In Conversation with Gjertrud Schnackenberg: Part One, Unstruck

Photo by Mike Minehan
Tuning fork. Detonation. Lute-string. When we talked via email this January, Trude Schnackenberg was packing for a month in Rome and going, as she put it, "full steam ahead until horse latitudes are hove in."  Here, in Part One of a conversation that will continue over the next few months in this space, she lays out several marvels. Kung-note. Big bang. Honeybees.


SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry--or, how did poetry come to you?

GJERTRUD SCHNACKENBERG: For poets, poetry is a call-and-response medium: poets write poems because they have first read or heard poetry. I first read a poem at the age of fourteen, and recognized at that moment that this would be my world; after reading poetry for five years, I began writing at the age of nineteen. Poetry comes from poetry, poetry begets poetry, poetry evinces, instills, brings about, generates poetry, in poets (and so too I think composers write music because they have first heard music).

Poetry’s sympathetic vibration is like a buzzing tuning fork that awakens a nearby tuning fork to its own buzzing, or like a detonation in the street outside that inspires a door inside to pop open, or like the kung-note struck by the lute-tuner in ancient China to provoke a nearby lute-string to sound its own kung-note -- or like the reverberations of the big bang still resounding and vibrating throughout all that exists: we live in a vast sound-universe, which is, mercifully, largely inaudible to us, but nonetheless oscillating everywhere, from superstrings to supernovae. Thousands of years ago, in the practice of meditation, the Vedic seers detected this perpetual vibration, and called it the “unstruck sound.” I think this pre-existent, anterior vibration is the force-field from which poets and composers strike their sound-worlds. Or perhaps it is the other way around: generative, reverberative, fugitive -- and billions of years deeper and older than any vocabulary -- the pitches, undertones, overtones, harmonies, dissonances, white noise, and rhythm-oceans from which we’re made, and in which we’re immersed, are an auditory, and sub-auditory, equivalent of the Poet’s description of poetry in Timon of Athens, when he says that whereas the “fire i’ the flint shows not till it be struck,” this unstruck thing -- poetry -- “provokes itself.”

é describes the sympathetic vibration of poetry as being characteristically always on the verge of vanishing, a vibration in whose vanishing trace the poem “begins itself.” Less subtly, more concertedly, Mandelstam repeatedly describes what amounts to the “autonomous force” of poetry, and unforgettably, in Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam describes the “hum” that Mandelstam heard (and suffered) as a prelude to the starting-up of a poem, a hum that engulfed him, sometimes stopping him in his tracks, sometimes driving him out of doors to pace the streets, and often “tormenting him with its resonance” until he was able to start and finish the poem and be rid of it -- a hum so audible and palpable to him that he told his wife that she should be able to hear it as well:

I witnessed his throes at such close quarters that M. always thought I must also be able to hear the “hum.” He even reproached me sometimes for not having caught part of it.

In ancient Greece, poetry and the art of writing were associated not only with gods and their divine concerns, but with honeybees. I love this ancient association, not only for its metaphor of honeyed speech, which is largely what the Greeks meant, but also for its dimension of resounding auditory energy. Personally, for me, the under-resonance I hear in a true poem is indistinguishable from the resonating buzz of a beehive; for me, poetry has to thrum. In the presence of poetry I love, when I read it silently, I often gradually (or sometimes abruptly) begin to overhear this seamless, thrumming continuum of bees preoccupied with their unaging, perpetual chant, their sonic evocation of the "unstruck sound":

Read more on Gjertrud Schnackenberg in my earlier post on an excerpt from The Throne of Labdacus and in this interview with Jonathan Galassi of FSG. Read "Archimedes' Lullaby" from Heavenly Questions here.