Saturday, October 20, 2018

#1944Club: Karl Shapiro's V-Letter

The fact that I already had on my shelves the 1944 books that went on to win the Pulitzer for both poetry and fiction when #1944club started is the sign of something, I suppose...

Likely what it is a sign of is my insane addiction to buying books,... though I do doubt there's any other year to which that would apply. (But I was afraid to check.)

Karl Shapiro was born in Baltimore in 1913; dropped out of college; was drafted into the US Army in 1942 and assigned to the Medical Corp, eventually stationed in Australia and New Guinea. V-Letter is his third book, not counting a privately printed volume of juvenilia. The second was printed in Australia in 1942.

I've known Shapiro for pretty much as long as I've been reading poetry, though for a long time only through the widely anthologized 'Scyros' from his first volume: "The doctor punched my vein/The captain called me Cain/Upon my belly sat the sow of fear..." A couple of years ago I read the Shapiro volume in the American Poets Project from the Library of America. (Any actual facts in this come from Updike's introduction to that volume; misstatements and ill-informed opinion are naturally my own.)

This is one of the best poems, I thought, in V-Letter; it's also anthologized in the American Poets Project volume:

'Full Moon: New Guinea'

These nights we fear the aspects of the moon,
Sleep lightly in the radiance falling clear
On palms and ferns and hills and us; for soon
The small burr of the bombers in our ear
Tickles our rest; we rise as from a nap
And take our helmets absently and meet,
Prepared for any spectacle or mishap,
At trenches fresh and narrow at our feet.

Look up, look  up, and wait and breathe. These nights
We fear Orion and the Cross. The crowd
Of deadly insects caught in our long lights
Glitter and seek to burrow in the a cloud
Soft-mined with high explosive. Breathe and wait,
The bombs are falling darkly for our fate.

Shapiro says in his one-page introduction to the volume that he's reluctant to be a war poet, but clearly he is, at least for now; even in a poem on the sound of the piano, he compares it to 'the burst of monstrous guns.' The war provides his subjects and his metaphors. Though not entirely: a number of poems are about Judaism, his religion from birth; a surprising number also include Christian imagery, though Updike's introduction says he was thinking of converting to Catholicism at this time. A couple, among them poems on Jefferson and Franklin, are about Americanness.

The poems are almost all formal, with a number of sonnets and a fondness for the terza rima sonnet in particular, as in Shelley's 'Ode To The West Wind' or Frost's 'Acquainted With The Night.' He also likes anapaests, e. g., (chosen for any Australians who might read this...)

'Sydney Bridge'

Though I see you, O rainbow of iron and rivetted lace
As a dancer who leaps to the music of music and light,
And poised on the pin of the moment of marvellous grace
Holds her breath in the downfall and curve of her motionless flight;

Though you walk like a queen with the stays of your womanly steel
And the pearls of your bodice are heavy with sensual pride,
And the million come under your notice and graciously kneel,
As the navies of nations come slowly to moor at your side;

Yet your pace is the pace of a man's, and your arms are outspread
In a trick of endurance to charm the demand of the bays,
And your tendons are common--the cables are coarse on your head,

You are marxist and sweaty! You grind for the labor of days;
And O sphinx of our harbor of beauty, your banner is red
And outflung on the street of the world like a silvery phrase!

Not a bad description of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I think, and if the bridge is masculine in the end, it gets the two extra lines of the octet to be feminine.

Anyway, a strong volume of poetry, though I was pretty sure I'd like it going in.


  1. Glad to have some poetry in the Club, and a poet new to me - thank you!


  2. hello, i want to ask u if this book is available , if u can help me by providing me the full text of the poem V Letter by shapiro, please.

    1. I found the text of the poem here and I checked and it's accurate. The original volume seems out of print, but I have a copy of the American Poets Project volume of Shapiro, and this poem is in there.