Alan Shapiro was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 18, 1952, the son of Harold Shapiro and Marilyn Shapiro. Many of his poems portray his extended Jewish American family, whose presence informed his early life with their rich tangle of rivalry, jealousy, love, and devotion. He has described himself as a baby-boom child of the middle class. His undergraduate work was done at Brandeis University, where he began to write poetry seriously while studying under the stringent gaze of Cunningham and Galway Kinnell.
Shapiro has followed an academic career, teaching creative writing at Northwestern University, Evanston; the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he became the William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor of English and creative writing in 2002. In In Praise of the Impure, Shapiro records an experience from early in his teaching career when a talented student who seemed to read poetry with an unusually deep level of understanding succumbed to cancer. She seemed to use her understanding of poetry to interpret her mortality, a gift that poetry can offer all its readers. The 1995 death of Shapiro’s older sister, Beth, from cancer, and the death of his older brother, David, in 2000, have led him to similar insights, as his memoir Vigil attests.
Alan Shapiro was born in 1952 of Jewish parents, and being Jewish has played a large part in his development as a writer and a poet. He found himself both appreciating and despising his Jewish heritage, wanting to escape from it at the same time that he saw his life thoroughly formed by it. From his earliest years he wanted to be a poet, finally informing his parents of his decision while he was in college.
One of the most significant periods of his life was his sojourn in Ireland during his college years. He knew that Ireland was a country that honored storytellers and poets, and he thrived on being in such a place. There he met and married an Irish Catholic woman, Carol Ann, to the surprise of his parents, who eventually accepted her. Still, the marriage was brief. Shapiro received a scholarship to Stanford University in California, and the transition proved disastrous to the marriage. In 1984 he remarried, this time to Della, a Jewish woman; their marriage endured for sixteen years before it, too, ended in divorce.
Shapiro found a way to make use of his poetry to examine his life and his experiences. His first book, After the Digging, appeared in 1981. The influence of Shapiro’s years in Ireland is evident in this book, as it deals with the potato famine, which devastated Ireland in the nineteenth century and which exists today in the minds and collective memories of the Irish. His next book, The Courtesy, dealt with the Puritans in seventeenth century America.
Shapiro was named a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984 and a Guggenheim Fellow in 1986. His book Happy Hour was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987. In 1991 Shapiro won the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award. Later Mixed Company won the 1996 Los Angeles Times award for poetry and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2000 The Dead Alive and Busy won the Kingsley Tufts Award.
However, as Shapiro himself pointed out, if one wants a larger readership, one must write prose, and so he did, in the award-winning The Last Happy Occasion. In this book he tried to come to terms with the way that all human beings have been influenced and changed by the art in their lives, especially literature in the form of poetry. Poetry not only is written about life and as a reflection on life but also intensifies and informs life.
In The Last Happy Occasion, which was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle for biography/autobiography, Shapiro wrote of his coming of age, including much about his family and the others who influenced him. In Vigil, published the next year, he wrote of the death of his sister, Beth. Through it all, Shapiro handled his world with words. He also managed to find compassion and feeling for others beneath their sometimes despicable acts, as well as through their thoughtlessness and misunderstanding.
Shapiro’s poetry is modern in the sense that it lacks formal form and structure, but it has its own form and structure, not rhyming but rhythmic, and its subjects are the ordinary things of life. His concrete, often sensual, images force the reader to delve deeper into what is happening in the poem so that what the poet experiences becomes the universal experience. In addition, Shapiro makes use of Greek myths in his search for meaning in life, sometimes devastated by gods or God.
Although Shapiro handled his sister’s death with his Vigil, a narrative of her actual dying experiences, he rounded out that book with poems. When his brother David died three years later, at the same time that his own marriage fell apart and the health of his parents began to deteriorate badly, he worked through his grief with more poetry, Song and Dance, which, ironically, is less sorrowful than it is celebratory.
Regardless of his Jewish identity, Shapiro sees himself as a quintessentially American poet. He carries with him his ethnic heritage and memories of the Old World passed on by his grandparents, as well as his experiences of twentieth century America. His marriage to an Irish Catholic was a source of disappointment in his family, but when his sister married an African American, he learned more deeply what family alienation meant. Watching his brother-in-law gave him strong insights into dealing with prejudice. Shapiro never became the businessman his parents would have preferred, choosing the difficult life of a poet. Eventually, his work took him to North Carolina as professor of English and creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.