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Shapiro, Harvey

SHAPIRO, Harvey


Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 27 January 1924. Education: Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, B.A. 1947; Columbia University, New York, M.A. 1948. Military Service: U.S. Army Air Force 1943–45: Distinguished Flying Cross. Family: Married Edna Lewis Kaufman in 1953; two sons. Career: Instructor in English, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1949–50, 1951–52; creative writing fellow, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1950–51; assistant editor, Commentary, New York, 1955–56; editor, New Yorker, 1956–57; editor, New York Times Book Review, 1975–83. Editor, 1957–64, assistant editor, 1964–75, deputy editor, 1983–94, and since 1994 consulting editor, New York Times Magazine. Awards: YMHA Poetry Center award, 1952; Swallow Press award, 1954; Rockefeller grant, 1968. Address: 43 Pierrepont Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

The Eye. Denver, Swallow, 1953.

The Book and Other Poems. Cummington, Massachusetts, Cummington Press, 1955.

Mountain, Fire, Thornbush. Denver, Swallow, 1961.

Battle Report: Selected Poems. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1966.

This World. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

Lauds. New York, Sun, 1975.

Lauds and Nightsounds. New York, Sun, 1978.

The Light Holds. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

National Cold Storage Company: New and Selected Poems. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

A Day's Portion. Brooklyn, Hanging Loose Press, 1994.

Selected Poems. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, and Manchester, England, Carcanet, 1997.

*

Critical Studies: By David Ignatow, in The Nation (New York), 24 April 1967; "Rebels in the Kingdom" by Jascha Kessler, in Midstream (New York), April 1972; Figures of Capable Imagination by Harold Bloom, New York, Seabury Press, 1976; "Light from the Mountain" by David Ray, in New Letters Review of Books (Kansas City, Missouri), 11 (1), 1988; "I Sing the City Eclectic" by Matthew Flamm, in The Nation (New York), 13 June 1994; "Zen Records" by Lawrence Joseph, in The Nation, 19 December 1997; "Looking for the Way: The Poetry of Harvey Shapiro" by Norman Finkelstein, in Religion and Literature, autumn 1998.

Harvey Shapiro comments:

My earliest poetry, as sampled in The Eye (Swallow, 1953), comes out of several influences, several traditions. As between Chaucer's note words, small articulations, and Milton's large sounds, big lines, blocks of vowels, organ stops, etc., I was a Milton man. It was that sound that led me into poetry. And it was that sound that got me reading Hart Crane, one of the first American poets I began to study seriously. (I did my master's essay at Columbia on his White Buildings.) It was Crane's sound and technique that interested me, not his (sadly) optimistic message, as it was his ability to cut city scenes and modern nervosities into Elizabethan blank verse.

Concurrent interests: French symbolist poetry (Rimbaud, Baudelaire) and always a side interest in William Carlos Williams, just then beginning to emerge. This was an interest that pulled against all the others but was to become dominant. My worst poems of that period came out of my hankering for large sound—poems of meaningless bombast—and attempts to reproduce French symbolism—just literary.

To move on. In an attempt to work out of the literary (it was about that time I dropped teaching English at universities), I went back to my childhood and early adolescent interest in Jewish subjects and beliefs. Here too I could see a division between the Hebraic (Milton) and the Yiddish (Chaucer), and my poems came mainly from the Hebraic. At least that was true when I was working from the past. When I was working from the present, I consciously aped Yiddish poetry and speech rhythms and locutions, as remembered from my home.

My Jewish poems were more than a celebration of Jewishness. They were also a searching for the primitive, to get behind the Bible stories and Hebrew school to basic irrational, primitive myth.

Those poems probably represented a ghetto for me, one I made for myself, in part to protect myself during that time I was shifting from job to job, hard put to find a way to support my growing family. So it was a fictive security inside a world of real insecurity.

Which brings me to the present. I work now mainly in free form, though sometimes my lines jump off from a basic four beats. Sometimes they are William Carlos Williams lines (phrase units designed to move swiftly).

The Williams influence is more than technical. Through him and through Charles Reznikoff I have learned to find my subject matter in the streets of my own life mostly. Actually the shift in my manner was dictated by new subject matter clamoring to be heard, as it is for every poet. The Jewish influence remains in my constant search for the way, the way of right living. But here the way is constantly in the present and has always to be sought; it is not given. Urban mystic. My poems are private when set against the public declarations of many of my contemporaries, but I think they could only have been written today and that they are an accurate reading of our time.

*  *  *

Harvey Shapiro's mature poetry knows how to profit from walking naked, without florid effects or prosodic contrivances. Yet his poems are constructed on solid foundations, in particular the spare, urban poetry of older Brooklyn poets like George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff. From these one-time members of the objectivist movement, the 1930s brainchild of William Carlos Williams, Shapiro learned to keep his eye and intellect trained on the object of his imaginative gaze. He resisted the facile transcendence that by the 1970s had become the characteristic aesthetic gesture of mainstream American poetry. At the same time Shapiro updated objectivist practice, accessing the more directly personal material made available by the confessional poets:

Not wanting to invent emotion
I pursued the flat literal,
Saying wife, children, job
over and over.

His domestic verse cuts across the sentiment usually associated with poems on the home and family, sparing neither himself nor others. It grapples with marital strife, postmarital affairs, and generational conflict: "I spent one hour with one son at his shrink / discussing (my choice) why he seemed to hate me."

As a career newspaperman, Shapiro shares with Williams, the pediatrician-poet, the opportunistic poetics of an overworked professional. His muse speaks in spurts and snatches, late at night with a whiskey bottle, or during business hours:

I am on the lookout for
A great illumining,
Prepared to recognize it
Instantly and put it to use
Even among the desks
And chairs of the office, should
It come between nine and five.

This makes for a jagged, rib-jabbing poetry. His ideal medium is the loosely knit sequence of brief images or aphoristic fragments—splinters of urban life that are made to yield larger meanings beneath the pressure of his intellect.

Shapiro's poems are the determinedly private meditations of a man engaged daily in the public use of language. Their aim is self-knowledge rather than transformation or catharsis. They are the product of his need to understand "[his] way of being in the world," as he says in "A Jerusalem Notebook":

not perfect freedom or the pitch
of madness, but that the particulars
of my life become manifest
to me walking these dark streets.

As such, they are frank and unmediated, an insomniac's catalog of lust, "ego demons," and night terrors. Shapiro's gallows humor, his uncensored treatment of sex, and his mordant asides on middle-aged and middle-class life may not be to everyone's taste. Yet bleak and unpretty as his poems often are,

now and then a voice cuts through
saying something right: No sound
is dissonant which tells of life.

—Martin McKinsey

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