Karl Shapiro Biography

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Karl Jay Shapiro was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 10, 1913. His father, of Eastern European ancestry, was a customhouse broker and subsequently the owner of a moving and storage company. After his first two years of school, his family moved to Chicago for two years and then returned to the South, to Norfolk, Virginia, where Shapiro received most of his secondary education. In 1929, like many other small businessmen, Shapiro’s father had to sell out, and the family moved back to Baltimore. Shapiro, a senior, enrolled at Forest Park High School and completed his credits for graduation at Baltimore City College. Apparently he was a poor student, and when he entered the University of Virginia he had to resign after one semester. His performance and attitude were inexplicable to his family, who counted on Shapiro to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, who was dedicated and successful and the winner of many literary awards. It was during this period that Shapiro became aware of such realities as social class, religious animosity, and ethnic differences: As a Russian Jew he was not allowed to mingle with German Jews, and as a middle-class student he was snubbed by the predominantly WASP faculty and classmates. He turned inward, began to write ever more assiduously, studied French for a while, and was privately tutored in Latin. He also studied piano for about two years but had to give it up for lack of money. He was employed in all sorts of odd jobs, in drug and hardware stores, in bars, and eventually as a filing clerk in his father’s firm.

During this time, Shapiro saved enough money for a trip to Tahiti, and wrote the Tahiti Poems, now lost. Upon his return, he managed to obtain a scholarship to The Johns Hopkins University on the merit of Poems, which he had privately published in 1935. There he went through a religious crisis, and approached Catholicism. At the same time, he gave some thought to changing his name to Karl Camden, in order to appear more Anglo-American and thus more acceptable.

In 1939, Shapiro was asked to leave the university for lack of academic achievement. Ironically, this was also the beginning of a literary success story. His poems were published in The New Anvil and Poetry World. One in particular, “Self History,” appeared in five different newspapers on the East Coast, from Florida to Rhode Island. At a party in 1940, he met his future wife, Evelyn Katz, who became a staunch supporter of his work and acted as his agent while he was in the service. At this time, he took up an intensive, salaried training course at the Enoch Pratt Library School in Baltimore, which helped him to secure his first postwar job and exposed him to all kinds of publications.

Shapiro was drafted into the U.S. Army in March, 1941. Before his induction, he had published, besides the little-circulated Poems, only a handful of poems, including “Necropolis,” “University,” and “Death of Emma Goldman” in the Partisan Review and Poetry. By the end of 1941, he had several more poems accepted by those magazines. In 1942, he wrote, from “somewhere in the Pacific,” The Place of Love and Person, Place and Thing, which brought him to the attention of the public. In 1943, he was included in the anthology Five Young American Poets, put out by New Directions and won the Contemporary American Poetry Prize; his poems were circulated many times over in America’s leading literary publications. In 1944, he published V-Letter, and Other Poems and obtained a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During his service, he held a desk job, but he saw enough of the incongruities and cruelties of war to mark his sensibility forever. It was in the service that he developed the tone of the impotent, tragically detached observer, typical of one who “has seen too much.” He won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1945, before he was discharged from the Army. He returned from the war to find himself a literary celebrity,...

(The entire section is 1,704 words.)