When Karl Shapiro published his first two volumes of poetry, PERSON, PLACE AND THING and V-LETTER, he joined the generation of poets whose verse shared at least one characteristic: an overriding concern with the texture, the actual feel, of contemporary urban life. Their poetry is, finally, social rather than lyric, if such a distinction can be made. They do not so much sing of the self as speak bluntly about the society which surrounds them. They view with relatively clear and disenchanted eyes a society built upon ideals of individualism, free enterprise, and progress in all its mechanical and political power, personal anonymity, and public conformity. The feelings and thoughts of ordinary people lie buried somewhere beneath the slogans, advertisements, and downright lies of a mass culture dominated by a faceless state. For example, the poignancy of the sound of a human voice beneath all the whirring of machinery may be discovered in Shapiro’s poem “V-Letter.”
Responding to the same social and political developments as the slightly older British group including Auden, Spender, Day Lewis and MacNeice, the American poets also create no mythologies, celebrate neither a Georgian landscape nor a Golden Age of the past. These poets have given lyricism a tone of irony.
Like the others, Shapiro draws on the materials at hand for the matter of his poems: images of city and suburbia, home, crowds, drugstores, machines, human types drawn from the rigid hierarchies of a democratic society. Also, these poets are somewhat doubtful as to the sense of writing poetry at all. Poetry seems a bit like an effeminate whimper in the face of realities it can never quite express. Shapiro feels this quite strongly.
Power, raw power, is sometimes celebrated in near-lyric fashion, as in Spender’s poem “The Express”; something of the same is seen in Shapiro’s “Buick” and “The Gun.” In all cases it is not the machine that is to blame, or frightening, but the men who made it and use it. If only men had the cold authority of steel they could survive, but the flesh is weak. For all his hard-headedness and irony, Shapiro and others of his kind have, not quite a faith or, finally, pity, but a defiant love for the weak human flesh, for the ordinary man. Ultimately that love for the downright human, the essential, brings Shapiro under the influence of a writer whose apparent callousness he once despised—D. H. Lawrence. It is Shapiro’s doubt and finally his impatience with poetry as such that led him to abandon the ironic formalism of his original style and write the admixture of prose polemic and Whitmanesque verse titled THE BOURGEOIS POET. But this is to anticipate. Consider the poet’s skepticism concerning poetry itself, as expressed in “Poet”; one notes that the tone is fairly bitter and scornful. Shapiro especially, who returned from the Pacific to be lionized by the literary elite, is aware of how the poet can become a cheapened type, sought not for his poetry or for himself, but because he embodies a sentiment.
It is basically Shapiro’s sense of himself as a poet in the modern world which led him first to use rhyme and meter as a technique for irony, and later to abandon that technique because it was, finally, contrived, negative, evasive, the neatness of the rhyme scheme providing a shape, a completeness, which the experience recorded does not have.
The anonymity and even gruesomeness of modern life makes it difficult for a poet to be openly lyrical. Of what shall he sing, what celebrate? Instead, he draws back even from himself, and employs the old trappings of lyric verse for ironic purposes. In “The Gun,” a thing is given more sensibility than the man. In the poem, Shapiro can move toward a swinging, lyric...
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