The Poem

Karl Shapiro’s “Troop Train” is a long lyric poem of five octaves (eight-line stanzas) written in either a nonrhyming or coincidental rhyming pattern. It is one of the principal poems taken from Shapiro’s second collection of poems, V-Letter and Other Poems, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. The V-Letter collection was written from 1942 to 1944 while Shapiro served in the U.S. Army during World War II. As Shapiro noted in V-Letter’s introduction, this poem (as well as the majority of the others collected therein) was written while he was stationed in the war zones of Australia and New Zealand.

Interestingly, “Troop Train” serves as a model of Shapiro’s ability to distance himself from his poetic subject. Just as Shapiro was a conscientious objector during World War II, which disallowed him from carrying weapons, he was still a part of the war while he stood apart from it. Hence, while war raged around him, his role as a medic put him unarmed in the midst of the fighting. This detachment is what one finds in “Troop Train.” It allows the poet to stand back, as a voyeur, and observe the war’s events without unnecessarily romanticizing those events because of his direct involvement. The result, then, is part objective portrayal, part something closer to real truth, and part something that is intensely creative because the poet is able to reshape, redefine, and restructure that reality.

Hence, while Shapiro most likely rode on numerous troop trains and could have easily written only about that personalized experience, he chooses, instead, to observe what impact the train has upon the town through which it passes, upon the townspeople, and upon the troops themselves. This third-person observation keeps his own personal...

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Forms and Devices

In the introduction of V-Letter and Other Poems, Shapiro made a disclaimer pertinent to his use of forms and devices. He said that he had not “written these poems to accord with any doctrine or system of thought or even a theory of composition.” Further, he stated, “I have nothing to offer in the way of beliefs or challenges or prosody.” Nonetheless, despite this self-effacement, Shapiro would become one of America’s postmodern experts on prosody and poetic structure. Perhaps much of what he had done in V-Letter was successful intuition, yet the best poets premeditate their work through form and craftsmanship. Shapiro’s craftsmanship is so sound, it seems unlikely “Troop Train” came from chance.

Specifically, the poem’s octave structure is enhanced by a methodical, slow meter. The standard meter of poetry in English is iambic; however, Shapiro manipulates that meter into an accentual verse, with roughly five stresses per line juxtaposed with any number of unstressed syllables. Unlike iambic meter, where unstressed syllables alternate predictably with stressed ones, Shapiro offers no such predictability. While there is a cadence to the poem, it is not the cadence of a metronome; rather, the poem plods along, like a train would, slowly toward its destination, wheels clacking upon the tracks in a haphazard rhythm. Similarly, then, the soldiers are being carried toward their own unpredictable destinations—such is the rhythm of life...

(The entire section is 603 words.)