Karl Shapiro was born in Baltimore, Maryland on 10 November 1913, the son of Joseph and Sarah Omansky Shapiro. His father was a businessman whose income fluctuated greatly during the 1920s and 1930s. As a senior in high school, for example, Shapiro remembers having sensed the imminent financial collapse of his family. His father and Baltimore relatives were solidly committed to commerce and the professions, and Shapiro recalled in an essay titled "A Malebolge of Fourteen Hundred Books" (collected in To Abolish Children and Other Essays, 1968) that although in his family’s circle of friends there was no "literary atmosphere" his father encouraged his older brother (the more successful student of the two sons) to "write and perhaps even become a writer." In the same essay, in what is perhaps a tracing of the origins of his own future irreverence, Shapiro also noted that his father "kept a limp scarlet leather collection of Wilde’s poetry in the living room" whose pages were "edged in bright gold, like a naughty Bible."
Shapiro’s early, undistinguished years as a student were spent in Baltimore, Chicago, and Norfolk, Virginia. He spent part of a year at the University of Virginia (1932-1933) where he felt ostracized by both the Anglo-Saxon majority and by students of German-Jewish background who, Shapiro claims, regarded themselves as superior to Jews whose ancestors, like his own, had come from Russia. Shapiro’s chagrin about this period of his life has been captured in his poem "University," where the "curriculum" is said to be to "hurt the Negro & avoid the Jew."
Due to his self-consciousness about his background, the adolescent Shapiro at one time thought of changing his name to "Karl Camden," the name Camden being drawn from a "beautiful old railway station in Baltimore called Camden station." Although he never adopted this anglicized surname, he did legally change the spelling of his first name from Carl to the more Germanic Karl.
The consideration of a name change not only reached deeply into Shapiro’s anomalous position as a Jewish southerner but also undermined his lifelong feeling that he was destined to be a poet. "Nobody in the Oxford Book of English Verse," he recalled in The Poetry Wreck (1975), "had been named Shapiro." He remembered feeling during the 1930s that it would be difficult to get a poem published unless one had an Anglo-Saxon name, "but I decided to stick to my name; that decision made me ‘Jewish.’ And since I had made the decision I wrote poems about Jewishness."
Although Shapiro was raised as a middle-class Jew and "underwent the formal training of a barmitzvah," he was not particularly religious. Nonetheless, his sense of identity as a Jew had been firmly rooted. In his introduction to Poems of a Jew (1958) he wrote: "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. As a Jew I grew up in an atmosphere of mysterious pride and sensitivity, an atmosphere in which even the greatest achievement was touched by a sense of the comic. Isolated within my own world, like a worm in an apple, I became a poet."
Shapiro has had an equally embedded consciousness of himself as a southerner. Many of his poems focus on the South as landscape and theme, poems such as "Conscription Camp," "Alexandria," "Jefferson," "Demobilization," "Snob," and "The Southerner." While acutely aware of and alienated by the southern tradition of caste, the South remained home for Shapiro long after he had ceased to live in it. In this connection he has acknowledged the influence of H.L. Mencken, a fellow Baltimorean, feeling that the acerbic essayist might have accounted in part for his own tendency to "take the other side of almost any argument" ("A Malebolge of Fourteen Hundred Books"). He also felt an unsentimental affinity with that other Baltimorean, Edgar Allan Poe, as can be seen in his poem "Israfel."
During the 1930s Shapiro privately published Poems, an unremarkable collection that nonetheless won him a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, which he attended from 1937 to 1939. His formal schooling was to remain incomplete. "I went to three high schools and two universities," he noted in The Writer’s Experience, "and am without a degree." Eventually he studied to be a librarian at the Enoch Pratt Library School in Baltimore, but a few weeks before his examinations in 1941 he was drafted into the Army. Ironically, the barrenness of army life stimulated him to write as neither before nor since, and between 1941 and 1945 he turned out four volumes of poetry as well as having a poem published in Five Young American Poets: Second Series (1941).
The Place of Love, which was privately printed in Australia in 1942, gives little indication of the poet Shapiro was to become. Person, Place and Thing (1942), on the other hand, marked a formidable beginning for Shapiro’s career. Poems from the collection, which were published in Poetry in 1940 and 1941 while Shapiro was serving as a Medical Corps clerk in the South Pacific, were awarded the magazine’s Levinson Prize and the collection itself was lauded by the critics. Allen Tate, who represented the southern cultural elite and whose praise therefore meant much to Shapiro, liked the book’s honesty and its "special savagery of attack." While the word "attack" accurately mirrors the book’s exposure of urban decadence, the word is even more helpful in capturing Shapiro’s directness. He confronts his subjects, whether they be war, love ("To Evalyn for Christmas"), southern history, or Jewish Sundays, with a bracing clarity and firmness. The effect is intensified by Shapiro’s incisive use of imagistic technique — his fondness for hard, sharp surfaces — as can be seen in the much anthologized "Auto Wreck."
The Baudelairean atmosphere of urban malaise that characterizes poems such as "The Dome of Sunday" and "Washington Cathedral" figures in the war poems as well, giving them a brooding, unsettling quality. The events of the war are set within the framework of the dehumanized technocracies that send men and women to war. The impersonal mood is underlined by Shapiro’s convincing portrayal of the enervating monotony that engulfs the soldier’s days. On other occasions he depicts the zeal of young recruits with mordant foreboding, as in "Scyros":
Hot is the sky and greenShapiro’s skillful use of the dramatic monologue in Person, Place and Thing — in poems such as the well-known "Cut Flower" and "Mongolian Idiot" — add much to the energy and richness of this volume, whose excellence in many ways he was never to surpass. While "Mongolian Idiot" might have seemed to some readers evidence of the heartlessness of Shapiro’s imagination, Shapiro’s sympathy for the child and its plight comes through poignantly, and the poem should not be associated with the author’s admitted taste for the ugly and the obscene.
V-Letter and Other Poems (1944), published when Shapiro was serving in New Guinea, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The title refers to the correspondence of overseas military personnel; letters from abroad were censored and sent on microfilm to the United States, where they were reprinted in smaller format (V-letters) and mailed. (Letters from the United States to military personnel overseas were treated in the same way though they were not censored.) Thus, Shapiro’s soldier’s letter home symbolized the overlapping of personal feeling and public exposure in the life of the U.S. serviceman. The distanced perspective, which one finds in many of Shapiro’s war poems, reminds one of Randall Jarrell, whose poetry he much admired.
The war poems in V-Letter, such as "Hill at Paramatta," "Sydney Bridge," "Christmas Eve: Australia," and the memorable sonnet "Full Moon: New Guinea" exhibit both a contemplative openness to experience and a relentless detachment, the effect being the dramatization of men forced to stare at the horror of their situation without being able to control it:
The small burr of the bombers in our earCharacteristically in V-Letter, the machinery of war overshadows and mesmerizes the men who attend it, as in the unexpectedly elegant "Ballet Mecanique" in which the "wheel forgets the hand that palpitates/The danceless power." The tautness of the poems is everywhere sustained by their opposed elements; the romantic flood of moonlight in "Full Moon: New Guinea," for example, serves as a backdrop for a night air attack.
Shapiro’s long poem Essay on Rime (1945) was written in the heat of New Guinea, where Shapiro had no access to a library, a fact which makes his sustained poetic consideration of the problems facing contemporary verse all the more remarkable. William Van O’Connor, who was also stationed in New Guinea, had lent Shapiro a copy of Yeats’s The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) and other than that Shapiro had only his own copy of Baudelaire. Obviously written with Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711) in mind, the Essay on Rime, which, written in a loose blank verse — but with some occasional rhymes — and divided into three cantos, assesses the position of twentieth-century poetry after the collapse of those traditional values that had served as a basis for centuries of poetic themes. In a similar vein Shapiro reflects on the demise of a formalism that had been succeeded by an apparently structureless free verse. Essay on Rime was the first major occasion on which Shapiro attacked the ponderous influence of modern criticism on the making of poetry. He called here, and later in his controversial book In Defense of Ignorance (1960), for a direct reading of experience through the poet’s senses and emotions, forsaking the sort of reflexive intellectualizing which Shapiro believed had drained contemporary poetry of vitality. Moreover, he argued for a personal voice in poetry as opposed to the impersonality prescribed by Eliot.
While some commentators reacted caustically to Essay on Rime, accusing Shapiro of oversimplification, the book received praise from eminent critics such as Conrad Aiken and F.O. Matthiessen. While the versification of the Essay on Rime is often pedestrian and even clumsy at times and while the poem does contain oversimplifications and inconsistencies, it nonetheless conveys a fundamental outlook which Shapiro has never renounced and for which there is much to be said. Shapiro was principally attacking the calcification and narrowness which had overtaken modern poetry in the wake of the dogmatism of Eliot, Pound and the New Critics. What he wanted for poetry was the sort of provisional tone and openness that he saw in contemporary science, which he later characterized in "A Malebolge of Fourteen Hundred Books" as the "poetry of our time." Above all, Shapiro set himself against the sort of criticism that reduced "all experience to abstract ideas" (In Defense of Ignorance). What he was after was a poetry not of ideas but of "what ideas feel like," as he put it in The Bourgeois Poet (1964): "ideas on Sunday, thoughts on vacation."
Largely because of his winning a Pulitzer Prize, Shapiro was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position which he held 1947-1948. On 25 March 1945 he married Evalyn Katz, who as literary agent had shepherded his poetry to press during the war years. They subsequently had three children. In 1948 while serving on the committee for the Bollingen Prize, at that time sponsored by the Library of Congress, he found himself surrounded by controversy after he voted against awarding the prize to Ezra Pound and declared publicly that Pound’s questionable political and moral philosophy, including a pronounced anti-Semitism, vitiated his poetry.
Some of the poems in Trial of a Poet and Other Poems (1947) had been written in the South Pacific, while others were written on the troopship home and in New York. The book evocatively conveys a sense of aftermath, as in "Homecoming":
The mighty ghoul-ship that we ride exhalesDeepening the mood of aftermath, Shapiro foresaw the moral consequences of the awesome weapon that had permitted America to end the war, darkly depicting America’s invention of the A-bomb as a Faustian pact: "He hid, appearing on the sixth to pose/In an American desert at War’s end/Where, at his back, a dome of atoms rose" ("The Progress of Faust").
In 1948 Shapiro became an associate professor of writing at Johns Hopkins University, another windfall brought about by his Pulitzer Prize. From 1950 to 1956 he was editor of Poetry, and from 1953 to 1955 he was also editor of the Newberry Library Bulletin. He ironically found himself in the case of both august journals upholding the critical values of the poetic establishment in spite of his previously chosen role as an anticritic.
Poems 1940-1953 (1953) includes a selection of previously published material as well as eighteen new poems. Some of the images, as in "The Minute" in which an "office building treads the marble dark," recall the fine, burnished surfaces of Person, Place and Thing. Other poems, such as "Going to School," show a merging of visual detail and metaphysical resonance.
In 1956 Shapiro accepted a position as professor in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska. At the same time he became editor of the Prairie Schooner, a position which he held until 1966 when he resigned his professorship and his editorship because the university administration and staff of the journal, according to Shapiro, refused to let him publish a short story involving a homosexual. He had already felt ostracized by the reception given In Defense of Ignorance (1960), a book whose acerbic views he subsequently said in a 1978 interview in the Tri-Quarterly made him lose "practically all" of his friends.
In the meantime he had published two volumes of poetry, Poems of a Jew (1958) and The Bourgeois Poet (1964). In Poems of a Jew, which includes a number of his earlier poems in addition to some new ones, Shapiro both embraces his Jewishness and on occasion strikes out at Christianity. Objecting particularly to what he saw as Christianity’s repression of sexuality, he titled a poem about a boy’s first masturbation, "The Confirmation." On the other hand, in poems such as "The Alphabet" he asserted the formative role of Judaism in the creation of Christianity, and in other poems, such as "Teasing the Nuns" and "The Jew at Christmas Eve," his tone was conciliatory. Shapiro attempted to naturalize the term Jew, to offset the stinging effect of the word in North American culture, as can be felt in the poem "The First Time." The best poem in Poems of a Jew is probably "Messias": A Jewish middle-class boy is suddenly met on his doortsep by an ancient, scholarly-looking Jew with a patriarchal face and beard who inescapably confronts the boy with his heritage. The poem illuminates Shapiro’s strength as a poet — his fine sense of narrative situation and his deft and inventive use of commonplace experience: "Between the poetry of language or symbol and that of situation," he said in "A Malebolge of Fourteen Hundred Books," "I chose the situation."
Because of its open-endedness and prosiness The Bourgeois Poet signaled a radical new direction for Shapiro. He became attracted to the Beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and had come to view Whitman as the father of American poetry, a poetry he took pains to point out was rather prose-like. His method in The Bourgeois Poet was that of free association and montage. At the foreground of the sequence is Shapiro’s Nebraska house in summer from which he drifted back over earlier stretches of his life and thought. The Bourgeois Poet is thus Shapiro’s song of himself. The book emphasizes self-analysis and reveals Shapiro’s conspicuous attempt to be candid with himself — as in his admission that in his minor intellectual vanities he was not all that morally different from his mid-western neighbors.
The title of the collection came from Theodore Roethke, who teasingly called Shapiro a "bourgeois poet" at a party in Seattle in 1955. Shapiro accepted the term, conceding that he could not, after all, free himself from middle-class aspirations in the way that Henry Miller had succeeded in doing: "You go from the pogroms of Russia to the East Side of New York. Your father becomes a businessman so you can get an education and become a writer. You don’t want to give up those material things that you just got." Thus, at one point inThe Bourgeois Poet he wonders with faintly masochistic, though wry, self-consciousness what "kind of notation is in my Time file for my life, especially my death? Will they say I died, O God? If they don’t say I died how can I die?" While not one of Shapiro’s stronger works, The Bourgeois Poet is a fertile source of autobiographical information. Furthermore, the book is a watershed of sorts since it expanded Shapiro’s range of themes to include the everyday, relaxed round of his existence.
After a two-year stint at the University of Chicago from 1966 to 1968 Shapiro joined the faculty of the University of California at Davis, where he taught until his retirement in 1985. About this side of his life he has said: "I have a sort of special status around English Departments — I’m not really a professor, but sort of a mad guest." After having been divorced from his first wife in January 1967, he married Teri Kovach on 31 July 1967. She is the focus of White-Haired Lover (1968), a cycle of twenty-nine love poems in which Shapiro returns to traditional forms, principally the sonnet. The quality of these poems is uneven, and a few, such as "Epithalamium, the Second Time Around," "I Swore to Stab the Sonnet," and "Now Christ is Risen," are somewhat banal. Others, however, such as "You Played Chopin" and the Petrarchan sonnet, "You Lay Above Me," from which the title of White-Haired Lover is taken, are fresh and moving. For both the Selected Poems (1968) and White-Haired Lover, Shapiro received the 1969 Bollingen Prize for Poetry, sharing the award that year with John Berryman.
In Adult Bookstore (1976), published when he was sixty-two, Shapiro wrote some of his most polished verse. There is no hint, for example, of the awkwardness of White-Haired Lover. Poems such as "My Father’s Funeral," which might have elicited such writing, are firm and tight on both a technical and emotional level. In poems such as "Garage Sale" and "Girls Working in Banks" Shapiro adapts his earlier imagistic precision to the quotidian flow of experience, including some evocative poems about his California surroundings. The social satires such as "Flying First Class" and "Sestina: of the Militant Vocabulary," are marked by artfulness and panache, as is the conclusion to "Sestina," which parodies the vocabulary of the militant activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s: "While pigs perpetuate the power structure,/Baby, be relevant to the revolution/Till we experience the Establishment."
The high standard of these poems is continued in the handful of new pieces that were included in Shapiro’s Collected Poems 1940-1978 (1978), indicating that age had not apparently diminished his powers. In 1988 Shapiro published the first volume in a planned three-volume autobiography. This first volume, titled The Younger Son, details Shapiro’s childhood and early manhood, including his World War II experience and the beginnings of his literary career. While "the poet," as Shapiro refers to himself throughout the volume, divulges little information about his relationship with his parents and the experiences of his youth, he is more expansive when discussing his wartime tour of duty, when he managed a prodigious poetic output while caring for wounded soldiers. Commenting on the author’s use of the third-person in the book and the resulting detachment from his life that is implied, Sewanee Review contributor David Miller noted that "The mood is an eerie one of diminishment and distance." However, Miler concluded that "The Younger Son is beautifully styled, honest, and fascinating."
Shapiro continued his autobiography with 1990’s Reports of My Death, the title referring to inaccurate media reports in the 1980s that Shapiro had committed suicide. The volume covers the period between 1945, when Shapiro returned home from World War II, and 1985, chronicling in the process Shapiro’s literary development; his stints as editor of Poetry and Prairie Schooner; his controversial decision to vote against Ezra Pound as recipient of the first Bollingen Prize for poetry; and his gradual fading from the literary limelight during the 1970s and 1980s. Again referring to himself in the third person, Shapiro openly discusses his numerous extramarital affairs, his disgust with the American literary scene, and his frustration at being dropped from the prestigious Oxford Book of American Verse. Several critics expressed disappointment with Shapiro’s decision not to date important events and not to identify people who figure prominently in his story. Nevertheless, Chicago Tribune Books reviewer Larry Kart declared that Shapiro’s two volumes of autobiography "not only rank with Shapiro’s finest poetic achievements but will also come to occupy . . . a high place in the canon of American autobiography."
In 1994, Shapiro moved from Davis, California to New York with his third wife Sophie Wilkins. His health failing, he lived in seclusion on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He died in New York City on May 14, 2000.
"In Karl Shapiro’s poetry there is a timelessness and grace, energy of the earth. No poet better comprehends the academic, proves it time and time again and then shuns it to write for us about the every day things of our lives. No American poet has stood by principle and ignored the heavy personal cost for doing this, than has Karl Shapiro.
"Poets owe Karl Shapiro, first, for creating a sound and music in language that no other poet has surpassed . . . and second, that their work got published in a textbook anthology because Karl Shapiro put it in for them." (Leo Connellan in The Small Press Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, February, 1985, p. 12.)