleeds. The poem itself, then, is a sophisticated “incarnation” in which the metaphors always latent in language (“carnation,” the flower as pink as flesh, caro) become, with exquisite complexity, incarnate (“made flesh”).
The patently religious motifs in “Supernatural Love” suggest that we ought to see this climactic poem—formally elegant, intellectually subtle, thematically ambitious—as a Janus figure in Schnackenberg’s work: as technically expert as the work in her first two volumes, and yet as overtly preoccupied with the increasingly weighty “supernatural” concerns of the two that would follow. But for all it looked forward to what would come, nothing about “Supernatural Love,” or indeed any of Schnackenberg’s earlier work, prepared you for A Gilded Lapse of Time, which, as is now possible to see, represented a watershed in the poet’s career—a crisis with which she had to contend in order to achieve her new, and best, work.
Many critics, among them the admirably rigorous William Logan (who was inspired by A Gilded Lapse of Time to call Schnackenberg “the most talented American poet under the age of 40”), admired this sprawling tripartite epic of artistic and religious crisis and redemption. To my mind, there was more crisis than redemption. The exhaustingly spun-out sentences, the vatic obscurities (“Rumors lash the angel’s robes/Into transitory statues/ Madly overturned/But they disappear without breaking”), the ambitious, rather mandarin (indeed, Eliotic) allusions to great monuments of literature (the Commedia, Osip Mandelstam) and painting (Mantegna, Piero della Francesca), and to historical personages (Augustus, Herod, Stalin, Tiberius, Constantine)—all this smacked of a poet desperately attempting to break through an agonizingly long case of writer’s block (“Years I could only thumb the page/Into featureless velvet…”) by means of sheer excess.
You can see why Schnackenberg felt she needed such big guns. She was, after all, after big game here: the moral vacancy of empires both past and present (“a heap/Of debris, where Rome is piled up on Rome”), the wellsprings of poetic inspiration, the strange accidents that lead us to faith (“Then I turned to my God”), the feel and meaning of time itself. Some of this is conveyed with the delicate, thoughtful rightness that the poet’s earlier work had led you to expect: “…one’s death, fixed into/The future like a stone that cries out in a wall” is a wonderfully vivid line, at once satisfyingly concrete and profoundly moving, and there’s an equally fine one in which Tiberius, oppressed by his own artificial divinity, “sees his hand clatter down to his lap/Like a bone in an empty dish…”; the assonance of the repeated short a’s nicely creates its own hollow clatter.
But for the most part, the thematic grandiosity and verbal bloat (“the doves had built their summer palaces”), the figurative and indeed literal gilding you get here—few poems have been as filled as this one is with gold, gilt, glittering, shimmering, flickering, and glinting—end up recalling the late Roman Empire in ways that the poet surely didn’t intend: outward excess barely masking inner confusion. (I wondered briefly if some of this wasn’t the result of the shocked confrontation between the “stark, narrow, and pure” Lutheranism of the poet’s Norwegian forbears and the sumptuous Catholic rituals and art she first encountered on trips to Italy with her father.) “Jesus wears on His head/The excruciating radiance…” goes one typically overwrought line in the work’s first part; “excruciating radiance” is pretty much what you get throughout.
Real poetic redemption has come, for Schnackenberg, not from Peter’s Rome but from Sophocles’ Greece. The big preoccupations of A Gilded Lapse of Time are all here in her newest book: the immanence of the divine in human history, the meaning of moral responsibility, the nature and limits of art itself. What’s gone is the bigness, the bloat. If in A Gilded Lapse of Time the poet seemed to have unconsciously absorbed the grandiose emptiness at the heart of Tiberius’ Rome and Stalin’s Moscow, in The Throne of Labdacus she has clearly learned the minimalist lessons of Greek lyric and tragedy, forms unmatched for compression, for lyric terseness, and for elegant economy of expression.
The economy of Schnackenberg’s new work is evident from the start, in the spare couplets out of which the poem is built. (The twinned lines are like the strings of some awesome archaic instrument twanging together.) Spareness, smallness, are indeed the notes that sound at the poem’s thrilling beginning, which imagines the god Apollo, patron of the arts, “mouthing the words” of what will be Sophocles’ Oedipus: a small whisper that is, the poet writes in a passage abuzz with anticipatory sibilants,
As small a sound
As a housefly alighting from Persia
And stamping its foot on a mound
Where the palace once was;
As small as a moth chewing thread
In the tyrant’s robe;
As small as the cresting of red
In the rim of an injured eye; as small
As the sound of a human conceived—
A human conceived, an injured eye, a fallen palace: here, before the poem has barely begun, you’re given the whole arc of Oedipus’ story, sketched with almost bleak economy.
We know the story summed up in those hissing lines, and Schnackenberg knows better than to tell it to us; this is where her poem breaks away from her classical datum to create something really new. The fascinating and illuminating conceit of her poem is that it’s about Apollo’s reaction to the “premiere” of Sophocles’ play, at which Apollo is invisibly present, ruminating about the history of this myth even as he watches the latest artistic retelling of it. This startling notion permits the poet to entwine, with the many themes which the Oedipus myth may already be said to be “about”—self-knowledge, divine vs. mortal knowledge, moral blindness, fate and individual responsibility—yet another theme, which is the power (and limits) of art.
The real hero of The Throne of Labdacus is not, in fact, Oedipus, whose well-known story is merely alluded to throughout the poem’s ten short sections, but Apollo himself, god of poetry but also of prophecy, of art but also of divination. Consistently with his dual nature, he is caught between the inexorable requirements of Fate (symbolized here by recurrent images of indifferent snow, cold, ice)—requirements that Oedipus be exposed at birth, be saved, kill his father, marry his mother, suffer—and a suspiciously human sympathy for Oedipus, whose catastrophe will serve as our, the audience’s, instruction. And entertainment.
The drama, and meaning, of this poem arises from Apollo’s dilemma. After that shivery beginning, we see the god trying to flee the emissaries of “ice-crowned Necessity” (a deliciously Sophoclean locution) who pursue him with baskets of clay tablets on which the Oedipus legend is written; whenever the god tries to wipe away the offending words and replace them with his own compassionate new “law”—“The human being, in the end, is an injured body…”—the words of the old tale begin, creepily, to show through once more. In one of the poem’s most brilliant and beautiful moments, the very letters of the Greek alphabet are shown to contain Oedipus’s story: delta, “Like the indelible mountain/ With an infant king abandoned on it”; theta, “like a human infant’s face/ Crossed out”; lambda, “like a lame man/Leaning on a stick”; omega, “like a shining rope/Lowered by Zeus into the midst of things/And tied, by human hands,/Into a noose…” These strong passages, in which (much as in “Supernatural Love”) words and even their components seem inexorably to find their deeper meanings, suggest the extent to which Schnackenberg has found in her Greek subject matter an ideal vehicle for expressing in vivid and apt poetic speech the abstract concepts and metaphysical conundrums she’s been thinking about.
As far back as “Imaginary Prisons,” Schnackenberg was preoccupied with the tragedy of human action in the face of time’s progress; after reading The Throne of Labdacus, I began to think of A Gilded Lapse of Time as an annealing fire, a conflagration in which all self-indulgence and excess was burned off, leaving nothing but this poet’s core themes and hard, true poetry—nothing but
What is: a sequence of accidents
Without a cause,
Or from which the cause
Is long-lost, like a ruthless jewel
Missing from an archaic setting’s
Empty, bent, but still aggressive prongs.
Everything about the new poem feels inevitable, and everything in it conspires to project a sense of the inevitability of art, of poetry. For it is these, like that empty setting, that remain after the cause, the now-forgotten human suffering out of which tragic stories are made, has been burned away by time.
Reading Supernatural Love in conjunction with The Throne of Labdacus allows you to grasp the extent to which the latter is a response to the trauma that was evident in A Gilded Lapse of Time. One way to read the new poem is, indeed, to see it as a meditation about a crisis of artistic responsibility—about knowing where lived experience must leave off and real art begin. The troubling line between the two is the subject of this remarkable work: Schnackenberg keeps it vividly before you, from the poem’s opening, where the pegs squeaking in the holes of Apollo’s lyre as he tunes his instrument grow indistinguishable from “the music of wooden wheels/On a stridulous cart passing out of Thebes” (that is, the cart taking Oedipus’ father to his fateful meeting with Oedipus at the crossroads)—to its moving final couplet, in which Apollo “Touches a string and replies: I rescued the child.”
For throughout the poem, Schnackenberg has rightly identified the moral ground zero of the Oedipus myth as the rescue of the child, the moment when Laius’ old servant decides, for reasons as deeply human as they are, ultimately, wholly mysterious, to save the three-day-old Oedipus (whom, on the King’s orders, the servant is supposed to have left for dead on the lonely mountainside); as we all know, this act of compassion sets in motion crimes beside which infanticide seems to pale: parricide, regicide, incest, self-mutilation, suicide. In a climactic rhyme-filled sequence, Schnackenberg’s tortured Apollo literally and figuratively faces the music at last, redeeming Oedipus, the shepherd, and indeed himself. He does so by making music—making art—out of that crucial moment of moral responsibility, turning the shepherd’s hapless “I rescued the child” into his own song. So too has Schnackenberg taken her own moment of crisis and made remarkable music of it.
Which brings me back to the question implicit in Eliot’s complaint: Who will listen to this music—or understand it? There’s a lyric in A Gilded Lapse of Time that echoes, in its way, Eliot’s words: In a tiny hand mirror, Constantine’s empress sees a reflection of the “void at the heart of power/ Where senators don’t speak Latin anymore.” As we know, things have got even worse: the potential readership for Schnackenberg’s new poem doesn’t even know that Latin is what the senators spoke. However improbably, the strange and thrilling arc of Schnackenberg’s career has taken her backward through time, from the New Formalism to a place where, as in Eliot, past and present, classical and contemporary, the august and the mundane, come together in an astringent—and deeply modernist—harmony. The real tragedy would be if there were no one to follow her there.
March 29, 2001
T.S. Eliot, “Euripides and Professor Murray,” in Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot (Harcourt, Brace, 1932; reprinted 1950), p. 47. ↩
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. ↩
Eliot, “Euripides and Professor Murray,” pp. 47–48. ↩