Shapiro, Karl (Vol. 15)
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, Vols. 4, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
I think it can be said that poetry resembles the dream in at least one very important sense: the latent content, or meaning, is not necessarily identical with the manifest content, or meaning; and indeed one may question whether it is not precisely when the two kinds of meaning are most at variance that the poetry becomes most rewardingly alive. The poet may believe, for example, in a given poem, that he is praising life, all life, with all the profundity and richness of which he is capable: such praise, and searchingly, is his theme: and the praise is in fact there. But also there, and to a great extent unknown to the poet, may be just such a selection of images, phrases, rhythms, chosen in spite of himself out of old habits and preoccupations, as will undo the praise entirely, and lend to it the unmistakable accents of despair. And it is at these moments, when the poet is unconsciously driving a tandem of meanings in such a way that he is himself drawn to the right or left of his preconceived path, that poetry is most recognizably and beautifully itself. (pp. 361-62)
If something of this sort is true, then we have a rough-and-ready way of classifying varieties of poetic statement which might, on occasion, be useful. This varying ratio of latent to manifest meaning, might it not eventually be discovered to correspond in some degree to the old counters of "romantic" and "classic"? And with the helpful addition of a workable psychological principle. At the one extreme, we would find a maximum of manifest statement or content, and the latent content at the barest perceptible minimum: whether or not it was in verse, this work would be very close to prose. At the other extreme, where latent meaning was overwhelmingly disproportionate to manifest, we would find ourselves in the realm of "pure" poetry, poetry all affect, the poetry of nonsense and hallucination: the highly romantic and disequilibrated poetry of those poets who profess to...
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Alfred S. Reid
Few poets in America today have gone through as many transformations of style or as many varieties of subject matter as Karl Shapiro. Beginning as a modern formalist, he later renounced this work as "trash basket" poetry and went on to write free verse paragraphics; recently he returned to traditional songs and sonnets. Among our major poets today, only Robert Lowell has had more success with a similar triple shift from cerebral to visceral to cerebral verse. Just as striking are the varied configurations of Shapiro's major themes. He began as the poet of urban middle-class America, went to topics of war, eventually stressed the Jewishness of his work as its dominant "undercurrent," returned to an assessment of our bourgeois culture, and finally, in his first really happy book, he revelled in the joys of conjugal love.
Not surprisingly, these larger configurations of style and theme have totally obscured another element in his early work—his Southernness. In addition to these major subjects of middle-class urbanism, war, Jewishness, and love, he wrote a dozen or more poems in the 1940's that explicitly concern themselves with aspects of the Southern experience, especially as this experience clusters around the two poles of Jeffersonian social thought and Poesque psychic moods. He deals with such typical Southern topics as ancestral pride, alienation, Jeffersonian liberalism in an illiberal environment, race relations, the nature of the Southern character, and the relationship of a Baltimore poet to Edgar Allan Poe, with special attention to the paradox of being an American Jew in a Southern border state. His approach makes him no typical Southerner; he is hardboiled, analytic, satiric, experimental, and urban-oriented; and these features transform his incipient Southernness, both its rational and demonic impulses, into a much more cosmopolitan personality than the typical Southerner of our anthologies. Nevertheless, he is partly what he is in opposition to his Southern environment. (p. 35)
Of the fifty-one poems in his first book, Person, Place and Thing (1942), five express Southern themes or use Southern materials. They deal primarily with the intellectual experiences of a disillusioned young man coming to terms with two of his culture heroes, Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe, one the political idealist who was too far above the human realities, and the other an artist who was a badly flawed neurotic. Several poems also assimilate the style of the surrealistic or grotesque in the Poe-Baudelaire tradition. Perhaps the best of these earliest Southern poems is "University." Taking a coldly clinical view of the University of Virginia, the poem expresses repulsion at the...
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I have not heard a younger poet speak with any real respect for Karl Shapiro in some time—in spite of his life-long devotion to craft, his intelligence, his achievement in a variety of poetic forms; and his astonishing gift as polemicist and pamphleteer. I was reminded of this absence of tribute while reading and rereading this distinguished collection [his Collected Poems: 1940–1978], including at least twenty poems that are indispensable to American language and literature.
Shapiro succeeds where other poets fail (Robert Lowell is the most obvious example) in making history a part of his poems, showing the reader an event, a period, a world that is on the verge of disappearing, even as it begins to engage our attention. He is a surprisingly naturalistic writer (Delmore Schwartz once referred to Shapiro's "inexhaustible power of observation"), whose work provides one of the most accurate portraits we have of America from the late Thirties until the early Sixties. His poems tell us what it was like to be alive during those decades; just as his essays—written "with gusto and sassiness, with the delight of an amateur filling in," as he says—rage against the indignities and excesses of those years.
Even the earliest poetry retains its savor over many years and after numerous readings, amid changes in fashion, literary and otherwise. "Auto Wreck"—perhaps the most frequently anthologized American poem since Frost's "Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening" (there is even a film based upon the poem)—describes the puzzlement a passerby feels at the sight of death; such an accident, the speaker says, "Cancels our physics with a sneer, / And spatters all we know of...
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For an American poet of Shapiro's generation—that of Jarrell and Schwartz and Lowell and Berryman and Roethke—survival is quite a feat. His progress …, which entailed at various points revolts against formalism and academicism (the exigencies of "rime," T. S. Eliot, the Eastern critical establishment, the Englishness of the English language, and so forth), turns out to be a good thing, hygienically speaking. And it hasn't even lost him points as a poet. For the very latest [groups of poems] included in [Collected Poems: 1940–1978], Adult Bookstore, has some of the most sharply observed, satirically barbed and muscularly formed poems he has ever written. There is also here a stunning battle poem about the death of the great Japanese warship, The Yamoto, in April, 1945. It's laid out something like a Victorian ode (viz., Tennyson's stanzas on the death of the Duke of Wellington) and even more recalls the great defeatist poems of the Anglo-Saxons, "The Battle of Brunanburgh" in particular…. (p. 235)
Only Louis Coxe has written verse of comparable force about Pacific naval warfare during World War II.
What a relief to deal with a poet fully energized, whose virtues depend not at all upon canting back-reference to The Tradition, or the wan and feeble splendors of "reflexivity." Reading Shapiro we begin to believe again that modern poems can be about subjects other than themselves, that poets are not of necessity condemned to the perpetual effort to fly up their own fundaments.
"The Dome of Sunday," given pride of place in the first collection, Person, Place and Thing, evokes the dying fall of the American Thirties with a steady intensity. There is the hard clear Hopperesque light shed evenly on the "row-houses and row-lives" of Baltimore, the alienated observer behind his single "plate glass pane," the final shattering of the dome—of bourgeois smugness and selfish security—conveyed as wish only, yet pointing presciently towards Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941…. (p. 236)
[Then there is] "Scyros," Shapiro's much-anthologized bravura piece on the theme of universal-apocalyptic war cum conscription…. Despite the rackety Louis MacNeice touches, or perhaps because of them, the poem after three and a half decades stands with the best lyrics inspired by the grotesqueries, if not the pity, of World War II. To remind the reader...
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I think [Collected Poems: 1940–1978] will prove to be poetry that will last awhile, a lifetime's work that will be a monument to a certain tradition in writing, one that will not wear away or become obsolete, in the sense of useless, for the coming generation….
[Shapiro] has always been factual, direct in statement, and clear about defining his subject, which is most often an occasional one. Shapiro usually writes about persons, places, or things, which was, incidentally the title of his first book: Person, Place, and Thing. Here are some titles from his 3rd book, Trial of a Poet, that suggest his themes: "Homecoming," "The Conscientious Objector," "The Convert," "The...
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