November 10, 1913, is the birthdate of American poet Karl Shapiro, who by the time he turned 34 had won a Pulitzer Prize and been appointed U.S. poet laureate. In a sense, Shapiro spent the rest of his career trying both to live down the “bourgeois” success that two such achievements signified and to live up to some of the expectations they created.
Carl Jay Shapiro was born in Baltimore, the second son of Joseph Shapiro, a traveling salesman, and the former Sarah Omansky. When Carl (he legally changed the spelling to “Karl” as an adult) was 6, the family moved to Chicago, although they returned to Baltimore a decade later, and he graduated from Baltimore City College High School in 1932.
Shapiro spent a semester at the University of Virginia, which he later described in the poem “University” as a place where “to hate the Negro and avoid the Jew is the curriculum.” He also claimed that, as the descendant of Russian Jews, he was looked down upon by his classmates of German-Jewish descent.
Although Shapiro later studied piano at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, received a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, and also studied for a library degree at the Enoch Pratt Library School, he never completed an academic degree. In the case of the last, he was several weeks away from taking final exams when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, in March 1941.
In the army now
Shapiro was sent to the Pacific, where he served as a medical corps clerk on the island of New Guinea. Having regular access to a typewriter, he wrote four books’ worth of poetry during his service. One of these, “V-Letter and Other Poems,” was published and awarded the Pulitzer Prize while he was still overseas.
It would be hard to exaggerate the enthusiasm with which Shapiro’s young voice was received by America’s literary establishment. His 1946 prose poem “Essay on Rime,” for example, was described by the New York Times as possibly “the most remarkable contribution to American art yet to have come out of the war.”
The year after his return home, Shapiro was appointed “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress,” as the poet laureate position was then called. In 1948, he sat on a board of distinguished poets convened by the Library to select the winner of the first Bollingen Prize in Poetry. The board voted to award the prize to Ezra Pound, for his book “The Pisan Cantos,” with only Shapiro and one other member voting for someone else, William Carlos Williams.
Just three years earlier, during the war, Pound had been in Italy doing pro-Fascist radio broadcasts, before being brought back to the U.S. where, instead of being tried for treason, he was confined to a mental hospital.
The Library of Congress later backed out of its sponsorship of the award, and Shapiro went public with his own objections, which mainly revolved around Pound’s anti-Semitism. Years later he noted, with apparent regret, that the affair had led to his being “suddenly forced into a conscious decision to stand up and be counted as a Jew.”
Shapiro’s romantic view of life meant that he saw himself as a perpetual outsider, something that didn’t go along with being either a spokesman for the Jewish community or a university literature professor. Nonetheless, he held many academic positions, at Johns Hopkins and at the universities of Illinois, Nebraska and California at Davis, and was editor of Poetry magazine from 1950-1956. But he once described himself as shedding jobs “like a poodle shaking off bath water.”
His poems and two volumes of an autobiography described with great candor his many sexual indiscretions, and his pain at being edited out of the “Oxford Book of American Verse.”
There were, of course, limits to Shapiro’s self-effacement: When a medical journal included him in a list of artists who had committed suicide, following which his name appeared in the New York Times crossword puzzle with the clue, “late U.S. poet,” he decided to sue the first publication. The case was settled out of court.
Karl Shapiro died on May 14, 2000, at the age of 86.
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