‘The New Life’ by Peter Schjeldahl is a love letter to the human body and everything it does for us – often in spite of us loving it back. The poem explores the potential for great things, with the human body being the central force of achieving these things. It discusses the mind, how experience can make you wiser, and how hindsight always seems clear. Schjeldahl finishes the poem by expressing that ‘nothing is wiser than the body’, for it is the ultimate vehicle of performance in life.
By beginning with an insight into failing, or just missing out on an opportunity, ‘The New Life’ by Peter Schjeldahl then tells the reader of the potential of the human body. Although empty-handed, we still have two hands with which we can seize opportunities and a brain full of ideas. It is on these positive aspects of the human body that Schjeldahl focuses, drawing out the beauty and strength of the mind. He explores ‘wisdom of the past’, how it is greater than the current form of ‘us’. Along with this, he suggests that a mind in love, ‘hearts and flowers’, is also a strong force. Schjeldahl celebrates the body and the potential that the human mind contains ‘ideas for improving the world’.
You can read the full poem here.
‘The New Life’ by Peter Schjeldahl is split into four stanzas of varying lengths. The first and second stanzas measure 5 lines each, with the third stanza being 8 lines long, and the final stanza having only two lines. Schjeldahl could be using the changing stanza length as a reflection of the different people and bodies on the earth, with each stanza form reflecting a different person. The diversity of people is therefore instilled through the structure of the poem.
One technique that Schjeldahl uses throughout ‘The New Life’ is enjambment. At different points in the poem, enjambment comes to mean different things. Within the first stanza, enjambment could be seen as a representation of connection within the human body, one line flowing onto the next alike each part of the body attaching to another. The use of enjambment could also be understood as a representation of movement, the flowing lines reflecting the physical movement of the ‘body’ in the poem. The metrical flow that enjambment induces also speeds up the poem, the quick pace perhaps engendering the brilliance of ‘mind’ that Schjeldahl is depicting.
Another technique that Schjeldahl employs throughout ‘The New Life’ is plural pronouns. Schjeldahl represents all of humanity within his poem, using the collective ‘we’ to define humanity under one umbrella pronoun. Schjeldahl is creating cohesion across different groups of people, pulling us together by focusing on our shared ‘body’. His statements become very generalized, ‘Our body’ unifying everyone through the manipulation of pronoun.
Analysis of The New Life
We have come out of resonant anxiety
Through filial deference to the senses
The poem begins by focusing, as I stated above, on the collective ‘we’ pronoun. This draws humanity together, suggesting we are all one due to the fact we share physical similarities of body and mind. Schjeldahl presents the notion of a humanity that has ‘come out of resonant anxiety’, escaping the state of nervousness. The focus on escape within this first line suggests that even with nothing physical to show, ‘empty-handed’, one can still be successful. It is important to focus on everything you have overcome, rather than be bogged down by focusing on things you failed to do. The use of enjambment across this first line into the second furthers this idea of ‘com[ing] out’, the metrical flow reflecting the active movement ‘out’ of this mental trap of ‘anxiety’.
Schjeldahl suggests that it is important to remember the potential for greatness each of us have, focusing on the idea that we all have ‘two hands’, rather than the idea that we are ‘empty-handed’. From this distinction, Schjeldahl implies that it is more important to focus on the potential for future achievement and growth, rather than negative situations in which we did not achieve.
The body is a powerful source of connection, ‘two hands linked/ to a torso supporting one head’, each body part flowing quickly from one to another. The lack of a connective comma between ‘torso supporting one head’ further reflects this idea of connective, Schjeldahl forgoing the use of a caesura in order to stress the cohesion of the body. This is coupled with the enjambment of the above line, allowing all the physical parts of the body to remain connected.
Alongside our bodies, Schjeldahl also celebrates the mind, ‘full of ideas for improving the world’. Schjeldahl focuses on the potential for human greatness, improving the state of the word for everyone. The poet tends to emphasize the positive aspects of humanity, while ignoring the more negative side of the world.
We will learn eventually to love
Wistfully at night before the mirror
The use of hyphen within this stanza is a representation of the difficulty of ‘lov[ing]/ our body’. Schjeldahl understands that self-love is a hard thing to achieve, the metrical break implied by the hyphen representing this difficulty. This pause in ‘The New Life’ could be understood as symbolic of the time it takes one to come to love themselves. However, the following word, ‘before’, instead of ‘if’, suggests that eventually, everyone will achieve this self-loving tendency. Schjeldahl always focuses on the positive, suggesting that it is only a matter of time before people arrive at loving themselves.
There is also a note of tragedy, Schjeldahl understanding that eventually the body will also ‘no longer’ be able to support itself.
Our mind we let out to contemporary pastures
Hoping love will leap out soon and devour it:
Which we confess to be very formidable wisdoms in their way
But please be off with them immediately
Within this stanza of ‘The New Life’, Schjeldahl focuses on ‘wisdom’, comparing different aspects of life and how ‘wise’ they are. The first of these is ‘wisdom of the past’, which he suggests is much ‘wiser than we are’, presenting the idea that looking back at the past makes things easier to understand. Although in the present moment we may not understand something, if we allow time to pass, when looking back we will have hindsight on our side.
Another ‘wise’ aspect of humanity is the idea of being in love, ‘heart’ emphasized as a pure form of humanity. However, just because something is wise, does not mean it is beneficial – Schjeldahl connecting love and ‘machine guns’ to perhaps insinuate that love is not an easy thing to handle ‘wisely’. While ‘machine guns’ and ‘very formidable wisdoms’, Schjeldahl wants them ‘off’ ‘immediately’, not enjoying their presence. Just because something is powerful, does not necessarily mean it is a good thing.
For nothing is wiser than the body
When it puts itself on and goes out
The final two lines of the poem create a picture of something ‘wiser’ than all else, it is ‘the body/when it puts itself on and goes out’. Schjeldahl is suggesting that the wisest part of humanity is the ability to go out into society and function, using the body as a tool. Schjeldahl is suggesting that the body is, once again, the supreme element to life – the poet celebrating the brilliance of the human body above all else.