The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

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“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 to readers that reminds them of their place as observers and informs them that passing time has not allowed the speaker enough distance to judge this story objectively. This stanza also reinforces the analogy to the teacher-student relationship. The speaker remembers being an earnest student, not in order to please his girlfriend but in order to avoid embarrassment. Shapiro’s speaker has an awkward moment of self-awareness when he remembers being lost in his own thoughts: He was so caught up in his own pleasure during intercourse that he was oblivious to the reactions of his girlfriend. He was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he found this intimate moment to be another “way of being left/ alone.”

The third and final stanza begins with the end of intercourse and the girlfriend excusing herself. The young speaker is left alone and is wholly overwhelmed by his own thoughts. He is so absorbed in his self-awareness that he reimagines the act that they have just completed over and over in his head. He finds that the reimagination of the sex is better than the sex actually was. He is brought out of his own thoughts by the sound of his girlfriend giggling on the phone in the next room, presumably talking to one of her girlfriends about his poor performance. The poem concludes with the adult speaker stating how her voice continues to haunt him: Whenever he feels too self-confident, it always serves to humble him.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

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 crafted and sculpted lyric poem that merely resembles a story. It also creates an odd tension between the speaker and the reader. At the moment that the conversational language of this poem becomes more formal, the speaker invites the reader into the poem to be an observer who should assess the motivations of the poem’s characters.

The speaker’s conversational voice resembles that of a storyteller who brings all of his experience and personality into the retelling of a personal anecdote, which allows the reader to recognize the poem as the product of a particular individual who speaks from a particular historical moment. The voice of the speaker allows the reader to learn about the narrative in a way that makes the narrative itself seem secondary to the way that it is told. Indeed, one important aspect of this poem is the way that the details come back to the speaker willfully. The speaker always remains in full control of the story that he is telling the reader. There is little free association or wordplay in Shapiro’s poem. Instead, the poem is a thoughtful and sober retelling of a memory that often returns to haunt the adult speaker.

There is a sculpted and almost minimalistic quality to the detail; readers know much less about this drama than Shapiro must know. One never learns the girl’s name or what she looks like. There is no discussion of the relationship before or after this moment. There is little to prove that the girl exists anywhere in the world outside of this brief drama. Also missing are clues about the poem’s location. The spareness of details reminds one that this drama exists in the speaker’s consciousness more than it exists in the physical world.