Auto Wreck

views updated

Auto Wreck

Karl Shapiro 1968

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

Karl Shapiro won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1945, when he was 32. Early on, he was recognized for the precision he brought to his work, avoiding the contrivances and intellectualism applied to poetry by other artists. He has been lauded as producing some of the finest war poetry ever written by an American poet, written during the 1940s, when Shapiro was enlisted in the army. “Auto Wreck” was published in Shapiro’s Selected Poems. The connection between this poem and war poetry is clear: the focus in human fragility and on the shattering effect violence has on reason, are frequent themes when contemplating war. Shapiro takes this sensibility and puts it into a domestic setting, a situation that most Americans would be familiar with from their own experiences. Perhaps one reason Shapiro found an auto wreck to be the equivalent of war, matching it for nonsensical violence, was that when this poem was written the interstate system was new, and man’s capacity for high speed travel (and therefore for devastating accidents) had advanced much more quickly than safety devices. With the ability to write poetry in a variety of styles, Shapiro continually expanded his poetic voice to reinvent his observations of the world.

Author Biography

Shapiro was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 10, 1913, to Joseph Shapiro and Sarah Omansky Shapiro. Because of his self-consciousness as an adolescent concerning his Russian-Jewish heritage, Shapiro considered changing his name, but only went so far as to legally change the spelling of his first name from Carl to Karl. He had a life-long belief that he was destined to be a poet and despite his conviction in the 1930s that an Anglo-Saxon name would facilitate publication of his work, he decided to keep his family name. This decision, he believed, reinforced his identity as a Jew and provided a theme for subsequent poems. In 1935 Shapiro published a volume of verses which won him a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University. He attended the university for two years but took no degree. In 1941 he was drafted into the army, and during the next four years he wrote four volumes of poetry. While he was serving in the South Pacific as a medical corps clerk, poems from his collection Person, Place and Thing were published in Poetry magazine and were awarded the Levinson Prize. In 1944, while Shapiro was stationed in New Guinea, his collection V-Letter and Other Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Largely because of the Pulitzer, Shapiro was named consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. On March 25, 1945 he married Evalyn Katz, the literary agent who had sent his poetry to press during the war years. They had three children.

In 1948 Shapiro became an associate professor of writing at Johns Hopkins. In the 1950s he served as editor of Poetry and the Newbery Library Bulletin. In 1956 he accepted a professorship in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska; additionally, he was editor of the journal Prairie Schooner until 1966, when he resigned both positions over a disagreement with administration and journal staff. Divorced from his first wife in 1967, he married Teri Kovach that same year. She was the inspiration for his cycle of love poems, White-Haired Lover (1968). That volume and another published that year, Selected Poems, were awarded the 1969 Bollingen Prize for Poetry, which Shapiro shared with John Berryman. After a two-year sojourn at the University of Chicago, Shapiro joined the faculty at the University of California at Davis, where he still teaches.

Poem Text

Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating,
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery,
The ambulance at top speed floating down
Past beacons and illuminated clocks
Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,
And brakes speed, entering the crowd.
The doors leap open, emptying light;
Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted
And stowed into the little hospital.
Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once.
And the ambulance with its terrible cargo
Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,
As the doors, an afterthought, are closed.

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.

Our throats were tight as tourniquets,
Our feet were bound with splints, but now,
Like convalescents intimate and gauche,
We speak through sickly smiles and warn
With the stubborn saw of common sense,
The grim joke and the banal resolution.
The traffic moves around with care,
But we remain, touching a wound
That opens to our richest horror.
Already old, the question Who shall die?
Becomes unspoken Who is innocent?

For death in war is done by hands;
Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;
And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.
But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of denouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-2

A red flare is used to denote danger or an emergency. This is in direct contrast to the first line’s gentle, alliterative phrase of a “soft silver bell beating.”

Line 3

The ominous tone continues as an analogy is drawn between the flare and a part of the human body—an artery pulsing out red light, or blood, would be an artery cut open.

Lines 4-7

The ambulance is seen as quick and efficient, almost otherworldly in the way that it “floats down.” Line 5 has two instances of the poem’s symbolic use of light: the beacons and the illuminated clocks represent the rationality of the human world that this auto wreck intrudes upon.

Media Adaptations

  • A record album titled Elegy for a Dead Soldier was released in 1954 by the Library of Congress Recording Laboratory.
  • An audio cassette titled Karl Shapiro, part of the Poets in Person series, was released in 1991 by the Modern Poetry Association.
  • Spoken Arts released an audio cassette titled The Spoken Arts Treasury of American Poets, Volume XI, edited by Paul Kresh, in 1978.
  • The record album The Tenor, an opera in one act by Hugo Weisgel with the libretto by Karl Shapiro and Ernst Lert is available from Composer Recordings.

Lines 8-10

The doors open and pour out light, illuminating the chaotic, dimly-lit scene with clarity. The ambulance is called a “little hospital” in line 10, bringing the order, sterility and control of the hospital environment to the crash scene.

Lines 11-14

The “tolling” of the bell implies church bells, whose tolling is commonly an announcement of death. This is confirmed in line 12’s reference to a “terrible cargo,” and in the way the doors are closed only as “an afterthought,” implying that there is no need for gentleness and care with the patients in the ambulance, implying that they are dead. The detached, inhumanly efficient movements of the ambulance (its crew is never mentioned) establishes a mood that will be contrasted in the coming stanzas.

Lines 15-21

Unlike the way the medical situation was described in the first stanza, the authority figures in charge of human behavior, the police officers, are not sharp and efficient. They are not even referred to by their formal designation, but familiarly as “cops,” and the description of them is not one that inspires confidence. Their actions—sweeping, making notes, hanging lanterns and “douching” (the word Shapiro uses for “rinsing”) are almost laughably ineffectual. In contrast with all of the sources of light associated with the ambulance, the lanterns the policeman raises seem a particularly flimsy source of light.

Lines 22-27

This stanza uses imagery that compares the witnesses of the accident with the injured victims: “tourniquets,” “splints,” “convalescents,” and “sickly.” Line 27 adds to the sense of confusion at the auto wreck scene by using adjectives that contrast with the nouns they modify: jokes, of course, should be anything but “grim,” and the word “resolution” implies a fullness that leaves one feeling satisfied, while “banal” indicates that the conclusion is insignificant.

Lines 28-32

Line 30 again uses the technique of placing a contrasting adjective and noun together: the implication of “richest” is almost as positive as the implication of “horror” is negative. This adds to the general sense of confusion. In lines 31 and 32, the poem’s central philosophical problem is posed by the difference in the two questions asked: “Who shall die?” is a matter of fact, having to do with the mechanical workings of the organs, but “Who is innocent?” tries to derive spiritual value from the physical occurrence. As the final stanza of the poem will show, the point of “Auto Wreck” is to examine how reason can accept the physical world’s inconsistencies.

Lines 33-37

The speaker gives examples of terrible physical maladies and says that they have their reasons, that they are logical outcomes of processes. But the violence of an auto wreck creates a gap in logic, a break in the sequence of one cause following another. Such an occurrence, unrelated to the natural order, is what the “supernatural” is all about, and therefore line 36 says it “invites the occult to mind.”

Lines 38-39

The “denouement” of a dramatic work is its conclusion, the place where a writer is supposed to explain and tie up all of the loose ends. There is no such neat, orderly conclusion in a violent accident: good people are punished, evil may escape unharmed, and preparation counts for nothing. The poem brings back an image of the car accident (“splatters … across the … stones”) to help convey his ideas, using the stones to represent all facts of nature. The adjectives used in the last line to describe the stones actually oppose each other: “expedient” means efficient, implying a logical process toward achieving a deliberate goal, while “wicked” is just uncaused malevolence.


Order and Disorder

This poem is structured to make the most of the contrast between order and chaos, and to make readers think about how humans counteract a confusing situation with an overabundance of reason. Order and disorder are not given equal representation here because the chaotic action, which may have only taken a few seconds anyway, is over when the poem begins: the actions that we do see are taken to gain control over the chaos. On the side of disorder, the poem mentions: “the mangled”; “terrible cargo”; the “deranged” participants; “ponds of blood”; and, most graphically, the wound “[t]hat opens to our richest horror.” The fact that these all have a gruesome aspect to them gives readers an idea of what our society thinks about disorder, how we associate chaos with death, due to their common sense lack of control. To make up for the lack of control, our society responds to an accident like this one with a routine that is overly formalized, restoring the sense of order at the same time that it responds to the medical emergency. The bells, the flare, the ambulance and the illuminated clock all give the feeling that someone is in control of the situation; the “large and composed” police officers shed light on the scene and wash away the blood and glass that are the evidence of something having gone wrong. The one thing that cannot be fixed by early, careful crisis control is death. The speaker is bewildered—even somehow annoyed—by the care that everyone is taking to restore order because it contradicts the basic fact that order can never be fully restored once the line of death has been crossed.

Guilt and Innocence

“Denouement” is a French word meaning “an untying,” most often used in discussions of literature to indicate the point at which a story’s comes to its necessary, logical conclusion. In a story crafted by a writer, the end will follow from what comes before it: usually, bad things befall bad people and good people are rewarded, but even when that is not true the denouement will in some way be appropriate. In the case of a car accident, however, the connection between a person’s action and their fate is cut, and inappropriate results occur: when the poem says that everything known about denouement is spattered across the stones, it means that justice has not been served and has in fact been made irrelevant.

Still, there is an overwhelming human tendency to believe that justice is somehow served in the universe, that God or karma would certainly make sure that good people are not allowed to suffer. This basic belief makes it possible for people to face the world each day with confidence, even if their understanding of “good” is not about kindness but relates to being smart, or powerful, or lucky, etc. The strength of this belief can be seen in the poem, where the speaker changes the question “Who shall die?” into “Who is innocent?”: unable to accept the idea that violent death would come to the innocent, we sometimes look at the situation backwards and assume that someone who suffered a violent death must be guilty of something. In a world where accidents happen, innocence and guilt would become useless ideas if we did not try to question what we know about a person’s life in order to see if it can be fit to the outcome.


From the title on, this poem captures readers’ interest with the possibility that someone has died. We know that an accident is a life-or-death situation, and all of the signs here—the flares, the ambulance, the cops, etc.—indicate to us that this accident is one of those serious events where death is at least possible. The fact that a crucial safety step like closing the ambulance doors is just “an afterthought” tells us that someone is already dead, and even though the poem tells us nothing about who the victim might be we want to know what happens next, and how the people at the accident scene deal with this event. Literature about death, or even with the suggestion of death, has grabbed the attention of people across all time and cultural boundaries. One reason for this might be that death is the one experience that all humans undergo, but still, for all of the centuries of experience that our race has had with death, we really do not know what it is. We look at how ancient clans and sects approached death’s mysteries, and compare them to the beliefs of modern communities, hoping to recognize a core truth about the experience that might help us feel a

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a visual description, like the one in the first stanza of this poem, of something that happened at night. Try to capture the uncertainty and confusion of the scene without being unclear about what your subject really is.
  • Research new technological advances developed since this poem was published in 1968 and explain what has been done to make an accident site less psychologically traumatic.
  • Do you agree with what the last stanza says about war, suicide, stillbirth, and cancer, or is the author stretching reality to make them contrast with his subject? Explore how an auto wreck could be seen as more logical than any of these.

little more comfortable with it. The speaker of the poem evidently comes from a rational society—looking at the situation from a distance, we might wonder if this person’s life might not be too rational, if he cannot fit something as real and inevitable as death into his sense of the world.


“Auto Wreck” is in free verse with four stanzas. There are two themes that run through the poem. The first is the detached efficiency of the ambulance in motion, contrasted by the second theme, the fragile, easily broken humans, who are cut down randomly and at times violently. There are two conspicuous strains of imagery running through this poem. One is physical injury. This is addressed explicitly when mentioning people hurt in the auto wreck (for example, line 9 refers to “the mangled” and line 18 mentions “ponds of blood”). Injury is also a metaphor for the fragile mental state caused by the shock of the accident, indicated by the flare’s light “pulsing … like an artery” (line 3), by line 15’s statement “we are deranged,” by the “tourniquets” mentioned in line 22 and the “wound” in line 29. The other recurring symbol is light, which is seen in the flare in line 3; in the ambulance interior in line 8; the illuminated clocks; and the policeman taking notes in line 17. Light has been associated with logic at least since ancient Greece, where Apollo was considered god of both. By contrasting man’s higher mental abilities with physical vulnerability, Shapiro gives a broad overview of the human condition.

One other technique used in this poem is alliteration, which is the term for placing words with the same initial sound close together, as with the “s” and “b” sounds in the first line, and continuing in the poem in phrases such as “speak through sickly smiles” and “the stubborn saw of common sense.” This technique knits the poem more tightly together, making it more intimate with the reader, more close and compact, a piece to be read quickly and low, in the hushed reverent tones one would use at an accident scene. The words in “Auto Wreck” are direct and graphic, not given over to speculation over their meaning.

Historical Context

The year that this poem was published, 1968, was something like one huge auto wreck, with chaos spreading across the American landscape. It was one of the most dynamic and violent years the nation had seen since the end of the Civil War. It was the year when the war in Vietnam drove millions of citizens, many of them young college students, into opposition against the federal government and the frustration of urban blacks boiled over into race riots. Assassinations of two major political figures, not two months apart, stunned the nation, spattering all that the country knew about denouement across a balcony in Atlanta and a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.

The single most notable event of that tumultuous year was the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4th. King was one of the principal leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, a staunch advocate of nonviolent protest who is remembered by a national holiday on the third Monday of every January. Dr. King rose to national attention in 1954, as the leader of the famous boycott against the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama, where black citizens had only been allowed to ride in the backs of buses. The following year, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed, he was named its

Compare & Contrast

  • 1968: On January 30th, Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces waged a massive attack against cities in South Vietnam. The attack was a failure, but showed a degree of force and determination that made many in the United States question the war.

    1973: The United States withdrew its troops from the conflict in Vietnam, in accordance with a peace treaty worked out in Paris.

    1989: U.S. troops invaded Panama in order to arrest dictator Manuel Noriega. He took refuge in the Vatican mission, but surrendered two weeks after the siege began and was flown to Florida, where he was tried and convicted in drug smuggling charges.

    1991: U.S. troops lead a multinational force against Iraq, which had crossed the Kuwait border in August of 1990. The assault lasted from January 15 to April 6, and ended with the surrender of 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqi citizens dead.

    Today: Vietnam is in the hands of the Communist government that the United States was fighting and Iraqi military leader Saddam Hussein is still in power.

  • 1968: The Intel company was founded to make memory chips using a new metallic oxide semiconductor process.

    1971: The first commercially available microchip, the Intel 4004, became available.

    1974: The new Intel microprocessor was eight times what it was in 1971. Intel’s cofounder Gordon Moore suggested the “law” that microprocessor capacity doubles every eighteen months.

    Today: The Intel Pentium II Processor is in almost every new personal computer.

  • 1968: The American underground press printed stories of interest to the hippie counterculture, concerning subjects ranging from drugs to Eastern philosophy to small music groups without record labels. Circulation was estimated at around two million.

    Today: Matrix Information and Directory Service estimated that there were 13.5 million Internet users in October of 1994, and that that number would double each year. In addition, underground magazines have made a resurgence with the publication of small-budget “’zines.”

president. He was a leader of nonviolent protests against segregation throughout the South, facing death threats and spending time in jail. In 1963, he was one of the organizers of the March on Washington, and delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech before a crowd of 200,000. These public, peaceful displays of African-American determination for equal rights and the violent opposition of some whites to their reasonable demands helped President Lyndon Johnson gain support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Near the end of his life, Dr. King did have opponents: black separatists, represented most visibly in 1968 by the formation of the Black Panthers, did not approve of King’s nonviolent tactics or his willingness to work with whites on racial problems, and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, waged an almost fanatical crusade of spying on King and spreading propaganda against him, fearful that he might become a black “messiah” who would lead the overthrow of the white race. When Dr. King was shot in Memphis, riots broke out in most major cities in the country, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark and Washington D.C. Forty six deaths resulted. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley issued orders for police to “shoot to kill” looters who broke store windows. National Guard troops were mobilized in many states, and 21,270 people were arrested.

On June 5th, with the shock of the King assassination still fresh, the nation was stunned once again when presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was gunned down while campaigning in Los Angeles. He was the brother of President John F. Kennedy and had been the Attorney General in his administration, and his assassination was a frightening reminder of the trauma the country had felt five years earlier, when President Kennedy was killed. At the time of his death, Robert Kennedy had been the leading candidate for the presidency: he was young (42) and opposed to the war in Vietnam, and was favored by young voters, who were politically active and vocal but alienated from the system. His death, so soon after Dr. King’s and so closely paralleling his popular brother’s, became a symbol of great disillusionment to a generation that had believed in making the world a better place.

Protests against the Vietnam war took place regularly on college campuses throughout 1968, and in August, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, thousands of protestors gathered, setting off a confrontation between police and radicals that became the image of what “the Sixties” means to many Americans. The protest was originally the idea of Abbie Hoffman, a youth leader and self-proclaimed “prankster” who, the previous new Year’s Eve, had suggested to friends that they stop calling themselves “hippies” (the generic name for rebellious youth at that time, much like “beatniks” before them and “gangstas” after) and instead represent themselves as the Youth International Party, or Yippies. In Hoffman’s plan, the Yippies would go to the Democratic Convention and demand representation. By August, word had spread from one antiwar organization to the next. The members of the peace movement were widely varied: some were committed to peace through peaceful means, some supported violence to end the war, and some treated it all with a sense of fun, relishing the chance to annoy their stuffy elders. In Chicago, though, all were considered serious threats—Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley looked on the youths as terrorists who wanted to start a revolution to overthrow the government. Sixteen thousand Chicago police, 4,000 state troopers and 4,000 National Guardsmen were equipped with riot gear and posted around the hotel where the convention was held to face what turned out to be between 5,000 and 10,000 demonstrators. The “Festival of Life” that the war protestors had assembled for included rock concerts, marijuana smoking, public lovemaking and draft card burning. When the protesters threw bricks and bottles, the police responded by firing tear gas and swinging nightsticks. Participants later said that the whole insane situation felt like being at war, but observers who watched it on television saw kids and news reporters and uninvolved bystanders being clubbed and sprayed with gas by police, despite a frequent chant by the protestors reminding them that, “The whole world is watching.” An independent commission studying the event later referred to it as a “police riot.” Throughout the 1960s, America’s security had declined, as the war and the never-ending struggle for civil rights eroded faith in the government: in 1968, with men of peace gunned down and the military fighting against unarmed citizens, the strange, irrational violence that Shapiro describes in “Auto Wreck” was all too familiar.

Critical Overview

Critics point out that Shapiro has written successfully in a variety of poetic styles and freed himself from many of the constraints of the cultural doctrines of his era. Michael True, discussing Shapiro’s contributions to American poetry in Commonweal, states that “[Shapiro’s work] provides one of the most accurate portrayals we have of America from the late Thirties until the early Sixties.” In his Collected Criticism, Conrad Aiken applauds the “balanced excellence” of both the conscious and unconscious meanings of Shapiro’s poems, suggesting that Shapiro “thinks with his feelings, thinks with his imagination, and the result is a curious and delightful poetic analysis, or criticism, of the given theme.”


Chris Semansky

Chris Semansky’s poems and essays appear regularly in literary journals. He teaches writing and literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Semansky examines the imagery in “Auto Wreck” and explores its themes of chance and death.

Free verse—a poetic form dispensing with the traditional orderliness associated with regular meter and rhyme—is a fitting vehicle for a subject “without rhyme or reason.” In “Auto Wreck” (1942), Karl Shapiro, one of the foremost proponents of free verse, views the car crash as a break in the rational rules of an orderly universe. Shapiro has long been interested in the common strangeness of injury and death, and the subject appears in some of his best poems, especially “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” and “The Leg” (about an amputation), relating to his army experiences in the South Pacific during World War II.

While the car crash is a common phenomenon, Shapiro has reinjected strangeness into this event. Toward this end, the poem begins not on firm ground but on terra infirma—in a kind of dream world. With the repetition of the word “down” in the first stanza, the ambulance is described as descending, as if it were the angel of death (the “wings” of line four), or an alien spacecraft (“top speed” in line four, “emptying light” in line eight) floating downward. Fans of The X-Files might notice the similarity between the mission of the ambulance in this poem to gather up the dead and near-dead, and the made-for-television forays of aliens bent on abductions. Only somewhat less strange is the scene below with its singular and severe glowings in the dark: the “illuminated clocks” with the allusion to marking time until death; the “beacons” or lights that illuminate tall buildings, here as if beckoning to sky beings; and finally, the blood-red flare echoing the pulsing, spilling blood in this rite of passage from one world to the next. Not only are the eyes aroused at this spectacle, but so are the ears. The ambulance bell (ambulances of the 1940s had bells, not sirens) rings with the rhythm of the beating hearts the ambulance must try to save and tolls like church bells, for those it will not be able to save.

Its mission complete, the ambulance moves away, gently rocking like a cradle. This suggests the cycle from cradle to grave, or even of a soothing sense of rebirth or heavenly salvation from death. Or perhaps the rocking and late-closed doors hint at a frantic human crisis, one boding badly for the vehicle’s injured occupants. This is an abduction, but whether by aliens, paramedics, or the angel of death is anyone’s guess.

After the injured—who are mangled or perhaps dead—have been taken away, the narrator/by standers are left “deranged,” watching the caretakers of the aftermath with glazed eyes. The cops convert the terrible scene into an emotionless one recorded in colorless words, erased from sight by repeated douchings of water, and marked by lanterns into a scene memorialized for the purpose of imparting the rather common message: DRIVE CAREFULLY! The “empty husks” of locusts in

What Do I Read Next?

  • Shapiro’s autobiography, published in 1988, is titled An Autobiography in Three Parts. His life was long and varied, as diverse as any American poet’s, and his book therefore offers an interesting insight into our culture and the way we think about literature.
  • In 1975, Shapiro published a book of essays called The Poetry Wreck. Most of the essays in this book are about the craft of poetry or about other poets (Yeats, Auden, Eliot, Pound, Williams, etc.).
  • The poet that Shapiro said he most admired was William Carlos Williams. You can see the influence of Williams in William Carlos Williams: The Collected Poems, published by New Directions in 1991. Volume I covers the years before Shapiro wrote, 1909 through 1939. Volume II covers 1939-1962.
  • Another poet that Shapiro thought highly of is Randall Jarrell, who often appears in anthologies of poetry along with Shapiro. Jarrell’s best poems have recently been assembled in one volume, The Collected Poems of Randall Jarrell, published in 1996.

the last line of the second stanza might remind some readers of the David Cronenberg film, Crash (1997). In Shapiro’s lines and Cronenberg’s film, there is conflation of living bodies with vehicular bodies. But while Cronenberg dwells on damaged human, airplane, and automobile bodies as objects instigating sexual arousal, Shapiro’s “empty husks of locusts” suggest the wrecked auto as a hard auto body, carapace, or pupa molted or shed by emerging inner bodies. Keeping with the idea of the ambulance as heavenly angel of death, the abducted might be said to emerge from their restrictive earthly cover (the car), to free themselves like flying insects struggling from their pupae. Or, in the scenario of the alien abduction, the “empty husks” could be seen horrifically, as signs of catastrophe beyond human control.

“What makes the auto wreck distinct for Shapiro is its imagined inscrutability compared to death by combat, suicide, or natural disease.”

Stanza three belongs to the bystanders, who are more wounded than the dead. Less important here are the bodies (presumably) being patched together in the ambulance than those bystanders who are themselves emotionally torn apart by the accident, and whose own attempts at self-repair lead them on a journey analogous to that of the crash victims. In relation to the bystanders, figurative tourniquets do not stanch the flow of blood but choke the throat, cut off attempts to explain this event. Splints do not safely immobilize broken bones but instead fix bystanders to their horror. The bystanders become the “convalescents,” those awkward with speaking, moving, and acting. They try to smile, utter something common—“the stubborn saw of common sense”—in order to say something profound. They are also like the “grim jokes” and the “banal resolutions” such as “We all have to go sometime,” or “Time waits for no one.” The spirits of these bystanders have been wounded as profoundly as the accident victims have been wounded in body. Bystanders touch their “wounds,” those reminders of their own vulnerability and mortality. The bystanders machine-like first reaction to the accident, the secular question, “Who shall die?” (like the more religious question, “Who is guilty?”), becomes a more sober and religious “Who is innocent?” Death, the bystanders understand, is democratic; it includes everyone, and from a religious perspective, it renders everyone guilty.

What makes the auto wreck distinct for Shapiro is its imagined inscrutability compared to death by combat, suicide, or natural disease. The car crash is a singular event because it is brought about by chance, but not from the more usual factory of chance, nature, but from the unusual locale of culture. There is no intention to kill or die in this kind of car wreck. Nor does the chance of nature seem operative. In the car crash, Shapiro is mysti fied at how technocratized humanity has, on a daily basis, replicated a product usually thought to belong to nature: chance. The car crash seems bereft of reason—what Shapiro calls “physics,” or that part of nature said to govern with laws. Instead, Shapiro implies that collisions are replete with that other part of nature described as random and chance-like; for when all is said and done—even when the cops, victims and bystanders will have assessed the reason for the crash in the denouement—Shapiro remains unsatisfied. Rather than deluding himself with explanations, Shapiro—as represented by the bystanders—is more comfortable shifting the cause of the accident to a place just below: the stones of the street. To localize the cause of the accident to the “expedient and wicked stones” is to explain without explanation, to resort to a joke or unreason. The stones are expedient and have promoted this accident by being hard and slippery. They are also wicked, perhaps as wicked as the hell they pave over. Shapiro’s indictment of nature through paving stones, however, is not a serious charge against nature so much as it marks his—or the—inability to explain and order the complex of events that result in an auto accident.

Shapiro, however, does not call his poem “Auto Accident.” Is this because he believes there are no accidents? Does he believe that even when nature or stones are behind a course of events, these cannot properly be called “accidents”? Along these lines, recall that at the end of the third stanza Shapiro asks the question, “Who is innocent?” Does the question not imply that everyone is guilty and that everyone must shoulder blame for what has or will happen? Yet at the end of the poem, he seems to back off from this indictment of humanity framed as a question, and instead he says that humans are not responsible for auto accidents, but that “expedient” and “wicked stones” are.

The seeming inconsistencies of this poem can be explained if readers do not forget that the narrators in this poem are the bystanders and not Shapiro himself. These are bystanders struggling to come to terms with the accident. Because the auto wreck defies their attempt to explain it, the irrationality of the bystanders steps in (the “occult mind” invited in) in order to explain it by blaming nature. Less does this poem reflect Shapiro’s view of the car crash than it does his understanding of bystanders whose reason—whose “physics”—have been canceled with their “sneer,” as if they are bitter for having ever been taken in by rational explanations for unexplainable events. And when bystanders wear a sneer rather than a lofty dispassionate face, nature seems to wear one too; stones, in turn, become complicitous and evil.

With the cancellation of our physics, the conception of order and justice in both bystanders and readers (who can be said to be bystanders in relation to the event of the poem), does it not make sense to construct an earthly ambulance into one descending from a world above, from a reality rendered perhaps good (heavenly salvation) or perhaps evil (alien abduction)? To render stones as wicked and plotting? And to render the poem into a form canceling the traditional “physics” of poetry? Perhaps Shapiro’s free verse itself—in its refusal to adhere to conventional poetic forms of meter, rhyme, and even subject matter—is a wreck of sorts, made poetic by its very strangeness.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

Karl Shapiro

In the following excerpt, Shapiro himself describes what it means to be a poet.

A delicious obliquity one sometimes hears at literary conferences and such places is the question: Are you a writer or a poet? The question, of course, is a high compliment, if one happens to be a poet. It bestows on the poet the keys to the kingdom; it takes him out of the realm of mere literature and installs him in the empyrean; it frees him from any of the normal ties to the world with which other men are bound; it makes him a kind of god.

There is a part of the world which wants to sanctify the poet and make him an object of worship. For is not the poet incorruptible? Is not his integrity beyond reproach? Is he not a man of wizardly insight and towering intelligence? Is not his learning instinctively deep even when it is not broad? Is he not the sole symbol of freedom in a regimented universe? Is he not impervious to the lust for money, power and position? Is he not also that Tiresias who sees into the future, who descends to hell and flies up to heaven?

These are hard questions to say no to, but let us say no, for the sake of truth, and then see what there is, if anything, that makes the poet a superior being. For certainly the poet is as corruptible as anybody else, and more times than not displays the manners of a corporal and the morals of a bellboy. His integrity, although he wears it on his sleeve, is very much to be doubted. His insights into anything but poetry—and very often poetry itself—are apt to be as wrong as anyone else’s: we have only to

“[The poet’s] love of physical freedom is another superstition: many poets would be perfectly happy in jail if they didn’t have to work.”

think of the political writings of poets. His intelligence varies as much as that of other men and bears only an indirect relationship to his talent. His learning is always suspect. His love of physical freedom is another superstition: many poets would be perfectly happy in jail if they didn’t have to work. As for freedom from money-lust, power or position, one has only to read the lives of the poets to be disabused of this fantasy. A history of literary politics would read like a combined version of the more lurid pages of Gibbon and the Marquis de Sade.

Poetic fame, poetic honor, or what you will, is part of the iconography of history. The fame of Byron on the Continent had nothing to do with his poetic stature and everything to do with his role of hero. Being a poet helped his heroics; the heroics did not always improve his poetry. History seizes on the heroic element in the artist and hugs it for dear life. And sometimes the artist himself adopts this quixotic pose, and he then becomes a party to a literary conspiracy and begins to confuse poetry with history, logic, science, system-making and God.

Nevertheless, the world wants the poet for what he is not, and the foolish poet goes to the world. This liaison results in the two false uses of art …: the one that makes the poet a man of the people, or a man who leads people, or a man who makes the whole world kin, or a man who states universal truths. This is the idea of the historic poet. And the other that makes the poet a purveyor of myths, an oracle, a seer, an almost-philosopher, an aristocrat of the spirit, a being who perceives transcendental relationships. This is the idea of the mythic poet.

Literature of this kind always produces doctrines and fiats and manifestoes. After a time it becomes anathema for the historic poet to write anything

“A civilization without poets is a moribund civilization: it has no love of its way of life. But a civilization in which the artist is worshipped is on the point of suicide.

which is not a folksong, a patriotic ballad, a rhetorical screed, an epic, or a Methodist hymn. In the other camp it becomes anathema to write anything which does not add to a symbolic system of ideas, or which does not code or decode the mythos of culture. Perceiving this strife, the readers of poems, if there are any left, decide that it is a fight between pessimists and optimists, intellectuals and emotionalists, romantics and classicists, or some other misleading dualism.

Now and then we get a really consistent poet who will align his politics, his religion, his science, and his philosophy so that they all work together. As I pointed out earlier, we then have what is called a Great poet. Even if in the nature of his system this poet must decide to eliminate people themselves, he is still called Great. The term refers to a kind of military genius. On the other side, we have the poet who perpetuates myths of the ideal world or the dream world, and this one is called a Major poet. Yeats is Major but not Great. Pound is Great but not Major. A minor poet, incidentally, is one who has no master plan of strategy either for the world or for the cosmos.…

Both historic and mythic poets regard themselves as official poets. They acquire aides-decamp among the estheticians and the press, and conduct their affairs along the lines of any other business or political enterprise.

The desire of these official poets to provide answers to all questions is indicative of the intellectual temper of the times we live in, and is not confined to artists, by any means.…

Literature is contaminated by systems. The libertarian poet, the religious poet who plies the dogma of his church, even the “scientific” metaphysical poet: these look for an absolute doctrine of life on which to build. In a healthy world this slavery to ideas does not exist and the members of my quadrivium do not contaminate each other. Philosophy pursues the absolute and calls itself the love of knowledge. Science pursues demonstrable knowledge and calls itself the love of natural law. Religion pursues goodness and calls itself the love of God. And poetry pursues human personal knowledge and calls itself the love of beauty. With poetry, as with other forms of knowledge, there is no crossing the line, no violation of the nature of the thing, without contamination. All art that does so is marked by insincerity, whether intellectual in sincerity (the poet who takes a system of ideas to his bosom and writes verses to hang upon his Tree of Life) or emotional insincerity (the artist who tries to experience history).

What claim, then, has the poet to any knowledge except the personal knowledge of truth or beauty? Absolutely none. What claim has he to be a specialist in culture, morals, politics, religion, philosophy, science or even esthetics? Absolutely none. But if that is the case, what claim has the poet to any fame at all? Is there then no basis for poetic reputation, no reason for exalting poetry among the works of man?

Certainly there is. The seeker after truth and the seeker of truth through beauty are necessary to the world. But they are not rulers of the world or leaders of the world. The idea of the sacred poet is one of the most unsavory and dangerous ideas in our civilization. How and when the sacred poet was born I do not know, but in our own age this superstition has grown steadily for a century and a half. In Mozart’s time the composer and performer were seated at table with the valet and the cook. This strikes us as cruel and degrading, but our exaltation of the artist is just as shameful.…

A civilization in equilibrium does not make the poet a sacred cow, which when it barges into a citizen’s house is hung with garlands of flowers. A civilization in equilibrium needs the poet as much as it needs the priest, the scientist, the scholar and the abstract thinker; he is never made a superior symbol of authority in any way. A civilization without poets is a moribund civilization: it has no love of its way of life. But a civilization in which the artist is worshipped is on the point of suicide. The artist should be treated as the equal of all other people who contribute to the sum total of knowledge, but no more, except within his own guild, when he deserves their honor.…

Poetry springs from the love of personal truth and it results in a thing of beauty. Beauty is a condition of art, an absolute condition, and an instrument of the kind of truth which we are here concerned with. But the worship of beauty is a form of idolatry which is little better than worship of the golden calf.…

There is always the tendency to find some more noble use of art than the mere search for the personal truth of life—as if that were not sufficient. Art must lead others, art must improve others, art must even cure others. Yes, art leads us to perceive truth in beauty. But art is not medicine; art is not pedagogy; art is not jurisprudence; art is not the decalogue. The true poet does not fall into these attitudes of doctor and teacher and priest. He is detached from such quarrels. Other poets in their pride accept the world’s challenge and purvey all sorts of real and quack remedies for readers who ask for them.…

The true poet is a constant prey to the world and its readers because of his inability to accept knowledge he has not tested for himself. This almost scientific intransigence makes him both untouchable and desirable. He is fair game for the world’s rulers and is as subject to kidnaping as those physicists who end up in a closed city built for the dreams of science. Hence the poet sometimes becomes the tool of the objective thinkers of the world and betrays his nature and purpose by trying to make his truth available to others. That, in fact, is the antinomy in poetic knowledge; that the artist is restricted to his own world and cannot universalize what he knows. He can do no more than find the form of what he knows and relive himself through creativity. Thus poetry is neither historic nor prophetic but occupies a separate world of time and value.…

Poetry is knowledge of the self only, but there is no self without a world, and no embodiment of self without art. To extend the poet’s meaning beyond this point is to render him and his work meaningless. This is what usually happens when we touch art with the wand of doctrine.

History, I have already said, is a precious and noble fiction. Without it we would be living in a temporal chaos. Only saints can live without history. History indeed is the vital core of civilization: it gives us the symbology of our lives. History might even be called the world’s poem, the poem by all hands, because history does for the world

“No good historian attempts to write history while it is happening, any more than a poet tries to write a poem while he is making love.”

what the poet does for himself: it creates its image. But the poet himself, the true poet, must live outside history like the saint. This is self-evident: if he accepts history he will be silent to the truth in himself.

The fate of works of art is always a matter of chance. The history of art is a history of chance. The historian of art, to be convincing, must be as much artist as historian, for history, like all other knowledge, must be formal and exclusive. The hierarchy of values is also a fiction, and is always being upset by new turns of history and by the advent of new works of art. For this reason, no good historian attempts to write history while it is happening, any more than a poet tries to write a poem while he is making love.

Poetic reputation, like the career of a work of art, cannot be understood in terms of value. Poetic reputation has to do with the fact that value is attributed to a particular piece of work.… In one sense, the history of poetry is no more than the history of opinion.

The non-historicity of art is one of its most significant characteristics. For the poet there is no progress, no evolution: for poetry there is no progress, no evolution. There is only the eternal problem of rebirth. Literary historians know this well. A man at the height of his powers may produce his worst work. In art there is a refinement of skill, as in any other trade, but no assurance of success. This fact is true because the poet enters a new and different world with each poem. The other worlds are lost to him and he can re-enter them only like any other reader. This constant reentry into the world of new relationships makes of the poet neither messiah nor explorer but only a man fully alive in spirit and in body to existence itself.

Poetry intersects with the fiction of history, as it does with philosophy and science and religion. But all this is accidental and unpredictable. True poetry memorializes the scene, the time and place, and the world takes this as tribute. But the poet did not set out to memorialize anything. It is only as a by-product of art that art brings the past to life. There are “periods” of art, no doubt, but they tell us nothing about the individual work or the individual artist. Period does little more than point to the poet’s vocabulary. Poetry helps create history: it helps rewrite it.…

There is no rationale to success in works of art: anyone who has read the life of one poet knows this. On the other hand, there are certain works which are taken as touchstones of the age in which they appear. Such poems or works of art color the very atmosphere of life for a time.…

There is nevertheless a true fame for the work of art, one which the poet himself values, one which the world values as well. This fame has nothing to do with the esotericism of myth or the power of public appeal. It has to do with authenticity. In art we refer to truth in terms of authenticity: that is the only way we have to get at it.… [S]uffice it to say that if this quality did not exist we would be living in a chaos in which every work of art would be the equal of every other work of art.…

The personal truth of works of beauty cannot be equated with mythic truth or universal truth. We do not pretend to believe or not to believe what the poet says in order to follow, appreciate, or love the poem. All we have to believe is that the poet is sincere. Let one shadow of a doubt fall across our minds and the poem disintegrates. But the term belief is somewhat misleading; for poetry is more an act of passion than act of thought. Poetry occurs because a “belief” has been kindled by passion and made incandescent. There cannot be a cold poem. And the belief is more often than not a matter of emotion; that is, a belief which pulls the emotions into it. The creator of beauty is engaged in a constant struggle with the reality of his own emotions. Emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they arc produced by contact with the world. The poet never moves out of this world of struggle in which his emotions (“beliefs”) lock with experience. His recollections of these struggles are the subjects of his poems.

But how does this affect someone else? What is my poem to you? It is an embodiment of myself or part of myself, which would otherwise be lost, as most men’s lives are lost to others, except in memory. It is the rescue of my passion from disintegration. The poet wrests from the world the revelation of his personal reality. I need not point out that this is one of the most common themes of poets of all ages. When the sonneteer cries that his poem will make the lady’s beauty live forever, he means that her beauty has become part of him; that part which creates his poem. Thus the poet triumphs over formlessness, the formlessness of his own life and of all life, the design of which is hidden from us. For many people, reality does not come into existence except through art. Through art we see with another’s eyes, but we see no more than one truth. This truth may be the affirmation of our own reality. Indeed, that would be a lofty enough reason in itself for the high position of art.

The love of beauty, like the love of knowledge and the love of God, may be the metaphysical affirmation of man’s divinity. At least, it is deeply satisfying to think so. Personal experience plus obedience to the laws of beauty—those strange laws which every artist discovers for himself—this is the equation for the creative act. And obedience to the laws of beauty implies a belief in the harmony of all things.

The poet’s fame and honor are based on his love and knowledge of beauty. Who does not love religion, science; or philosophy more, or as much. And it is love of beauty which other men sometimes interpret as love itself. The poet is a man of love. But he differs from others in that he is so fired with the love of beauty that he must create beauty itself. Beauty feeds him with the desire to create beauty. No good poet departs from the obsession with beauty for a second. The moment he does he is lost—off on the journey to historic life or myth-hood.…

The poet leaves an actual record of his passion in the presence of world reality. He creates the image of himself, sometimes only a part of himself, sometimes his full self. With Shakespeare we have the whole image; with Baudelaire we have a stylized and fragmentary image. But whole or fragmentary, the image is not always pretty. Yet when it is a good likeness, we recognize it and appreciate its handiwork. And the creation of this image takes place, like any other creation, through love. What the poet loves helps create his poetry and himself.…

To believe that men are bettered by poetry is as narrow as to believe that they are worsened by it. Let us think of it another way. Let us think of creation in art as the vocation, and only the vocation of a certain kind of man. Let us then give it the honor of any vocation for knowledge. But let us admit also that the sum total of the creation of an artist can equal only himself.

Such knowledge would seem useless to most men and, in fact, the usual view of poetry is precisely that. What poetry does is to ennoble the man who writes it by developing in him an almost habitual love of beauty. This may be the basis for supposing that poets are better than other people. Perhaps the vocation for art and the occupation with beauty do purify the writer; but this purification can take strange and exotic forms.

The fame due to poetry should not be exaggerated. A poet creates out of the necessity for seeking truth through the medium of beauty. The thing of beauty sets out on a career in the world. Sometimes it becomes legendary: sometimes it fades quickly from the face of the earth. But where it remains it leaves an image of its maker. Seeing it, other men have the sense of one man’s affirmation of life, whoever he was, wherever, whenever he lived. Then we recognize, if we cam read these works, the intelligence, the talent, the acts of a man who placed love of truth above all things and who could not find truth except in beauty. Thus tragedy and death itself turn beautiful in art.…

The fame of art rises from the world’s dream of freedom of spirit. The poet is not the buoyant and volatile singer of visions; on the contrary, he is more the Doubting Thomas who finds it hard to believe in the accepted abstractions, and who must prove them all over again for himself. One might say that the poet’s freedom really consists of scepticism.…

There is reason enough to exalt poetry. The artist is the only person whose work immortalizes life itself—his life and the lives of those who happen into the picture. It is this work which gives us a true knowledge of the maker, the poet, and of his world. It is knowledge of doubtful value, perhaps, but it is nonetheless true knowledge. One can learn nothing from art, really, except a kind of curious wisdom—the wisdom of love.…

The just honor of poetry comes from the admiration of mankind for the creation of one personality or one facet of personality. It is not unlike the honor we pay to the athlete or to the man who achieves wealth or success in his affairs. Our pride in him is the pride of created identity. But there is this difference: the poet who creates out of his life has done so because he was part of a particular place and time, part of a particular milieu and nation, and part of a particular age. The truer, the more authentic his work, the longer will last the soil from which he sprang and the clearer the character of his nation will appear to others. The treason comes with those artists who set out to become a touchstone of their time and place; the treason comes with those minions of culture who try to produce the poet who will represent them before the world. Culture says: We must have Art; let us set about having it. And the mythic poets and the historic poets flock to the banners. Meanwhile there is the true poet who has perhaps never published a line, who lives in a town from which no poet has ever come before, and whose greatest peril lies in his indoctrination with the false mythos of culture heroism.…

Our poets today are sent out into the world writing masters into what they believe to be an enemy civilization and a hostile universe. Little wonder that they behave ever after like soldiers on their first patrol. Little wonder that they all mouth the same stereotypes about our dying world and our dying way of life. Little wonder that the poetry of cultural anthropology and cultural history make up the bulk of the 20th century anthology.

It is hard to imagine how the next true poet will escape all the masters lying in wait to receive him, but that is uniquely and eternally the problem of the young true poet.…

The new poet is always the one who outwits the guardians of the prevalent systems—and mostly because he is not even aware of their existence.

Whatever the value of the poem sub specie aeternitatis, it should be given as a fresh, complete, instantaneous thing; for these are the qualities which make for long life in works of art, and even for what we fondly call the immortality of poems. The career of the poem exists only in those moments when the poem is being given and being received.

Source: “The Career of the Poem” in A Primer for Poets, University of Nebraska Press, 1953. pp. 51-73.


Aiken, Conrad, “Karl Shapiro,” in Collected Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1968, pp. 361–64.

Kaiser, Charles, 1968 In America, New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Kleinfelder, Rita Lang, When We Were Young: A Baby-Boomer Yearbook, New York: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1993.

Stauffer, Donald Barlow, A Short History of American Poetry, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1974.

True, Michael, “Books: Alive with Necessary Poems” Commonweal, November 10, 1978, p. 725.

For Further Study

Mandel, Leon, Driven: The American Four-Wheeled Love Affair, New York: Stein and Day, 1977.

This book is an interesting and well-written exploration of the unique way that Americans think of their cars and driving, discussed in an informal, conversational manner. More recent statistics are available, but the general attitudes have not changed.

Steigerwald, David, The Sixties and the End of Modern America, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

A serious sociology text, in which Steigerwald argues that the 1960s ended the era of growth known as Modernism that began around the turn of the century. This is an excellent research source for anyone who wants to study social trends, without the light interest in fashions and rock music that many studies of the 1960s have.

Young, Andrew, “Remembering Dr. King,” The Sixties, edited by Lynda Rosen Obst, New York: Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1977, pp. 232-7.

Young was an associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his essay paints a portrait of the man that we seldom see: a fun-loving man who was swept by duty into a national role at the young age of 26. This book is full of brief, interesting essays about the times and hundreds of photos.