Karl Shapiro 1913–
(Full name Karl Jay Shapiro) American poet, critic, essayist, editor, novelist, and autobiographer.
Recognized as an iconoclastic and innovative poet, Shapiro composes verse that defies classification because of his varied and unpredictable approach to theme and presentation. Over several decades he has demonstrated a mastery of both traditional and contemporary poetic technique. In his verse, Shapiro explores love, war, religion, and, most notably, the relationship between poetry and prose—a topic that he often addresses by combining the two genres in his works.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 10, 1913, Shapiro grew up in Baltimore, Chicago, and Norfolk, Virginia. His Jewish background imbued him with a sense of isolation during his brief time studying at the University of Virginia; this self-consciousness about his heritage and the exploration of other religions are recurring themes in his work. In 1935 Poems was published, and secured him a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University; his next collection, Person, Place, and Thing attracted favorable critical attention. The poems were composed while Shapiro was stationed in New Guinea during World War II and the collection garnered praise for his adroit use of dramatic monologue. In 1944, Shapiro was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for V-Letter and Other Poems. He continues writing poetry and criticism, and teaching at universities, the most recent being the University of California at Davis.
Shapiro burst onto the literary scene with the publication of V-Letter, which contains what many critics lauded as the finest war poems ever written by an American. Several selections in his next book, Trial of a Poet, were written on Shapiro's homeward journey immediately after the war and eloquently communicate the sense of humanity's irrevocable loss during that turbulent era. Poems of a Jew concerns the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity, rebuking and defending both religions while discussing his brief conversion to Catholicism. Shapiro experimented with free verse to great critical success in such works as The Bourgeois Poet. In his succeeding volume, The White-Haired Lover, which consists of twenty-nine love poems dedicated to his second wife, Shapiro returns to traditional verse forms. Love & War, Art & God combines early poetry with new verse in which Shapiro contemplates the eclectic concepts of the volume's title. In the pieces collected in New and Selected Poems, 1940-1986 and his latest volume The Old Horsefly, Shapiro confronts both contemporary social issues and personal concerns.
Shapiro is praised for his creative mix of prose and poetry, and his poetic style of a stream-of-consciousness narrative reminiscent of the verse of such Beat poets as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Such works, in particular Essay on Rime, are noted not only for their poetic style but their passionate and controversial commentary on modern poetry; yet some have deemed Shapiro's analysis of twentieth-century poetry as unfocused and tenuous. While some critics maintain that his exploration of such diverse forms as the sonnet, blank verse, and lyric poetry yields erratic results, many regard his extensive output as impressive. Whatever the opinion on his recent verse, most commentators agree that in the 1940s Shapiro produced some of the best war poetry ever written by an American poet.