The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

“Auto Wreck” is an impressionistic poem of three stanzas and thirty-nine lines that takes a hard look at the spectacle of injury and accident in a crassly technological world. The title, in trademark Karl Shapiro style, focuses attention on the unadorned, literalist description of a common event or experience.

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In the first stanza, which comprises the first fourteen lines, the reader is situated, as it were, in front of an ambulance that is speeding toward the scene of an automobile accident; the reader is kept informed by an omniscient voice, which scrupulously provides both sensual and metaphorical detail that brings the reader uncomfortably close to both the horrifying event and his or her own matter-of-fact response to its horror.

The ambulance’s red light pulses “like an artery,” confronting the reader early with an image of blood, anticipating the arrival at the accident scene and preparing the reader for the sight of “stretcherslaid out, the mangled lifted/ And stowed into the little hospital.” As the ambulance and its “terrible cargo” move away, the reader is left to contemplate the waiting physicians who will attempt to restore seeping life to the victims.

In the second stanza, the point of view shifts and the narrative voice becomes an introspective “we,” implicating the reader as one of the “deranged, walking among the cops/ Who sweep glass and are large and uncomposed.” These police officers, who are depicted as anonymous civil servants dutifully performing the tasks assigned them, are identified hauntingly by the impersonal singular pronoun “one”: “One is still making notes,” “One with a bucket douches ponds of blood/ Into the street and gutter,” “One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that clingto iron poles.” The corps of officials and the spectators are united in their cold and predictable routine, beyond grief, beyond sympathy for the injured.

The third and longest stanza moves away from the accident scene to reflect on what the accident means. The poet punishes the reader with a series of hospital metaphors that puncture the reader’s smug and complacent attitude toward the victims of technological disaster, which is mirrored in the inevitable carnage that high-speed, piston-driven vehicles precipitate. Throats as tight as “tourniquets,” feet “bound with splints,” this poem’s readers try to speak through “sickly smiles” like “convalescents” attempting to make the best of a bad situation.

The auto wreck that occurred offstage in the poem’s landscape has given way to the mental “wreck” that pushes one further toward one’s “richest horror”: The question “Who shall die?” turns into “Who is innocent?” While one contemplates the answers to these rhetorical questions, the poem takes a sudden turn toward a climax, surveying the more “natural” deaths of war, suicide, and cancer—each of which has its own logic and order.

Death by machine, by negligence, “invites the occult mind,/ Cancels our physics with a sneer,” and disorients human beings’ sensibilities and capacity to respond with compassion. One is left with a “denouement” splattered “across the expedient and wicked stones” of pavement and traffic lanes—whose silence speaks volumes about the increasing difficulty of discerning humane and human values in a world made alien by the presence of “empty husks of locusts,” the wheels, motors, and steel bodies of the quintessential twentieth century innovation: the automobile.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

To say that “Auto Wreck” takes its place among other “gut response to the world” poems that are characteristic of Shapiro’s early craft is to say that his poems feature such subject matter as social injustice, the planned obsolescence and decay of manmade machines, and the alienation of modern humans from a world that barely resembles the one that was handed to them by their parents. “Auto Wreck,” like similar Shapiro poems of the 1940’s (“Hospital,” “Washington Cathedral,” and “University”), features obsessive, naturalistic treatment of the commonplace. It is the poet’s intention to exaggerate the ordinariness of the mundane—or that which has become mundane by virtue of its perpetual presence or repetition—in modern culture in order to “defamiliarize” it and to enable one to see it as if for the first time.

In so doing, he is performing the function of art that was described by Soviet literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, who believed that such defamiliarization works through poignant, graphic description of the real, a technique that borders on the surreal but stays safely this side of it by virtue of its intense view of the literal. In “Auto Wreck,” this literalness is coupled with a metaphoric complement that combines the factual with the imaged; for example, in lines 9 and 10, “Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted/ And stowed into the little hospital.” At first, the reader is meant to see a vehicle in which medical supplies are stored; next, to visualize a hospital on wheels. Shapiro thus achieves a marriage of the sensual and the analogous that forces the reader simultaneously both to look and to reflect on what has been seen.

As a result, many of Shapiro’s stanzas feel as if they are being spoken in the first-person plural to fellow bystanders who are nodding silently in agreement. Although few explicit moral judgments are expressed in Shapiro’s poetry, they linger, as they do in “Auto Wreck,” on the edge of consciousness: “Already old, the question Who shall die?/ Becomes unspoken Who is innocent?” Such questions are raised only peripherally, however, never centrally.

Shapiro is adamant in embracing the view shared by the Southern “Fugitive” school of poets he admired that poetry with a “message” is mere propaganda. Shapiro’s impressionistic poetics exalts immediacy, concreteness, and individuality. The crowd, the mob, is held at arm’s distance, for it inevitably obscures the one, the individual life and its worth that the poet is at pains to make the reader see.

Shapiro has therefore always preferred a “low” or “common” English as the language of poetic life—a bridge or a concession to readers and poets who have tired of complex or contrived patterns or rhyme schemes. “Auto Wreck” exemplifies a poetic stance that is clearly opposed to that of the postmodernist poets, whom Shapiro has caricatured as propounding “apologies for the personal, the narcissistic, and the solipsistic, as well as for the tribal, antifamilial, and antinational ethos, drawn from both primitive and esoteric lore.”

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