The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

V-Letter and Other Poems is Karl Shapiro’s second major collection of poetry, written from 1942 to 1944 while Shapiro was on active duty in the U.S. Army during World War II. As Shapiro notes in the book’s introduction, all the poems except “Satire: Anxiety” were written while he was stationed in Australia and New Zealand. As described in his 1988 autobiography The Younger Son, he left the selection, editing, and arrangement of V-Letter and Other Poems to his first wife Evalyn Katz because the rigors of serving as a combat medic prohibited much involvement with the actual making of a book. While one might suspect that the war would most definitely shape the poetry, Shapiro states that he guarded “against becoming a war poet.’” Shapiro remarks that he had not “written these poems to accord with any doctrine or system of thought or even a theory of composition.” Furthermore, he states, “I have nothing to offer in the way of beliefs or challenges or prosody.”

Despite Shapiro’s modest self-effacement, V-Letter and Other Poems established him as one of the most important American poets, prosodists, and poetry critics of postwar American literature. He may have been isolated in the small, war-torn terrain of New Guinea for twenty-six months writing his poetry in his more than occasional lonely solitude, but when he returned to the United States after the war he discovered he was famous. V-Letter and Other Poems not only won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, but it also enjoyed a large readership (including being placed on all U.S. Navy ship libraries), and it launched for Shapiro a long, distinguished career in American letters. Ultimately, the book’s publication led Shapiro to become the first poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position is now titled United States Poet Laureate), the editor of the prestigious Poetry magazine, and a tenured professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he edited the literary journal Prairie Schooner. Thus, Shapiro did indeed have something of value to offer.

Much of Shapiro’s poetry, including the lyrics found in V-Letter and Other Poems, tends to cast the poet as an outsider, an iconoclast. As Shapiro once noted in an interview in The Paris Review, “The poet is in exile whether he is or he is not. Because of what everybody knows about society’s idea of the artist as a peripheral character and a potential bum. Or a troublemaker.I always thought of myself as being both in and out of society at the same time.” While V-Letter and Other Poems seems to exhibit a poet who embraces the conformity of traditional forms and prosody, the nonconformist vision is certainly most evident. One will notice, for example, that the poet seems more like a voyeur than a participant despite his actual involvement in the war as a medic. Yet this detachment may have arisen largely from his Jewish heritage: He was a conscientious objector and did not carry a gun; therefore, he observed the violence of war firsthand and assisted in rescuing wounded participants, but he did not himself participate in the making of violence. Thus, his poems very often place him outside the scene looking in while the violent world is dropping shells all around him. Additionally, his use of traditional forms and meter might suggest his conformity to past designs; however, close scrutiny of the work reveals Shapiro’s innovative departures from poetic tradition. For example, the lead poem of V-Letter and Other Poems, “Aside,” is a long lyric poem of six sexains or sestets (six-line stanzas). As Shapiro himself notes in his Prosody Handbook (1965), “the stave of six is an iambic pentameter or tetrameter stanza rhyming ababcc.” However, rather than specifically employing the English stanzaic conventions, Shapiro embellishes. He recasts the stanza’s first four lines into a brace or envelope quatrain rhyming abba, which is then followed by the rhyming couplet. Interestingly, the brace quatrain is rarely found except in the writing of the Italian sonnet octave. Thus, the iconoclastic poet is simultaneously adhering to and departing from tradition.

In “Aside,” Shapiro, as an observer, focuses upon the significance of mail day to soldiers who face combat on a daily basis. The poem is not merely a celebration of mail day but an illustration of how...

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V-Letter and Other Poems Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Shapiro is a master of poetic form and devices. Much of his professional career was dedicated to studies of poetics and prosody, as found most impressively in A Prosody Handbook. In V-Letter and Other Poems, Shapiro’s ability to manipulate form and reinvent it is unmistakable. His favorite form in this particular volume seems to be the terza rima, as found in “Movie Actress,” “Jew,” and the sequence “The Interlude.” The terza rima is an Italian form composed of interlocking tercets, or three-line stanzas, ending with a couplet. For example, the rhyme pattern for Shapiro’s poems is aba bcb cdc ded gg. An antique form, it was introduced into English poetry from Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). Perhaps Shapiro’s use of this form is a matter of “form as an extension of content,” a design suggested by American poet Robert Creeley. If Shapiro borrows this form from The Divine Comedy, he may be suggesting the divine comedy of the war itself.

Not only does Shapiro utilize the terza rima in V-Letter and Other Poems, but he also uses the Italian sonnet form frequently, as in “The Sydney Bridge,” “Christmas Eve,” “Lord, I Have Seen Too Much,” and “On Reading Keats in War Time.” An Italian sonnet is composed of an octave (eight-line stanza) and a sestet or sexain (six-line stanza). Typically, the Italian sonnet’s rhyme pattern runs abbaabba cdcdcd. Shapiro, however, makes many adjustments to this basic pattern, sometimes opting to fashion other rhyme combinations. Among other forms are rhymed or unrhymed quatrain or ballad stanzas (“New Guinea,” “Sunday: New Guinea,” “Fireworks,” “Nigger,” “Franklin”), sexain stanzas (“Aside,”...

(The entire section is 736 words.)