Recalling Karl Shapiro, Jewish poet against the grain

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In l942, when Shapiro was 29, Louise Bogan, a major poet at the time, called him "the finest young American talent to appear in many seasons" — and this in the pages of the New Yorker.

Another important poet of his day, Selden Rodman, wrote in the New Republic that Shapiro was "a true spokesman for our generation."

Two years later, Shapiro was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "V-Letter and Other Poems," surely one of the best collections of poetry based on the experience of modern warfare.

"V-Letter" is filled with similar instances of chiseled language that seem precisely right for their time and place.

Why Shapiro's career arched its way toward near- anonymity is something that he himself pondered, once quipping that to be "put on a pedestal before your clay was dry was to invite disaster." Perhaps. In any event, the disaster came, and many thought that Shapiro had largely brought it on himself. I have always felt otherwise, and for reasons as personal as they are professional.

Let me begin with the personal, because the news of Shapiro's death took me back to a reading he gave at Temple University during the fall of l967. The auditorium was packed — and not simply with undergraduates required to attend. Back then, Shapiro was as much known for being a maverick, slightly aging hippie type as he was for his early poems.

An aspiring poet myself, I had followed Shapiro's work with considerable interest and much enjoyed the chance to hear a live rendition of such famous poems as "Drug Store" and "Crucifix in the Filing Cabinet." But what I enjoyed at least as much — and here is where the "personal" comes in — is that a fetching young woman (she would soon become my wife) was at my side. In those long-ago days, a date meant going to a poetry reading rather than to a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie. Shapiro gave a terrific reading, and I knew, then and there, that I had found what is now called a "keeper."

The professional reasons why learning about Shapiro's death saddened me may seem decidedly less dramatic, but they are important nonetheless. For one thing, Karl Shapiro made writing verse possible for several generations of Jewish American poets. When he began writing in the late 1930s, a friend advised him to think up a suitably non-Jewish pen name because, as he put it, no first-rate poetry magazine would publish somebody named Karl Shapiro. If this is hard to imagine, remember that the l948 edition of "The Literary History of the United States" — all 1,000-plus pages of it — did not include a single Jewish-American name. Shapiro helped to change that.

For another, in l948 Shapiro had the courage to vigorously oppose giving a Bollingen Prize in Poetry to Ezra Pound. Others on the committee, including such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and W.H. Auden, argued that politics had no place in assessing an award for poetry — even if Pound's vicious anti-Semitism was encrusted in the very lines they were honoring.

Shapiro, to his enduring credit, could not keep silent, and as a result he was, in his own words, "suddenly forced into a conscious decision to stand up and be counted as a Jew." Granted, Shapiro was not always happy when Jewish organizations and newspapers sought him out for comment — as with other literary Jews, he preferred to think of himself as a poet, period, rather than as a "Jewish poet" or, in his case, as a "soldier poet."

Still, the die, as they say, had been cast, and in 1958 he published a collection titled "Poems of a Jew" that included admissions such as the following:

"When I see the name of Israel in print/The fences crumble in my flesh; I sink/Deep in a Western chair and rest my soul./I look the stranger clear to the blue depths/of his unclouded eye. I say my name/Aloud for the first time unconsciously."

Even so, and before contemporary readers leap to sentimental conclusions, Shapiro also simultaneously insisted that the "free modern Jew is neither hero nor victim. He is a man left over, after everything that can happen has happened."

Not surprisingly, Shapiro's penchant for taking strong, controversial positions cost him friends and the favor of influential critics, especially when he announced, in an l959 New York Times Book Review article, that poetry was a "diseased art," and that the principle carriers of the disease were none other than Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, William Butler Yeats and Pound. Indeed, Shapiro felt that the only world-class poet produced in America was Walt Whitman, and needless to say, there was a good bit of Whitmanian excess in Shapiro himself.

Shapiro paid mightily for his public passions, but American letters would have been much the poorer if he had simply "gone along to get along." For one thing, the Pound controversy would not have received the public airing it so richly deserved, and we would not have had "Poems of a Jew." Those are reasons enough to remember Shapiro with appreciation and gratitude.