The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 729 words.)