Karl Shapiro Shapiro, Karl (Vol. 8) - Essay

Shapiro, Karl (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shapiro, Karl 1913–

An American poet, critic, novelist, editor, and playwright, Shapiro is best known as the author of poetry which is, according to Alfred Kazin, "striking for its concrete but detached insights; it is witty and exact in the way it catches the poet's subtle and guarded impressions." Noted for his ability to write successfully in a great variety of poetic styles, Shapiro won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1945. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

In essay and verse, [Shapiro] began stripping off the stucco, tearing out the walls and interior layouts and furnishings of the Poetry Institution, where he is a penthouse dweller to rebuild the establishment … in the name of life, of poetry, or the poet himself. Noble act of destruction; call it terrorism, if you will, anarchy. And it must mean something important when a learned artist goes ape. But what?

Reading him from the start, one sees it doesn't mean much. An American Auden, Shapiro was always facile with the image or epithet for a person, place, or thing: brightly using the modern categories of psychologism, sociologism, historicism, philosophasterism. Clever jargon that did, until Time-Life, etc. picked it up for a world language.

When Shapiro learned that the American society in which he was so successfully assimilated didn't really exist any longer, and had no persons in it (as Auden had known of England from his start, and made a poetry out of), he felt he had been betrayed. So he went "surrealist" in "The Bourgeois Poet," and did a Hashbury job on himself. But nothing's changed: he remains the brilliant commentator, the inverse of the Time anonymous staff, speaking still in his declarative, though now prose-jazzed sentences.

But it's still Shapiro writing ads for himself: funny, wild pages of talk, an endless late night talk show that hits everything but the bull's-eye of poetry itself.

Jascha Kessler, "Karl Shapiro Poetry," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1968, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), July 7, 1968, p. 35.

Karl Shapiro's slim new volume ["Adult Bookstore"] is best described as a graceful, playful stepchild of its mighty predecessor, "The Poetry Wreck: Selected Essays 1950–1970."…

I admit to liking his verse a good deal more than his prose, and the new book does nothing to change my opinion. I agree with Randall Jarrell about the "notable visual and satiric force," the "real precision, a memorable exactness of realization" in the poetry [see CLC, Vol. 4]. But the question at issue is not entirely what a reviewer may like but what the phenomenon Karl Shapiro has at 63 become in the poet's own eyes.

To treat "Adult Bookstore" as if he had suffered no metamorphosis since "Poems 1940–1953," as if he had never made those half-ecstatic, half-despairing pilgrimages to the shrine of Whitman at Camden and of Williams at Rutherford, N.J., and to Henry Miller on his mountain, would be a rank disservice all around. One reads the new title poem, for instance, and wonders why the devil this graphic but otherwise unremarkable evocation of a scruffy porn shop should rate the honor given it here. Until, that is, one remembers something Shapiro wrote in his essay "The Greatest Living Patagonian." "Morally," he said, "I regard Miller as a holy man, as most of his admirers do—Gandhi with a penis."

Now Shapiro has never unambiguously expressed much of this new Dionysian ardor in his verse. Except for his admirable "Adam and Eve" sequence, the "Selected Poems" are quite free of it. In an impressive new long poem, "The Rape of Philomel," he dwells with considerable feeling on its perversion. So one can only understand his horror at the porn shop by reading his prose. And in the essay "Is Poetry an American Art?" he will tell you that up to now the bulk of American poetry has been prose, that Whitman, as Eliot said, is our greatest prosateur, and finally that the highest compliment you can pay a man is to call him not a poet but a writer. "It bestows on a poet the keys to the kingdom; it takes him out of the realm of mere literature and installs him in the empyrean; it frees him from any of the normal ties to the world with which other men are bound; it makes him a kind of god."

Shapiro's exceptionally firm and elastic ties to the world are, however, what really set him apart, not his platform kit of thin neo-Nietzschean vitalist ideas. His best poems, including at least a dozen of the buoyant "surrealist" satires in "The Bourgeois Poet," are completely realized, spared by the demon of incompleteness who nags the essays—dangling leads, half-pursued arguments, careless snap judgments, surrenders to the vicious "principle of leadership" in modern criticism that he himself has justly condemned. But having said as much one still must acknowledge that since the early sixties poetry has often failed him as a vehicle for the utopian-prophetic dimension of his thought. We must continue to "destroy the religion of specialization" (cult of the well-made poem, the "poem of sensibility") by following the path of irony out to its bitter end. Hence a readiness to publish books like "Adult Bookstore" in the face of so much vehement homage to other sorts of writing. But Shapiro would not be Shapiro if his long-practiced ironies failed to come across as a little more affectionate than bitter. Now, as always, his appeal rests not only on a nervously zestful embrace of the ordinary but in a gift for making the very act of writing poetry look sensible and businesslike. Remembering those other Southerners, James Dickey and A. R. Ammons, eminent connoisseurs of the quotidian all three, one can't but envy them their heaven-sent capacity for taking so much of our fevered life for granted. (p. 6)

R. W. Flint, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 25, 1976.