Nationality: British. Born: London, 24 March 1953. Education: Trinity College, Dublin, B.A. (first-class honors), 1976; Dublin College of Music, 1974–76; St. Hilda's College, Oxford, B.A. 1978; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978–80; University of Bristol, diploma (with distinction) in adult and community education 1984. Career: Lecturer in English, Rolle College, Exmouth, 1981–84; education officer, 1984–86, and acting senior education officer, 1986, Arts Council, London; education officer, South Bank Centre, London, 1986–91; Judith E. Wilson Senior Visiting Fellow in creative writing, Cambridge University, Pembroke College, 1991. Lyricist and librettist. Awards: Harvard University Harkness fellowship, 1978–80; South West Arts Literature award, 1982; Poetry Society National Poetry prize, 1985, 1993; Commonwealth prize, 1989, for Electroplating the Baby; Prudence Farmer award, New Statesman, 1989. Address: London, England.
Electroplating the Baby. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1988.
Motherland. N.p., Gwaithel and Wilwern, 1996.
Editor, with Matthew Sweeny, Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times. London, Faber, 1996.*
Critical Studies: "Responses to Elizabeth Bishop: Anne Stevenson, Eavan Boland, and Jo Shapcott" by David G. Williams, in English (Leicester, England), 44 (180), 1995; "Pavlova's Physics: The Poems of Jo Shapcott" by Jane Satterfield, in Antioch Review, 55 (2), spring 1997; by Lavinia Greenlaw, in New Statesman (London), 13 March 2000.* * *
That Jo Shapcott is the only person to have won the Poetry Society National Poetry prize twice should itself be a sufficient accolade. But what is the special quality of her poetry?
The word most often used to describe Shapcott's poetry is "surrealistic," not a description of which she herself is very fond. None of us likes to be neatly labeled or pigeonholed in this way; it is too restrictive, too pat. But her prizewinning poem "The Surrealists' Summer Convention Came to Our City" probably prompted the label:
We were as limp as the guide book
to the city
This recalls Dali's limp watches melting in the desert sun. And here I think is a clue. What is called Shapcott's surrealism grows out of her poetic observation of her experiences, whereas Dali imposed his images on his pictures, with the result that they are often rootless and sometimes superficial, having the shelf life of a good joke. I suspect that this popular surrealism is at the bottom of Shapcott's rejection of the label. Her surrealism, if we must call it such, is organic, while that of Dali and his followers is synthetic.
"Electroplating the Baby," the title poem of Shapcott's first major collection, is an idea that would appear to have all the trappings of surrealism about it. Yet the poem derives from something that people actually believed and acted upon, however mistakenly. Thus,
It would be impossible to say.
It is infinitely possible.
If I were to look for a single word to describe Shapcott's poetry, it would be "protean." The subjects of many of her poems are just that. As shown in the following lines, for example, Tom of "Tom and Jerry Visit England" changes his shape and his nature:
I banged full face into a query—
and ended up with my front shaped
like a question mark for hours.
Even Shapcott's sheep transform themselves. It is an important aspect of the art of poetry to transform the way we look at things, and Shapcott's poetry does just that.
Then there is Shapcott's later superb poem "Thetis." Thetis was the sea goddess with the faculty of infinitely changing her form. And here we come to the most important aspect of Shapcott's poetry, the quality of its language. In "Thetis" the sensual power of the language is such that one can enjoy the sensation with the goddess as she slips into her shapes:
as I stretch
my limbs for the transformation, I'm laughing
to feel the surge of other shapes beneath my skin.
my soul has slithered into this
Low tremendous purrs start at the pit
of my stomach, I'm curving through long grass,
all sinew, in a body where tension
is the special joy-
The skillful use of assonance and alliteration makes this poem a tour de force of voluptuous imagery in which the reader shares the physical joy of changing shape. So what we are talking about is a poet's vision beautifully expressed.
The theme of changing shapes is pursued in such poems as "Today I Am a Vogue Model" and "Elephant," as is the pursuit of appropriately sensual language in which to express the theme. And it is the language of Shapcott's poems that is the key to their excellence. A single word can reverberate in her poems, as, for example, "distance" does in "Motherland":
Distance. The word is ingrained like pain.
So much for England and so much
for my future to walk into the horizon
carrying distance in a broken suitcase.
Changing shape, expressed in such classical works as Ovid's Metamorphoses, is a theme that runs deep in our mythology and folklore. Thus, Shapcott is in good company. And in Phrase Book she pursues the metamorphosis of language as it passes from one to another, a further deep, flowing concern.