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Shapiro, Karl Jay

SHAPIRO, Karl Jay

(b. 10 November 1913 in Baltimore, Maryland; d. 12 May 2000 in New York City), noted poet, critic, professor, and editor who was named consultant in poetry (the position now called U.S. poet laureate) at the Library of Congress in 1946. His work won the prestigious Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1969.

Born Carl Jay Shapiro, Shapiro was the second son of Joseph Shapiro, a businessman, and Sara Omansky. His given name was legally changed to Karl in 1920. He attended the University of Virginia for one semester in 1932 and Johns Hopkins University from 1937 to 1939. In 1940 he attended the Pratt Library School in Baltimore. Early in 1942, during World War II, Shapiro left for the southwest Pacific aboard a troopship. He had just begun to write poetry. When he returned home in 1946, he was famous, having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his second book, V-Letter and Other Poems. Three years later he figured dramatically in the awarding of the first Library of Congress Bollingen Prize, which was given to the writer Ezra Pound for The Pisan Cantos in 1948. Shapiro was a member of the jury and voted against the "traitor poet." (Pound was arrested and jailed for treason in 1945 because he had made public broadcasts in Italy supporting fascism and anti-Semitism during World War II.) Shapiro's statement read, "I voted against Pound in the belief that the poet's political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiated his poetry and lowered its standard as literary work." A national debate ensued, with most siding with Shapiro.

From 1950 to 1955 he edited Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in Chicago. He edited Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska from 1956 to 1966 and was professor of English at the Chicago Circle Campus of the University of Illinois from 1966 to 1968. Shapiro married Evalyn Katz in March 1945; they had three children and divorced in January 1967. His other marriages were to Teri Kovach (married 31 July 1967; divorced July 1982) and Sophie Wilkins (married 28 April 1985).

While Shapiro surfaced early on the American poetry scene, at age thirty-two, his staying power was significant in the 1960s, witness the 1969 Bollingen Award for his 334-page Selected Poems. His selected collection of critical essays, In Defense of Ignorance, was published in 1960. It contained some of his most enduring essays—on the writers T. S. Eliot, Pound, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, and Henry Miller. His breakthrough book of prose poems, The Bourgeois Poet, appeared in 1964. Another U.S. poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, regarded it as Shapiro's finest book, reflecting the full flower of his creativity as well as the influence of the Beat poets. The Beat poets, among them Allen Ginsberg and Laurence Ferlinghetti, espoused writing based on authentic individual experience; their adoption of free verse as opposed to formal verse captured Shapiro's attention for some years in the 1960s. Abandoning meter and rhyme, he gave new life to the prose poem, a form originally conceived by the nineteenth-century French poet Aloysius Bertrand. Shapiro's book was greatly influential in the 1960s and arguably influenced later prose poems by Robert Bly, James Wright, David Ignatow, and others.

In The Bourgeois Poet, Shapiro wrote in a form that he had created, poems in the shape of a paragraph with a panhandle on the left. One began:

This is a paragraph. A paragraph is a sonnet in prose. A paragraph begins where it ends. A paragraph may contain a single word or cruise for pages. Good writing rids itself of style, sanctifies no grammar, is silent more than it speaks …

Shapiro published his only novel, Edsel, in 1971. It is an irreverent and moving book that takes an angry look at university life (reflecting his own years at the University of Nebraska) and at the chaotic rage of students in the 1960s and the self-seeking pretensions of their elders. One un-forgettable scene occurs during a faculty brawl honoring the self-proclaimed guru of modern poetry (a character based upon Ginsberg) and his bearded chanters. Another character in the novel, called Dylan McGoon, resembles the writer Rod McKuen, a mawkish, pop-culture "poet" who gained a wide audience in the 1960s. Shapiro claimed to have written the novel on the beach one summer, passing pages to friends as he finished them.

Among his other important books from the 1960s are White-Haired Lover and To Abolish Children and Other Essays, both published in 1968. White-Haired Lover marked a return to formal poetry after the experimentation of The Bourgeois Poet. In the second volume of his autobiography, Reports of My Death (1990), Shapiro gives an account of himself in the 1960s. He was teaching at the University of California, Davis, at the time of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and the civil rights leader the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. He felt that the 1960s would be a landmark decade, "a turning point of history, a moment of irreversible dissolution for the old order, a wild warping of the social crust of the earth, as violent in its way as the war decade of the Forties but with its own war against war."

Shapiro claimed to have understood the 1960s before anyone else. He had read Zen books before they were available in America and talked about Zen and astrology to his students, even asking his poetry students under which zodiac sign they were born. (Zen is an important school of Buddhism in Japan. It claims to transmit the spirit or essence of Buddhism, which consists of experiencing the enlightenment achieved by Buddha. The fad of astrology made its debut at this time.) Shapiro also believed that he was part of the revolution in the defense of obscenity, since he had written an essay in defense of Henry Miller and his sexually explicit novel Tropic of Cancer, which was written in 1934 but not published in the United States until 1961. This essay, titled "The Greatest Living Author," appeared as the foreword to the 1961 edition and helped get Miller sanctioned by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Shapiro also helped promote Ginsberg's collection of poems Howl (1959), considered the poetic manifesto of the Beats, and the cause of homosexual rights. He claimed that the revolutions of the 1960s had made a patriot of him, and he took to flying a big silk American flag before his home on the proper holidays. The one "revolution" he did not espouse was the institution of creative writing courses, which began at the University of Iowa in the 1930s but became widespread in the 1960s. He had taught at Iowa for a time but resigned, saying that he could not tolerate it. One of his poems, titled simply "Creative Writing," begins, "English was in its autumn when this weed / Sprang up on every quad."

By the mid-1980s Shapiro was a less influential figure, but he made a "comeback" by publishing two volumes of autobiography, The Younger Son (1988) and Reports of My Death, followed by a solid selection from his lifework in poetry, The Wild Card: Selected Poems, Early and Late (1998). Shapiro died of natural causes. His body was cremated and his ashes stored with his widow, Sophie Wilkins, in a ceramic vase made by a former student. After his death an entire manuscript of uncollected poems was found in his desk in New York, and plans were made to publish it.

There are important manuscript collections at the Library of Congress and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, with a smaller collection at the University of Maryland. An in-depth interview with Robert Phillips, "The Art of Poetry," is in the Paris Review (spring 1986). See also the book-lengthstudy by Joseph Reino, Karl Shapiro (1981); a festschrift by Sue B. Walker, ed., Seriously Meeting Karl Shapiro (1993); and the dissertation of Diederik Oostidijk, Karl Shapiro and Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (1950–1955), Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen (submitted in Sept. 2000). See also the videotape Arthur Hoyle and Karl Shapiro, Karl Shapiro's America (1976). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 May 2000).

Robert Phillips

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