The Poem

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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 summary out of the poem.

Thus, the train “stops the town we come through.” All activity is temporarily aborted because these troops are heading to the battlefront to stop the advancement of the enemy who, if they proceed, will eventually take over the town. The people’s attentions are arrested, perhaps in the spectacle of the train itself or in the awareness of the impending battles the troops face. The troop train, here, is an instrument not only to stop the war but also to stop the town. This suggests, perhaps, that the town has a war of its own—its labor, where “workers raise/ their oily arms in good salute”; its inability to preserve innocence, where kids, who should never have been exposed to the criminality of war, “scream,” not out of fear but at the train, “as at a circus”; where businessmen “glance hopefully and go their measured way” because life is a set of accounts and ledgers where one hopes to succeed and to not end in the red.

Furthermore, the women, coming out to their “dumbstruck door,” are most succinctly aware of the war’s impending significance. They “more slowly wave and seem to warn us back/ As if a tear blinding the course of war/ Might once dissolve our iron in their sweet wish.”

The soldiers are “clustered on [them]selves/. . . hang as from a cornucopia/ In total friendliness.” Ironically, the image is one of the horn of plenty, a celebration of life’s sustenance, a Thanksgiving scene. However, how can troops, traveling perhaps toward imminent death, sustain life or, for that matter, be thankful? Shapiro’s purpose is understood: All are thankful to be alive, if only presently, and thankful for the community for, once the soldiers arrive to battle, they must ultimately face death alone.

Once the troop train passes the town, Shapiro turns the ride into something...

(This entire section contains 729 words.)

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of a poker hand, where “luck” determines who wins or loses. No longer the “faces bunched/ To spray the streets with catcalls and with leers,” or the “mouths that want the drink-of-water kiss” from “a lady smiling pink,” the soldiers are now the “good-bad boys of circumstance and chance.” About the ensuing card game, the poet writes, “Dealer, deal me my luck, a pair of bulls,/ The right draw to a flush, the one-eyed jack.” Although this may be taken literally, the poet’s intent is that one sees this as a request of fate, too. The speaker says, “Deal me winners, souvenirs of peace,” but the odds of winning are squarely stacked against soldiers: “Luck also travels and not all come back.”

Forms and Devices

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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 itself.

One of Shapiro’s enduring strengths as a poet is his ability to shape simile and metaphor. Instead of describing the troop train as a train, Shapiro’s metaphor casts it as a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. However, the fruits of the harvest, for which the townspeople are thankful and hopeful, are the soldiers; the soldiers, in service to war, are hopeful the harvest of death will not include them—not at this interval, at least. However, the train is not just metaphorically a cornucopia, it is also a symbol for life’s passage, moving on “through crummy continents and days,/ Deliberate, grimy, slightly drunk we crawl.” As Shapiro writes, “Trains lead to ships and ships to death or trains,” and these trains lead “to death or trucks, and trucks to death.” The train, like life, is a “march to death/ Or that survival which is all our hope.” Nonetheless, the end result of all train rides, all marches is death, the “Nightfall of nations brilliant after war.”

Additional metaphors arise in the life-as-poker-game analogy. Shapiro writes that “Diamonds and hearts are red but spades are black.” Diamonds are gemstones, precious as life is precious; hearts are the life source and the passion for living. Spades connotes the digging tool used to fabricate not only foxholes but also graves, and in both death resides. “Spades are spades and clubs are clovers,” Shapiro adds, repeating the spade image so that the reader does not lose sight of the matter-of-factness of death; the clovers, black like death, become the ground cover of graves grown over.

Furthermore, Shapiro makes fine use of personification and synecdoche. Personification, or the giving of human qualities to nonhuman things, turns the soldier’s packs into the “twist” of “murdered bodies.” The guns, unlike the nervous and apprehensive men about them, “only seem themselves.” Oddly, then, the guns are calm and at ease, aware of their identities and of their purposes; they fear nothing. Conversely, the men have become iron that the women wish to dissolve. The men are not whole, but, as synecdoche commands, they are parts: “faces bunched,” “eyes fixed,” kiss-desirous mouths that sting. They are “the shoulder” the gun strap “tightens acrossand holds firm.”