Karl Shapiro Shapiro, Karl (Vol. 4) - Essay

Shapiro, Karl (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shapiro, Karl 1913–

Shapiro, an American poet, critic, and editor, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1945. One of Shapiro's more remarkable accomplishments has been the successful handling of prose poems built around prose paragraphs. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Shapiro … has never seemed to me … a passionate poet; his own work is striking for its concrete but detached insights; it is witty and exact in the way it catches the poet's subtle and guarded impressions, and it is a poetry full of clever and unexpected verbal conceits. It is a very professional poetry—supple, adaptable, by no means Dionysian. Like much contemporary lyric poetry, it seems to me imprisoned in "sensibility," muscle-bound except in relation to the poet's specific rendering of a place, a time, a mood. Shapiro's essays [In Defense of Ignorance] are full of the same excellent and detached insights. He is often brilliant in his judgment of particular texts, as luminous and witty then as he is unnaturally programmatic and self-defeating and even a bit hysterical on Eliot as the evil genius of modern literature….

Yet when Shapiro lives up to his own prescription that the critic should do nothing but judge works of art, when as a fellow poet he takes up those pieces of Eliot's which in university classes are often read only as a puzzle to decipher or as necessary condemnations of contemporary society, he is exhilarating.

Alfred Kazin, "The Poet Against the English Department" (copyright © 1960 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press), in his Contemporaries, Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 489-93.

The 'Jewish' aspect of [Karl] Shapiro is worth consideration. Like [Delmore] Schwartz and [Stanley] Kunitz, he brings his Jewish background into his poetry. More than either of them, however, he has called special attention to it, even publishing a collection of his pieces called Poems of a Jew. In this volume, he seems to define Jewishness as a psychological state very much like the one that dominates his poetry: 'The Jew represents the primitive ego of the human race…. The free modern Jew, celebrated so perfectly in the character of Leopold Bloom, is neither hero nor victim.' As self-evident truths, these and like formulations by Shapiro are wanting. However, the choice of Leopold Bloom, who certainly suffers from 'the wound of consciousness,' and who is so much an outsider and insider at once in the little world Joyce put him in, is apt for Shapiro. In his view, the awareness of pain life thrusts upon the helpless, the human predicament which is Jarrell's great theme, is the essence of Jewishness.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (copyright © 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 249.

Karl Shapiro's poems are fresh and young and rash and live; their hard clear outlines, their flat bold colors create a world like that of a knowing and skillful neoprimitive painting, without any of the confusion or profundity of atmosphere, of aerial perspective, but with notable visual and satiric force. The poet early perfected a style, derived from Auden but decidedly individual, which he has not developed in later life but has temporarily replaced with the clear Rilke-like rhetoric of his Adam and Eve poems, the frankly Whitmanesque convolutions of his latest work….

Both in verse and in prose Shapiro loves, partly out of indignation and partly out of sheer mischievousness, to tell the naked truths or half-truths or quarter-truths that will make anybody's hair stand on end; he is always crying: "But he hasn't any clothes on!" about an emperor who is half the time surprisingly well dressed.

Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962; originally published in Prairie Schooner, Spring, 1963), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969, pp. 330-31.

Karl Shapiro is [a] "social poet" who found impetus and subject matter in the public crises of the 1940's, when his private predicament as a soldier in the war against Germany and Japan merged with the predicament of American society as a whole, fighting for its survival. But, although a slow, subdued anger is the permanent emotional climate of an army, Shapiro's tone is rarely angry, even in the poems in which he points out the shortcomings of society—the racial, religious, and economic injustices that he sees about him…. He is bitter and ironic, but possesses enough spiritual equilibrium to be "at rest in the blast," as Marianne Moore would say. He achieves the sort of cosmic consciousness that makes possible an objectification and dramatization of inner tensions and polarities. All of his best work was done during the years 1940–1948….

Of all contemporary poets, he is the least interested in projecting "the anarchy of experience." His poems always have a point of view, often so strongly stated that it amounts to an "ideology."…

[All his] poems of the 1940's have their social meaning. Ideologically, they seem to be liberal, and the formulations of political and social attitude, the abstractions of an intellect at work in categories, owe a great deal to W. H. Auden, who, ironically enough, had already abandoned his liberalism by 1941. Shapiro owes a great deal to Auden in matters of technique also, in his handling of stanza and line, for, like Auden, he works in traditional measures, knowing that a relatively prosaic content requires meter….

A study of the poems in The Bourgeois Poet (1964) shows that Shapiro is now writing a very prosaic free verse but that his subject matter is unchanged: he still writes social commentaries, as the very title of his book indicates. His poems have, in the past, been saved from prose by an underpinning of meter; now he has the problem of creating a strong substitute rhythm that can organize his essentially prosaic subject matter.

Stephen Stepanchev, "Karl Shapiro," in his American Poetry Since 1945: A Critical Survey (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 53-68.

A turning point in Shapiro's search for his identity occurred between [1953 and 1960] when he discovered Whitman. How much like a conversion the discovery was for Shapiro was not immediately apparent, for no volume of wholly new poems appeared between 1947 and 1964, the two volumes of verse that appeared in the 1950's being largely or entirely made up of reprintings of earlier poems. But when The Bourgeois Poet appeared in 1964, it was clear that Shapiro had turned a sharp corner in his career. Only certain similarities of attitude and certain personal mannerisms might suggest that the poems in Person, Place and Thing, his first mature book, and the "antipoems" in The Bourgeois Poet were written by the same man….

A comment in one of the jottings that make up a section of The Bourgeois Poet suggests the reason why Whitman became, in the middle and later 1950's, so very important to Shapiro. "Now all things are the measure of man, it's hard to find a decent god or muse." That Whitman had gained another disciple who valued him chiefly for the help he had given in the two-pronged search is everywhere apparent…. Whitman … is the friend, the good one, in a world of unnamed enemies who are determined to exterminate what is good….

In Trial of a Poet Shapiro continued to explore the possibilities of the style ["Modernist"] he had already, theoretically, and in his heart, renounced…. But the title poem of the volume, which I must confess I find extremely dull, was something else again. Here was a rehearsal, in a poetic drama with the speakers listed as "Poet, Public Officer, Doctor, Priest, and Chorus of Poets," of the cloudy and too-excited rhetoric of Beyond Criticism, which appeared six years later. Echoing Pound and Eliot in phrase and image, the poem ends by recommending poetry as "an independent faith," yet having the Poet speak in prose, as being less dishonest than verse!

After Trial of a Poet, Shapiro, not surprisingly, wrote very few poems for the next fifteen years. Trying to reconstruct the reasons for his imaginative exhaustion, I can only suppose that his vein of implicit social criticism, after the manner of "Drug Store," has run out; and that in such religious explorations as he had recorded in "The Convert," he had come to a dead end. For a poet sensitive to the meaning of religious questions, Freud and Marx, to whom, obviously, he was listening in the 1930's, were not helpful. Nor was his tendency (under the influence of Eliot, primarily) to equate "religion" with High Church orthodoxy. In poem after poem of this period, the "age of faith" is equated with rigidly intellectualistic formulations of dogma and with ceremonial that lacks all inwardness. No wonder he later described Whitman, quite contrary to Whitman's stated intentions, as having "contempt" for religion. "Religion" for Shapiro was defined by Eliot's position. Whitman appealed to him because he attacked "priestcraft" in "Song of Myself," yet affirmed his almost doctrineless faith in the triumph of persons over time and fate….

The Bourgeois Poet, whatever we may decide about its doing away with verse as the distinguishing element in "poetry," has the great merit of appearing to be—for the very first time in Shapiro's poetic career—wholly representative of the voice we hear in it speaking to us. We are, after all, the poet has at last discovered, beyond both the "age of faith," as he understands the term, and the age of rational doubt. We are in the age of the scientific datum considered as a "construct," of the work of art constructed out of "found objects," and of the "nonfiction novel."…

The Bourgeois Poet seems to me to be a work of greater poetic integrity than any of Shapiro's earlier volumes. Whitman and Hart Crane, Blake and Jesus are openly his heroes now. His capacity for self-deception is recognized and explored….

The Bourgeois Poet exhibits Shapiro in his chosen role as the primeval American poet, the "man who begins at the beginning—all over again," the "first white aboriginal." The role demands immense renunciations, which only future development of the poet can justify.

Hyatt H. Waggoner, "Karl Shapiro," in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, 1968, pp. 585-96.

In "The Bourgeois Poet," Karl Shapiro dared to write prose-poems that were really prosy. It is sad to see that strong experiment go by the boards. "White-Haired Lover," a cycle of twenty-nine love poems from life (and mostly sonnets at that!), is neither as interesting nor as carefully wrought. Shapiro is too self-conscious here. He poses and exposes himself. Still, he can do interesting things with the sonnet, and there's no doubt that this subject requires the form. Without it, these poems would be impossibly out of control. Even with it, there are numerous fuzzy spots, where, for example, a colloquial rhyme is forced in: "The laughter of the goddess cool as hell/Pinged like a Cellini shell"; or, in another couplet, where the tone becomes Ogden Nashian: "And if I've lost you who is there to blame?/(Faulty communications are my middle name)." As Shapiro says over and over again, he's too old for this kind of thing. He has the technique, but his emotions seem to be too shook up. Only a few times in the whole book can this fine poet bring it off—for example, in these stately lines: "You are going into your beauty/And it is I who am opening all the doors as you pass/From room to room of your life till you walk to my grave."

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. xvi, xviii.

Shapiro has been enacting the role of the not terribly bright village reformer ever since 1945, when, in Essay on Rime, he called for "a plainer art." What he wants is a turning from received and thus discredited English and European techniques of focus in favor of honest encounters with the stuff of local experience, which I'm afraid he takes to be uncomplicated. His masters in this enterprise have been Whitman and W. C. Williams, but he has served neither very well, lacking the sensitivity to idiom of the one and the talent for a rude and consistent honesty of the other….

Seeing nothing defective in either the rhetoric he practices or the simpleminded critical dialectic he has embraced, Shapiro cannot be expected to write interesting poems, and those in White-Haired Lover—an implausible but I suppose comforting oxymoron—will disappoint critics and lovers alike….

Despite all his pleas for the "non-moral society," Shapiro has not been able to rid himself of a lurking concern with making a good—here, a respectable—impression, and despite his strenuous antipathy to traditional poetic forms, here he clutches the sonnet as his cache-sexe, a device which will provide him with the fig leaves and pasties for which, as an essentially decent person, he feels a need. These poems pretend to send up the sonnet ("stab it" is Shapiro's awkward way of putting it), but actually they naïvely capitulate to its norms. Sonnet VIII ("How Do I Love You?") is an example. The force of the rigid rhyming system of the sestet invites Shapiro, devoid as he is of language resources, to juxtapose warring idioms, and we end with a mixture, destructive rather than explosive, of Mrs. Browning, Pope, Edna Millay, the Beatles and Auden….

But one exposes the sleaziness of Shapiro's achievement at the same time that one doesn't really dislike the familiar character he has undertaken to play. It is the character of the bumbling, well-intentioned Good American, too good to be wasted in the aluminum-siding business, but not of course good enough to compete with sensibilities of real literary delicacy and accuracy. Shapiro has carefully made himself into a Sherwood Anderson or Sinclair Lewis character, the kind of American who thinks opera silly but who is willing, if pressed, to contribute handsomely to his local "Cultural Center." Shapiro thinks Herzog a "brilliant novel"; Henry Miller seems to him a great writer; he considers M. B. Tolson a distinguished poet who has not made it only because "critics" can't stand poets who are black. In folk judgments like these, Shapiro comes to resemble a sort of Yvor Winters reversed. In both, the program has quite corrupted the perceptions, and perhaps it is a similar kind of American parochialism, with all its invitations to crank-hood, that has actuated both.

Paul Fussell, Jr., "The Bourgeois Poet," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1969 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Winter, 1969, pp. 141-45.

Karl Shapiro [is] a poet of very considerable power and unusual attractiveness, and a critic whose increasing disaffection with criticism and affirmation of neo-Romanticism makes an interesting and perhaps representative story.

Shapiro made his reputation as poet during World War II, under the aegis of the New Criticism…. He repudiated the New Criticism in the essays collected as Beyond Criticism (1953; reprinted in paperback as A Primer for Poets, 1965), and by In Defense of Ignorance (1960) he had made an explicit commitment to the visionary and occult tradition and had become increasingly vindictive toward his former allegiances. The thesis of this last volume is stated in the preface: "The dictatorship of intellectual 'modernism,' the sanctimonious ministry of 'the Tradition,' the ugly programmatic quality of twentieth-century criticism have maimed our poetry and turned it into a monstrosity of literature." The motto is "everything we are taught is false," and Shapiro apologizes for not being more rigorously anti-intellectual.

Monroe K. Spears, in his Dionysus and the City (copyright © 1970 by Monroe K. Spears; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 216.

Give a poet enough breathing space and time, sooner or later he'll do that novel he's had on his mind. And, since Shapiro's mind is flinty, vibrantly imaginative, tender, and (it turns out) extremely funny, his Edsel is a welcomed occasion, despite its stigmatic status as yet another college novel…. Shapiro's faintly disguised portrait of Allen Ginsberg as the goofy Harry Peltz is in itself enough to make this whole trip worth taking.

The Antioch Review (© 1971 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXI, No. 3, 1971, p. 439.

The anti-intellectual distrust so often (and so often hysterically) evident in Karl Shapiro appears … in [White-Haired Lover] as a fear of the very art which has always best celebrated love. Shapiro's problem is how to show in art one's great luck in an emotional commitment that is at bottom a welling-up of spontaneity, of sincerity. And how to show sincerity in that most hoary artifice, the love poem? To be a maker exposes one's most bravely sincere declarations of love as vulnerable to such technical concerns as beat, rhyme, alliteration, and such intellectual matters as wit and wisdom.

Shapiro's solution is at times to be the "natural" poet who will have no truck with a fancyman's bag of tricks but who will lay out, in terms as simple as the artifice of language will allow, the bare feeling, the sheer joy of surprise that love is still possible. Hence those poems (or most often parts of poems) which rely heavily on patterns most conventionalized by the "natural" poet: I love you too much for thought or image or wit. And the fear of that artifice lurks everywhere, as if someone of his own persuasion might accuse him of Eliotic tendencies. The best poems are those in which he frankly admits to being maker as well as lover, asserting the uncomfortable paradox that the lover must sacrifice love long enough to write a love poem….

Like most love poets, Shapiro would like it both ways: to love sincerely and to write good poems out of that love….

For all the poems addressed to you, the title is White-Haired Lover. However he cherishes his private love, Shapiro is never far from recognizing that what counts is commodity, himself as subject, and that the public must be served as well as the mistress. We are serviced rather than served. Art can, I suppose, betray love, but Shapiro's statements on the dilemma are bogus, unpersuasive tacks to divert our attention from the patchy and predictable art itself. He might well ask, "Where are the poems that got lost in the shuffling spring?"

James H. Justus, "Some Middle Generation Poetry," in The Southern Review, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 264-65.