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.)