The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Girlfriend” is a medium-length free-verse poem with eighty lines divided into three stanzas of twenty-five, twenty-one, and thirty-four lines. The lines of the poem are short: Most of them vary from four to six syllables in length, although some lines have as many as nine syllables. In the first stanza, it almost appears that longer, decasyllabic lines have been divided in half in order to make up two lines of Shapiro’s poem. The title suggests that the poem will focus upon a memory or anecdote about a girlfriend from the speaker’s past. The poem is written in the first person, and the voice of the poem’s speaker, like most of the other poems in Mixed Company (1996), greatly resembles the voice of the poet as he remembers people and events from childhood and adolescence.

The speaker in “Girlfriend” is an adult male who is looking back fondly, yet ironically, at a relationship that he now calls “The perfect match.” The girlfriend, who is unnamed, is slightly more sexually experienced than the young speaker. The speaker recognizes that her experience and knowledge are what attracted him to her. She was able to instruct him as a “school marm” might. Shapiro’s speaker shows no regret for this lost love. Instead of lamenting the absence of the girlfriend, the speaker views her merely as someone who guided him through one rite of passage that is associated with coming-of-age.

The second stanza begins with an address...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Shapiro’s diction and syntax often mimic the rhythms of plain, colloquial speech. This is the literary convention that readers will immediately notice as they read this poem. Readers who are familiar with the Romantic tradition in English literature will recognize an adherence to William Wordsworth’s instruction in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800) about how “the language of a large portion of every good poem, even of the most elevated character, must necessarily, except with reference to the metre, in no respect differ from that of good prose.”

Although “Girlfriend” resembles the language of prose, that does not mean that it is prose. Shapiro’s own comments on James McMichael’s “Four Good Things” (1980) in In Praise of the Impure (1993) can also be used as an apt description of “Girlfriend”: It “seems like poetry on the verge of speech and speech on the verge of poetry.” Within this free-verse poem, there are passages in which Shapiro employs a loose iambic meter that makes the reader aware of a heightening formality within the speaker’s voice. Most noticeable is the address to the reader in the second stanza. The first two lines of the second stanza (“You’d be, of course,/ a better judge of this”), if combined into one line, would read as iambic pentameter. Allowing meter to enter the poem at this time forces the reader into an awareness that this poem is not a story and that it is instead a...

(The entire section is 540 words.)