Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1257
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,...
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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, and soon was embroiled in the polemics which have marked his career.
In 1945, he published the highly controversial Essay on Rime, which the critic Dudley Fitts called his ars poetica. Shapiro distanced himself from the modernist poetics of William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and criticized both mainstream and university-backed poetry. Shapiro’s reputation was on solid ground, and with the publication of Trial of a Poet, and Other Poems in 1947, he was offered an associate professorship of English at The Johns Hopkins University, the school from which he had dropped out as a sophomore in 1939. He precipitated a controversy by voting against the awarding of the first Library of Congress Bollingen Prize to Pound in 1948 and defended his position in an article in the Partisan Review. His conviction that poetry is the “enemy” of literature and is not meant to be analyzed coldly for ulterior motives by academics and cultural critics was argued most convincingly during the Montgomery Lectures on Contemporary Civilization, published later under the title Beyond Criticism.
Shapiro’s life since 1945 can be viewed from two perspectives. The first would follow his activities on the college and university lecture circuit and as the editor of two important literary magazines. The second would take the unabashed exposés of The Bourgeois Poet and of Edsel as literal transcriptions of how he lived his life: nonchalantly denouncing the contradictions of the establishment, playing ambiguous games with poorly defined sociological stances, and almost sadomasochistically returning time and again to his own most private problems and encounters.
In 1950, Shapiro moved to Chicago to edit Poetry magazine, a position he held until 1956, when he moved to Nebraska and began a ten-year editorship of Prairie Schooner. He taught at various universities, including the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Indiana, and the University of Nebraska. He also lectured overseas under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State. In 1959, he delivered the Ellison Lectures at the University of Cincinnati. He was professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, from 1966 to 1968.
In 1967, Shapiro left his wife, Evelyn, for Teri Kovach, whom he married the same year, and the “white-haired” poet appeared to have mellowed somewhat. It turned out, however, that in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Shapiro, more than a poet, was a true cultural critic “despite himself”; his views on the changing mores and the built-in nihilistic obsessions of American society were brutally expressed in the essay “To Abolish Children,” whereas a less harsh but satirized vision of those turbulent years, 1967 to 1969, can be found in Edsel.
In 1968, Shapiro took a position at the University of California, Davis, where he remained until his retirement in 1985. His Adult Bookstore, published in 1976, which is considered to contain some of his most polished verse, contains some poems about his California surroundings. He continued to publish new and collected poetry and began what was to be a three-part autobiography. The Younger Son, published in 1988, describes his childhood, his youth, and the beginnings of his literary career. The title of the second part, Reports of My Death, published in 1990, refers to erroneous media reports that Shapiro had committed suicide in the late 1970’s. He discusses his return from military service, the controversy over Pound and the Bollingen Prize, his extramarital affairs, and his declining popularity in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In 1994, Shapiro and his third wife, Sophie Wilkins, moved to New York’s upper West Side. He died in New York in 2000.