The Magazine

The Return of Karl Shapiro?

The Library of America freshens old laurels.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Selected Poems

The American Poets Project, vol. 3

by Karl Shapiro,

edited by John Updike

Library of America, 197 pp., $20

I RECENTLY found myself describing someone as a successful poet of no significance whatsoever. Karl Shapiro, a selection of whose poems has just been brought out by Library of America, was just the reverse: an unsuccessful poet of considerable significance. The reasons he was unsuccessful tell a good deal about the state and condition of poetry in our time.

Karl Shapiro, who died in 2000 at the age of eighty-six, wasn't always unsuccessful. In fact, he began dazzlingly. In 1945, he emerged from World War II to win a Pulitzer Prize for his third, excellent book of poems, "V-Letter and Other Poems." This was at a time when a Pulitzer Prize meant more than it does today. (The usual award of a guinea to anyone who can name three of the last five years' Pulitzer Prize winners in poetry.) He was thirty-two, and the world had already recognized him as a gifted poet, well up to deploying language powerfully on a major subject--in this case, that of living through a war as an enlisted soldier, a medical corpsman. An earlier book had won the praise of Louise Bogan, a poet and critic whose praise lent imprimatur to a young poet as, say, Helen Vendler's tends to do in our own day.

After Shapiro won his Pulitzer, gates opened, invitations were offered, emoluments flashed. He was made consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress in 1946. A writing professorship at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, the city of his birth, followed; he was the second Jew to be hired in the history of the Hopkins English Department. From 1950 to 1956, he was the editor of Poetry, the oldest and easily most highly regarded magazine devoted to verse in America. Under its founding editor, Harriet Monroe, Poetry had published T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, all the great names in modern poetry; its European correspondent was Ezra Pound. The kingdom of poetry in the twentieth century, as in the twenty-first, was always a small one--a mountain principality, really--but Karl Shapiro, not yet forty, had a commanding place in it.

Yet today, when asked to name the key poets of Shapiro's generation, most people at the English-major level of culture would answer Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, and (less likely) Delmore Schwartz and Theodore Roethke. All were poets who fell to insanity and alcoholism, or, in Wordsworth's phrasing, in their youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness. Karl Shapiro never cracked up. Instead he made a few crucial decisions, took a number of significant positions, that went a long way toward scuppering his career.

Before getting on to this, though, it needs to be said that John Updike's compilation of Karl Shapiro's poems--a selection of the strongest poems from the various books of poetry Shapiro published over a long career--is a splendid reminder of how good a poet Karl Shapiro could be. One of the first things to be said about Shapiro's poetry is that, various though it is, it is never gloomy. A pleasure in life, in its richness, variety, and oddity, informs many of his poems, even those that verge on the dark, such as "Auto Wreck," a poem about coming upon an auto crash as a young man on his way home after leaving the bed of a lady friend. The arbitrariness of death by such a cause is what rightly strikes him:

For death in war is done by hands;

Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;

And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.

But this invites the occult mind,

Cancels our physics with a sneer,

And spatters all we knew of denouement

Across the expedient and wicked stones.

Similarly, in a poem called "Hospital," one of the few memorable poems not included in this collection, Shapiro begins by reminding that Inside or out, the key is pain, but then goes on to catalogue the abundance of possibilities that lie within the walls of This Oxford of all sicknesses:/ Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews / And actresses whose legs were always news. He could make a poem out of a fly, and in fact did, beginning: O hideous little bat, the size of snot.