Karl Shapiro Biography


(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...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Karl Jay Shapiro was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended the University of Virginia, The Johns Hopkins University, and Enoch Pratt Library School. In World War II he served in the U.S. Army for three years in the South Pacific. During this absence from the United States his fiancé, Evelyn Katz, saw two of his books through the presses, including V-Letter, and Other Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1945. In 1946 and 1947 he served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress; for the next three years he taught as a professor of writing at Johns Hopkins. From 1950 until 1956 he edited Poetry magazine in Chicago; he then went to the University of Nebraska and edited Prairie Schooner until 1968, when he joined the English faculty of the University of California at Davis.

Shapiro’s early poetry established him firmly among the best poets of his generation. Person, Place, and Thing contains such familiar poems as “Haircut” and “Auto Wreck”; “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” and “The Leg” appeared in V-Letter, and Other Poems. Poems in these volumes are characterized by an immediacy of experience and an indebtedness to traditionalist poetry. Having written some of the best war poems of the decade, Shapiro found himself out of the army and in the midst of the literary “establishment”; despite the success of his earlier work, Shapiro seemed to doubt the significance of the...

(The entire section is 447 words.)