Dan Vera

Karl Shapiro, Poet and Anti-Critic

Karl Shapiro, who served as the fourth Consultant in Poetry, achieved enormous early recognition for his work. Born in Baltimore, he studied at the University of Virginia before World War II. Shapiro immortalized his war-time experience in his first book of poetry, V-Letter and Other Poems, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. After the war, he was invited to serve as Poetry Consultant.

Shapiro is notable as the first of a long line of veteran poets who serves as Consultant in Poetry after World War II. After his term as Poetry Consultant, Shapiro would accept the editorship of Poetry Magazine and later Prairie Schooner. Although a somewhat polarizing figure for his outspoken positions, Shapiro was known as a fine editor who defended the work he published. Indeed, Shapiro’s willingness to publish reviews critical of the work of Conrad Aiken in Poetry apparently severed their long-time friendship. Shapiro was also a strong opponent of censorship: when a story he’d accepted for Prairie Schooner was removed for being judged “obscene and in poor taste” by the University of Nebraska administration, Shapiro quit his post as editor along with his teaching position, in protest over what he called “administrative tampering.” The story appeared in newspapers across the country.

Shapiro also became as well-known as a critic as he was as a poet. Indeed The Washington Post once called him “the Mort Sahl of criticism”: “I am a member of a sect, sometimes called anti-critics. It’s part of the program of my sect to laugh criticism out of business, to play practical jokes, and in general to harass and demoralize the enemy. This is serious play.”

He was forceful in his convictions even when challenging accepted orthodoxies, especially against the Ezra Pound/T.S. Eliot school that so dominated mid-century poetry. “The criticism of Eliot and Pound has blighted enormous literary areas, as far as we can tell” and stating that Ezra Pound was “not worth my time or yours.” T.S. Eliott‘s The Four Quartets, Shapiro wrote, “appears to be a deliberately bad book, one written as if to convince the reader that poetry is dead and done with.”

 

Karl Shapiro in the Poetry Office, 1946. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

Shapiro wrote:

“I always had the feeling the crowds who came to hear Robert Frost came to honor him, not poetry. Frost was the last of the British colonial poets. He wrote English pastoral.”

“A teacher can teach almost anybody to write a good poem. That is, one that follows the old rules of rhetoric, tone, structure, symbolism. They’re laboratory poems. They look very like the real thing, as artificial flowers do. What they lack is life.”

“Even at its loudest, and naughtiest, poetry is still the most ignored of the arts, and deserves to be. The fact is that the poets have scamped on their work. They have not celebrated anything for a century except themselves and their suffering.”

“All true poetry is absolutely amoral. But the artist is different from other people in that he is in a constant state of oneness with his experience.”

In the years after his consultancy, the Library would frequently invite Shapiro back to lecture. Highlights included a series of six lectures on the history of poetry, which were later published in a special 1964 issue of The Carleton Miscellany under the editorship of future Poetry Consultant and Poet Laureate Reed Whittemore. In January of 1964 Shapiro and Ralph Ellison would both visit the Library to present paired readings on the same theme. Shapiro’s essay, “American Poet?” offered a searing analysis of the state of poetry and was reported on in national papers such as the Washington Post which ran it under the headline “Shapiro Sinks Barbs In Fellow Poets.” Shapiro would return whenever invited until his teaching career took him to the West Coast, making long distance air travel for a lecture too arduous.

One later highlight was Shapiro’s honoring of another poet critic. Indeed given Shapiro’s promience as a critic, it was no surprise he’d be asked by the Library of Congress to deliver the encomium for Randall Jarrell at a memorial event in 1966. The lecture would later be published by the Library in book form. Of Jarrell, Shapiro eulogized:

“Jarrell was the least anti-American of all of us, and the most. He recoiled from the boredom and horror and the glory of the day-to-day life. But what he did in his poetry, which had really never been done before, was to face the modern scene and to—what more is there to say—to face it. He did it better than anyone else, better than it can be done. He did it passionately and with superb control. He did it with lies and subterfuge and great prose. He did it by hiding and spying, reporting and keening. I would imagine that he wept himself to death, out of frustration for the Kafka-like manias of our time, including those of the intelligentsia; out of the ambition which he denied himself because he was more intelligent than any of us; out of love of the natural which denies the political. He died, you might say, because his heart was in the right place and his heart was even stronger than his intellect.”

 

Works Cited

Shapiro, Karl, In Defense of Ignorance (1960)

—-, American Poet? (1964)

—-, Randall Jarrell (1967)

 

Dan Vera is the co-editor of the anthology Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books, 2016), and author of two poetry collections: Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press, 2013), and The Space Between Our Danger and Delight (Beothuk Books, 2008). A CantoMundo and Macondo writing fellow, he’s the winner of the Oscar Wilde Award for Poetry and the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He’s received grants and fellowships from the DC Commission of the Arts & Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. His poetry has been featured in college and university curricula and included in such anthologies as Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology, Queer South, Divining Divas, and Full Moon On K Street: Poems About Washington, DC. He is the former Board Chair for Split This Rock, and co-creator of the literary history website, DC Writers' Homes. For more visit http://www.danvera.com. To read more by Dan Vera: Dan Vera: Winter 2006; Dan Vera: Evolving City Issue; Dan Vera: Split This Rock Issue; Dan Vera's Introduction to the US Poets Laureate Issue,Fall 2009; Dan Vera: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue; Dan Vera: Floricanto Issue.