Karl Shapiro

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The poet is in exile whether he is or he is not.

Karl Jay Shapiro (10 November 191314 May 2000) was an American poet, appointed as the fifth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1946.

Quotes[edit]

Writing, I crushed an insect with my nail
And thought nothing at all.
The public has an unusual relationship to the poet: It doesn't even know that he is there.
  • Writing, I crushed an insect with my nail
    And thought nothing at all.
    A bit of wing
    Caught my eye then, a gossamer so frail

    And exquisite, I saw in it a thing
    That scorned the grossness of the thing I wrote.
    It hung upon my finger like a sting.

    • "Interludes" III, in From Darkness To Light : A Confession of Faith in the form of an Anthology (1956) edited by Victor Gollancz
  • A leg I noticed next, fine as a mote,
    "And on this frail eyelash he walked," I said,
    "And climbed and walked like any mountain-goat."
    • "Interludes" III, in From Darkness To Light : A Confession of Faith in the form of an Anthology (1956) edited by Victor Gollancz
  • Then in my heart a fear
    Cried out, "A life — why, beautiful, why dead!"

    It was a mite that held itself most dear,
    So small I could have drowned it with a tear.

    • "Interludes" III, in From Darkness To Light : A Confession of Faith in the form of an Anthology (1956) edited by Victor Gollancz
  • As a third generation American I grew up with the obsessive idea of personal liberty which engrosses all Americans except the oldest and richest families.
    • The Poems of a Jew (1958)
  • The public has an unusual relationship to the poet: It doesn't even know that he is there.
    • "Poets, Critics, and Readers" (1959)

Paris Review interview (1986)[edit]

Whitman to me is the most fascinating of American poets.
I feel that after working a long time, I’ve really learned how to do what I do. I enjoy it.
"Karl Shapiro, The Art of Poetry No. 36", interviewed by Robert Phillips in Paris Review No. 99 (Spring 1986)
  • Words like “spokesman” and “touchstone” took me completely by surprise. For very real reasons. Not only had I been out of the country when my first two books were published, but I have always been “out of the country” in the sense that I never had what ordinarily is thought of as a literary life, or been part of a literary group. What psychiatrists nowadays call a support system. I never had any of that and still don’t.
  • I had never met a poet in my life before winning the Pulitzer in 1945. Well, that’s not strictly true; when I went to Johns Hopkins in 1939, W. H. Auden gave a private reading to a group of special literature students, and I was one. I shook hands with him. As it happened, at that time he was my idol, above all others as a modern poet, and that experience was a very sustaining one. But I could hardly say I “knew” him.
  • I always had this feeling — I’ve heard other Jews say — that when you can’t find any other explanation for Jews, you say, “Well, they are poets.” There are a great many similarities. This is a theme running all through my stuff from the very beginning. The poet is in exile whether he is or he is not. Because of what everybody knows about society’s idea of the artist as a peripheral character and a potential bum. Or troublemaker. Well, the Jews began their career of troublemaking by inventing the God whom Wallace Stevens considers the ultimate poetic idea. And so I always thought of myself as being both in and out of society at the same time. Like the way most artists probably feel in order to survive — you have to at least pretend that you are “seriously” in the world. Or actually perform in it while you know that in your own soul you are not in it at all. You are outside observing it.
  • Whitman to me is the most fascinating of American poets. Whitman started to write the great poetry from scratch after he had written all that junk for newspapers, the sentimental lyrical poems. All of a sudden he wrote Leaves of Grass. When I was teaching at the University of Nebraska, my friend James Miller was chairman of the English Department. He wrote the first book attempting to make a parallel between the structure of Leaves of Grass and the steps of the mystical experience as in St. John of the Cross. I was completely bowled over by this, not having been able to explain how Whitman came to write “Song of Myself,” which is unlike anything not only in American literature, but unique in all the world. The parallels to it are mystical literature. Miller tried to show that there was actual evidence for this kind of experience, which evidently happens at a particular moment in someone’s life. … When I saw the negative reaction to Whitman with the great ruling critics of the time, I couldn’t believe it. Eliot never really gave up hammering away on Whitman, neither did Pound. Although Pound makes little concessions. Whitman, you know, didn’t have any influence in this country until Allen Ginsberg came along.
  • Influence is strange. Because one can be influenced powerfully in every way but technique. For instance, I would think Walt Whitman probably had more influence on my whole poetic thinking than anybody, but I never dreamed of trying to write in the Whitman manner.
  • I was at Notre Dame just a few years ago, and one of the professors there said to me, “You don’t know what effect In Defense of Ignorance had. It ripped the whole academic community in half!” I’m glad I wrote the book. I like it, and I still stand by my observations, although I wouldn’t write it so violently now. I guess I really am in the Whitman tradition.
  • I feel that after working a long time, I’ve really learned how to do what I do. I enjoy it. I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than turning out a good stanza or a good piece of prose. And when you’re satisfied enough, you want to show it to other people. That’s called publication.

Quotes about Shapiro[edit]

Alphabetized by author
  • Shapiro is back where he started half a century ago: on the outside, looking in. If the canon has changed drastically, Shapiro has not. At almost age eighty, he still heroically, if sometimes quixotically, wields his verbal weapons against real and imagined enemies, still using for his motto Thoreau's "If I have anything to regret, it is my good behavior."
    • Marian Janssen in in Rewriting the Dream : Reflections on the Changing American Literary Canon (1999) edited by W. M. Verhoeven, p. 127
  • Karl Shapiro's poems are fresh and young and rash and live; their hard clear outlines, their flat bold colors create a world like that of a knowing and skillful neoprimitive painting, without any of the confusion or profundity of atmosphere, of aerial perspective, but with notable visual and satiric force. The poet early perfected a style, derived from Auden but decidedly individual, which he has not developed in later life but has temporarily replaced with the clear Rilke-like rhetoric of his Adam and Eve poems, the frankly Whitmanesque convolutions of his latest work. His best poem — poems like "The Leg," "Waitress," "Scyros," "Going to School," "Cadillac" — have a real precision, a memorable exactness of realization, yet they plainly come out of life's raw hubbub, out of the disgraceful foundations, the exciting and disgraceful surfaces of existence.
    • Randall Jarrell, in "Fifty Years of American Poetry" in No Other Book : Selected Essays (1999)
  • You've always been my favorite editor because you're not like an editor at all.
    • Randall Jarrell, as quoted in "Death of Randall Jarrell" in To Abolish Children and Other Essays (1968), p. 197
  • Like Jarell, Shapiro was a poet who felt like "stating his opinion or expressing his pleasure or disdain for something that had occurred [or] which should not have occurred" … As editor of Poetry Shapiro was faithful to this approach. Instead of asking professional critics to review or write articles for Poetry, he mainly evaluate their peers. … On several occasions Shapiro had made it seem as if these literary rows just befell him, as if he were accidentally stuck in the middle of two opposing camps that each had an ax to grind. However, he was not quite that innocent.
    • Diederik Oostdijk, in "'Not Like an Editor at All' : Karl Shapiro at Poetry Magazine", in Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co : Middle-Generation Poets In Context (2003) by Suzanne Ferguson, p. 75

External links[edit]

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