The Poetry of Mature Experience


By David Curzon

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems

By Harvey Shapiro

Wesleyan University Press, 288 pages, $29.95.

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In his mother’s recollection, Harvey Shapiro’s first words were in Yiddish. Born in 1924 to an observant Jewish family, he lived as a child first on the Lower East Side, then high enough up on Riverside Drive for him to remember the George Washington Bridge being built and then, when the Depression hit, in an apartment near the Woodmere station of the Long Island Railroad. His education at Yale and Columbia universities was interrupted by service as an Air Force gunner in World War II. After professorial jobs at Cornell University and Bard College came teaching at Queens College at night while working at the new Village Voice during the day as both poetry editor and ad salesman. He got his mentoring as an editor for Commentary and later moved to The New York Times, where he spent the rest of his workday career, rising to senior positions, including editor of the Book Review. With this background, it’s not surprising that two of the main themes running through Shapiro’s poetry are the work and marriage of middle-class American existence viewed as a battle — one of his early books is called “Battle Report” (Wesleyan University Press, 1966) — and the quests of a Jew lost in the maze of New York City and looking for answers.

Shapiro’s poetic voice is wry, urbane, adult — “I take out my old anxieties/And they still work” — and he can be original using the most familiar of metaphors: “As long as the heart listens/It pumps blood.”

Perhaps in part as a result of the experience of war, he can perceive a simple gesture of affection as a gift: “She made him a gift of her touch/Softly turning the collar of his jacket down/In the crowded elevator.” The subject matter here, as elsewhere in his seemingly effortless poems, is serious — in this case the importance of gifts of the spirit.

For New Yorkers and Jews in particular, there is the delight of having poetry of this quality couched in terms of familiar mental and physical homes:

Caught on a side street in heavy traffic, I said to the cabbie, I should have walked. He replied, I should have been a doctor. When can I get on the 11:33 I ask the guy in the information booth at the Atlantic Avenue Station. When they open the door, he says. I am home among my people.

In the first section, there is a series of enjambments that set up the punch line; the lure and protection of pyrotechnics is shunned in favor of an artfulness that doesn’t call attention to itself. To write poetry like this requires not only lived experience and clarity of mind, but also the technical skill to use to the full the resources of poetry that highlight plain meaning.

Classical and literary references are to be found throughout these collected poems, but they are not flaunted and the poems don’t depend on them:

Even the unlived life within us Is worth examining. Maybe it is all we have. The rest is burned up Like fuel in the furnace. But the unlived life Stretches within us like a beach. There’s a gull’s shadow on it.

Perhaps the shadow of the unlived life gulls us, but that thought is not made explicit, it’s just there for the reader to find in this small argument with Socrates.

Many of Shapiro’s later poems form a record of his sympathies:

And this is just your everyday pathos. The handsome young woman in the white turtleneck leaves the guy at the table, enters the phone booth to cry, silently, for maybe three minutes, then dabs her eyes twice and returns.

The five definite articles imply that these particular tears and this particular individual’s dignity are the concern of the poem and are not just an illustration of an ideological point. Few modern poets can match the range of experience that Shapiro records with a classical sanity and clarity.

Giving a reader so much in return for such little effort risks underestimation. I’m confident that posterity won’t make this mistake; in the meantime, Shapiro, now in his 80s, continues to write, and we can read his new and collected poems with gratitude, aware that “Only/now and then a voice cuts through/saying something right.”

David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.

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