Karl Shapiro Essay - Shapiro, Karl

Shapiro, Karl


Karl Shapiro 1913–

(Full name Karl Jay Shapiro) American poet, critic, essayist, editor, novelist, and autobiographer.

Recognized as an iconoclastic and innovative poet, Shapiro composes verse that defies classification because of his varied and unpredictable approach to theme and presentation. Over several decades he has demonstrated a mastery of both traditional and contemporary poetic technique. In his verse, Shapiro explores love, war, religion, and, most notably, the relationship between poetry and prose—a topic that he often addresses by combining the two genres in his works.

Biographical Information

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 10, 1913, Shapiro grew up in Baltimore, Chicago, and Norfolk, Virginia. His Jewish background imbued him with a sense of isolation during his brief time studying at the University of Virginia; this self-consciousness about his heritage and the exploration of other religions are recurring themes in his work. In 1935 Poems was published, and secured him a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University; his next collection, Person, Place, and Thing attracted favorable critical attention. The poems were composed while Shapiro was stationed in New Guinea during World War II and the collection garnered praise for his adroit use of dramatic monologue. In 1944, Shapiro was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for V-Letter and Other Poems. He continues writing poetry and criticism, and teaching at universities, the most recent being the University of California at Davis.

Major Works

Shapiro burst onto the literary scene with the publication of V-Letter, which contains what many critics lauded as the finest war poems ever written by an American. Several selections in his next book, Trial of a Poet, were written on Shapiro's homeward journey immediately after the war and eloquently communicate the sense of humanity's irrevocable loss during that turbulent era. Poems of a Jew concerns the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity, rebuking and defending both religions while discussing his brief conversion to Catholicism. Shapiro experimented with free verse to great critical success in such works as The Bourgeois Poet. In his succeeding volume, The White-Haired Lover, which consists of twenty-nine love poems dedicated to his second wife, Shapiro returns to traditional verse forms. Love & War, Art & God combines early poetry with new verse in which Shapiro contemplates the eclectic concepts of the volume's title. In the pieces collected in New and Selected Poems, 1940-1986 and his latest volume The Old Horsefly, Shapiro confronts both contemporary social issues and personal concerns.

Critical Reception

Shapiro is praised for his creative mix of prose and poetry, and his poetic style of a stream-of-consciousness narrative reminiscent of the verse of such Beat poets as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Such works, in particular Essay on Rime, are noted not only for their poetic style but their passionate and controversial commentary on modern poetry; yet some have deemed Shapiro's analysis of twentieth-century poetry as unfocused and tenuous. While some critics maintain that his exploration of such diverse forms as the sonnet, blank verse, and lyric poetry yields erratic results, many regard his extensive output as impressive. Whatever the opinion on his recent verse, most commentators agree that in the 1940s Shapiro produced some of the best war poetry ever written by an American poet.

Principal Works


Poems 1935

Person, Place, and Thing 1942

V-Letter and Other Poems 1944

Essay on Rime 1945

Trial of a Poet 1947

Poems: 1940-1953 1953

Poems of a Jew 1958

The Bourgeois Poet 1964

White-Haired Lover 1968

Love and War, Art and God 1984

New and Selected Poems, 1940-1986 1987

The Old Horsefly 1994

The Wild Card: Selected Poems, Early and Late 1998

Delmore Schwartz (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "The Poet's Progress," in The Nation, Vol. 156, No. 2, January 9, 1943, pp. 63-4.

[In the following favorable review of Person, Place, and Thing, Schwartz determines the influence of W. H. Auden on Shapiro's poetry.]

Karl Jay Shapiro is a poet of remarkable and original gifts. Yet it is possible that the topicality of his poetry—one of its strongest virtues—and the fact that the poet is now a soldier in Australia may distract attention from the literary feat performed in this book [Person, Place, and Thing]. The feat is that of taking the style of Auden and transforming it with an American subject matter, by writing of drugstores, lunch wagons, a conscription camp, a midnight show, a Buick, and many other things equally indigenous.

Most poets begin by taking fire from other poets, and most poets end, sadly enough, in self-imitation. But between the time when the poet is an echoing novice and the time when he is a self-infatuated and tired master, there occurs, if the poet has genuine gifts, a period during which the borrowed or imitated style is gradually altered into something new and strange—as the glove is shaped by the hand, day by day—through the constant pressure of the poet's own and unique subject matter, his own experience. Even in the best poets this wonderful process tends to be broken and uneven. But it proceeds powerfully and serenely in Mr. Shapiro's verse, and the interesting thing is that one can see so clearly several stages of it in this book.

The manner, and especially the diction of Shapiro's writing, is all from Auden. Words such as luck, love, the hostile parents, wound, failure and usages like the personification of places and things occur throughout the book. A stanza such as this one:

What do you care, dear total stranger,
For the successful failure of my safest danger,
My pig in the poke or dog in the manger?
The dead cry life and stagger up the hill;


But is there still the incorrigible city where
The well enjoy their poverty and the young
Worship the gutter? Is Wednesday still alive
And Tuesday wanting terribly to sin?

or, for a briefer example, a line like "It baffles the foreigner like an idiom" is purely Audenesque in style. And yet the matter is wholly Shapiro's, and the latter line is the beginning of a fine poem about a drugstore, in which Shapiro manages to make baseball scores, coca-cola bottles, lipstick, and lending-library books relevant and operative parts of the poem. In most of the other young American poets who have been subjected to Auden's strong influence, Auden's perceptions as well as his words are echoed; in the course of a poem we can sometimes even see Auden's perceptions displacing those native to the poet. In Shapiro, on the contrary, the borrowed style is an aid and not an obstacle; the result is a growing originality.

The source of this originality is undoubtedly Shapiro's inexhaustible power of observation. He can see a great deal, he has taken a long, cunning, and intelligent look at the important objects of modern life, and he has serious and important feelings about what he sees. Yet this strength has, like most virtues, its danger and its weakness. There is not only a sameness of tone and feeling in a good many of these poems but also a tendency to rely too much on dramatic observation, organized merely as a succession of items, to solve all problems and provide the insight which the subject requires.

Observation is not insight, although there is little insight without observation. And this makes one thing of the title of Shapiro's book, which I take to be the declaration of a worthy and humble joy in observation, and of Shapiro's prose Note on Poetry in last year's Five Young American Poets, where the title was first used and where Shapiro expressed a strange hatred of "the dictatorship of criticism" and of general ideas. The statement reached its peak in the extraordinary phrase, "America, the word that is the chief enemy of modern poetry." This is not only in direct contradiction to the excellent use of abstractions, like America and Europe, in Shapiro's verse, but it suggests a serious immaturity in Shapiro's attitude as a poet. The poet can no more afford to hate abstractions or general ideas than he can afford to hate the concrete and the particular. He needs them both, and he needs them at the same time if his verse is to be both vivid and significant. Perhaps Shapiro hates abstractions like America for the same reason that the hero of A Farewell to Arms hated words like Democracy, Justice, Liberty, Self-Sacrifice, and Courage; they have been used by politicians and by bad poets. But Democracy, Justice, Self-Sacrifice, Courage, Europe, and America are the abstract and often abused terms for the deep-seated values which inspire Shapiro, at his best, both to rage and to sympathy.

Other abstractions, often capitalized by Shapiro, are nec essary parts of Shapiro's best poems. But more than that, it is the abstraction, America, and another concrete abstraction—if the reader will forgive me this true paradox—Europe, which are just as responsible for Shapiro's being in Australia as the troopship which took him there.

The chief enemy of modern poetry is not a word, certainly not a word like America, or a use of abstract terms. Two of the many enemies of all poetry are the inability to see things clearly and exactly, a defect from which Shapiro will never suffer, and, on the other hand, the inability to generalize and make universal one's experience by means of abstractions. The poet has to keep many activities going, but one activity as necessary as any other is to keep thinking all the time. It is not easy, but it is necessary. Fortunately Mr. Shapiro's practice is far superior to his theory, so that what we have here is a book which everyone interested in modern poetry ought to read.

F. W. Dupee (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Karl Shapiro and the Great Ordeal," in The Nation, Vol. 159, No. 12, September 16, 1944, pp. 327-28.

[In the following review, Dupee offers a mixed assessment of V-Letter and Other Poems]

By now most readers are probably tired of war literature and would like to get back to literature. Not only is much of the writing inferior; but we are kept from saying so by reason of the censorship inflicted on us by our war-time piety. Yet in the case of Karl Shapiro, whose new poems were written during the more than two years that he has been on active duty in the Southwest Pacific, it seems impossible not to invoke the war. By what drama of adjustment has he continued writing? The question would be irrelevant, I admit, if his adjustment had resulted in a book which was continuous in thought and quality with his earlier one, Person, Place, and Thing. But although V-Letter is a remarkable performance, it is still in many ways weaker than the former book—anxious and uneven where the other one was strong and consistent.

The notable thing about Person, Place, and Thing was a firmness of mood and singleness of purpose. Its well-written satires on industrial society were not great poetry or even on their way to being that; they were in the best sense "minor." And Shapiro was able to be a successful minor poet in our time because, while renouncing the larger myth-making pretensions of modern poetry, he nevertheless maintained the modernist defiance of middleclass civilization. This ground of self-assurance is now giving way, it is clear, under pressure of the war and prolonged soldiering. His old conviction of identity is gone, and he is experimenting with new roles.

This is apparent in the introduction to V-Letter, where he tries to define his relation to the great ordeal. It must be admitted that his ideas seem contradictory. On the one hand he seems anxious to diminish the war to a mere visitation of nature and thus to conjure away its terrors considered as a political or human portent. So he says that "war is an affection of the human spirit, without any particular reference to 'values,'" and that its effect on oneself is to reduce one "in size but not in meaning, like a V-letter." But this relatively complacent view is belied by what Shapiro says of the "suffering" and "private psychological tragedy" of soldiers and even more by the drastic moral effects which he ascribes to war. It "can teach us humility," he says; and by virtue of it "contemporary man should feel divested of the stock attitudes of the last generation, the stance of the political intellectual, the proletarian, the expert, the salesman, the world-traveler, the pundit-poet [and] like the youngster in the crowd make the marvelous discovery that our majesty is naked." Those "stock attitudes," or many of them, were of course at the root of his earlier poems; and in trying to cut them away he is, knowingly, risking the extinction of his old powers. And what, one wonders, is really wrong with those attitudes? They were by-products of the same civilization that produced the war; and if, as seems more and more likely, the war fails to solve the problems that begot it, then why are not the old postures still viable? Where, moreover, are the sources of this Blake-like freshness of vision, this mystical simplicity, of which Shapiro speaks and to which he aspires? Are they to be found in battle, in the pursuit of what he calls in a poem "the rat-toothed enemy"? To accept this war as a hard political necessity is one thing; to completely de-politicalize it in the interests of a confused and supine metaphysics is to leave it a mere meaningless horror. Shapiro may be right in fleeing the old attitudes; but surely he is in danger of demonstrating that a bad civilization can finally compel acceptance of itself, or at least suspension of judgment, by the simple device of becoming worse.

These arguments apply primarily to Shapiro's introduction and not to his poetry. V-Letter is so various and so full of excellent verse that it would resist any attempt to sacrifice it to a thesis even if I wanted so to sacrifice it. The poet's peculiar negative-positive adjustment to the war has had the advantage, apparently, of leaving him relatively free to observe, read, reflect, and labor at his poetry as before. He retains his old wry pleasure in the sights of a country—in this case Australia, not America—and his characteristic interest in religion and history. Whether he is writing poetry or merely versifying—if the distinction is clear—he is as eloquent, as fertile in apt imagery, as wedded to the concrete, as he ever was. And his verse still has its clear metrical line, even though it tends toward excessive regularity and occasionally romps off into conventional dactylics.

Yet only a few of the poems in V-Letter seem to me equal to the average of his earlier work. The best single production in the book is probably "The Synagogue," one of a series of satiric-prophetic pieces on Judaism. The subject is the spiritual limitations and historical guilts of the Jewish religion as Shapiro conceives them; and although his point of view is Christian, his temper is that of a Jewish prophet censuring the Jews. To readers not similarly concerned, Shapiro's ideas in these poems may seem atavistic; but they clearly exercised to the utmost his faculties as a poet. In "The Synagogue" passion and intellect converge to form one of the great contemporary poems. There is, however, seldom such concentration of forces in the rest of V-Letter. For the most part the great ironies and paradoxes of the war escape the satiric comment which other and lesser aspects of modern society received in Person, Place, and Thing. Shapiro now reserves his thunder for Judaists and intellectuals. When he writes of military life, as in "Troop Train" or "Elegy for a Dead Soldier," he is easy, reportorial, readable; hardly any other poet today could have produced so colloquially-spirited, so tragically-gay a departure scene as he depicts in the first stanza of "Birthday Poem." Nevertheless it is curious how often these poems drop into commonplace or even mere folksy sentiment. ("I see you woman-size And this looms larger and more goddess-like Than silver goddesses on screens"—I love you just the way you are, dear.) And it appears that Shapiro's former satirical defiance is being displaced by new and vaguely disturbing attitudes. There is in his work a growing contempt for conscious artistry and intellect, an eagerness to present himself as passionately immersed in the folk life of the soldier, a pride in his acquired toughness.

I smoke and read my bible and chew gum…
I'd rather be a barber and cut hair
Than walk with you in gilt museum halls…

And on through crummy continents and days,
Deliberate, grimy, slightly drunk, we crawl,
The good-bad boys of circumstance and chance…

Nor are these new feelings frankly examined in the poet's conscience in such a way that the conversion process becomes itself the subject of his poetry: they are merely taken for granted. It would certainly be an irony of the war if it turned a complex and specialized poet like Shapiro into only another exponent of hard-boiled sentimentality.

F. O. Matthiessen (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "On the Confusions in Poetry," in The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1945, pp. 1, 18, 20, 22.

[In the following laudable review of Essays on Rime, Matthiessen contends that the "book may very well be the most remarkable contribution to American art yet to have come out of the war."]

This book may very well be the most remarkable contribution to American art yet to have come out of the war. Its title may suggest to the general reader a bookish piece by a young man growing up in a library and steeped in the period of Boileau and Pope. It happens to have been written by a sergeant in the Medical Corps who was just completing his third year of active duty in the Pacific. When Karl Shapiro was drafted in the spring before Pearl Harbor, his name was probably known only to readers of "New Directions" and the serious little magazines. He was already in New Guinea before his first book, Person, Place and Thing, was published. He was finishing this Essay in the Netherlands East Indies a year ago, before he had had any chance to realize that his V-Letter had placed him, among younger readers particularly, at the forefront of the poets of his decade.

Composed without access to books, this verse Essay of over 2,000 lines discusses "rime" in its widest connotation as synonymous with "the art of poetry," and gives a detailed assessment of that art in our time. It is the kind of production one would hardly have believed possible in the special circumstances of soldiering, and yet without the enforced isolation from everything he cared most about and without the equally enforced inwardness of his thoughts Shapiro might never have felt the necessity to take stock of where we now stand "in the mid-century of our art." What makes the result such exciting reading is that here we have no formal estimate, with measured dependence upon authority. We have rather the direct statement of what a poet really knows and believes, what he has absorbed from thirty years of living and ten of learning his craft.

Shapiro is no eclectic, and makes no attempt to include all the leading names in modern poetry. In a closing passage he regrets that he had to leave out certain figures, notably Wallace Stevens and Frost, since he lacked "a whole opinion of their work." Yet he gives a representative picture of the prevailing influences of his particular period, of the state of poetry as it has been experienced by someone who began to practice it in the early Nineteen Thirties. He has written thereby a chapter of cultural and moral history. But he has also written a poem. He has not availed himself of the technical virtuosity displayed in his previous books. In deliberately roughening his blank verse to the "flux and reflux of conversation," he may have produced some needlessly flat lines. But his language is vivid with the eloquence of conviction, and he enlivens his effect with an occasional tightening rhyme. He does not engage in abstract analysis. He knows the difference between a poet and a semanticist, and, as he says, his wish

The poets of his time who have made the most impression upon him are Eliot, Hart Crane and Auden. Shapiro followed the Nineteen Twenties in recognizing Eliot to be the master craftsman of American poetry. In 1933 Hart Crane, who had responded deeply to Eliot's technical innovations but had attempted to refute the disillusion of The Waste Land by a new affirmation of Whitman's America, had recently killed himself in despair. Auden, who had also learned much from Eliot, was just starting to express political and social concerns very different from anything articulated in Ash Wednesday. With the depression had come a marked break in the sequence of American poets. Between 1910 and 1930 this country had witnessed the emergence of a greater abundance and variety of poetic talents than in any previous period in our history. But during the Thirties most of our new writers turned to prose, particularly to the novel of social protest. The new signatures in poetry, with an occasional exception like Delmore Schwartz at the end of the period, were predominantly English.

Shapiro does not agree with Yeats' opinion that since 1900 there have been "more poets of worth" in the English language than in any generation since 1630. He indicates his persistent view by arranging his Essay under three headings, "The Confusion in Prosody," "The Confusion in Language," "The Confusion in Belief." He writes with modesty, as one involved with his own age, but also with great firmness. His opening section is the most technical in its references, the most unusual to have been created entirely from memory. Living in the period of the breakdown of formal metric, he takes stock of how and when that came about. He discusses what he has learned of the resources of the past from three monuments of scholarship, Bridges' study of Milton, Lanier's Science of English Verse and Saintsbury's account of prose rhythms.

From his own immersion in the poets Shapiro has found the "discipline" of Milton's prosody to be the practitioner's "purest guide" to mastery. Only those aware of the acrid academic debates of recent years will recognize Shapiro's catholicity in being able to admire Milton's supremacy, and yet to assert that "by far the two great prosodists of our age" are Joyce and Eliot. Academic critics have usually lined up on one edge of that divide, current readers on the other. Shapiro does not argue. He knows as a poet, through the evidence of his ears, that in Eliot "the triumph of a new form is certain." He has many fresh things to say about that triumph. He is a judicious appraiser of the artesian interflow that Eliot struck anew between French and English verse; but he values Eliot even more for the way his "clean conversational voice" cut through "the late-Victorian lilt." Measuring his words carefully, Shapiro remarks of the metric of Ash Wednesday that

He is even more penetrating in his treatment of Joyce. He reckons with Ulysses as "a thing of rime entirely," since he believes that it established "a new rhythmical idiom" through the mating of the possibilities of verse and of prose, such as Lanier and Saintsbury foresaw. But Shapiro is by no means easy in his mind about the influence of Joyce's intricacy. He is aware that the master has fallen into the hands of cultists and has fathered many aberrations. But in summation of the vagaries of our time Shapiro recognizes that it has also been marked by much "serious invention," as poets have struggled to find possible verse forms to fit the "tensile strains" in modern speech.

Confusion in language is of even graver import, since language is the living record of our moral history. Shapiro believes that excessive style is an undeniable sign of disequilibrium, and he is disturbed by the violently diverse phases through which so many of our artists have gone in the age of Picasso and Stravinsky. Auden's is the case history of multiple personality in verse, and Shapiro notes Auden's pursuit through the whole "lexicon of forms" after "the lost Eurydice of character." But he is by no means forgetful of the immense stimulus to his own development from Auden's mastery of rhetoric. His passage on the advent of Auden's group recaptures the excitement of that moment when

He has high praise for the concrete vocabulary of immediate things that was thereby inaugurated, but is equally critical of Auden's subsequent deflection into loose abstraction.

An especially perceptive passage probes farther the effects of abstract rhetoric induced by our poets' adoption of an international style. Shapiro cites Pound's "polyglot" Cantos as one symptom, and as another the curious influence of such translations as Spender's Rilke and the various versions of Lorca, which were then imitated as new idioms. The result was to make much current verse read like a translation "where no original exists," and the end-product, in a characteristic writer like MacLeish, has the unreality of "a linguistic dream."

The confusion, or rather the failure in belief, is introduced by an estimate of the poet whose talent, in Shapiro's view, was greater "than any, excepting the expatriates," since Whitman's:

Crane died for modern rime, a wasted death,
I make the accusation with the right
Of one who loved his book; died without cause.
Leaped from the deck-rail of his disbelief
To senseless strangulation. When we shall damn
The artist who interprets all sensation,
All activity, all experience, all
Belief through art, then this chief suicide
May be redeemed.

Crane is the symbol of the most dangerous fallacy in recent art, the substitution, as traditional faith collapsed, of a frenzied and catastrophic belief in art itself as "the supreme criterion of experience." Other substitute beliefs have been rife in our age, and Shapiro traces their progression from the Darwinian poet of progress to the Marxist poet of revolution. He understands why the political faith of so many of the young radicals of the past decade collapsed so quickly. They staked everything upon the immediate fulfillment of their Utopian dream, and when that failed them, their belief failed too. Shapiro reminds us of what our professional patrioteers would now like us to forget, that most of our young writers faced the beginning of the war with little positive conviction. He holds, with quiet discernment, that

The rime produced by soldiers of our war
Is the most sterile of the century.

Shapiro is possessed by a very different mood from those prevailing at the close of the last war. He feels neither liberated nor disillusioned. He is inescapably conscious of the consequences of our trying to live in a "structural universe" which

Has neither good nor evil but only true
And false.

He holds that man is by nature "a believing being," and, in a period of excessive and distracted intellectualism, he also holds that the writer is responsible for putting his own emotions in order. He does not indicate his own particular position, but it is evident here, as it was in V-Letter, that Shapiro is increasingly preoccupied with religious values. The only recent poet who has impressed him by the integrity of his concern with faith is Eliot.

The recurrent and concluding aim of the Essay is to solidify "the layman's confidence in a plainer art." Shapiro maintains that our complex styles, however brilliant, have brought upon us an unprecedented cleavage between poet and audience. He thereby raises again the familiar complaint, but he gives to it no conventional answer. He is fully aware of the difficulties confronting a true popular art in a period so equipped with all the instruments of vulgarization. His respect for his craft alone would make him realize that the pseudofolksy verse carried by the slick picture magazines, whether called "Corn" or "My Country," is no poetry at all. Shapiro would also stand with Farfell in warning against the incalculable corruption already wrought upon public taste by Hollywood.

But the sure fashion in which he threads his way through such a maze of horrors is a token of his belief in a continuing American tradition. His treatment of Whitman is significant, since he returns to him in all three sections. He declares that the metric of "Leaves of Grass" is,

since it freed us from what was "fake and effeminate" in our imitation of the forms of Europe. But Shapiro also recognizes how flaccid Whitman's free verse can be, and thinks that most of his descendants in our day reflect "but poorly on the prototype." So too with Whitman's language and belief. Vital as it is in its concrete notations, "the wide style of the dry Americana" is a very misleading model when it falls to mere generalizations about Democracy, Ma Femme. The poet of "person, place and thing" had already pronounced "the word 'America'" to be "the chief enemy of modern poetry." He reinforces what he meant by showing how one of Whitman's abstractions, that of the Perfect State, has become the "optic illusion of our time." It has begotten many swollen epics filled, not with the dramatic tensions of living men and women, but with the bloodless abstractions of "the synthetic myth." Thus Shapiro affirms his central conviction that a poem is not the same kind of construction as a philosopher's system or a political theorist's dialectic:

Therefore, despite his response to Whitman's continuing greatness, Shapiro remarks that Poe was

He might have made his meaning less mistakable if he had said Baudelaire, since his concern is to point up the opposition between poetry as craftsmanship and poetry as Weltanschauung. Shapiro finds his clearest clue out of the maze by following another substitute belief, that of the Freudian poet, to its dead end. He cites Freud's own final disavowal of psychoanalysis as a Weltanschauung and his description of the arts as "beneficent and harmless forms." Instead of being dismayed at the reduction of the arts to such a humble status, Shapiro declares:

This is the sane perspective, one that brings
The beloved creative function back to scale.

In denying I. A. Richards' claim that "poetry can save us," in affirming that all great art must have its tap-root in adequately human moral values, Shapiro would seem to have established a solider "hope for poetry" than that expressed a decade ago by Day Lewis. The best of Shapiro's own poems so far, ranging with gusto from tenderness to irony to stinging satire, would already augur his important share in bridging the gap between the poet and the democratic audience of the Nineteen Fifties.

Dayton Kohler (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Karl Shapiro: Poet in Uniform," in College English, Vol. 7, No. 5, February, 1946, pp. 243-49.

[In the following essay, Kohler challenges Shapiro's reputation as a war poet, maintaining his work has a larger appeal.]

The poet in uniform is at a disadvantage today. There is, first, the common reader's conception of the singing soldier, a romantic figure in the image of Rupert Brooke, whose traditional accents can glorify a cause. But, as Gertrude Stein has pointed out, there is little poetry in the mechanical destruction of modern warfare. So your poet echoes too often the noble sentiments of other men in older wars. If, on the other hand, he is interested in more than literary exploitation of the cruelties and heroism of battle, he must maintain, at all cost, his own integrity as an artist while conforming outwardly to a military ritual that is always against the privacy of the individual.

Karl Shapiro is a case in point. Although he has been called a "war poet," it is clear that he is not the poet of this war in the sense that Mauldin is its best cartoonist and Ernie Pyle its reporter. The poems he wrote while serving with the Army in the Southwest Pacific reflect the topicality of the war; but he manages to relate its horrors and boredom to his picture of the larger world, which he had appraised at something considerably less than its face value before he put on a uniform. Consequently, he was not likely to be aroused to the sentimental optimism of a Rupert Brooke or shocked into the equally sentimental disgust of a Siegfried Sassoon. He belongs to the generation which grew up under the shadow of one war to fight in another, even more disastrous. As a poet facing the spectacle of war, he learned that anger was useless, idealism impossible. There remained only the task of reporting honestly things seen and heard. Aware of the spiritual and emotional climate of his generation, Shapiro can be "as anonymous as the other guy" in recording with sharp, dry imagery his observations of the everyday world, down to the "wonderful nonsense of lotions of Lucky Tiger," and in dramatizing the spirit of an age marked by violence and suspense. The bitterness and crisp irony of his work spring from the temper of his generation, not from his private experience as a soldier.

There is a generation made anonymous by the war, men from schools and shops and farms whose lives were reduced to a military pattern as unvarying as their khakis and dungarees. Their names are as commonplace as a page of any telephone directory, and you have seen their faces in quick newsreel glimpses: soldiers crouching in the shadows of a hedge outside a ruined town in Normandy, a marine coughing in the smoke below Bloody Nose Ridge on Peleliu, a pharmacist's mate running with his kit across the flaming deck of the "Franklin," a black boy from Alabama at his battle station when the kamikaze came over. On blistering coral atolls or in Anzio mud they talked of women, food, and home; and in their fatigue and boredom they forgot that the war was the most common and moving experience of their generation. They are also the picturesque or sentimental figures of most of the journalistic writing of the war. Shapiro has attempted no such reportage about the homesick, wry-humored men with whom he served for three years in Australia and New Guinea. Knowing the difficulties that confront the poet in wartime, he has avoided poetry of action in which the imagination has little part. In his introduction to V-Letter he wrote:

Since the war began, I have tried to be on guard against becoming a "war poet"….. It is not the commonplace of suffering or the platitudinous comparison with the peace, or the focus on the future that should occupy us; but the spiritual progress or retrogression of the man in war, the increase or decrease in his knowledge of beauty, government and religion.

We know very well that the most resounding slogans ring dead after a few years, and that it is not for poetry to keep pace with public speeches and the strategy of events. We learn that war is an affection of the human spirit, without any particular reference to "values." In the totality of striving and suffering we come to see the great configuration abstractly, with oneself at the center reduced in size but not in meaning, like a V-letter. We learn that distance and new spatial arrangements cannot disturb the primordial equation of man equals man and nation nation. We learn finally that if war can teach anything it can teach humility; if it can test anything it can test externality against the soul.

This statement is important in the light of his own development as a poet, for most of the poems which have made him an outstanding figure in his generation were written during the war years. When he was inducted into the Army in March, 1942, his name was known only to readers of a few little magazines and the "New Directions" anthology Five Young American Poets. He was already in the Southwest Pacific when his first book, Person, Place and Thing appeared in 1942. These poems had a critical success because their concrete substance and variety of subject brought to America the same jolting impact that Auden and his group had given English poetry in the early thirties. In 1944 he received a Guggenheim fellowship and in the same year a special award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. V-Letter was awarded the Pulitzer Poetry Prize for 1944. Essay on Rime was published October 30, 1945, after Shapiro's release from service in July. A fourth volume, The Place of Love, was printed for limited distribution in Australia in 1942; it will be re-written, however, before publication in this country. It is safe to say that these four books make Karl Shapiro, at thirty-two, the challenging figure among our younger writers, the type of poet who can hold among disturbing circumstances to the difficult discipline of his craft.

This is the chief impression gained from reading Essay on Rime, probably his most remarkable book to date. Even more remarkable is the fact that it was written in the jungles of the Dutch East Indies, without recourse to libraries, and that its wide framework of cultural and moral reference was drawn almost entirely from memory. In his poetic essay of more than two thousand lines he takes stock both of modern poetry "in the mid-century of our art" and of his own resources as a writer. There are few abstractions here; his examples and opinions are as crisp and precise as his lyric poems, for, as he states, his wish

Specifically he is concerned with the confusion in literature which has resulted from the demoralization of Western culture. To this end he examines the critics and poets, who, he feels, are still significant voices in our time; and he presents his own findings from the readings of these men under three headings: "The Confusion in Prosody," "The Confusion in Language," and "The Confusion in Belief." Faced by the breakdown of traditional forms, he believes that the best resources of the past come to us through Bridges' work on Milton, Lanier's Science of English Verse, and Saintsbury's study of prose rhythms. The modern masters, he feels, are Eliot and Joyce, and he speaks as a poet concerned with problems of craftmanship when he says that in Eliot "the triumph of a new form is certain" and of "Ash Wednesday" that

In Joyce he sees the possibilities of "a new rhythmical idiom" through a fusion of poetry and prose. Many of his conclusions are not new, of course. Only his way of looking at these writers who have put a deep imprint upon the literature of our time and his way of expressing his ideas are new and seasoned by reflection.

He is equally concerned with the confusion of language and diversity of styles that mark the breakdown of a cultural tradition. He acknowledges his debt to Auden, who taught him much about poetry as direct perception and sees an important moment in modern poetry when

But he also sees Auden pursuing "the lost Eurydice of Character" through a confusion of factual statement and private imagery that often results in wilful cleverness with words, rather than language, as experience. Eliot in The Waste Land showed the modern world as wreckage. Auden took the material of Eliot but showed other poets how they could laugh, as well as weep, among the ruin. And Shapiro takes much of his liveliness from Auden's example. In Essay on Rime he is as nimble and direct as a good boxer.

He is best, however, in his discussion of failure in belief among modern poets. As the traditional faith declined, poets have tried to find a substitute in evolution or politics or art itself. He makes Hart Crane a symbol of the artist's despair when belief has failed:

Crane died for modern rime, a wasted death;
I make the accusation with the right
Of one who loved his book; died without cause
Leaped from the deck-rail of his disbelief
To senseless strangulation, When we shall damn
The artist who interprets all sensation,
All activity, all experience, all
Belief through art, then this chief suicide
May be redeemed.

And he feels that the resigned skepticism over moral values among our younger poets accounts for the fact that

The rime produced by soldiers of our war
Is the most sterile of the century.

This reaffirmation of belief is one of the distinctive qualities of Shapiro's verse. In Person, Place and Thing and V-Letter there is a growing conviction of the necessity to believe that finds its best expression in "The Saint" and in the concluding stanza of "The Leg":

The body, what is it, Father, but a sign
To love the force that grows us, to give back
What in Thy palm is senselessness and mud?
Knead, Knead the substance of our understanding
Which must be beautiful in flesh to walk,
That if Thou take me angrily in hand
And hurl me to the shark, I shall not die!

Essay on Rime would be an important book in any period. As the work of a young man soldiering in the Southwest Pacific, it is all the more eloquent in its plea for a poetry based on humanly moral values. Karl Shapiro states with urgent voice the need for poetry that communicates in the direct language of experience what men see and sense, precise with precision of the emotions, not of mind. He comes close to stating his own literary creed when he writes:

Ideas are no more words
Than phoenixes are birds. The metaphysician
Deals with ideas as words, the poet with things,
For in the poet's mind the phoenix sings.

His poetry, like Auden's, is an act within the living world. This he demonstrated in Five Young American Poets, where his poems were grouped simply under the title "Noun." Person, Place and Thing, one year later, made even more explicit his recognition that poetry can be concrete substance, not tricks of rhetoric. To the discerning reader it was plain that he took much of his manner from Auden, but the material was unmistakably his own. One of the greatest of his gifts was a controlled balance between observation and insight, the ability to look long and steadily at the scattered details of modern life and then to arrange them in a pattern which gave them meaning as well as form. Thus, in "Drug Store" he puts down, side by side, his notations of baseball scores, Coca-Cola, juke boxes, lipsticks, cheap fiction, and manages, at the same time, to tell us something relevant about a younger generation lounging wasted hours. This is poetry which seems to move, as one critic has said, from outside in, depending less upon the writer than upon itself. It exists within a larger frame of reference than the private experience of the poet. This is a quality rare in poetry today, when so many poets seem to find their imagery only within private worlds which they inhabit. He uses the same method in one of the best of his war poems, "Troop Train":

And on through crummy continents and days,
Deliberate, grimy, slightly drunk we crawl
The good-bad boys of circumstance and chance,
Whose bucket-helmets bang the empty wall
Where twist the murdered bodies of our packs
Next to the guns that only seem themselves.
And distance like a strap adjusted shrinks,
Tightens across the shoulder and holds firm.

Here is a deck of cards, out of this hand,
Dealer, deal me my luck, a pair of bulls,
The right draw to a flush, the one-eyed jack.
Diamonds and hearts are red but spades are black,
And spades are spades and clubs are clovers—black.
But deal me winners, souvenirs of peace.
This stands to reason and arithmetic,
Luck also travels and not all come back.

Trains lead to ships and ships to death or trains,
And trains to death or trucks, and trucks to death,
Or trucks lead to the march, the march to death,
Or that survival which is all our hope;
And death leads back to trucks and trains and ships,
But life leads to the march, O flag! at last
The place of life found after trains and death
—Nightfall of nations brilliant after war.

In this earlier volume he demonstrated an ironic humor as well. "Scyros" set the modern catastrophe into jogging rhythm:

Through his bright visual impressions of persons, places, and things, caught as if with a camera eye "taking at odd angles the bitter scene," one can trace the experiences which have shaped the wry, objective irony of his protest against an industrial middle-class society, with its moral stagnation, unemployment, and poverty of pre-war years. His native Baltimore he describes as row after row of featureless houses drowsing in Sunday afternoon boredom and an artificial park for suburban despair. The University of Virginia, where he spent one year, taught him that

To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew
Is the curriculum.

Johns Hopkins is "the Oxford of all sickness." He was by turn bitter, ironic, chastely sentimental in his indictment of modern society for its affront to the human spirit. These poems were written with firmness of mood and singleness of purpose. Their topicality barred them from the myth-making intentions of much modern poetry, but they revealed a poet who had looked carefully at the important objects of modern life and reflected intelligent ly upon all that he had seen.

The style which framed his early poems ranged from the traditional rhythms to involved subtleties and loose improvisations. He could turn from an Audenesque jingle like "To a Guinea Pig"—

What do you care, dear total stranger,
For the successful failure of my safest danger,
My pig in the poke or dog in the manger,

Or who does what in the where of his chamber
Probing for his gallstones and the rods of amber
When the succubae sing and the accusers clamber?—

to a lyric as poised and graceful as "Travelogue for Exiles" or a stanza as casual and effective as the ending of "Nostalgia," written in the Indian Ocean in March, 1942:

Laughter and grief join hands. Always the heart
Clumps in the breast with heavy stride
The face grows lined and wrinkled like a chart,
The eyes bloodshot with tears and tide.
Let the wind blow, for many a man shall die.

The final impression of Person, Place and Thing was one of sensual immediacy of a kind that had been lacking from poetry for several generations. The poet's delight in purely physical phenomena, a sense of man alive in bone and blood and sinew, recalled an Elizabethan richness and cut sharply across what he has called "the Late Victorian lilt." It was masculine poetry in the true sense of the word; and even the rank imagery of "The Fly" conveyed, without offense, its mood of horror and disgust. The Place of Love, which followed, continues in the strain of physical awareness. Many of these poems have an Old Testament frankness which Shapiro has acknowledged; the fact that they were written in an isolated Army camp in northern Australia will explain, I think, the daring but never crude play of the poet's imagination.

V-Letter is in certain respects a more uneven collection than its predecessors. Person, Place and Thing was satiric and passionate at the same time, because he was writing about a middle-class society that he had studied at close range and in careful detail. There was a realistic bite to his presentation of the familiar scene; we recognize the quality of wit which enlivens his verse. But in many of the poems written in the Southwest Pacific he was dealing with a new and different culture which he could view only from the outside. Being involved in the grim business of fighting gave him little time to digest his impressions of a land where war had imposed its mechanical pattern upon the beach and the jungle. He is consistent, however, in his use of concrete details to create an impression or a mood. Some of his poems of "Place," like "Melbourne" and "New Guinea," are little more than travelogues in verse. Others, like "Hill at Parramatta" and "Sydney Bridge," convey the authentic quality of a landscape and its meaning to a stranger from America. In the anapestic rhythm of "Sydney Bridge" he captures not only the appearance of the bridge but also its utilitarian function:

You are marxist and sweaty! You grind for the labor of days;
And O sphinx of our harbor of beauty, your banner is red
And outflung on the street of the world like a silvery phrase!

"Sunday: New Guinea" also captures a human scene in its complexity of foreign scene and mood of homesickness.

Among the "Things" he presents are "The Gun," "Fireworks," "Piano," "Christmas Tree," and "The Synagogue." The last is one of the best poems he has written, a study of the Jewish race as reflected by the racial texture of his own mind and imagination:

We live by virtue of philosophy,
Past love, and have our devious reward.
For faith he gave us land and took the land,
Thinking us exiles of all humankind.
Our name is yet the identity of God
That storms the falling altar of the world.

But he is best in his poems of "Persons." "Elegy for a Dead Soldier" is quietly reflective in its tribute to a victim of the needless waste of war. It is the epitaph of the common man:

No history deceived him, for he knew
Little of times and armies not his own;
He never felt that peace was but a loan,
Had never questioned the idea of gain.
Beyond the headlines once or twice he saw
The gathering of a power by a few
But could not tell their names.

There is complete revelation of the poet's own social convictions in his careful recital of the qualities of his unnamed soldier. It is conviction and protest that reaches its ultimate irony when he writes:

More than an accident and less than willed
Is every fall, and this one like the rest.
However others calculated the cost,
To us the final aggregate is one.

"Jefferson" acknowledges our debt to the past but points also to the gulf between tradition and the confused present. "Geographers" has its lesson for the political "medicine men":

I have had, I had, I had had, and I hold;
The line protrudes, folds over, now indents;
Yet seen from Jupiter things are as of old;
Wars cannot change the shape of continents.

"Nigger" deals boldly with the race problem, building up through many brief notations a composite study from the lives and fates of different black men. "The Intellectual" repudiates the sterility of a class, with its ironic variation on Wordsworth:

"The Puritan" he presents as one who

This is not "war poetry." But these poems and the Essay on Rime show, it seems to me, that Karl Shapiro has the chance to become the spokesman of his war generation. His social awareness and the sharpness of his wit will undoubtedly keep him from the acquired tough sentimentality of the postwar writers of an earlier generation, just as his common sense will save him from the stock attitudes of the political dreamer, the proletarian, the mystic. He has not yet written major poetry, and he has not yet shed the influences that belong peculiarly to the literature of our time. There are signs in Essay on Rime, however, that he is freeing himself from his apprenticeship in language and form. He is still young enough to learn that imagination, experience, and a trained sense of language are equipment enough for a poet in his artistic maturity.

Robert Richman (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Alchemy or Poet," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LIV, No. 4, October-December, 1946, pp. 684-90.

[In the following essay, Richman deems Essay on Rime confused, unconvincing, and ultimately unsuccessful.]

The danger in Karl Shapiro's Essay On Rime is that the three arguments seem convincing. It seems that modern poetry does not exist; yet after reading this rule-making, one realizes that the poetry of Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Crane and Pound still exists large and strong even though Mr. Shapiro renounces it. The blame he laid on modern poetry, I am convinced, was not its but man's.

The Essay seems convincing because many of the observations, and particularly much of the appreciations, are good and significant. But Mr. Shapiro has made pretensions for this work which go beyond the organic need and seed of the type of essay he has written. And, though this is a difficult statement to phrase, the Essay On Rime is a poetics in the communication of which critics themselves have helped almost as much as if they had had a hand in the creation. Certain books fall fate to such rewriting and worthless praise: as a result the reading publics are convinced before they begin. For a book such as this one, which by its approach can be taken as canon law in criticism by the uncritical, its fate is the more vicious.

The Essay fails to be a significant evaluation of modern poetry because, after one discounts the sensitivity and knowledge and love Mr. Shapiro brings to his work, the three basic principles of criticism he uses are as false as the modern text on military science which deals only with Maginot Line warfare. Poetry has fought a different war in the twentieth century; in fact it came out of the fortress when Blake rushed out of the iron gates of the eighteenth century and sang. Thus, the simplicity with which Mr. Shapiro has reduced his analysis of the three confusions is the source of danger; it is a simplicity that has ignored, rather than explained away, the multiple complications in poetry today.

Mr. Shapiro is somewhat the neo-classic rule maker in his simplifications. In a language and in a literature that is truly classical, such an approach has much the more validity than that of the organic critic who tries to measure achievement with intention. Yet even Aristotle and Horace, within the formal limitations of their great classical languages, have the distinct disadvantage of saying, in total effect, that the principles of literature which the classics are written in are the only orthodox patterns for future writing. Since Aristotle's principle of the tragic flaw, written in his golden age, does not really apply to the Antigone or Oedipus of Sophocles, which Aristotle used as models for his rules, in effect, I am saying that each age must have in the grain of its literary principles, a creative criticism that exists contemporaneously with its creation and seeks to serve the poet in his working.

The modern critic, then, is most likely to succeed in giving a usable theory if he is in sympathy with the flow of poetry in his own day, and if he seeks to speculate on the perfect poetry that arises in that stream. Otherwise he makes two errors: he does not say that poetry has been sown with these seeds; that this flowering is limited organically by the elements and the seeds. Rather he is saying, in contradition to a certain botany in poetry, that the seeds ought to have been thus and the flower ought to have been so.

And Mr. Shapiro writes on how modern poetry has not grown.

The first of the three confusions which he mentions is that in prosody: he says quite arbitrarily that only two types of measure can be applied to English verse—the count of eye and the count of ear. What kind of rule-making is this? The poetry of Skelton, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Hopkins and Eliot proves that there is obviously a third type which is a simple combination of ear and eye count: it is everywhere in the middle comedies and the late tragedies of Shakespeare, in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience of Blake, Ash Wednesday, or the Cantos. Mr. Shapiro surmises this but passes on. Perhaps the modern poet from Hopkins on is becoming so accustomed to both the count of eye and the count of ear that he subconsciously fuses one into the other in his writings of poetry.

Since the English language is the youngest, it absorbs more and copies more than any other. Thus a chance for alliteration and a chance for accent-count happens often in the age of Skelton or of Auden; and I do not think it is by ignorance or accident. In well over half of Milton's blank verse, speech accents fall in variations to the metric pattern for greater music alone. Or the influence of the French syllabic count has not confused the prosody of Marianne Moore's English. Or the word-making of Joyce: surely Finnegan 's Wake does not fail in its "prosody." Nor does Stevens in Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction.

Mr. Shapiro wondered why no great system of English prosody has been made. It seems entirely valid to say that there can be no such formal set of rules as the ear system or the eye system created, for these reasons: English is not a static language, English is not a classic language, (it passed through its "classical" period), and English has been affected either consciously by poets who have brought other prosodies to heel, such as Wyatt and Surrey copying Italians; or by Milton playing on his Latin organ, or by a poet's subconscious fusion of the ear and eye count; or by the slow process of the change in linguistics from its ancient womb to its present youth; or by alliteration, qualitative count, quantitative count, syllabic count and the variation of prose accents against metric stresses. And since rhythm has the poet's personal muscle as well as his adaptation of a pattern of vibrations (largely limited to combinations of two or three beats) in it, the range of prosody is extraordinarily exten sive.

Thus there are two possible answers to Mr. Shapiro. All English prosody is confused and the periods of greatest confusion are the sixteenth, eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Or if one tries to set down formal laws and finds modern poets outside the canon, he may call this a confusion. I believe it is sounder to approach prosody from other principles: specifically, the biology of the English line evolves from Beowulf and all indigenous rhythms of descending poets are set into counterpoint to the biological form; in poetry, new liberties must be taken in prosody and in language to make a new order; and forms have to be broken and remade. At last, craftsmen such as Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Auden and Tate need not be accused of confusion in prosody. I would guess so far as to say that English can never have formal laws written that will cover all the possibilities of prosody, because our language has great diversity. Shakespeare would have had to retire long before The Tempest if he had obeyed the rules of Sidney or Rymer. Or put it another way: the seventeenth century rewrote Shakespeare according to its laws and decorum, but we've lost those copies. My point is that.

For the confusion in language, Mr. Shapiro also desires the definitive set of rules, and he blames the poet today for not observing grammarian's rules. Although Mr. Shapiro does not make the careless error of saying that there is a special language for poetry, he comes near implying it. Charged language and language that has been beaten into submission by the poet's understanding and by his craft seem to me [to] be the raw materials of poetic language. As I fail to see how imagery can be legislated or language divorced from it, so I fail to see how language can be legislated or imagery divorced from it.

But for the explicit: the English language since it is not a classical language cannot be expected to fall into static or formalized idiom, rhetoric or syntax. On the contrary, as Otto Jespersen and other modern linguistic scientists have shown, the pattern of growth in the English language is toward greater diversity. This, I believe, is for the good of poetry; and since any language has its richness and its boundaries or limitations, the poet is ultimately freer in English than in any other language. Thus Joyce chose English rather than Gaelic or French from which to depart, as it were, giving the glands of the English language many injections to enlarge its growth, to speed up its growing diversity, and to expand it into the gesture of idea.

Finally, Mr. Shapiro feels that the modern poet tends too much and too unwisely to merge poetry with the language of common speech, thereby committing more confusions. This which Shapiro calls confusion is actually the highest and best personal use of language: it distinguished Shakespeare's poetry from Richard II on; it is the secret of Blake, of Eliot, Joyce, or Auden. Only Milton ignored the social idiom, using music instead. Their use of language is best, for it brings emotion and understanding to the closest idiom or diction for any man, contemporary to the poems, and to those who come afterwards. Archaism reverses this, and sends a reader backwards out of emotion into quaintness and into the archives. If any activity distinguishes modern poetry from its ancestors, it is the emphasis placed on what Eliot calls the "search for a proper modern colloquial idiom." Since language is a growing organism, this search is endless and will not be chained or changed by rules.

One word on Shapiro's analysis of rhetoric: he sees great discipline in the rhetoric of Ulysses. I would say that the same in Crane, Auden, Pound, Yeats and Eliot is responsible for their putting music into the common speech—an elaboration that requires a mastery of rhetoric, grammar, and a vocabulary of images and words, before the poet can order them into the tense and sensuous, lyric and dramatic music which poetry ultimately must become. Again rules cannot tell one how to achieve this order. If Mr. Shapiro were to reduce his hypothesis to its lowest denominator, he would probably say that the confusions in prosody and language are overshadowed by the confusions in belief, which probably even cause the former two confusions. It would seem that he mistakes the lack of belief which modern man can use, for the confused belief in the poets. Before the Industrial Revolution and scientific determinism destroyed what I perhaps dangerously call the popular belief of Western man in the myth of Christianity, such poets as Dante, Shakespeare, or Milton could set their work against the backdrop of the Christian Myth. None of these poets had to do what the modem poet had been forced to do. Once that belief became destroyed, the poet had to take on a new function: he had not only to make the poem; he had to make a myth which would reveal all of the anagogical and psychological counterpoints of the poem too. Spread throughout the creativity of their work, this function was accepted by Yeats, (Hardy before him), Joyce, Crane and Pound. It is still part of the writing of Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Lewis, Thomas, or any good poet.

This occupation does not reveal a confusion in the poets' beliefs. It is more sinister. In this Age man is confronted with resolving the duality between Love and Power. The maelstrom of systems and beliefs, that modern man has invented to dispel the evil and release the good, ranges in its turmoil from tired political mythology to revised Anglo-Catholic mythology. To be sure, there is great confusion in this Maelstrom. But the confusion is not one of bad poetry, futile metaphysics, or loose logic; rather it is a confusion in the yearning and searching of many men who have tried diverse ways to save mankind from incessant turmoil. That all—the poet, the philosopher, the divine, the statesman and the scientist—try to save and give us something in which to believe is some proof of the necessity and the seriousness in our time.

It is one of the simplest essences of art that there be a valid myth used. Further, the poet must believe it intensely and vigorously; and as a maker, he must master the craft to set down the belief and the intensity in a perfect order. Surely then, if there is no myth, the fault is not with the poet. Surely, if art needs a myth today, the poet will try to take on another burden and either seek an old myth not common in the elbow-rubbing with the men in his age; or like Joyce, who in Ulysses and Finnegan 's Wake made a myth out of common man, the procreative principle and the dark primordial unconsciousness of the race, the poet may state his purpose: "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." Or like Pound, whose great newsreel of culture, history, economy, and polity is mythmaking, the poet may seek to make a socio-economic myth. Or like Stevens, whose ideas prove an order and whose poetry is knowledge, the poet may make of his supreme fiction a usable myth. If the myth and the poem are made in the same creation by the same maker, the poetry matters most. And it must be evaluated first. The myth which suits him might find no universal acceptance; but each of the works I mentioned above is right for many people. Then, it can be said that even though there is no one belief created and no one myth available, there is not confusion in the poets, but diversity. Or it can be said that the confusion is the Age of Love and Power. And the fault is not poetry's, but man's.

I would set against the Essay on Rime these principles for poetry:

"Whales, branded in the Arctic, are often found cruising in the Antarctic"—Palinurus.

"We are a part of all that went before"—Marx.

"The poet is a maker"—Aristotle.

"All true creation is a thing born out of nothing"—Paul Klee.

"Why not try to understand the singing of the birds "—Picasso.

"A poem is a new compound … it may tend to realise itself first as a particular rhythm and this rhythm may bring to birth the idea and the image"—Eliot.

"The liquid letters of speech, symbols of the element of mystery, flowed forth over his brain"—Joyce.

"Art is a habit of the mind"—an anonymous Medieval poet.

Stephen Spender (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "The Power and the Hazard," in Poetry, Vol. LXXI, No. VI, March, 1948, pp. 314-18.

[In the following essay, Spender provides a mixed review of Trial of a Poet.]

This is Mr. Shapiro's fourth volume of published poetry, and in common with his previous volume, Essay on Rime, it shows him intensely preoccupied with the problem of how and what the poet should write. Considering that this problem is for him as yet unsolved, it seems a little tiresome that he should be so insistent that the solution should lie in writing like Karl Shapiro. Probably Shapiro would gain by dealing with his own problem as really his own and not every other poet's more than he gains by trying to make literary maps just at the time when his own difficulties are most obvious. Another danger for him lies in his own considerable mental power and energy which enable him to versify very effectively too many situations which are outside the one which is central to him in his present state of crisis.


(The entire section is 60991 words.)

Further Reading


Engles, Tim. "Shapiro's 'The Fly.'" The Explicator 55, No. 1 (Fall 1996): 41-3.

Engles maintains: "Although a casual reader of the poem might consider it little more than a humorously inflated portrayal of the battles between flies and humans, a closer look reveals an intricate example of the steps Shapiro lays out in his conception of poetic vision."

Gerber, Philip L., ed. "Trying to Present America: A Conversation with Karl Shapiro." Southern Humanities Review XV, No. 3 (Summer 1981): 193-208.

Discusses Shapiro's role as poet, influences on his work, and his poetic...

(The entire section is 340 words.)