I was never a great fan of Shapiro‎’s, but today I ran across a wonderful couplet from his poem “Hospital”:

Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews
And actresses whose legs were always news.

For that, I’ll forgive a substantial quantity of polemical ranting.

Incidentally, I ran across it in the epigraph to this novel; I haven’t read Epstein, but I have to like anybody who had the wit to pick up that phrase, which makes for an unforgettable title.


  1. Epstein recently wrote an engaging review of the Library of America’s Selected Poems by Shapiro. On the strength of that review, I went back to Shapiro for the first time since college. Better than I remembered–amazing how often that happens!–not in the first class of American poets by any means, but very strong.

  2. Oooh, I actually like Shapiro quite a bit. Not his late late stuff, but yeah, his Selected (I think that’s it) is pretty good. A lot of his poems are better for their narrative quality than the prosody (right word?)….and V-J Day makes me ill (“I love you first because you wait”). But there’s one I love about how he has a mezuzah hanging outside his door, and one day someone knocks, and it’s two Jehova’s Witnesses who come into his living room and most earnestly try to convert him. And (paraphrasing) he leads them outside and points at the mezuzah and says, Guys? When you see this, chances are you’re really not going to find a customer.

  3. No, it wasn’t that Selected Poems. (UPDIKE edited Shapiro’s Selected? UGH. Updike has the most marvellously tin ear when it comes to poetry.) Shapiro was quite famous for his slashing criticism, and didn’t he found, or cofound, Prairie Schooner? That was a big influence for a time….I think Epstein’s right that Shapiro wrote a lot of really good poems, but never one really Great poem. And I personally think his weird form (not quite free verse, mannered, but often without the satisfying clang-and-bang of rhyme and metre) helped contribute to that….I also think he shows what a bad bad influence Auden and Eliot can have on the poetically talented corruptible young. It becomes All Grandly Abstract.
    What’s REALLY bloody depressing in Epstein’s essay is his need to briskly gloss Louise Bogan for those who are apparently unaware of her and her work: ….Louise Bogan, a poet and critic whose praise lent imprimatur to a young poet as, say, Helen Vendler’s tends to do in our own day. Aaaaagh.
    I think Epstein’s quite wrong about Shapiro “never cracking up,” though. He experienced a lot of brutal anti-Semitism and it’s a big theme in his work. (I remember reading in one of his books once he had thought of changing his name, because he despairingly thought “Nobody in the Oxford Book of English Verse was ever named Shapiro.”) I think there’s more self-destructiveness in his turning against the various Establishments than Epstein lets on, and he had the usual (for male poets anyway) serial marriages and brutal love affairs.
    “Essay on Rime” is quite hot — I remember stumbling across it at about sixteen and being blown away. I wonder if Updike had the brain cells to put it in the Selected. (Don’t mind me, I just detest Updike, and ESPECIALLY so in his role as 20th century literary tastemaker, which is really something for the angels to weep over.)
    Oh well enough of me rambling and misusing my spotty English major education. And it’s V-Letter and Other Poems, not V-J Day, Moira. And it was Collected Poems 1940-1978 that I liked so much. 10 points off.

  4. No, no, I’m restoring those 10 points and adding a bunch more. Your first paragraph is an excellent short intro to Shapiro, and I may quote it to people who need one. I agree about Updike, and I especially agree about the wonderful Louise Bogan, whose collection The Blue Estuaries is one of my talismans. You can open it at any page and find lines that stop you in your tracks: “Someone has hung the mirror here for no reason./ In the shuttered room, an eye for the drifted leaves…” Eat your heart out, John Updike.

  5. I love Bogan, too. Rigorous, and a great prosodist– tough-minded elegance. I get the sense that she’s still not very widely read; that is, I wouldn’t expect most English majors to be familiar with her. (But that’s no index of quality, is it?) Her output was small, and there’s no coasting through her works, so maybe that has something to do with it. Perhaps a poet who could write, at age 25, “I burned my life, that I may find / A passion wholly of the mind,” does not seem, at first glance, much pleasure to be with. But I’ll take her any day over, say, the undergrad’s fave, Plath.

  6. Bogan, Bogan, oh how I love Bogan. (I just got a bit cranky over in Steve’s Rilke thread so here I will make up for it by rejoicing in Bogan.) I think one thing against Bogan becoming wildly popular is her poems are dense — fully loaded, thick, thoughtful. You have to read them and puzzle over them for days. Some of them are almost gnomic. Yet she never falls into straight abstraction, like Auden with his Capitalized Nouns, or “poetic” diction. I ran into “The Alchemist” in my father’s college anthology when I was, let’s see, thirteen or fourteen and was blown away. It’s a shame her output was so small indeed (she struggled for a large part of her life with writer’s block) but when so much of it is just perfect, it seems more condensed and — what’s that word where you boil and strain off all the impurities — more than anything else. It’s also hard to pin her down into any political category: not right, not left, not feminist, not anti- (I think some of her poems about women have kept her out of women’s anthologies); she was Art for Art’s sake, and she and everyone else knew it. It saddens me greatly that if anyone is likely to know her name now, it’s because she was poetry critic for the New Yorker for twenty-five years or something like that. Her short stories, her poetry, her letters and her bits of autobiography are all wonderful, and surely it wouldn’t hurt Plath to take a few of her lumens and give them to Bogan. Just some. Enough, say, that she wouldn’t be known primarily as a critic.
    I also have to say I think Bogan is compulsively easy to memorize. You read her poems once or twice over and have them for life. Not even Yeats (probably her favorite poet of all time, I think) could consistently do that.

  7. Oh yes, one minor carping cavail. What’s UPDIKE doing editing poetry? Anyone’s poetry? Bah.

  8. From context, I’m guessing this is a poetry board. (Not my usual haunt; I got here after seeing Shapiro’s “Hospital” quoted in Joseph Epstein’s “Fabulous Small Jews” book of short stories, and Googled for more information.)
    The book, by the way, is terrific.
    Here’s what appears to be an autobiographical Shapiro snippet, probably well known to all you poetistes (poeticians, poetologists?):
    Now when I drive behind a Diesel-stinking bus
    On the way to the university to teach
    Stevens and Pound and Mallarmé,
    I am homesick for war.

  9. Not a poetry board, just a language blog with a yen for poetry. I started posting it in emulation of the wonderful Moira. Thanks, Moira!

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