The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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,...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 501 words.)