Karl Shapiro Essay - Critical Essays


“Everything I’ve ever known I’ve felt. Maybe my brain is in my fingertips,” says the autobiographical protagonist in Edsel. Karl Shapiro’s poetry can in fact be characterized as a poetry of feeling, of pure, spontaneous, unadulterated sensation. The poet is constantly preoccupied with saying exactly what he perceives at a given moment, and the nature and structure of the poetic text will be of primary importance. In poetry, says Shapiro, all statements concerning morality, politics, the greater social good, religion, and any other function that makes the poem for something or somebody are to be avoided as unimportant to the essence of the poem itself. From this perspective, all his books can be read as a series of impressionistic sketches and reveries, deeply grounded in his personal experiences, concerned only with saying what is being felt, concisely and with immediacy.

Early poems

The early poems, “Washington Cathedral,” “Auto Wreck,” “Hospital,” and “University,” are representative of this “gut” response to the world. The themes range from social injustice, decay, and the passing of life to man’s alienation from his world. The stanzas of these poems are self-sustaining paragraphs proceeding from an external, almost naturalistic description of what has entered the poet’s mind to a reflection on what seems to be happening, often spoken in the first-person plural, and concluding with a comment about the human condition. In other poems, he speaks in the first person, evidencing a tendency to set himself apart from the world, often taking a metaphysical view, as in the emblematic “The Dome of Sunday.” Shapiro’s concern with the right word, the only word that crystallizes his feelings and renders them real, is clear from his earliest exercises. Concerning the language suited to poetry, Shapiro explains that, since current speakers have inherited the English language quite by chance—downplaying history, as it were—there is no need to express oneself in “high” or “literary” English; rather, the poet should employ the current idiom of everyday life, a “low” and “common” American English that in the poem turns out to be more true and precise than any other mediated and contrived pattern.

“Lord, I’ve seen too much”

The documented yet...

(The entire section is 970 words.)