The Poem

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.

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...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 494 words.)