Monday, May 14, 2018

`With Polyhedral Eye and Shabby Clothes'

One of the first “modern” poets I discovered on my own, outside of school, was Karl Shapiro. I was fourteen when I found a selection of his early poems in one of the Oscar Williams anthologies, which I bought because it packed a lot of poetry into a small, inexpensive package, and because I liked the photo gallery of poets on the front and back covers. I’m trying to remember what attracted me to Shapiro. It had something to do with his acknowledged debt to Auden, whose poems I don’t think I had read as yet, but the Auden voice – an unavoidable presence around 1940 – is enormously appealing.

I remember being able to memorize the opening of “Scyros” without trying: “The doctor punched my vein / The captain called me Cain.” And “Buick,” “The Fly” (“O hideous little bat, the size of snot, / With polyhedral eye and shabby clothes”) and "Pharmacy." Shapiro wrote about recognizably American things. His lines were elegantly loose-limbed. The early poems, the ones I was discovering, invite recitation. You almost want to sing some of them. By the time I found Shapiro, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, he had rather perversely turned himself into a different sort of poet. In The Bourgeois Poet (1964), he wrote in prose, and only periodically did he return to well-crafted verse.

I think of Shapiro again because I’m rereading Joseph Epstein’s 2003 story collection Fabulous Small Jews. The title comes from the second stanza of “Hospital”:

“This is the Oxford of all sicknesses.
Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews
And actresses whose legs were always news.”

Shapiro died on this date, May 14, in 2000, at age eighty-six.

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