Collected Poems, 1940-1978 Analysis
by Karl Shapiro

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Collected Poems, 1940-1978

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

With the publication of Collected Poems, 1940-1978, Karl Shapiro’s high standing among a select group of major mid-twentieth century American poets may be more firmly established. The collection includes poems from ten volumes: Person, Place and Thing (1942), The Place of Love (also 1942 but printed in a limited edition), V-Letter and Other Poems (1944), Trial of a Poet (1947), Poems 1940-1953 (1953), Poems of a Jew (1958), The Bourgeois Poet (1964), Selected Poems (1968), White-Haired Lover (1968), and Adult Bookstore (1976). In addition, Shapiro includes fifteen new, uncollected poems. With very few exceptions, the poet’s choices are judicious. Here are all his famous (that is to say, widely anthologized) poems. Also included, of course, are poems that have been slower to find their audience. For example, Shapiro selects sixty-nine pieces—the greatest number of poems from any single volume—from The Bourgeois Poet, a collection that originally was received with mixed reviews by the critics, some of whom were disappointed by the author’s stylistic experimentation. In retrospect that volume, together with several other later books that have extended the technical range of Shapiro’s craft beyond the already familiar work of the 1940’s, seems part of the poet’s organic achievement.

To appreciate the magnitude of that achievement, one must examine the full range of Shapiro’s work, from the early sharply detailed, often grimly realistic poems of his first two major volumes, to the more leisurely style of his later books of verse. In Person, Place and Thing, Shapiro adopts for common, often banal modern subjects a witty metaphysical mode, involving the ironies, paradoxes, and arresting metaphors typical of seventeenth century verse. “The Fly,” for example, is a contemporary conceit that may well be compared to Donne’s “The Flea.” In vigorous, unsentimental poems such as “Auto Wreck,” “Waitress,” “Mongolian Idiot,” and “Elegy Written on a Frontporch, “Shapiro anatomizes the modern mechanical world like a deft surgeon cutting away at gristle and bone. Skeptical of romantic idealism, Shapiro in his early poems writes: “I see too many who romanced/Defeat, unmasculine, debased;/The striptease puritans who danced/The long lewd ritual of waste.” If these lines remind one of Ezra Pound, Shapiro also sounds much like T. S. Eliot in such poems as “The Glutton” or “Guineapig,” showing his revulsion toward vulgarity. Perhaps the most characteristic poem of this volume, “Scyros,” is a masterful expression of anger and disgust at the corruption of the modern world.

But Shapiro’s sensibility is not the same as Eliot’s or Pound’s. Poems of his first volume (an earlier slim collection, Poems, appeared in 1935 but has not been reprinted), though brilliant in execution, now seem emotionally forced, strident. The tensions of authentic seventeenth century verse spring from metaphysical oppositions in the thinking of poets like Donne or Herbert. But in Shapiro, the metaphysical technique is intellectually simulated, although the poet’s energy in creating conceits is certainly real enough. Often Shapiro creates tensions from the arresting metaphors of his opening lines: “The doctor punched my vein/The captain called me Cain” (“Scyros”), or “O hideous little bat, the size of snot” (“The Fly”), or “To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew/Is the curriculum” (“University”). In working out these metaphors, however, the poet rarely expresses an emotional equivalent of his intellectually structured conceit.

With his second significant volume, V-Letter and Other Poems, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize at the age of thirty-one, Shapiro more closely welded the sensibility of wit to that of emotion. Most of the poems in this book reveal the technical virtuosity of Person, Place and Thing; the same unsentimental, shrewd observation of sharp details; the same mixture of anger and disgust. But the truculence of that collection gives way to the poet’s more characteristic voice of reasonableness, of generosity and compassion. In celebrated poems like “V-Letter,” “Elegy for a Dead Soldier,” “Christmas Eve: Australia,” “Troop Train,” and “The Intellectual,” he speaks as the conscience of the war-embattled generation—a generation neither “lost” nor muddled, but grimly fighting an unglamorous, necessary struggle for survival. Shapiro reduces his ironies to ambiguities (“Piano,” “The Second-Best Bed”); and in “Satire: Anxiety” and “Lord, I Have Seen Too Much,” he writes with tenderness about his own and mankind’s limitations. To these poems that deal more personally with waste and disaster he adds pieces that reflect a lifelong examination of his Jewishness (his father was a Jew, his mother a Roman Catholic). In “The Synagogue,” “Jew,” and “Shylock,” he attempts to comprehend the dominant side of his mixed heritage.

Shapiro’s third major volume, Trial of a Poet (1947), continues the process of introspection. “Recapitulations,” the most ambitious work from that volume, is a brief (perhaps partly ironic) intellectual autobiography. Included in this book are other notable poems, chiefly “Homecoming,” “The Progress of Faust,” and “In the Waxworks.” Also included are prose poems such as “The New Ring” and “The Dirty Word,” which show the poet’s attempts to loosen his style to a more conversational manner.

In the retrospective volume Poems 1940-1953, Shapiro continues to experiment with different subjects in a more relaxed structure. The major achievement of this volume is his seven-part Adam and Eve, in which Shapiro’s fine lyrical voice, evident even in his most abrasive pieces, sings with seductive harmonies. In Poems of a Jew (1958), the poet advances his lyrical range in introspective verse of great intensity, such as “The Jew at Christmas Eve,” “The First Time,” and “The Crucifix in the Filing Cabinet.”

With The Bourgeois Poet (1964), Shapiro marks his most significant departure from his tightly constructed early verse. In this volume he treats details of the commonplace as well as of the great world, not as a detached, ironical observer, but as a participant. A middle-class intellectual, “professor with tenure,” he laments his loss of hair (“one by one my troops desert”), saunters by the window of a publishing company (“And I know, like a secret, they are printing my book of poems”), and gossips casually about a dermatologist, a poor relation, about “editing Poetry” (for he was indeed editor of Poetry, A Magazine of Verse from 1950 to 1956)—mixing trivial and serious subjects. Some reviewers, mistaking the persona of the poems for the living poet, criticized Shapiro as a poet in maundering decline, concerned mostly with banalities. They neglected to perceive, however, that the poet had always been a keen observer of small details; now, without affectation, he was placing himself in the landscape of the verse. A representative poem from this volume, “I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers,” describes the writer less as the seer of his generation than as an ordinary man who stumbles along with his fellows: “I am of the race of the prematurely desperate.”

Similarly, White-Haired Lover (1968) reveals the poet vulnerable, ironies turned upon himself. At times playful (“Words for a Wall-Painting”), passionate (“How Do You Walk?”), joyful (“I Am the Clown”), the poems of this volume are understated, classical. Like Yeats, in his later verse Shapiro becomes more receptive to joy. In “You Call These Poems?” (from Selected Poems, 1968), he summarizes his poetical career:

For years I used to write poems myselfThat pleased the Moslems and Hindus of culture,Telling poems in iambic pentameter,With a masculine inversion in the second foot,Frozen poems with an ice-pick at the core,And lots of allusions from other people’s books.

Shapiro’s most recent poetry, influenced as he says by William Carlos Williams, continues to experiment with both open and tightly constructed forms. They reveal Shapiro’s authentic concerns, neither “frozen” from artifical strategies nor allusive of “other people’s books.” For his accomplishments he shared the 1969 Bollinger Award for poetry with John Berryman. Like Berryman and a number of other major American poets of his generation — Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Delmore Schwartz, Howard Nemerov, to mention some conspicuous names—he has been both poet and professor, both artist and critic, both private and public man. As a public man, a voice of conscience, he has written poetry in the liberal tradition of skeptical humanism. Serious, honest, realistic, decent: he has never sentimentalized his vision to appeal to a mass audience, never betrayed his trust as an artist. Similarly, as a private man, he has written with candor and sensitivity about what it is like to be a human being in this troubled century: a Jew, a lover, a bourgeois poet. Though many writers of his generation in despair took to excessive drink, to drugs, or died by their own hands, he has chosen to live with dignity: conscientious, intelligent, resourceful. In “The Old Poet,” he speaks with affection about “that radiance of old poets (those who surrendered power with a smile).” Shapiro has such a radiance. Let us hope that he has many more poems to write.

Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Best Sellers. XXXVIII, September, 1978, p. 199.

Choice. XV, September, 1978, p. 874.

Commonweal. CV, November 10, 1978, p. 725.

Hudson Review. XXXI, Autumn, 1978, p. 543.

Nation. CCXXVII, November 11, 1978, p. 518.