Karl Shapiro (1913-2000)
...was a well-known twentieth-century poet who recently died in May of
2000. Shapiro began writing in the 1930s in a society devoted to T.S. Eliot. He resented Eliot's influence and
viewed him and many other modern poets as critics; Shapiro found little use for criticism since he did not believe
poetry could be rationally discussed. Shapiro was born in Baltimore, MD, and briefly attended the University of
Virginia. Soon after enrolling in school, he realized he would rather write than study and quickly withdrew. He
returned to Baltimore and worked various jobs to support himself while concentrating on his writing. He attempted
to pursue his education at Johns Hopkins University and Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library School, but was drafted
into the army before he was able to receive a degree. While in the army, Shapiro wrote two of his most important
books and with the help of his fiancee, Evelyn Katz, they were published shortly thereafter. He won the Pulitzer
Prize for V-Letter and Other Poems in 1945 and, when he returned from the war, served as poetry consultant to the
Library of Congress. In 1950, he assumed the position of editor of Poetry magazine until
1956, when he joined the faculty at the University of Nebraska and worked as the editor of Prairie Schooner. He
later taught at the University of California at Davis between 1968 and 1984. Shapiro published numerous other books
of poetry including Poems of a Jew, White-Haired Lover, and Adult Bookstore. Despite his original criticism of
literary critics, Shapiro also wrote several works of literary criticism.
O hideous little bat, the size of snot,
With polyhedral eye and shabby clothes,
To populate the stinking cat you walk
The promontory of the dead man's nose,
Climb with the fine leg of a Duncan-Phyfe
The smoking mountains of my food
And in a comic mood
In mid-air take to bed a wife.
Riding and riding with your filth of hair
On gluey foot or wing, forever coy,
Hot from the compost and green sweet decay,
Sounding your buzzer like an urchin toy--
You dot all whiteness with diminutive stool,
In the tight belly of the dead
Burrow with hungry head
And inlay maggots like a jewel.
At your approach the great horse stomps and paws
Bringing the hurricane of his heavy tail;
Shod in disease you dare to kiss my hand
Which sweeps against you like an angry flail;
Still you return, return, trusting your wing
To draw you from the hunter's reach
That learns to kill to teach
Disorder to the tinier thing.
My peace is your disaster. For your death
Children like spiders cup their pretty hands
And wives resort to chemistry of war.
In fens of sticky paper and quicksands
You glue yourself to death. Where you are stuck
You struggle hideously and beg
You amputate your leg
Imbedded in the amber muck.
But I, a man, must swat you with my hate,
Slap you across the air and crush your flight,
Must mangle with my shoe and smear your blood,
Expose your little guts pasty and white,
Knock your head sidewise like a drunkard's hat,
Pin your wings under like a crow's,
Tear off your flimsy clothes
And beat you as one beats a rat.
Then like Gargantua I stride among
The corpses strewn like raisins in the dust,
The broken bodies of the narrow dead
That catch the throat with fingers of disgust.
I sweep. One gyrates like a top and falls
And stunned, stone blind, and deaf
Buzzes its frightful F
And dies between three cannibals.