Collected Poems, 1940-1978
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...
(The entire section is 1469 words.)