Making’s Progress; or, A Defense of Poetry


Just over a year ago Farrar, Straus, and Giroux’s president and publisher, Jonathan Galassi, interviewed Gjertrud Schnackenberg, whose sixth book, Heavenly Questions came off FSG’s press about a year before that. The interview gives me goose bumps. Heavenly Questions is in my hands. I’m worried I’m late to the party. The book has already won the Griffin Poetry Prize. Truckloads of glowing reviews have already appeared worldwide. I’ve been scared of this essay because I was initially afraid of the book. But, it’s National Poetry Month and on one hand there is a three month old essay in The Washington Post by Alexandra Petri titled “Is poetry dead?” and on the other there is a three year old book of poems, and a me who encountered that book and cannot stop thinking about it.

Heavenly QuestionsHeavenly Questions initially intimidated me because it opens with a “Note.” The Note (as I’ll call it) notes that Heavenly Questions is the usual English translation of the title of the ancient poem Tianwen by Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 B.C.E.). Do I need to read Tianwen first? Will I be able to understand HQ without it? The ancient poem “is a series of unanswerable cosmological, philosophical, and mythological questions which, according to a legend from the second century C.E., the banished poet wrote on the walls of temples during his wanderings.” The Note also informs me that Schnackenberg is also “indebted to Cyril Mango’s Hagia Sophia: A Vision for Empires…for two legends about the building.” One of the legends claims “the Imperial Door was made of wood from Noah’s ark. The other says Hagia Sophia’s hundreds of doors “could not be accurately counted because they lay under a magic spell.” Insert increased intrigue coupled with increased worry that I don’t know enough to read this book. And if that isn’t enough, the Note ends with the admission that “although the poem ‘Bedtime Mahabharata’ departs substantially from the Sanskrit epic…,” Schnackenberg has “drawn upon William Buck’s one-volume reimagining of the Mahabharata…and upon translations of the Bhagavad Gītā.” I’m out of my element and I haven’t yet begun a poem. I am indignant. I am a doctoral student. I should know everything. I am afraid to say I don’t. But a book of poems follows the Note. The Note is reminding me that I need always take poetry on poetry’s terms. And I need poems.

Alexandra Petri, writer of the January 22, 2013 Washington Post article “Is poetry dead?” has upset a lot of us as poetry-needing identifiers for reasons ranging from the personal to the pedagogical. Early on she calls poetry “a field that may very well be obsolete,” which she “say[s]…lovingly as a member of the print media” because “if poetry is dead, we [print media journalists] are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily, with our family gathered around looking concerned and asking about our stereos.” But to those of us who need poetry, poetry is not a field of study (though, like anything else, it may be studied), and it is not at all related to “members of the print media” because they also engage in the writing and reading of words on the page. But let’s give Petri her due. She’s a journalist charged with reporting and the inauguration is easily coverable and consumable news.

Petri was responding to a very difficult situation for poetry: The presidential inauguration poem; the moment in which one poet reads one poem on an incredibly important public occasion that she/he is asked to write specifically for knowing every American citizen will proceed to judge poetry by the words read. But Petri’s response is problematic for us poetry-needers because her response, in many ways, is like opening up a book of poems and finding a Note (or anything else) that scares or intimidates us.

While Petri is obviously scared for her job’s security, if we read between the lines, we see her argument is three-pronged; in addition to job security (and it’s relation to poetry vis-à-vis words on a page that are read), her argument’s two other prongs are 1. The capitalistic fact that poetry doesn’t produce the stars and money produced by music and movies, and 2. “Poetry has gone from something that you did in order to write your name large across the sky…to a carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read.”

I wonder what Emily Dickinson would say about writing her name large across the sky, or what about Wallace Stevens sitting on the train on his way home from the office? And I wonder how those members of the Screen Actor’s Guild might feel about her assumption that they didn’t labor for years in study as students and apprentices to the contemporary and historical masters of the stage? But I digress. While Petri’s prongs might be weak, they did none-the-less appear in a publication from which many Americans get their news, and maybe I’m just worried that she’s let our secret out. Maybe I’m worried that I’ve had to ask, even as a poet, the same question. Luckily, Petri’s ultimate litmus test is this: “You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing this question: Can it change anything?” and then after a line break and white space on the page, “Can a poem still change anything?”

Isn’t this a wonderful question? Allow me to proffer an answer from the FSG interview, the part where Jonathan Galassi asks Gjertrud Schnackenberg how she experiences elegy as praise.

Galassi: You seem to be saying that buoyancy and joy inhere essentially in the pentameter line, and I am convinced of this when I read Heavenly Questions. Though the poem is a song of the deepest grief, it is also undeniably “propulsively” buoyant, and hence joyful. How do you experience elegy as praise?

As she works through her answer (which makes me tingle and is a completely publishable essay in and of itself), Schnackenberg says these things:

There is a phrase in Psalm 77: “I remember my music in the night.” if I may offer an unauthorized and subjective paraphrase, I would write it this way: “In the darkest place, my music recalls itself to me.” Gradually the psalmist recollects what his life is for, long after entreaty and petition apparently have fallen away in a comfortless night…Nearly three thousand years later, in the 1930’s in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in circumstances comparable in hardship to the biblical anguish recorded that night in ancient Israel, the Russian poet Mandelstam put it this way: “poetry is an autonomous force in the universe.”

I am, of course, immediately drawing connections between this answer’s utterances and Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry’s famous last line, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but it’s Schnackenberg’s turn to the unanswerable that makes me swoon as she continues, “I know nothing about an afterlife, but the thought that we have come from this and that we return to this–– this thought, in the face of our pressing, one-by-one mortality, is to me indescribably consoling…Perhaps I am simply trying to say that I know that poetry is not a diversion but a calling back (Emily Dickinson’s epitaph: Called Back), a recalling of ourselves to what we are made of, a reminder that we are made out of this…But how poetry can touch this utmost experience of being, before which language falters, I do not know, and can’t know, I am unable to know–unless I turn to poetry again…”

I have said I need poems. There are poems beyond the “Note.” Heavenly Questions’s poetry understands itself as part of a history, so I should understand it as part of a history, or rather, related to other writing. This poetry is saying, I don’t exist in a vacuum. I am a part of the human impulse to write, to make. And for a moment this context allows me to, (before I turn the page and enter the poems, which I swear I will) understand this seemingly simple gesture (this calling attention to its own history, this Note being uttered by a poet for a poetry) as an opportunity to think about how we talk about poems in the context of a book-making world. If I’m honest with myself, part of my apprehension here is that HQ’s note is non-normative. Isn’t part of poetry’s twentieth century sea change the idea that everything about a book matters? I’m accustomed to notes at the end of a book explaining borrowed lines, extra-textual allusions, matters of thanks, publishing credits and the like, but when I’m holding the book, I sometimes forget the struggle involved in its making, at the level of its making. A book of poems begins, of course, with the making of the poems, and then there is the making of the book itself. Sometimes congruent, sometimes disparate, these two acts are essential to how we most often encounter Poetry (yes, capital P) (either in the journal format, the anthology, or the single-author book). But the act of making clearly isn’t the same in everyone’s estimation. I’m again reminded of Alexandra Petri’s question of poetry’s “deceased-ness” and her litmus “can a poem change anything?” “Poetry taken back to its roots,” Petri claims, “is just the process of making–and making you listen.”

Buddha arrowWe poets discuss with mad joy the organizing principles of manuscripts and books we love, but we so often dismiss the importance of Notes or we put them in the back, preferencing the poems themselves to the backstory impetus or the inter-art connections, the trans-historical nature of poetic making. But Schnackenberg’s choice speaks volumes to me as part of the way she perceives the process of poetic making, a process I had to identify in her work to realize how much I rely (as do many poets I know) on the same processes. Schnackenberg responds to Galassi’s question about the text’s that inspired Heavenly Questions by explaining the link between the archer and the arrow in Buddha’s parable of the arrow (which she first encountered thirty years ago) and the archer from the Bhagavad Gita’s beginning, the archer who refuses to fight when he sees the opposing army’s comprised of his family and mentors but is reminded by Krishna (his guide) that battle is his duty and the battlefield is an illusion. As Schnackenberg explains, “the archer…persuaded by the god’s revelation…will pick up his weapons again. As I wrote this poem I could feel and hear the tension, the energy, and the implied momentum and reverberation of the archer’s bowstring being drawn back, and I wanted the poem’s lines to register that tension.” Indeed the poem’s pentameter lines do just that, but Schnackenberg’s desire is also registered in the lines of the Note, which is up front and unapologetic. I have been reading, the poet’s choice tells us, I have been thinking.

But Schnackenberg has clearly been doing more than thinking. She’s also been feeling. She’s been grieving. She’s been busy being human. For the human poet, such being often translates into making poems, because, presumably, a poet needs poems. So HQ’s opening Note also announces something about this poet in which a reader who needs poems can take comfort. Clearly, for Schnackenberg, poems do something more than just exist; they act as a working through, they act as a catalyst; they are the infinite both/and situation that allows a writer and reader to exist in both past and present, in the perpetual process of processing the past into the present so writer, reader, and poem commune in what Philip Sidney called “the Zodiac of Wit,” a place where poetic making is continually attributed to a poet’s processing lived world and the imaginative capabilities allowing a new lived world (what our moment might better understand as fiction). Schnackenberg might agree with the Sidneian diagnosis. “I should say also that my poems think their own thoughts, evolve along their own paths, believe their own beliefs, exist in their independent existences, and are, in my opinion,” she writes, “thoroughly out of control, and decidedly out of my control.” It appears that poetry can change something; perhaps the way a grieving widow knows her own grief; perhaps the way a reader encounters a poem within a poem via that poem’s interpretation or use of the poem. On a specific level, I know my capacity for empathy has increased by reading Heavenly Questions; so has my understanding of the pentameter line, and my sense of wonder at the two’s interaction. These are quite large changes for me. Moving from the Note and into the poems, I’m struck with the Heavenly Questions’ vastness, the sense of wonder and awe I feel when I try to comprehend infinity or really take Whitman at his word: “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, / Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, / Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, / Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine.”

“A visit to the shores of lullabies, /” Heavenly Questions’ first poem, “Archimedes Lullaby” begins, “Where Archimedes, counting grains of sand, / Is seated in his half-filled universe / And sorting out the grains by shape and size.” A lot has already been made. A fiction has begun in which a narrator is telling us something we recognize; a story, and we see Archimedes where the narrator tells us we see Archimedes. Our minds have made an image of “the shores of lullabies,” though we might never have entertained such a notion. Something else is also taking place in this first line. The past and present, the fictive and actual, the objective and subjective are all taking place at the same time. We recognize Archimedes as a “real” historical figure, but we don’t recognize this setting for him, so we imagine it because it’s been made for us.

And we happily imagine that an Archimedes who is “historical” (i.e. of ancient Greece) IS “seated in his half-filled universe.” We allow a temporal ebb and flow because it’s possible in the reading imagination, that place where poetry is taken in and processed, and we are seeing this image of Archimedes objectively, as the narrator gives it to us because we know if we don’t we won’t be able to enter the rest of the poem because reading requires such trust. But in an amazing moment we translate the objective into the subjective and begin to simultaneously identify as/with Archimedes, while we continue to watch him. The stanza’s second sentence reads thus:

Above his head a water-ceiling sways,
beneath his feet the ancient magma-flows,
Of metamorphic, underearth plateaus
Are moving in slow motion, all in play,
And all is give-and-take, all comes and goes,
And hush now, all is well now, close your eyes…

Gjertrud SchnackenbergSchnackenberg’s process of making has, in ten lines, created something wholly new, never before imagined by anyone, which I am able to imagine because she was able to imagine. But this is just the process of making, right? And astonishingly, this first stanza of this book of poems didn’t reach out and grab me. I wasn’t walking down the street when all of a sudden one hand reached out of a book in the library and grabbed the back of my head while another hand burst out of the book with a pitcher of water. The book didn’t proceed to water-board me to “make me listen.” Poetry doesn’t make us do anything, especially listen. It lets us, if we are willing. And it’s just the process of making that when the declarative becomes the imperative I can and do close my metaphoric eyes and let the poem, with all its simultaneities, simultaneously crash over and wash gently around me, right?

Just the process of making? So is a child developing in the womb. So is a star emerging from a nebula. It seems nothing short of a miracle that humans can make and poetry is evidence of such process and events. The one thing Petri might be right about is this: “all the prestige of poetry dates back to when you got the most vital news there is– your people’s stories. ‘The Iliad.’ ‘The Odyssey.’ ‘Gilgamesh.’” She could’ve stopped right there. She didn’t have to continue with, “All literature used to be poetry. But then fiction splintered off. Then the sort of tale you sung could be recorded and the words did not have to spend any time outside the company of their music if they did not want to…All the things poetry used to do, other things do much better.” A large part of me wishes she would have stopped at “Gilgamesh” or at least before that last phrase, but for other people’s sake.

I read Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions before Petri’s “Is poetry dead?” I went through the stages of grief for the art (and only other thing besides my wife and forthcoming baby boy) I’ve given my life to reading and writing. It occurred to me that Schackenberg’s statement, “But how poetry can touch this utmost experience of being, before which language falters, I do not know, and can’t know, I am unable to know–-unless I turn to poetry again…” is the key for me because I need poetry. I’ve turned that statement into the question that constantly lives in my reading eyes and writing hand.

Those of us who need poems can get over back to poems by knowing that we need them, by going to poems and poets that need poems and poetry, by acknowledging the poetic process, that mysterious combination of lived and imagined experience. Heavenly Questions is certainly a north star a traveler can point her compass toward as she sets out for something more.

I am cognizant, standing on the beach, of the ocean’s breadth and depth, both physical and historical. It feels as though that body has something to teach me. Stepping in I become aware of all that’s possible because of the body’s existence. I feel the movement gentle enough that one floating on the surface might be lulled to sleep and looking back at the beach I’m aware that this force can turn the largest boulders into sand grains I blow off my palm like dandelion seeds–a thousand wishes on the wind and in the water. The sea feels like the edge and beginning of everything. So too, in this collection of poems beginning with “Archimedes Lullaby” and ending with “Bedtime Mahabharata.” So too, in Heavenly Questions where a speaker loses her husband, historical poems become present, and a poet reveals grieving’s process, alongside making’s process and, well, reaffirms why I come to poems in the first place, why I revel in the approach.

Christian Anton Gerard is the author of Holdfast (C&R Press, 2017) and Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella (WordTech, 2014). His work appears widely in national and international magazines. Gerard has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award. Gerard holds a BA from Miami University (OH), an MFA from Old Dominion University, and a PhD in English from the University of Tennessee. He lives in Fort Smith, AR, where he’s an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. More from this author →