The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

Karl Shapiro’s “Girls Working in Banks” presents a detailed bank scene as it might appear on any business day to clients who walk in to take care of their banking needs. The poem consists of twenty-seven lines of irregular meter that move from one image to the next in an apparently casual description of a familiar environment. The first three lines describe the girls themselves and suggest the grandeur of their surroundings with “rather magnificent floors.” The next three lines mention the girls walking through “rows of youngish vice-presidents” before they return to their stations to deal with money transactions. One of the features of Shapiro’s poems is their immersion in the rituals of American middle-class life. He wrote about Buicks, barber shops, banks, and auto wrecks, topics that were not considered appropriate poetic subjects in the 1940’s, when he started publishing.

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Lines 9-16 switch suddenly from the lobby scene to the interior vault of the bank, where the assets are kept, presumably large amounts of money and other valuables. The poet depicts the glowing vault in scrupulous detail, yet Shapiro takes care to point out that “If you glance inside it, there’s nothing to be seen.” These eight lines focused on the interior of the vault suggest there is something important about this unseen space, but it is not yet clear exactly what it is.

Line 17 returns the poem’s focus to the girls, moving easily back and forth behind the counter and past the guards with their “almost apologetic” pistols watching people while they conduct their business. The last six lines develop the image of these people who come and go in the bank, make their “papery transactions,” and leave finally with a sense of relief. They exit from revolving doors, which suggests that they will return and emerge again in a recurring cycle.

By the end of the poem it becomes clear that the poet is writing about something other than a bank. The eight lines devoted to the vault take on a new meaning: It is a hallowed sanctuary where the most holy dwells, and yet it is “Built out of beaten dimes.” There is a strong association between financial and religious institutions. Religious references become more overt as the poem nears its conclusion: People who use the bank write at desks with pens “attached to rosary chains,” after which they “stand/ Pious,” waiting to complete their business with the girls. “Girls Working in Banks” presents a subversive view of religion, religion carefully monitored by the vice presidents and guards who appear to control a public that needs their services but receives little satisfaction once these services are rendered.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

A conceit is an intricate metaphor that functions by arousing feelings of surprise, shock, or amusement. The poet compares elements that seem to have little or nothing in common, or juxtaposes images that establish a marked discord in mood. In this case, Shapiro has chosen to talk about a spiritual subject, religion, in terms of the most materialistic feature of society, finance. While this may seem a far-fetched conceit, the opposition of religious and financial qualities sets up an arresting paradox. Yet the conceit works so smoothly that the combination of these opposites in the poem changes after the first or second reading: What seemed paradoxical now seems complementary. After the reader is shocked by the juxtaposition of finance and religion, similarities arise in the poem, and surprise turns to insight. The metaphor brings out aspects of religion that one might not have previously considered.

Irony often defines Shapiro’s work, which in this case heightens the readers’ surprise. The title is apparently straightforward; the poem will be about “girls working in banks,” and the first line bears this out. Yet by the third line the girls are shedding “Tiny shreds of perforated paper, like body flakes,” and suspicions are aroused. The rows of vice presidents, who are not even focused on the girls but on something far away, also create an enigma. By the time readers get to the vault, where nothing is to be seen but the formidable steel door bars that safeguard the interior and keep the public out, it is apparent that Shapiro is referring to something else as well as a bank.

In lines 17-19, the girls are moving about inside the bank with “surprising freedom,” hinting that they might be angels, and their flakes might be bits of feathers; perhaps they are nuns or vestal virgins, and the vice presidents are priests. The best poetry is open to various interpretations. The irony continues through the poem as the careful choice of religious vocabulary becomes more pointed with the terms “rosary chains,” “pious,” and “glorious.” This irony provides a certain tension as the reader struggles to understand exactly what the poet is saying about the bank, and Shapiro pulls off a stunning example of poetic compression by illuminating two whole and opposing realms of society in twenty-seven lines.

Although the lines do not end in rhymes, “Girls Working in Banks” is distinguished by other euphonic devices. Alliteration, the repetition of the initial consonant or consonants for an artistic effect, occurs in “floors,” “flakes,” and “flashing,” in lines 3, 4, and 6. The word “friendly” appears in line 7, echoing the f sound but varying the second consonant for a pleasing variation. Lines 20-25 are tied together by the consonant p, as in “past,” “pistols,” “people,” “pens,” “pious,” and “papery.” Assonance, the use of vowel repetition in words whose consonants differ, links lines 10 and 12 with “dimes,” “shines,” and “inside,” while the last two lines resonate with their final vowel sounds of “relief” and “streets.”

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Themes