Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00


Karl Shapiro

By William Jay Smith

Late in his life Karl Shapiro wrote of W. H. Auden:

Without him many of us would have never happened.

I can say of Karl Shapiro—and I think that I speak for others of my generation: Without him many of us would have never happened.

When his first book Person, Place, and Thing was published in 1942, Louise Bogan in The New Yorker welcomed it as the work of the “finest young American talent to appear in many seasons.” She praised Shapiro for his “emotional depth,” his “uncompromising side,” and his ability to distinguish “reality with a clear and piercing look.” Allen Tate wrote to the poet praising in Person, Place, and Thing that “special savagery of attack” which poets “must acknowledge across all barriers.” He found in the book a distinctive Baudelairean disgust: ”Your poetry moves me because it has, for the first time since T. S. Eliot’s arrival more than twenty-five years ago, that final honesty which is rare, unpleasant, and indispensable in a poet of our time. I envy you because, having striven for this quality, I have failed, I have never, in any poem been able to get it all down. You very nearly do get it all down, at moments wholly.”

Like Baudelaire, Shapiro was able to look with directness and without sentimentality at the life of the city that we all know:

Row-houses and row-lives.
Glass after glass door after door the same.
Face after face the same, the same.
The brutal visibility the same.

How had he arrived at such a direct and honest appraisal? I discovered only recently that he got there in a rather roundabout way. Before he faced the filth and degradation of Paris, Baudelaire made a visit to the island of Réunion. With money he saved working as a file clerk in his father’s office, Shapiro made a visit with a young lady friend to Tahiti, where he later wrote: “The poet takes the voyage to the New Cythera. Fifty miles from little Papeete he and his girl had rented a thatched hut. He says the name of the district over and over: Taravao, Taravao. The hut is right on the beach, water laps at the pilings. The whole front opens crazily out and is propped up by a stake.” He wrote a series of Tahiti poems, never published, but very different surely from those in Person, Place, and Thing. He returned home at the time of the Spanish Civil War, not to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, but, as he put it, “to sun myself on the beaches of Atlantic City, and write.”

Two years later Karl Shapiro was back in the Pacific as a medical attendant in the Army and it was there in Australia and New Guinea that he wrote his next book V-Letter, which won him the Pulitzer Prize and made him famous. His early fame, which seemed such a blessing at the time, became in the end a curse. Although, as we know, he continued to write with honesty and lyric power, he never again had the wide audience that welcomed him so warmly at the beginning of his career. Taking another cue from Baudelaire, he published in 1964 a savage book of prose poems, The Bourgeois Poet, in which he wrote:

The rings of my big notebook stand open like the
ribcage of a barracuda. Careful with your fingers.

And indeed his big notebook lays bare the poet’s heart. He slashes out at everything around him and turns the knife inward, attempting to kill the poet in himself. Fortunately he did not succeed in doing so. As the years passed, he became more and more disillusioned, however, with the entire poetic scene in this country. In 1975, in a collection of essays, The Poetry Wreck, he wrote:

For the first time we see poetry as big business, poetry as show biz, poetry to subvert the Academy and society itself. The Academy, always attentive to romantic innovation, indulges this brand of writing and hires teachers to profess it. The poetry of semi-literates and rock singers is equated with Shakespeare and Homer; a jail record is accorded the social status of a Ph.D. Obscenity is considered a metaphor, environmental deprivation as a sign of holiness…Our anthologies are fat and blowzy, their pages strewn with suicides, treasons and psychic breakdown. We judge poets not by their poetry but by what social scientists vulgarly call their life style. Instead of poetry as the essence and culmination of the poet, we look at poetry as a by-product or excrescence of his behavior. From this angle of vision poetry of adolescents, amateurs and psychotics seems equal to the poetry of masters. Anyone can be a poet, and in the contemporary pedagogy, everyone is.

This, of course, did not win him many friends among the younger generation, but now when The Poetry Wreck has generated the so-called “poetry slams,” when wild incoherent groups gather to publicly empty their psychotic cloaca on indulgent and sympathetic audiences, it seems a prophetic and just appraisal.

M. L. Rosenthal has said, “Shapiro’s first volume showed that he could write lyrical pieces whose feeling, despite their subtleties, had the direct appeal of folksongs. This gift has been a winning wild card for him from the beginning.” As an example of that winning wild card, here is Elegy for Two Banjos:

Haul up the flag, you mourners,
Not half-mast but all the way;
The funeral is done and disbanded;
The devil’s had the final say.

O mistress and wife too pensive
Pallbearers and priestly men,
Put your black clothes in the attic,
And get up on your feet again.

Death did his job like a scholar,
A most unusual case,
Death did his job like a gentleman;
He barely disturbed the face.

You packed him in a handsome carton
Set the lid with silver screws;
You dug a dark pit in the graveyard
To tell the white worms the news.

Now you’ve nothing lift to remember,
Nothing but the words he wrote,
But they’ll never let you remember,
Only stick like a bone in your throat.

O if I’d been his wife or mistress,
His pallbearer or his parish priest,
I’d have kept him at home forever –
Or as long as bric-a-brac at least.

I would have burned his body
And salvaged a sizable bone
For a paper-weight or a door-stop
Or a garden flagstone.

I would have heaped the fire
And boiled his beautiful skull.
It was laden like a ship for travels
And now is but an empty hull.

I would have dried it off in linens,
Polished it with a chamois cloth
Till it shone like a brand-new quarter
And felt smooth as the nose if a moth.

Or I’d have hung it out in the garden
Where everything else is alive,
Put a queen bee in the brain case
So the bees could build a hive.

Maybe I’d have wired the jawbone
With a silver spring beneath,
Set in the cradle with baby
So baby could rattle the teeth.

O you didn’t do right by William
To shove him down that filthy hole,
Throw him a lot if tears and Latin
And a cheap “God bless your soul. “

You might as well leave off mourning,
His photograph is getting dim,
So you’d better take a long look at it
For it’s all you’ll ever see if him.

Haul up the flag, you mourners,
Not half-mast but all the way;
The funeral is done and disbanded;
The devil’s has the final say.

In the case of Karl Shapiro, the devil will not have the final say. His words will be remembered for a very long time to come. Of him, in conclusion, I wish to say, as he said of W.H. Auden:

God bless this poet who took the honest chances,
God bless the live poets whom his death enhances.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 14, 2000.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters