January 11, 2011

Karl Shapiro, Consultant in Poetry, 1946-'47

The fifth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress arrived on the scene with a clear sense of purpose. Karl Shapiro's poems had profound subjects: classism, war, anti-semitism, and third-world exploitation. In general, he explored these topics from a vantage very different from the previous Consultants, who alternated between professor and confessor. Shapiro wrote from the mob rather than the lectern.

Shapiro was by turns an imagist, a war poet, an activist, a formalist, and a curmudgeon, but he was first a student of modern American culture. Tate was an American historian and Warren something of an American folklorist, but their America seems almost colonial in comparison to Shaprio’s with its neuroses and "perversions," its muddle of guilt and entitlement.

Even early in his career, Shapiro showed a keen understanding of how modernity had split the American identity like a prism. The modern American was not only self-aware, but aware that the “self” was much larger and more diffuse than it had previously seemed. The out-of-body experience, the dissociative moment, and the alienated insider were the exotic fruits of a culture of commodities, entertainment, and global politics. He examined the psychological effect of row homes and magazines, the eroticism of cars, Catholic confirmations, and haircuts. But his poems of Buicks and starlets comment on more than modern fetishism; Shapiro’s poems explore how modernity and its values changed our consciousness, inducting the voyeur, the schizophrenic and the narcissist into the archetypal menagerie.

Shapiro studies the modern obsession with documenting and being documented, and he explores how the two result in a kind of vertigo, where one’s experience of the public record (the tabloid, the newspaper, the movie screen, the candid and the radio), causes one’s perspective and awareness to expand dramatically, while simultaneously their ability to affect the record collapses. The modern American sees the enormity of the landscape, but in seeing so much, they lose track of their place in the landscape and their proportion relative to it. This groundless feeling of falling into the distances of history, this vertigo of losing one’s unique sense of place and self to the panoramic culture is clearly articulated in Shapiro’s “Epitaph for John and Richard:”

They will not cast your honored head
Or say from lecterns what you said,
But only keep you with them all
Committed in the City Hall;
Once born, once married, and once dead.

The modern era seems to not only require the document, but to prefer it. Indeed, in much of Shapiro's poetry, he embosses the alienation that comes to typify the post war years. In “Fireworks,” Shapiro articulates American nostalgia as a citizenry's alienation from historical consequence. He characterizes a 4th of July spectacle as a parody of war, a melodrama for the entertainment of a desensitized population. He bottles this sense of alienation with giddy, associative images which: tarantulas, Gomorrah, Lincoln, ice-cream, and sperm. He describes the physical scene by characterizing the psychological scene of the suburban landscape. The poem is dizzy with leaps, and the tone often threatens hysteria.

Shaprio concludes the poem, as is his wont, with a sentiment which seems to trivialize what he has shown us, and this is the curmudgeon in him:

In Niagaras of fire we leak in the luminous aura
And gasp at the portrait of Lincoln alive on the lattice.
Our history hisses and spits in the burning Gomorrah,
The volcanoes subside; we are given our liberty gratis.

After five stanzas of textured insights, Shaprio lands on a too simple summation: the picnics and pyrotechnics make us forget that liberty is not really free. Which, while arguably true, undercuts the complexity of our experience of history, tradition, patriotism, and the new suburban surreal which the poem has led us through. Shaprio's urge to offer us a lesson is understandable, but his poems would be stronger if they weren't stood on such clay feet.

Shapiro makes similarly unnecessary didactic turns at the conclusions of “Drugstore” and “Hollywood,” though the latter has more philosophical merit. The cumulative effect of these instructive endings paints Shapiro as something of a grump; a grandfather who lectures past the point of our comprehension. And though the cantankerous conclusions seem to become more common in the twilight of his career, Shapiro’s best work on the American subject concludes with image rather than lesson. "Movie,""Haircut," and "The Tongue" are more evocative pieces because they finally eschew analysis for image.

Similarly, "Buick" concludes with a crystalline image, but in this case it is not the conclusion that makes (or unmakes) the poem. “Buick” is fascinating because it is a giddy and lyrically love song to a car. Here, Shapiro identifies the fulcrum of modernity, the object which redefined "freedom" as "mobility," the object which became central to American identity and central to our psychology. Shapiro reverses the dynamic of Cummings’ well-known “She being Brand,” written nearly twenty years prior to “Buick.” In “She being Brand,” Cummings relates a sexual encounter through extended metaphor in which the man is the driver, the woman is the car, and the driving is their lovemaking. Shapiro, here, is not describing a woman in terms of a car, but a car in terms of a woman. A woman is not being objectified; an object is being humanized.

Shaprio’s poem is not so much sexy as it is geeky; he delights in animating the grace and ease of the car, the pleasure of driving, the transcendence of speed. But the reader is never duped into thinking that he is referring to a woman. There is no double entendre; for all its alliterative exuberance, it’s kind of an imagistic, rote poem. But then the poet describes the car’s origins, and the poem gets yanked out from under us:

But how alien you are from the booming belts of your birth and smoke
Where you turned on the stinging lathes of Detroit and Lansing at night
And shrieked at the torch in your secret parts and the amorous tests,
But now with you eyes that enter the future of roads you forget;

It’s a remarkable turn in a poem that had begun to lull. Suddenly, we are confronted with allusions to abuse, to rape, to a monstrous industry. It’s a sly move, because in the next stanza the poem returns to the exuberant present: the enraptured driver pulling into his garage, leaving his car “sleeping” like a lover exhausted from passion. But the earlier nightmarish aside is what lingers in the reader’s mind. Shapiro seems to have recognized what had changed in the years since Cummings wrote “She being Brand.” The car was no longer a metaphor for a man or a woman, but an anthropomorphic entity in itself. Shapiro runs the logic to its end: if the car is a person, where did this person come from, and have they been treated humanely? The revulsion that readers may feel upon reading “shrieked at the torch in your secret parts” is, of course, illogical (a car can not be tortured), but suggests an important element of the burgeoning consumer culture: people can be made to care disproportionately about things if they can be made to think of those things as having human characteristics.

Shapiro's ability to shock us with observable and relatable images is perhaps his greatest strength as a writer. He saw the subject as being obscured by the residual document, the real as being eclipsed by the artificial, the human overrun by the prude. “Auto Wreck” engages our sense of shock with pristine images and deliberate elements of artifice by way of theater. The scene has lighting, staging, directed action. The poem offers us not so much a narration as it does a scene. And the wreck is not the subject of the scene, but rather it is the erasure of the wreck, the sanitation of the street that becomes the scene.

We are deranged, walking among the cops
Who sweep glass and are large and composed.
One is still making notes under the light.
One with a bucket douches ponds of blood
Into the street and gutter.
One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling,
Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles.

What is ultimately shocking is not the mortal absurdity of the wreck, but how quickly the tragedy is being whisked away. This is the new real: deathless, sexless, and wanting for nothing.

Shapiro evokes a different kind of shock using a similar combination of image and theatrics in “Honkytonk,” but in this case he avoids a coherent scene in favor of a associative pastiche:
Then at the outskirts of our Conscious, No
From old high-over offices beats down
On standard faces Business-mad, and girls,
Grass under sullen stone, grown pale with work;
Yet shields with shadow this
Disgraced like genitals
Ghetto of local sin, laughable Hell,
Night’s very alley, loathed but let alone.
The effect of these lines is both frightening and infuriating: we are unnerved, but the cause of this terror is indistinct. It is ultimately Shapiro’s agitation that is most palpable. The truth is, his passion for image and his love of lyric sometimes overwhelms his subject and our sense of it; on some occasions his verse seems to rave rather than engage. But following the relatively strangled verse of Bogan, Shapiro’s frothing is something of a respite.

Shapiro was rarely subtle. He was brash and crude and disquieting, an agitator who was ill-prepared for the new age of political correctness. But he demystified many subjects and called out the taboo whether readers liked it or not. “Sunday: New Guinea” and “Troop-Train” humanize the absurdity of war with modest bewilderment and apolitical detail. “University” offers a scathing critique of the institutionalized racism of colleges, and "Nigger" is troubling because of the force with which Shapiro concludes that religion subverts rather than advances the struggle for equality. “The Confirmation” challenges the deceptive prudery of romanticism by describing a boys sexual awakening in terms which subvert the ideal and the mystic. “Jew,” “Shylock,” and “The Synagogue” illuminate both the suffering of jews and the flaws which he perceives in the jewish tradition. Shapiro spared no subject his critical (and occasionally jaundiced) eye.

Still, Shapiro was not constantly a bruiser. He was capable of quiet and reflection, and in these comparatively rare moments, readers get a glimpse of Shapiro’s vulnerability. Such moments suggest that while Shaprio was blessed with a critical mind, his analysis never inoculated him from feeling pangs of dread and alienation. From “A Cut Flower:”
My beauty leaks into the glass like rain.
When first I opened to the sun I thought
My colors would be parched. Where are my bees?
Must I die now? Is this a part of life?

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