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The Praying Atheist A Look at the Poetry of Karl Shapiro

This is the second in a series of three poetry reviews, published in celebration of National Poetry Month.

By the late 1940s, Karl Shapiro had already cut an impressive figure in American poetry. He was only 32 when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. The following year he became the Library of Congress’s consultant in poetry. (This position has been renamed. It is now the poet laureate.) The year after that, Shapiro became the second Jew to be tenured at Johns Hopkins University. And in 1950, he assumed the editorship of Poetry magazine, the foremost journal in the field at this time. But then something happened: Although still more or less respected for his talent, Shapiro had ceased to have any real clout by the end of the 1960s.

To understand Shapiro’s odd transition, it is important to see why he was so successful in the first place. Shapiro had already begun publishing when he was drafted in 1941. He was clearly inspired by William Carlos Williams’s commitment to the sheer facticity of things and by Williams’s delight in everyday American speech. But his use of traditional forms and his way of turning the rhythms of common language against the regularities of those forms were derived from W.H. Auden. He assumed from Auden a particular tone that manages to be both distant and familiar, as if the speaker were both a Martian and a native informant. This tone is well suited to irony, and Shapiro’s skilled use of the dying fall makes him mercifully easy to quote.

When Shapiro turned his considerable skills to his experience in the South Pacific in World War II, he produced some of the best American poems of that conflict, poems that played the fears and hopes and daily pleasures of soldiers against the backdrop of world-historical events. At their best, Shapiro’s formal ironies become a refusal to self-dramatize, a kind of tight-lipped heroism. In “Aside” the problems of poetry in wartime are shown to be no different (and no less important) than the problems of reading the mail from home:

For aside from ourselves as we are there is nothing aliveExcept as it keeps us alive, not tomorrow but now,Our mail-day, today of the blood of the sweat of our brow,The year of our war to the end. When and where we arriveIs no matter, but how is the question we urgently need,How to love and to hate, how to die, how to write and to read.

Survival is important, yes, but death is inevitable. In the face of this — and in the interim, in that treacherous pulse between survival and death — small acts take on a fierce dignity.

Shapiro was justly rewarded for his poetry of the war years. He won that Pulitzer for “V-Letter and Other Poems” and the other honors followed. Shapiro’s banishment, if we can call it that, can be chalked up to two interrelated causes, both of which are intimately tied with his rather pugnacious identification of himself as a Jew. In 1948, Shapiro was a member of the committee that awarded Ezra Pound the Bollingen Prize for poetry. Pound was, to say the least, a controversial choice. A great and influential poet, he was also notorious for his strident antisemitism and for the very public aid and comfort he gave to the Italian fascists during the war. (Rather than execute him for treason, the authorities decided that Pound was mad, and so they locked him up in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., for a number of years.) Shapiro voted against the award and later claimed that this vote marked a turning point in his consciousness as a Jew.

Shapiro’s outrage led him to spend a good part of the 1950s assailing Pound and T.S. Eliot. He was particularly angry with Eliot, whose antisemitism, though less colorful than Pound’s, had a much broader reach and whose poetry was, by Shapiro’s lights, simply awful. Given the grip that Eliot maintained on both American poetry and literary criticism at this time, Shapiro’s attacks amounted to a repudiation of the academic and critical establishment. This put Shapiro in an odd position, because he was certainly no bohemian and was himself firmly lodged in that establishment. In 1958, in the bluntly titled, “Poems of a Jew,” Shapiro republished those poems he had written on Jewish themes. In an academic-literary world that still stood under the long shadow of a High Anglican piety, Shapiro had thrown his marker down.

But the twilight of Shapiro’s reputation cannot be merely ascribed to his courage or to antisemitic reaction. While his consciousness of himself as a Jew might have propelled him in his frontal assault on English literature, his notion of Judaism is strangely empty: It merely consists of accepting one’s identity as a Jew. His Judaism, such as it is, does not commit one to a history, to a set of beliefs or a course of actions. Jews are “beyond philosophy, beyond art, virtually beyond religion,” and in the introduction to “Poems of a Jew,” Shapiro goes as far as to assert that Jews are strangers to mysticism. (He maintains this while quoting Martin Buber, which is no mean feat.) In the end, as he admits in an essay from 1959, his Judaism comes to resemble American secular humanism in that it celebrates the human above all else. His position can be summed up in an odd but resounding formulation: “The Jew represents the primitive ego of the human race.” This is Judaism without religion and, beyond the chutzpah of Shapiro’s phrasing, without a trace of Yiddishkeit.

It seems pretty clear that Shapiro’s Jewishness (no other word, unfortunately, will do) allowed him to resist the prevailing view that somehow Christianity had a lock on universal human experience. But it was a peculiarly defensive self-definition in that it does not entail any real convictions. In practice, Shapiro’s sense that being Jewish entails an undefined “liberty” does not yield much more than a resolute but ungrounded contrariness. And over time this attitude would shade into irritability.

The contradictory formulations of his prose poem, “I am an Atheist who says his Prayers” (from “The Bourgeois Poet” of 1964), are witty and self-mocking, but they also point to Shapiro’s dilemma. By this point, he had come to occupy a paradoxical position, but unlike Robert Lowell (who was probably the most important poet of the 1950s and ’60s), he couldn’t turn this paradox into a lesson about the America in which he lived. Shapiro might have disliked much of what he saw in the suburbs and offices of the late 1950s, but he had no language beyond mere distaste to explain and justify this dislike. In other words, he had fallen out of phase with his times. Once, the context of World War II had given his insights weight and his language depth. Coming out of the 1950s, Shapiro’s indeterminate version of Jewishness could not replace the salience the war had provided. It merely served as the sign of Shapiro’s alienation not just from a Christian establishment, but also from the period as a whole. And his satire against the present could not imagine a preferable past or a desirable future: “I didn’t go to the funeral of poetry. I stayed home and watched it on television.”

Although “The Bourgeois Poet” consists of frequently lively and fairly successful prose poetry, Shapiro was not all that interested in formal innovations. His later crankiness seeps into the relatively uninventive metrical formalism of the later works. Shapiro continued to publish poetry until 1998 and lived until 2000, but his editor, John Updike, devotes less than a third of his selection to the verse that came after “The Bourgeois Poet.” (The Library of America anthology of 20th-century poetry is even harsher. It does not reprint any of the poems after 1964.) To be sure, Updike’s decision to concentrate on Shapiro’s more personal and ultimately wittier poetry from these years is a question of Updike’s own taste. And, to be sure, Updike’s selection presents a slightly different poet than Shapiro’s own and frequent selections from his work. But this presentation is not necessarily any less accurate. Shapiro, for all his talent, wrote very good poems that have remained nothing more than very good poems. Like his Judaism, they are often defensive and self-contained. It is hard to shake the impression that Shapiro was a skilled poet with a restless mind who grew increasingly and somewhat angrily irrelevant.

David Kaufmann is chair of philosophy and religious studies at George Mason University.

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Karl Shapiro: Selected Poems (American Poets Project)

Edited by John Updike

Library of America, 225 pages, $20.

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