The first thing one notices about Karl Shpiro’s New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986 is the slimness of the volume. Shapiro, who is seventy-four years old, has written some fourteen books of verse—beginning with Person, Place and Thing, published in 1942 when the author was a sergeant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, up through Love & War Art & God, which came out four years ago. This substantial body of work, most of which is unavailable, has been reduced by Shapiro to 103 pages. It is therefore no surprise that New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986 gives no sense of the scale of Shapiro’s oeuvre. What it offers instead is only an outline of the twists and turns of the poet’s interesting career. Indeed, New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986 seems to suggest that Shapiro believes the thing of fundamental interest in his career is the contours of its development.
Not that these contours are wholly without interest. Shapiro’s early poetry, written during the war, is indebted to W. H. Auden, whose influence in the United States was then at its highest point. (The early poetry of John Berryman and Delmore Schwartz, two of Shapiro’s contemporaries, also owes something to Auden’s work.) The Auden that Shapiro drew from, however, isn’t the Eliot-inspired one of Poems (1930), but rather the Auden who by the mid-Thirties had abandoned the deliberate difficulty of modernism for a more accessible style and subject matter. Auden sought, through his use of the language of journalism, advertising, and psychology, to give the raw data of the contemporary world a pre-eminent place in his poetry. This went against Eliot, who incorporated the objects of reality only insofar as they could be given a symbolic meaning or emotion.
It was the abandonment of the symbol- and metaphor-making impulse that the young Karl Shapiro found appealing in Auden’s poetry. Later on in his career, in the essays of In Defense of Ignorance (1960) and To Abolish Children (1968), Shapiro would refine and elaborate Auden’s anti-modernist position. He would later maintain, for instance, that symbols are hazardous because they make the poet feel all-powerful. He would insist that the step from transforming reality in a poem to trying to alter the world itself is a dangerously short one. (For proof of this, Shapiro declared, one need only look at Yeats, Eliot, and Pound.) “[T]he world of symbols and its attendant dreams of transcendental knowledge,” writes Shapiro in an essay called “The Career of the Poem,” from To Abolish Children, often delude the poet into thinking he can “speak for the race.”
What Shapiro gleaned from Auden, even early in his career, was the necessity of placing oneself and one’s poetic powers in the service of reality, not the reverse; of being willing to be mastered by reality rather than master it. For Shapiro, this meant the virtual elimination of the poetic ego that transmutes objects into a network of symbolic meaning and emotion. What he appropriated from Auden was a more modest conception of the poet than that suggested by the modernists. Shapiro’s remark in “The Career of the Poem”—about how the poet is “neither messiah nor explorer but only a man fully alive in spirit and in body to existence itself”—is really nothing more than an embellishment of Auden’s well-known remarks in his essay “Writing” (from The Dyer’s Hand):
Poetry is not magic [wrote Auden]. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.
“To disenchant and disintoxicate” is certainly the “ulterior purpose” of all of Shapiro’s early poetry. In “University,” for example, from Person, Place and Thing, the poet seeks to expose the prejudices of this particular institution. The poem begins: “To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew/Is the curriculum.” In “Necropolis,” also from Shapiro’s first book, the poet challenges the idea of death as the great equalizer. The third stanza reads:
And even in death the poor are thickly herded
In intimate congestion under streets and alleys.
Look at the standard sculpture, the cheap
Synonymous slabs, the machined crosses.
In “Washington Cathedral,” also from Person, Place and Thing, the poet points out the “fake magnificence” of the nation’s capital. Only here, says Shapiro, would Lincoln be “whittled to a fool’s colossus.”
Shapiro’s commitment to the objective world does not always translate into satire or the shedding of illusions. One of Shapiro’s best early poems, “Haircut” (from Person, Place and Thing), deals with the “wonderful nonsense”
. . . of lotions of Lucky Tiger,
Of savory soaps and oils of bottle-bright green,
The gold of liqueurs, the unguents of Newark and Niger,
Powders and balms and waters washing me clean . . .
Scissors and comb are mowing my hair into neatness,
Now pruning my ears, now smoothing my neck like a plain;
In the harvest of hair and the chaff of powdery sweetness
My snow-covered slopes grow dark with the wooly rain.
Here, the poet “tells the truth” about what he sees, as Auden advised; this time, however, he musters a considerable amount of linguistic invention for a seemingly trivial facet of modern life that most poets would not be attracted to.
We see the same loving attention to the details of the everyday world in other poems of this period as well—"Buick,” “Drug Store,” and “Waitress,” to name just a few. In “Auto Wreck” from Person, Place and Thing, Shapiro handles a grim detail of contemporary life with delicacy and artistry:
Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating,
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery,
The ambulance at top speed floating down
Past beacons and illuminated clocks
Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,
And brakes speed, entering the crowd.
The doors leap open, emptying light;
Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted
And stowed into the little hospital.
Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once,
And the ambulance with its terrible cargo
Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,
As the doors, an afterthought, are closed ….
To focus on the mundane without making it “mean” through the use of a symbolic structure is not a recipe for poetic profundity. But then, Shapiro doesn’t appear to want to be profound. Insofar as he aspires only to be “fully alive... to existence itself,” these early poems are eminently successful.
Nonetheless, as the Forties advanced, Shapiro was evidently becoming unhappy with his work. He was beginning to believe that he wasn’t letting enough reality into his poems. And he was right: there’s more to the world, after all, than automobiles, drugstores, and waitresses. There is, for example, the poet himself. Weren’t the poet’s ordinary thoughts and feelings a part of reality, too, and therefore worthy of being included in poetry that was truly open to “existence itself”? What Shapiro was contemplating didn’t involve violating Auden’s golden rule and altering the world for the sake of a private meaning. All he wished to do was make the poet’s more unexceptional thoughts and perceptions a part of the procession of reality in his verse. How to present these perceptions raised another problem—the limitations of formal metrics. Didn’t rhyme and meter alter reality, too? Didn’t the things of the world need to be expressed as honestly as possible, without the poet’s resorting to any artifice whatsoever?
Shapiro didn’t act on these new thoughts right away. But Essay on Rime, the seventy-two-page poem that was published as a book a year after his second book, V-Letter (1944), contains evidence that he was beginning to explore them. Ostensibly, the book is not so different from V-Letter or Person, Place and Thing. Though written in the first person, Essay on Rime is spoken by Shapiro the poet—not Shapiro the man—and is therefore about as impersonal as his earlier verse. And it is composed in the most punctilious blank verse. All the same, Shapiro later called Essay on Rime his “first anti-intellectual essay,” and for good reason. The poem contained warm words for the poetry of Wait Whitman, D. H. Lawrence, and William Carlos Williams—all poets distinctly unlike both Shapiro and Auden in their celebration of feeling (Whitman and Lawrence) and the unobstructed representation of reality (Williams). In the section on Williams, Shapiro writes respectfully of the New Jersey poet’s world, in which “vision reigns, [and] nothing is right/Except the visible. The object is the thing,/The means of understanding is eyesight.” In a passage near the end of Essay on Rime, Shapiro wonders where in contemporary literature one can find “the plain/Statement of feeling.”
The chief aim of Essay on Rime, however, is to demonstrate how possible it is for a young poet to come to terms with poetry on his own, without recourse to tradition or the academy. (That Shapiro wrote Essay on Rime while on duty in the Pacific “proved” this hypothesis.) Although his attack on literary tradition—in the form of an appreciation of Lawrence, Whitman, and Williams—makes Essay on Rime a significant book, Shapiro’s New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986 makes no reference to it.
Interestingly, Essay on Rime was honored by F. O. Matthiessen in a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review. Matthiessen, a Marxist who paradoxically championed Eliot and Henry James, addressed himself primarily to Shapiro’s mastery of simple language. Concentrating on lines like—
At what point in the history of art
Has such a cleavage between audience
And poet existed? Where before has rime
Relied so heavily on the interpreter,
The analyst and the critic?
—Matthiessen commended Shapiro for “bridging the gap between the poet and the democratic audience of the Nineteen Fifties.”
“Recapitulations,” the sequence leading off Shapiro’s next book, Trial of a Poet (1947)—dedicated to Matthiessen—exhibits the first significant change in Shapiro’s poetry. The sequence of sixteen formal poems is entirely autobiographical. Unfortunately, “Recapitulations” seldom rises above the banal. The first poem begins:
I was born downtown on a wintry day
And under the roof where Poe expired;
Tended by nuns my mother lay
Dark-haired and beautiful and tired.
Doctors and cousins paid their call,
The rabbi and my father helped.
A crucifix burned on the wall
Of the bright room where I was whelped.
Shapiro has omitted “Recapitulations” from New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986, and for good reason.
The new work in Shapiro’s next book, Poems 1940-1953 (1953), contains more changes. In these poems, Shapiro, much in the custom of Lawrence, transcribes his inner thoughts, no matter how dull they may be. “Going to School,” for example, begins: “What shall I teach in the vivid afternoon/ With the sun warming the blackboard and a slip/Of cloud catching my eye?” In many poems, Shapiro’s thoughts focus on failure. “Ego can fail,” he asserts in “Ego,” while in “The Tingling Back,” he frets over “something ... I said and I should not have said,/ I did and must not do.”
Other poems in Poems 1940-1953 deal with the guilt that is in Shapiro’s case apparently the consequence of this preoccupation with failure. “Adam and Eve” is a long, unsuccessful attempt to explore the origins of this guilt. In “F. O. Matthiessen: An Anniversary,” Shapiro asks if he is to blame for Matthiessen’s suicide leap from a hotel window:
. . . What mob did Matthiessen
Hear chanting in rhythm, and what uniforms
Tried to retrieve him to the world of men?
What was he saying in his heavy fall
Through space, so broken by the hand of stone?
What word was that stopped like a telephone
Torn with its nervous wire from the wall?
Does not the condemned man raise his voice to call
His phrase of justice down the empty hall?
And who betrayed him finally? Was it I?
Some poet who turned his praises to blame,
Some historian of the parlor game
Of war? Or the easy capture of the schloss
By Slavs? The Americanization of the spy?
The death of a friend? Was there no further loss? . . .
Shapiro rises to the occasion with some memorable language which redeems the arbitrary personal intrusion. Regrettably, “F. O. Matthiessen” has been excluded from New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986.
“Adam and Eve,” along with “Israel” and “Six Religious Lyrics”—all from Poems 1940-1953—offer us a clue to the next phase of Shapiro’s poetic career: the discovery of his Jewish identity. This is a strange juncture in Karl Shapiro’s career. For religious affiliation would appear to be the last thing a poet like Shapiro, who has been struggling to establish some sense of individuality in his poetry, would want. Actually, “Israel” depicts the pitfalls of uniting dogma and individuality. Like most of the poems he was writing during this period, “Israel” is a showcase for Shapiro’s personal feelings. But in the poem the emotions he presents are the fruit of his new identification with Judaism. He writes, for example, about how “When I think of the liberation of Palestine . . . My heart leaps forward like a hungry dog,” and “When I think of the battle of Zion . . . My blood beats like a bird against a wall,” and so on. The “personal” feelings Shapiro indulges in here are therefore hardly the expression of his individuality. They are rather the result of the poet’s immersing himself—which is to say, losing himself—in an external cause.
Perhaps Shapiro comprehends the contradiction between the pursuit of individuality and the capitulation to religion. In what appears to be an attempt to counterbalance the religious element in “Israel,” Shapiro injects himself everywhere in the poem. In the first eighteen lines of “Israel,” for example, the words “I” and “my” appear nineteen times.
But for Shapiro there is another obstacle to accommodating the fewish outlook. For the student of Auden who has made a career lending credence only to what impinges on his senses, the belief in a transcendent reality would appear to be problematic indeed. In the Introduction to Poems of a Jew (1958), Shapiro’s next book, the poet tries to resolve this difficulty by suggesting how similar are his poetic perspective and the perspective of the Jew. He proclaims that the Jew is “absolutely committed to the world.”
The truth is, Shapiro’s Jewish poems really have little to do with a deity. Most deal with Shapiro’s secular experiences as a Jew in America. They are about, that is, feeling shut out, special, and, above all, guilty. To the extent that “The First Time”—a poem about a seventeen-year-old’s encounter with a prostitute—succeeds, it is because it deals with prejudices and stereotypes, not religious belief. The last two stanzas read:
The girl is sitting with her back to him;
She wears a black thing and she rakes her hair,
Hauling her round face upward like moonrise;
She is younger than he, her angled arms are slim
And like a country girl her feet are bare.
She watches him behind her with old eyes,
Transfixing him in space like some grotesque,
Far, far from her where he is still alone
And being here is more and more untrue.
Then she turns round, as one turns at a desk,
And looks at him, too naked and too soon,
And almost gently asks: Are you a Jew?
The confusion evident in Poems of a Jew may have contributed to the frustrated, angry tone of Shapiro’s next book. In Defense of Ignorance (1960) is a collection of literary essays that do not so much present the poet’s beliefs as ram them down the reader’s throat. The book, the epigraph of which is “everything we are taught is false” (Shapiro’s emphasis), seeks, as the author writes in the preface, to break the
dictatorship of intellectual “modernism,” the sanctimonious ministry of “the Tradition,” the ugly programmatic quality of twentieth-century criticism [which] have maimed our poetry and turned it into a monstrosity of literature.
Actually, there is little sustained argument in the book. (Argument, after all, is something taught in school.) What we are offered instead is a flood of opinions that may have been vaguely heretical at the time. Lawrence and Whitman, Shapiro informs us, exhibit the “deepest concern for mankind” in their poetry. Dylan Thomas is admired, meanwhile, for his “unintellectualism” (again, Shapiro’s emphasis). Henry Miller is declared, in the title of the piece on him, “Our Greatest Living Author.” (Wisely, Shapiro changed the title of the Miller article to “The Greatest Living Patagonian” when he reprinted it in the 1975 book The Poetry Wreck: Selected Essays 1950-1970. Unwisely, he did not remove the large chunks of Miller’s execrable prose from the reprinted essay.) And Lawrence, we are told, “committed the horrible sin of expressing his own feelings in poetry.”
As promised in the preface, the modernists are criticized at length. Little of this criticism, however, deals with the innate qualities of the poetry. What Shapiro focuses on instead is the effect modern poetry has had on twentieth-century society. Thus we are told how modern poetry, as Shapiro writes in the Yeats essay, has become, through its use of myth and the cultural past, “a surrogate for religion.” Shapiro’s real bête noire here is the historical, political, and cultural pronouncements that many of the modernists made. Yeats, Shapiro tells us, made a “sociological ass” of himself in his historical writings. Eliot and Pound became purveyors of “sociological opinion,” not to mention anti-Semites and fascist apologists to boot. (One wonders why there isn’t a word about Williams’s anti-Semitism in the essay on him in In Defense of Ignorance.) The truth is, Shapiro doesn’t systematically criticize the poetry of Yeats and Eliot very much at all in In Defense of Ignorance. He’s so busy discussing their prose and politics, and the professors who’ve made them into an industry (as well as into a “surrogate for religion”), that he never has time to come to terms with the poetry.
The essay on Auden in In Defense of Ignorance is surprisingly positive, given how removed Shapiro was by now from Auden’s impersonal aesthetic. But there is still one Audenesque idea that Shapiro follows in In Defense of Ignorance, and will continue to follow. This is the belief, expressed in Shapiro’s essay entitled “The Great Artificer,” that “[e]very artist by instinct should fight against the principle of multiplicity of meaning.”
In every way but this, then, Shapiro’s next book, The Bourgeois Poet (1964), was a repudiation of his master. Gone are rhyme and meter and the loving attention to the world. The prose “poems” that make up the book have room for everything under the sun. (As Shapiro admitted later, their “form” was governed by the typewriter’s margins.) The Bourgeois Poet, which owes much to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, is the realization of Shapiro’s desire to include in his poetry every raw detail he sees, hears, or feels. We can be thankful that the following section, appropriately entitled “Anti-Poem,” has not been included in New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986:
Orchards hang in the newspaper of sky. It’s
snowing names and addresses over the world,
O lovely splash!
In dry percussion, hammers of prosperity prac-
tice against the too-green corn. The wheat
field narrows, then disappears, leaving a
memory of dry wind-waves. Who eats dry
wheat but boys, wheat the hue of the backs
of eighteen-century books. Children spring
from the doors where there are no trees.
Roofer up there, it’s been a good day.
In another section, also omitted from the new book, the aspect of “reality” granted unconditional admission into the “poem” is Shapiro’s internal musings on one of his new aesthetic beliefs:
Lower the standard: that’s my motto. Somebody is always putting the food out of reach. Were tired of falling off ladders. Who says a child can’t paint? A pro is somebody who does it for money. Lower the standards. Let’s all play poetry. Down with ideals, flags, convention buttons, morals, the scrambled eggs on the admiral’s hat. Im talking sense. Lower the standards. Sabotage the stylistic approach. Let weeds grow in the subdivision. Putty up the incisions in the library facade, those names that frighten grade-school teachers, those names whose Us are cut like Vs. Burn the Synopticon and The Harvard Classics. Lower the standard on classics, battleships, Russian ballet, national anthems (but they’re low enough). Break through to the bottom ….
If Shapiro is attempting to be ironic here, his irony is lost on me, since in every conceivable way The Bourgeois Poet tries, and succeeds, in “lower[ing] the standard” in poetry. No doubt the book would have perplexed Auden. But Shapiro’s relinquishment of his intellect to the thrust of reality (be it the reality of the world or the reality of his passing thoughts) is arguably the logical fulfillment of Auden’s aesthetic of a poetry open to the world.
To Abolish Children (1968), the book of essays that followed The Bourgeois Poet, was primarily Shapiro’s attempt to distance himself from the new counterculture. Nothing, of course, could have been more ironic, since Shapiro was responsible for providing the Movement with two of its major literary ornaments. Yet in the title essay of this book Shapiro condemns the “intellectual infantilism” of the radicals, the “patent absurdity” of the open university, and the “largely hypocritical” dissent on the Vietnam War. “The ‘Underground,’” Shapiro asserts, “did not raise its voice against the Russian suppression of Hungary.” These sensible observations precede by about fifty pages the utterly nonsensical essay—entitled “A Defense of Bad Poetry”—in which Shapiro argues for a poetry that will “subvert the standards” and “will not please.”
Shapiro’s last few books of poetry are as debilitated as To Abolish Children is confused. In White-Haired Lover (1968), Shapiro returns to rhyme and meter for a series of rather cloying sonnets addressed to his lover. (None is in New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986.) In “I Swore to Stab the Sonnet,” the poet writes about how his lover helped him gain his formal—and psychological— equilibrium after he had temporarily lost his bearings. If only the poetic result was better:
I swore to stab the sonnet with my pen,
Squash the black widow in a grandstand play
By gunning down the sonnet form—and then
I heard you quote my schoolboy love Millay.
I went to find out what she used to say
About her tribulations and her men
And loved her poetry though I now am gray
And found out love of love poems once again.
Now I’m the one that’s stabbed—son of a bitch!
With my own poisoned ballpoint pen of love
And write in sonnet form to make my pitch,
Words I no longer know the meaning of
If I could write one honest sentence now
I’d say I love you but I don’t know how.
Adult Bookstore (1976), Shapiro’s most recent collection of all new poems, is even more of a repudiation of The Bourgeois Poet. Adult Bookstore is the least “personal” of all of Shapiro’s post-Fifties books. It is therefore very reminiscent of Person, Place and Thing and V-Letter. The titles alone indicate that Shapiro is once again intent on ferreting out the representative features of the postwar American landscape: “Garage Sale,” “Girls Working in Banks,” “The Humanities Building,” and, of course, the title poem. In “The Humanities Building,” Shapiro “tells the truth” about one of the more lamentable aspects of our country. The result is a poem that Auden himself probably would have liked:
All the bad Bauhaus comes
to a head In this gray slab, this domino, this plinth
Standing among the olives or the old oak trees,
As the case may be, and whatever the clime.
No bells, no murals, no gargoyles,
But rearing like a fort with slits of eyes
Suspicious in the aggregate, its tons
Of concrete, glaciers of no known color,
Gaze down upon us. Saint Thomas More,
Behold the Humanities Building! . . .
But nothing offers solider proof that Shapiro has come full circle poetically than one of the four new poems in New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986. “At Auden’s Grave” relates the poet’s journey to the place where his master, as Shapiro writes, “lies sleeping in a vale . . . .” Near the end of the poem, the poet, addressing Auden, says that he has come “to bless this plot where you are lain, /Poet who made poetry whole again.”
As moving as Shapiro’s return to his master is, however, “At Auden’s Grave” has none of the sheer dazzle of “Buick,” “Drug Store,” or “Haircut.” Shapiro himself seems to be aware of the diminishment of his poetic powers. In “Grant’s Tomb Revisited,” one of the handful of new poems in Love & War, a new-and-selected that came out in 1984, he writes: “Weve all seen better days,/Hiram Ulysses.”
It would be easy to attribute the mediocre level of Shapiro’s recent work to the declining powers of an aging poet. But I doubt that age has much to do with this. What has stymied Shapiro in the last decade of his life is precisely what has stymied him, to one degree or another, throughout his career: the legacy of W. H. Auden. Early on, Shapiro was well-versed in the dangers of the modernist aesthetic, namely, its tendency to make the poet think he can change the world. But Shapiro all but closed his eyes to the equally real dangers of Auden’s poetic beliefs. For there is a price to be paid for the exclusive concentration on the world of reality, and for the suppression of the transforming poetic ego. It is a price that is paid in the quality of one’s work. Shapiro’s poetry is simply too dependent on the more transient aspects of the world. Placing himself at the mercy of reality may have helped Shapiro avoid trying to “speak for the race.” But in refusing to make the world mean for him, he permitted himself to be subsumed constantly by his material. As a result, we have no strong sense of Shapiro’s poetic identity running through his oeuvre.
Is Shapiro aware of this? Perhaps. The massive cuts he has made in compiling New & Selected Poems, 1940-1986 would seem to indicate that all he wishes to preserve is the briefest sketch of his long career. But if this is the reason for the slightness of the new book, Shapiro may have gone too far. Although one can agree with his radical reduction of The Bourgeois Poet and the total rejection of White-Haired Lover, it is hard to agree with all of Shapiro’s exclusions. The truth is, there is still a Collected Poems of Karl Shapiro to be done. Such a book would include “F. O. Matthiessen: An Anniversary,” part of Essay on Rime, and more generous selections from V-Letter and Trial of a Poet.
In leaving the task of putting together an authentic Collected Poems to posterity, Shapiro again mimics his master Auden, whose own Collected Poems was scarred by numerous changes and omissions. But then it was to be expected that Karl Shapiro would near the end of his career be as riddled by doubt as Auden was at the end of his.
Robert Richmans book of poems, Voice on the Wind, was recently published by Copper Beech Press
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