Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Ernest Hilbert

Oedipus Redivivus

 


The Throne of Labdacus by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001 


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I.

     At the height of its rather muted publicity, the new formalism movement—proclaimed by Dana Gioia in the 1980s, and laid out in Linnaean proportions by Mark Jarman and David Mason in Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism—was met with derision by many American poets and with confusion by European poets, few of whom had strayed any great distance from the formal traditions of their forebears. It is difficult, for example, to imagine an Irish or Italian poet of any stature reaching the summit of his calling without once devoting attention to technique, as one finds in the case of a truly American poet like the fiercely autobiographical Diane Wakoski, very much of her generation in her willingness to view competence in poetic form as repressive and even threatening (of course, only one who had never experienced any real threat of the sort could be so at liberty in her choice of demons). Here is an example from her poem ‘This Beautiful Black Marriage’:

acknowledge it
and let it enter your mouth,
taste the historical darkness openly
Taste your own beautiful death,
see your own photo image,
as x-ray,
Bone bleaching inside the blackening
flesh

     It is no great wonder that she is one of the most prolific poets in American history, with at least fifty-three books to her name. Little poetry written in America today will support more than the slightest scrutiny, unless one wishes to address autobiographical or strictly psychological and emotional issues. No one will argue that these are worthwhile, if rather undemanding, exercises. But they could as easily, perhaps more easily, be accomplished using a journal entry or videotaped interview as a starting point. This radical wing of American poetry, of which Wakoski is only one dreary representative, sees poetry as pure expression, and necessarily formless.

To assert, as have a number of these poets, that form suffocates emotional expression and is therefore tyrannical, is to also assert, in short, that nearly all poetry ever written must consist, in a very real way, of disappointments and failures. This is a startling and entirely distasteful idea. Meanwhile, the practice of scansion, once taught in high-school and university literature courses, is fast running the way of Morse Code and metal typesetting. It has, like those other dignified ghosts, fallen to disuse largely because it is no longer functional.[1] To scan a contemporary poem by, for example, Billy Collins will lead one to surrender any claims to the usefulness of a trained ear; there is simply no regularity, no invention, nothing clever or in the smallest way profound in his use of language.

This is not a disturbing realization, in itself. One may reach great heights of power and wealth without a command or even general understanding of the language, but Collins has been presented to the public as the apex of the wordsmith, the most worthy of those who live and feign death by the allegedly mighty pen. Perhaps this explains his incredible popularity. Poetry has become, in our age, an aspirational art—and most of those who read it also write it, even if on the sly. Just as those with no talent whatsoever may easily project their own private lives and ambitions on to the numbingly tedious and vain characters draped over designer furniture on prime-time reality television shows, Collins’s devotees (they are as wicked in their defense of their “everyman” poet as they plentiful) are permitted to believe, for a moment at least: “I could be a best-selling poet laureate. This isn’t so hard after all. I could be the most famous living American poet.”

What many of these poets have inherited from modernism (and perhaps the only thing) is an ease of construction granted by the early twentieth-century pioneers of verse libre. Even if early practitioners weighed their use of non-metrical lineation with some caution and sense of liberation, even adventure, they unbolted the way for those who choose not to bother at all with such considerations. Most amateurs who write poems today do so in one of two ways: there those who ram sentimental clichés into regular sing-song rhymes with no metrical precision; and those who litter the page with reckless, unrhymed, half-formed utterances, meant to be profound, set in lines that “don’t quite reach the end of the page.” Both of these anti-models stem not from a shallow sense of tradition but complete absence of any such sense.

Free verse is historically dominant today, so much so that some believe it is the only way that poetry can be written; but free verse should be understood as only one of many tools available to the poet. The problem, if one will assent that it is a problem, comes when published poets move all the way through university and advanced degrees without ever learning how to properly construct language in fixed forms, much less how to comprehend the accomplishment of those who have done so in past centuries. It is possible, of course, to write concentrated and important poems in free verse. But the poet who writes only in free verse because it is all he can do will eventually find himself hemmed in by his own ignorance.

The new formalists provided a useful corrective to such poets a decade or so ago, and with their insistence on traditional prosody and technical rigor it is no surprise that they are regarded as the conservative wing of American poetry. It must be added that the two camps—the Radicals and Conservatives, exemplified by standard-bearers like Diane Wakoski and Timothy Steele—have divided the field between them, so far as the discussion of technique in America is concerned. Today’s fledgling poet is faced with a stark choice between these two armies, it seems—and yet lines have been drawn too deeply in the sand. There is no reason why poets should not write in free verse if it suits their aims. It should not be thought unusual, however rare, for a poet to complete a sonnet and a “free range” poem on the same day. This is no more odd than a contemporary composer using established harmonic methods alongside improvisation or chance operations, possibly within the bounds of a single piece of music.[2]  

II.

This is only one of the great battles of Modernism—the other being the struggle between popular—and largely American—culture against what is considered the Great Tradition bequeathed to us by Europe. Which universe shall the American poet inhabit? This was a debating point for a generation of Modernists and, again, the conversation was split between two camps: the nativists (like William Carlos Williams) and the classicists (like Ezra Pound). It is a notably American problem as well—as is the stark polarity of the American responses to it: one need only compare Williams’s Paterson to Pound’s Cantos to see it. And though Victorians like Robert Browning cavorted genially with Fra Lippo Lippi and Lord Tennyson sat majestically with Odysseus, the yearning for a classical universe unsullied by the grimness of the modern world is most acutely expressed in poems like Ezra Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberly: Life and Contacts’ and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Today, poets making prominent and often transparent use of these subjects include Anne Carson, Susan Mitchell, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Jill Bialosky, Brooks Haxton, and Ivan Argüelles, to name a few. Such usage beyond the confines of poetry would be thought genteel, at best (imagine pop music dedicated to classical Greek themes; it would likely be thought ineffectual or simply trite). This may be attributed to the grandiloquence and pretentious façade encouraged by poetry circles in both Britain and America over the past century and a half. It is also attributable to the fact that poetry is, unlike the novel or symphony, a truly ancient art form. It also frames a willful backward gaze, quite a distant gaze, filtered through imperial British notions of civilization and its origins. It is also necessary to say that the Greek and Roman myths and the art that conveys them constitute a nearly unparalleled reservoir of material for modern artists in need of a story or just credibility.

It is impossible to know why poets, among all artists (composers in the twentieth century may be one exception), pay such close attention to classical myths, and even made miscarried attempts to reanimate Roman prosody in the guise of quantitative verse (quantity, the duration of a syllable, is the basis for classical verse; it has great aesthetic consequences in some English language poetry, such as John Milton’s, but only rarely, as with attempts by Ted Hughes, has it held any metrical value). It is merely worth noting that the treatment of classical themes, and the use of classical imagery and philosophical stances by modernists like David Jones, H.D., and Ezra Pound has set the tone for an abiding fascination with these subjects among English-language poets since.

This disposition is easy to deride until one considers the alternatives, like the post-New York School of Jordan Davis and Arielle Greenberg, where insistence on sophisticated linguistic playfulness—a dizzying and constant pageant of slipping and joking—results sometimes in poems that common readers (those without MFAs, for instance) have difficulty enjoying. Such techniques may, in their way, engage aspects of the culture at large, perhaps quite meaningfully, but they lack any sense of historical depth. There are the highly publicized spoken-word, hip-hop romps of Def Poetry Jam on Broadway and in community centers nationwide. Many a PA system echoes with rhymes so sugary and adolescent that they would not be thought important at all if stripped of their ethno-political outrage. There are the endless self-indulgent upper-middle class survivor stories, morally dubious musings cast onto the page with complete disregard for musical properties of the language or even the most meager formal considerations, as one finds with the one million imitators of Sharon Olds, whose early emotional intensity continues to surprise. One finds juried prize systems that would be placed under government investigation for insider trading if poetry were in any way thought to be a worthwhile currency by society at large (one needn’t wonder why Auden wrote that it “makes nothing happen”; despite the recent craze over the value of nepotism, in all its forms, it remains ominous and exasperating to outsiders). Most poets who make it to the shelves of the corporate retailers like Barnes and Noble and its petite ancillary outlet B. Dalton write poems whose quality might remind one of spinning down a radio dial populated by nothing but the hullabaloo of electronica-saturated Toyota commercials, uninspired soft-pop divas, and talk DJs making fart noises.

 

III.

     It is amid these harsh options that Schnackenberg appears with The Throne of Labdacus to remind us that a cool formalism and experimental energy may be combined in new ways. Labdacus, a book-length poem, can in no way be considered epic. It contains none of the vigorous, expansive ambition, the heroic (or anti-heroic) energies a reader might reasonably expect from a long American poem after Williams’s Paterson, Olson’s Maximus, Ginsberg’s The Fall of America, Merrill’s Changing Light at Sandover, or Derek Walcott’s Omeros. It is searching, quiet; it moves in a single, tense circuit, refusing to yield resolution or finale. Unlike the aforementioned mega-poems, it remains in place. It does not attempt to comprehend swathes of culture, history, or private memory. Its strategy lies elsewhere.

Schnackenberg introduces a Sophoclean determination of action, a suspension of causality, past and future held in abeyance. Its closest relative might be H.D.’s late-career classical reinvention, Helen in Egypt. At root, Labdacus may be thought of as a telling (hardly a retelling) of the Oedipus myth. Schnackenberg may be conscious of the distances a reader experiences when thinking on such deeply sunk portions of cultural heritage, but she is not clumsily self-conscious of this fact.

     Schnackenberg expects readers to express some familiarity with the Oedipus myth and Sophocles’s drama in particular (astonishingly, some reviewers did not, such as the imbecilic commentary from hopelessly passé Poetry magazine: a “numb book-length poem focused on the nameless slave who saved Oedipus. I don’t know if I would have even figured this out without the book jacket information”). Sophocles relied on similar familiarity in order to convey his story through a tight sequence of dialogue, according to the unities of time, place, and action described by Aristotle in his Poetics. This particular myth may not be as central to our culture as it was to ancient Greece’s, but ignorance of it in America today is just that. Like the modernists, Schnackenberg expects her audience to have enough of a grasp of artistic and historical matters to comprehend the icy topography of the classical Greek moral landscape. It is true that, unlike an inhabitant of ancient Thebes, we are dislodged from the cultural circumstances that first informed Sophocles’s drama. We are free to grapple on difficult moral ground or simply discard Oedipus as a barbaric, amoral projection of human suffering:

For some, the tragedy unfolds without a moral—
No how or why; no spelling out of fate

Or sacrifice or punishment; merely the god’s 
Swift brushing-by, scented with laurel.

And for others it is only an ancient folktale
About a guiltless crime:

Not a judgment, not a warning,
Not an example, not a command—

Merely a tale in which neither the gods
Nor the human ones can claim that they meant

To harm or to save, to kill or to stay their hands.

    Oedipus is difficult for us. We are awash in a society whose culture is dominated by mass media, one that that has simultaneously politicized and relativized morality in an unprecedented manner. Schnackenberg’s subject is difficult, and the poem, despite moments of more or less clear philosophical assertion, is also suitably difficult. She points out that the ancient Greeks sustained history in the vessel of poetry, and that the myths are not “dogmatic, but are mutable and multivalent,” a distressing thought to some modern readers. Her principal concern is not the morality or even the tragic inevitability of the myth, but rather Time. Though certain narrative mechanics are in place, the story does not advance. It cannot, for it is locked into its place, fore-ordained by the gods. Such an enormous subject may be easily loosed from an author’s hands. Schnackenberg holds it in place by rethinking the act of story-telling. She submerges dramatic arcs and curves into a broth of eternal reflection (the Greek aiwn corresponds to “eternity” and designates both a set term and an incalculable duration). Modern tellings of the Oedipus myth have worn a variety of dress, such as Igor Stravinsky’s eerie two-act oratorio, in Latin interspersed with English-language chorus, so it is not as though she is without precedent. In fact, it would be difficult, without reverting to Shakespeare or the Bible, to find a more heavily trodden theme.

The poem can be understood as a procession of prophetic assertion, weightless narrative, and depth provided by image alone. Voices interpolate the narration. Some are adopted from other texts (duly cited in the end notes); some are Schnackenberg’s creation, such as the speech of the shepherd, a mere page, which comprises the whole of the fourth section:

From the shroud came
The gaze an infant bestows,

In untouchable, wavering, radiant waves;
Like a god’s gaze, found in solitude.

An infant maimed and left for dead. I stood
In the shrinking snows. I knew the oracle.

I knew what the god had said.
I covered eyes with my hands.

But there are things we do 
Not for the sake of the gods

But for other men. I lowered hands again
And looked: an infant left for dead.

There was no arguing backward,
No looking ahead.

At the sight of the infant’s gaze
I was riveted, chosen, beguiled.

I knew what the oracle said.
And I rescued the child.

     This sternly-figured disquisition forms the thematic axis of the poem. In addition to enlarging on the myth itself, she capably invents scenes that are possible, if never before imagined, such as Laius sleepless with guilt after placing the crippled infant Oedipus on a hillside to die. It is impossible to know if Sophocles himself ever thought of such a thing.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg is loosely—not indelibly—marked as a “new formalist” in Robert McPhillips’s slim, little-known survey The New Formalism: a Critical Introduction, in which she is assigned her own chapter alongside those of Dana Gioia and Timothy Steele. Such classifications are rarely beneficial to major voices in any of the arts (“isms” seldom capture the range of a given artist), just as they are profitable for lesser voices, who are rescued from otherwise certain obscurity by surplus light granted by impressive allies. Schnackenberg, a poet hailed as practitioner of a high and formal style, has chosen to write a long poem that defies classification, in variable metrics, with frequent pursuit of philosophical assertion in a manner that might be thought to echo portions of Eliot’s Four Quartets. She has succeeded outside of all bounds previously assigned to her. Labdacus thrives despite its refusal to adhere to narrative streams, but it can only do so by casting its shadow against an existing bas relief. She is confident that readers will be familiar with Sophocles and the Oedipus myth (Freud and his students notwithstanding) before reading her poem. If they lack some of the subtleties she had in mind, she supplies them with suitable guidance. The five pages of notes at Labdacus’s conclusion serve as anchor. If the anchor is lifted, the poem will not sink but drift. She can only achieve what she has through a reliance upon and calculated treatment of shared cultural heritage. Likewise, she has presented a visionary account that is relayed through constant variation of poetic technique, a tactic hardly befitting a leading member of a formalist school.

In the aging battle of open form against formalism, the pendulum may swing between the extremes of such figures as Adrienne Rich (who has regarded form as masculine and limiting, particularly for women) and R.S. Gwynn (who believes that “experimentation has reached a dead end, and a reaction is long overdue”), but a third route has become plain. The conflict no longer needs to be defined by the excited embrace or determined denunciation of poetic form, and Schnackenberg may be used as one blueprint for the comfortable cohabitation of the deadly dual impulses that draw contemporary American poetry forward and all too often apart.


[1] The variety of modest-selling guides to appreciation of poetry are, if anything, evidence of this failure in most educational systems; it is a sign that some are attempting to correct the trend toward complete ignorance of poetic form among even students of literature, perhaps a little late.

[2] Though this composer should not expect any Disney film score commissions or Billboard rankings for his efforts.


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