The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Courtesy,” the title poem in Alan Shapiro’s second book, is composed of thirty-eight lines of loose iambic pentameter and divided into three irregular-length stanzas. In the poem, dedicated to a deceased friend of the narrator, Shapiro creates a complex narrative about meeting this friend and sharing some dreamlike moments with him.

The first line of the poem makes the reader expect a traditional narrative: “I walked from my house down Coolidge Street last night” could lead to a variety of poetic stances, from simple narrative about what happened that night to a meditation on love, the heavens, or family life. However, the comfortable opening soon shifts when something ominous seems to happen: The air shakes “down a hushing from the branches.” The reader is prepared by this preamble for some action or thought that could be out of the ordinary. When the homes on Coolidge Street become “solid shadow, blocks of silence,” the eerie feeling is continued, and readers are prepared to meet the narrator’s old friend, Saul; from the dedication, the reader knows that Saul Chessler has died years before.

The second stanza begins, just as the first did, with a matter-of-fact statement: “I wanted to ask you what it was like to die.” This realistic tone, this down-to-earth conversational voice makes it appear as if nothing remarkable is happening, and a reader might not catch on immediately to the fact that this poem, while being...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of Shapiro’s main accomplishments in this poem is to blend the surreal with the real in a way that seems both plausible and dreamlike. In a poem that moves from walking to running to riding a train without any clear transitions, the “strange familiarity” that Shapiro mentions at the close of the poem is the guiding principle or technique Shapiro uses to construct his piece. If the poem were simply wildly surreal, with bizarre images joined with eerie metaphors, the emotion of the poem would not be as strong. Shapiro makes the poem both familiar and strange and allows the reader to believe that such a meeting could take place.

One way this notion of “strange familiarity” functions is evident in the first stanza. After the peculiar images of homes as “blocks of silence” and the violet light that is “dim without dimming,” Shapiro writes a clear, direct sentence: “I saw you, Saul, my old friend, waiting/ For me at the corner where our two streets met.” On one hand this image is entirely familiar: Two friends meet on the corner where their two streets meet. Yet on a metaphorical level, the image is strange: These two streets that join at a corner are, in one sense, the avenue of life and the avenue of death; it is a liminal world, a world of boundaries between not only life and death but also sleep and waking. The poem inhabits both worlds.

Other images in the poem work in the same way to convey this idea of occupying two...

(The entire section is 444 words.)