New and Selected Poems, 1940-1986
At a time when much of contemporary American poetry seems onanistic and faddish, the worst of it so elided as to seem like inexplicable Rorschach tests, Karl Shapiro continues to prove that much freedom, verve, and originality may be discovered in more or less traditional verse forms when they are employed by an expert craftsman. He is a master in the use of English prosody, a master in the use of hidden end-rhymes (so subtle and unapparent are his rhymes--by the way he employs caesuras, run-on lines, and stanzas--that the reader must deliberately look for the rhymes to notice them), and such a master in the use of fixed forms that they seem fluid.
The reader who has been taught to expect philosophical despair as a necessary ingredient of twentieth century poetry will not find much in NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, or in any of Shapiro’s other collections. Certainly there are his early “Hospital” and “Auto Wreck,” both of which are included here and express despair enough over the human condition to satisfy even the most morose of readers; and there is the quieter despair of some later poems, such as “The Progress of Faust” and the more recent “Essay on Chess.” Yet one does not read Shapiro’s poems for their expression of despair, or for what he calls in a new poem, “At Auden’s Grave” (one of the finest he has ever written), “horror vacui.” One reads them for their artistry, for their exactitude, for their vivid and surprisingly fresh imagery, and for their sure music. Indeed, Shapiro is -- and has been since the beginning of his career--an American artist of the first rank; he is to poetry what, say, John Updike is to fiction in this country: a master stylist.