Shapiro, David (Joel)

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SHAPIRO, David (Joel)

Nationality: American. Born: Newark, New Jersey, 2 January 1947. Education: Columbia University, New York, B.A. (magna cum laude) 1968, Ph.D. 1973; Clare College, Cambridge (Kellett fellow, 1968–70), B.A. (honors) 1970, M.A. 1974. Family: Married Lindsay Stamm in 1970; one child. Career: Instructor and assistant professor of English, Columbia University, 1972–81. Visiting professor, Brooklyn College, 1979, and Princeton University, New Jersey, 1982–83. Since 1980 writer-in-residence and visiting adjunct professor, Cooper Union, New York. Associate professor of art history, 1980–96, and since 1996 professor, William Paterson College, Wayne, New Jersey. Since 1963 a violinist with several orchestras, including the New Jersey Symphony and the American Symphony; since 1970 editorial associate, Art News, New York. Since 1980 has collaborated with the architect John Hejduk on theatrical masques and architectural projects. Awards: Gotham Book Mart award, 1962; Bread Loaf Writers Conference Robert Frost fellowship, 1965; Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1967; Book-of-the-Month Club fellowship, 1968; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1974; Morton Dauwen Zabel award, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1979, 1980, and Humanities fellowship, 1979, 1980; Graham Foundation grantee, 1996–97; Foundation for Continuing Performance Art grantee, 1996–97. Address: 3001 Henry Hudson Parkway, Bronx, New York 10463–4747, U.S.A.



Poems. Privately printed, 1960.

A Second Winter. Privately printed, 1961.

When Will the Bluebird. Privately printed, 1962.

January: A Book of Poems. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1965.

Poems from Deal. New York, Dutton, 1969.

A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel. New York, Dutton, 1971.

The Dance of Things. New York, Lincoln Center, 1971.

The Page-Turner. New York, Liveright, 1973.

Lateness (single poem). New York, Nobodaddy Press, 1976.

Lateness (collection). Woodstock, New York, Overlook Press, 1978.

To an Idea. New York, Overlook Press, 1983.

House, Blown Apart. Woodstock, New York, Overlook Press, 1988.

After a Lost Original. Atascadero, California, Solo Press, 1990.


New England Masque, music by Morton Feldman (produced Boston).

Screenplay: Mobile Homes, with Rudolph Burckhardt.


John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1979.

Poets and Painters (exhibition catalog). Denver, Denver Art Museum, 1979.

Jim Dine: Painting What One Is. New York, Abrams, 1981.

Jasper Johns: Drawings 1954–1984. New York, Abrams, 1984.

Mondrian Flowers. New York, Abrams, 1990.

Alfred Leslie: The Killing Cycle, with Judith Stein. St. Louis, Missouri, Saint Louis Art Museum, 1991.

The Thunder God: A Chinese Folktale. Sydney, Harcourt Brace, 1992.

Michael Goldberg: Goldberg Variations. Viterbo, Italy, Edizioni Primaprint, 1997.

Editor, with Ron Padgett, An Anthology of New York Poets. New York, Random House, 1970.

Editor, Inventory: New & Selected Poems, by Frank Lima, West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Hard Press, 1997.

Editor, with Bill Beckley, Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics. New York, Allworth Press, 1998.

Translator, with Arthur A. Cohen, The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. New York, Viking Press, 1978.


Manuscript Collection: Syracuse University Library, New York.

Critical Studies: In New York Review of Books, Christmas 1971; unpublished master's theses by Stephen Paul Miller, City University of New York, and Michael Simon, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1977; Thomas Fink, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), January-February 1988; "The Paranoia of Postmodernism" by William Bywater, in Philosophy and Literature (Baltimore, Maryland), 14 (1), April 1990; "Tracing David Shapiro's 'The Seasons'" by Thomas Fink, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 37 (3), fall 1996.

Theatrical Activities: Director: FilmHouse (Blown Apart), 1984.

David Shapiro comments:

(1975) Simone Weil said, "The Fool, taken literally, is speaking the truth." Often, in my favorite poets, paradox and "nonsense" achieve not so much the ambiguity analyzed denotatively and connotatively by Mr. Empson but a pointing to logos by its extreme absence. As early tribes were obsessed by shadows, convinced that an animal's shadow was part of the animal, so Stein, Carroll, Borges employ the techniques of nonsense because they are convinced, like me, that the poet's task is to subdue—in Rimbaud's terms—the formless. If the task of positivism was to expunge nonsense, the work of poetry is to use it. That is "the meaning of meaninglessness," to use nonsense and uncertainty and discontinuity as the central tone and abiding metaphor of our peculiar predicament.

(1990) My early statements underlining the use of psychological and philosophical uncertainty now strike me as exactly that: the work of a young man in a decent neo-Nietzschean mode. But I have come to mistrust the massive skepticism of this epoch. My standards today are less likely to be the masters of nonsense than radical pluralists whose methods are polarized between doubt and affirmation. Sir Isaiah Berlin, Meyer Schapiro, Roman Jakobson, Gershom Scholem, and Walter Benjamin as critical models are my luminous teachers. Gilbert-Rolfe has criticized this as my "humanism," but I am unwilling to associate with the fashionable in humanism of our day, though I have written on groups and collaboration. But the example of a Pasternak and his mistrust of the group, with his agonized celebration of the revolutionary city, still holds for me as a musical standard of imperfection. Perhaps my "maximalist" pluralism is as eristic as the minimalism of my youth. But I would like to see it as the mature reformulation of a formalism. I still associate myself with Stevens's remark: "All poetry is experimental poetry." But I am also guided by another of his adages: "There is no wing like meaning." I had the arrogant desire to make the fresh empirical impressionism of the socalled New York school into something angry, less lenient with history and sexuality, solid as Cézanne. My musical model: the polyrhythms of Elliot Carter and the eternal example of Mozart's late divertimento. But with all of these models I would like to think of escaping the anxiety of influence by a "joys of influence." A poet is always most absurd when "speaking," and speaking of his intentions. So perhaps the worst in one will be this very ambition, as opposed to the antiheroic unpretentious lyricists without the impedimenta of tradition.

*  *  *

David Shapiro is a latter-day metaphysical poet. Although the reader is more likely to encounter the spaceship or the automobile in his poems than Donne's twin compasses, or reference to the ideas of Jacques Derrida and Gottlob Frege than to Scholasticism, the term applies nevertheless. Shapiro's poetry captures the ambiguity of the mind in motion: the logical frames of thought and their ruptures, remembrance's fitful tracing and forgetting's gentle erasure. In his later work this theme of writing, memory, and forgetting has taken on greater cultural and historical urgency as Shapiro mediates the nature of Jewish experience, which for thousands of years has been marked by the complementary antipodes of abandonment and hope. New voices have thus entered Shapiro's poetic colloquy of sages: Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Baruch Spinoza, the rabbis of the Talmud.

Shapiro's early work, January, published when he was only eighteen years old, Poems from Deal, and A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel, are full of witty paradox and non sequiturs, coupled with more than a hint of Ashberyian Dada. Yet in his 1971 collection A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel Shapiro had already begun to develop the mode more typical of his later work, the philosophical meditation with personal or erotic overtones. Thus, in his "Ode to Timaeus," after Plato's dialogue of the same name, Shapiro lyrically explores the nature of desire:

The best is gymnastic;
next best like a cloud or sailboat;
least best is a drastic
screwing you can't do without.
Two things alone cannot be
united without a third satisfactorily;
so it shakes man and woman
together till she grows large again
Such is the origin
of all that is human.

Another typical element in Shapiro's work is its autobiographical slant, imaginatively transfigured and centered on his family, his violin (as a young man Shapiro was a professional violinist), and his compensatory fantasy life:

There are no umbrellas, there are only frosty parachutes,
Little angels who instruct him how to fly.
He must not struggle too much with his hands,
Which having practiced the violin now dog-paddle in air.
High above the invigorated gulf the air
walks down its
   own road.
The sister jumps up in a dual column of wind.
Inside, Mother serves breakfast; the bluejay gulps at the
The family now knows he can fly, but still father
   knows best.

This element gets its most moving exposure in "Friday Night Quartet" (To an Idea), a sequence that memorializes Shapiro's mother. Here Shapiro is at his most straightforward and touching; still, his understatement avoids any bathos or sentimentality the subject matter might invite:

Lying on the angiogram cot, strapped down and hot
   and bloody,
My mother said, The worst words in the English language
Are these David—Don't move.
And what do you think the best words are: Here's
   some water.

Shapiro's collection After a Lost Original shifts the autobiographical focus to the next generation, to Shapiro's relation with his son. In "To My Son" the poet offers himself as a sacrifice of love in the Oedipal struggle:

I love you so much
I am going to let you kill me...
I fear every narrow road
on which we will eventually meet
But do not banish me so fast, my son
Your clubfoot that I have pierced
is more beautiful, to me, than your mother's breast.

Shapiro's best work springs from his reflection on the restlessness of imagination and desire, a theme he renders at times scherzando and at other times with a melancholy tremolo. This restlessness impels a metonymic drift from term to term, at once the subject matter and the formal principle of a poem like "The Devil's Trill Sonata" in Lateness:

The elevator slips so far, so fast
Surely the ladder then is an improvement
On the elevator in this respect. And don't forget the
   fireman's pole
Or Rapunzel, whose hair was a staircase.

This passage performs a (literal) slippage through the semantic field of "things that go up and down," graduating rapidly to the phallic fireman's pole and Rapunzel's fetishistic torrent of blond hair.

Behind or beyond the play of desire, however, there lies nothing graspable. When this play is momentarily arrested, the word is seen to refer only to other words. Even the master signifier, God or the name of the father, is caught up in this speech chain, spun out above a void. Thus, Shapiro writes in "A Prayer," from House, Blown Apart,

Our father, emphasis on our elder betters
With the pronouns not possessed but stolen like
a royal teacup
Thy will be done, since we have little faith that
ours ever could

On earth and heaven: two truncated rhomboids
Give us this day, give us one day, give it
Like water, and also give us water
Snow, music, and house I now avoid, as one avoids
certain words, and they are words.

Poetry, as the poems in After a Lost Original suggest, is inseparable from parody, hypothetical reconstruction, reduplication, necessary ruin. But this sober assessment has its corollary in the urgency of poetry as remembrance, repair, and resistance. Poetry comes down to us as sorrowful ashes, for it stakes itself in the fire of history:

are you in the
"forgetting movement"
No I'm in the remembrance
movement and poetry
is fire in the house.

—Tyrus Miller