Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1818
V-Letter and Other Poems is Karl Shapiro’s second major collection of poetry, written from 1942 to 1944 while Shapiro was on active duty in the U.S. Army during World War II. As Shapiro notes in the book’s introduction, all the poems except “Satire: Anxiety” were written while he was stationed in Australia and New Zealand. As described in his 1988 autobiography The Younger Son, he left the selection, editing, and arrangement of V-Letter and Other Poems to his first wife Evalyn Katz because the rigors of serving as a combat medic prohibited much involvement with the actual making of a book. While one might suspect that the war would most definitely shape the poetry, Shapiro states that he guarded “against becoming a war poet.’” Shapiro remarks that he had not “written these poems to accord with any doctrine or system of thought or even a theory of composition.” Furthermore, he states, “I have nothing to offer in the way of beliefs or challenges or prosody.”
Despite Shapiro’s modest self-effacement, V-Letter and Other Poems established him as one of the most important American poets, prosodists, and poetry critics of postwar American literature. He may have been isolated in the small, war-torn terrain of New Guinea for twenty-six months writing his poetry in his more than occasional lonely solitude, but when he returned to the United States after the war he discovered he was famous. V-Letter and Other Poems not only won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, but it also enjoyed a large readership (including being placed on all U.S. Navy ship libraries), and it launched for Shapiro a long, distinguished career in American letters. Ultimately, the book’s publication led Shapiro to become the first poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position is now titled United States Poet Laureate), the editor of the prestigious Poetry magazine, and a tenured professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he edited the literary journal Prairie Schooner. Thus, Shapiro did indeed have something of value to offer.
Much of Shapiro’s poetry, including the lyrics found in V-Letter and Other Poems, tends to cast the poet as an outsider, an iconoclast. As Shapiro once noted in an interview in The Paris Review, “The poet is in exile whether he is or he is not. Because of what everybody knows about society’s idea of the artist as a peripheral character and a potential bum. Or a troublemaker.I always thought of myself as being both in and out of society at the same time.” While V-Letter and Other Poems seems to exhibit a poet who embraces the conformity of traditional forms and prosody, the nonconformist vision is certainly most evident. One will notice, for example, that the poet seems more like a voyeur than a participant despite his actual involvement in the war as a medic. Yet this detachment may have arisen largely from his Jewish heritage: He was a conscientious objector and did not carry a gun; therefore, he observed the violence of war firsthand and assisted in rescuing wounded participants, but he did not himself participate in the making of violence. Thus, his poems very often place him outside the scene looking in while the violent world is dropping shells all around him. Additionally, his use of traditional forms and meter might suggest his conformity to past designs; however, close scrutiny of the work reveals Shapiro’s innovative departures from poetic tradition. For example, the lead poem of V-Letter and Other Poems, “Aside,” is a long lyric poem of six sexains or sestets (six-line stanzas). As Shapiro himself notes in his Prosody Handbook (1965), “the stave of six is an iambic pentameter or tetrameter stanza rhyming ababcc.” However, rather than specifically employing the English stanzaic conventions, Shapiro embellishes. He recasts the stanza’s first four lines into a brace or envelope quatrain rhyming abba, which is then followed by the rhyming couplet. Interestingly, the brace quatrain is rarely found except in the writing of the Italian sonnet octave. Thus, the iconoclastic poet is simultaneously adhering to and departing from tradition.
In “Aside,” Shapiro, as an observer, focuses upon the significance of mail day to soldiers who face combat on a daily basis. The poem is not merely a celebration of mail day but an illustration of how mail day is an occasion for renewal, as if the soldiers had stumbled upon an oasis. The “war stands aside for an hour”; as a result, “demobilized for a moment, a world is made human.” Peace is renewed in the souls of the men despite the fact the battle rages elsewhere. For the moment, they will “Say no more of the dead than a prayer” because “there is nothing alive/ Except as [mail day] keeps [them] alive, not tomorrow but now.” His detachment from the scene allows readers to more thoroughly enter the scene, to know more immediately what it is to still breathe despite the fact that death has been near and will yet be near.
Much of what holds V-Letter and Other Poems together is the way Shapiro focuses not so much on the war itself as on what it is that keeps the men alive. While this is surely a thematic concern, it is also consistent with the lyric quality of the collection. Shapiro neither praises war nor casts aspersion toward it. He does not idealize the heroes or make them romantic and, consequently, unreal. When Shapiro utilizes the heroic quatrain (four lines rhyming abab), he does so not to invoke the hero of old but to denigrate the nonheroes of his and the soldiers’ world. For example, Shapiro prefaces the ballad “The Intellectual” with the line “What should the wars do with these jigging fools?” Clearly, “The man behind the book may not be man,/ His own man or the book’s or yet the time’s.” The intellectual is Shapiro’s nonhero. On the other hand, the poet advocates the man, the soldier, or the artist who will “Do something! die in Spain or paint a green/ Gouache.” He says, furthermore, that he would “rather be a barber and cut hair/ Than walk with [the intellectual] in gilt museum halls.” If the intellectual is Shapiro’s nonhero, the detestable man, then clearly his heroes are the outcasts as shown in the poems “Jew” and “Nigger.” In the former example, the Jew is one of the world’s active people, though despised and destined to die: “The name is immortal but only the name// Our name is impaled in the heart of the world on a hill/ Where we suffer to die by the hands of ourselves, and to kill.” The poem “Nigger,” on the other hand, explores the prejudices endured by black men, who are admirable in comparison with the intellectual. This particular poem is filled with active verbs, elevating its character above those who do nothing:
When you boxed that hun, when you raped that trash that you didn’t rape,When you caught that slug with a belly of fire and a face of gray,When you felt that loop and you took that boot from a KKK,Are you coming to peace, O Booker T. Lincoln Roosevelt of grape?
Not only does Shapiro show readers the injustice of a prejudicial world in which the black man is punished for crimes he did not commit, in which he has had to fight battles he did not start, but the poet also shows how black men have been killed by the South’s cultural politics. What is a black man’s peace, perhaps, but death? Even then, however, Shapiro questions peace in death: “Did the Lord say yes, did the Lord say no, did you ask the Lord/ When the jaw came down, when the cotton blossomed out of your bones?”
Readers may wonder why poems such as “Jew” and “Nigger” are included in a collection composed during and written about World War II. Likely, Shapiro intends for readers to see that all soldiers are “Jews” and “niggers.” Soldiers are immortal in name only; in “bondage of murder and shame” (“Jew”), they die and fight upon the hills, bringing to mind the famous portrait of the Marines at Iwo Jima. Soldiers catch slugs fired from the gray, ambiguous politics that find wars necessary; they feel the noose about their necks and hope that Jesus will “cut that cord” (“Nigger”). If this is the case, these poems stand as allegories for the soldier’s condition and perhaps the reader’s as well. If Shapiro’s heroes are people such as barbers (“The Intellectual”), if they “do something,” are people not, in the majority, “soldiers,” “Jews,” and “niggers” too?
Granted, darkness frequents Shapiro’s lyrics; yet his poems are not mournful songs as one might suspect when reading a volume about war. They are songs that breathe with the experience and significance of the war itself. Take, for example, “Troop Train,” a long lyric of five octaves (eight-line stanzas) written in either a nonrhyming or coincidental rhyming pattern. The soldiers are “clustered” on themselves and “hang as from a cornucopia/ In total friendliness.” The image is one of the horn of plenty, a celebration of life’s sustenance, a Thanksgiving scene. While this image creates situational irony (how can troops, gathered together, perhaps traveling toward death, sustain life or be thankful?), the effect is understood. They are thankful to be alive, if only currently, and thankful for the closeness when, once the soldiers arrive at the battle, they must ultimately face death alone: “Luck also travels and not all come back.” Yet while the trains lead “the march to death,” they may also lead to “that survival which is all our hope.”
Perhaps one of the most engaging and horrific pieces in the collection is “The Gun.” The poem personifies the soldier’s gun: “You were angry and manly to shatter the sleep of your throat.” In this poem, comprising five brace or envelope quatrains, the reader discovers an image of the close relationship, almost worshipful, the soldier has with his gun. “I savour your breath like a perfume,” the poet writes; “I grip you”; “Come with me”; “You are only the means of the practical humor of death/ Which is savage to punish the dead for the sake of my sin!” Interestingly, the words chosen almost suggest a sexual bond between the soldier and his gun; if the gun “comes” with the man, both have experienced the simultaneous orgasm of fear and courage, life and death. The soldier persona, who does not wish to place the blame of violence upon the gun, says, “I absolve from your name/ The exaction of murder, my gun. It is I who have killed.” Significantly, Shapiro recognizes the human, passionate aspect of warfare and, furthermore, how the soldier clings to the “god” or lover that might save him.
Forms and Devices
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
Shapiro is a master of poetic form and devices. Much of his professional career was dedicated to studies of poetics and prosody, as found most impressively in A Prosody Handbook. In V-Letter and Other Poems, Shapiro’s ability to manipulate form and reinvent it is unmistakable. His favorite form in this particular volume seems to be the terza rima, as found in “Movie Actress,” “Jew,” and the sequence “The Interlude.” The terza rima is an Italian form composed of interlocking tercets, or three-line stanzas, ending with a couplet. For example, the rhyme pattern for Shapiro’s poems is aba bcb cdc ded gg. An antique form, it was introduced into English poetry from Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). Perhaps Shapiro’s use of this form is a matter of “form as an extension of content,” a design suggested by American poet Robert Creeley. If Shapiro borrows this form from The Divine Comedy, he may be suggesting the divine comedy of the war itself.
Not only does Shapiro utilize the terza rima in V-Letter and Other Poems, but he also uses the Italian sonnet form frequently, as in “The Sydney Bridge,” “Christmas Eve,” “Lord, I Have Seen Too Much,” and “On Reading Keats in War Time.” An Italian sonnet is composed of an octave (eight-line stanza) and a sestet or sexain (six-line stanza). Typically, the Italian sonnet’s rhyme pattern runs abbaabba cdcdcd. Shapiro, however, makes many adjustments to this basic pattern, sometimes opting to fashion other rhyme combinations. Among other forms are rhymed or unrhymed quatrain or ballad stanzas (“New Guinea,” “Sunday: New Guinea,” “Fireworks,” “Nigger,” “Franklin”), sexain stanzas (“Aside,” “Red Indian,” “The Synagogue”), and cinquain or five-line stanzas (“Jefferson”). Of particular interest, however, is the ambitious form of Shapiro’s ottava rima variations (“Piano” and “Christmas Tree”). The ottava rima is a very difficult poem to write, following a standard rhyme pattern of abababcc. Shapiro, however, modernizes the form by displacing the couplet from its final position and embedding it elsewhere. The rhyme pattern of “Piano,” for example, is ababccab. What Shapiro gains from reinventing the form is displacement of the expected, which is metaphorically equivalent to the displacement of those soldiers from their other lives. In “Piano,” the music of both the piano and the poetic form allows the soldiers to “Escape, escape, escape.”
Among the more playful forms Shapiro handles expertly is the ballade, as found in “Ballade of the Second-Best Bed.” According to Shapiro’s A Prosody Handbook, the ballade is a “Gallic importation” consisting of “three stanzas and a four-line envoy (a kind of conclusion or dedicatory stanza). The ballade uses three rhymes, and each stanza uses the same rhyme sounds; the scheme is ababbcbc. The last line of the first stanza is used as the last line of the other two stanzas and of the envoy.” The overall effect is whimsical; so much repetition of sound renders even the most serious of topics humorous. In Shapiro’s ballade, the persona, English playwright William Shakespeare, is giving orders for his will. “Good wife,” Shakespeare says, “bad fortune is to blame/ That I bequeath when I am dead,/ To you my honor and my name,/ A table, a chair, and the second-best bed.” Its place in V-Letter and Other Poems is clever and, once the riddle is solved, unmistakable: Just as Shakespeare must prepare his last will, so must a soldier. Furthermore, in reality a soldier’s wife is left with as little as Shakespeare’s wife; thus, one might as well find humor in the poverty of living. One additional note about “Ballade of the Second-Best Bed” is merited: Shapiro does not ever mention, among the items of Shakespeare’s will, a “best bed”; ironically, the best bed is doubtless the grave because it is there that all battles stop.
This discussion about Shapiro’s use of poetic form should in no way minimize his other abilities as a poet. He is a master of English metrics, he has a clear eye for imagery, he understands the subtleties of rhythm, and he constructs metaphors that are both startling and exhilarating. As Shapiro once stated in a seminar in creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, every poem ought to have an “alligator,” something unusual in it that will bite and hold the reader. Shapiro does this without exception in the whole of his work.