The Poet Revered
"He takes the lectern in his hands
And, like a pilot at his instruments,
Checks the position of his books, the time,
The glass of water, and the slant of light;
Then, leaning forward on guy-wire nerves,
He elevates the angle of his nose
And powers his soul into the evening.
-From The Poetry Reading by Karl Shapiro
One of the twentieth century's great poets has finally received some of the recognition that eluded him throughout his life.
The Library of America has recently embarked on the American Poets Project, a series of editions dedicated to offering a compact, comprehensive national library of American poetry through the pairing of poets with distinguished editors. Novelist John Updike has chosen to present Karl Shapiro, a poet he feels was unjustly overlooked during his career. Of the works selected for inclusion, Updike states, "Karl Shapiro's tone is breezy, surly, rapturous as the mood rapidly shifts. The last lines often stub our toes and invite us to reread." Karl Shapiro: Selected Poems was released in April 2003.
Karl Shapiro grew up in Virginia and Baltimore, in a middle-class Jewish family, a fact which greatly influenced his sense of identity. Shapiro garnered a wealth of notoriety early in his career, first with his privately published Poems (1935), which won him a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, and in 1944 with V-Letter and Other Poems, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize -- at age 31.
The Pulitzer vaulted Shapiro into a position of distinction and afforded him a world of opportunities in the ensuing years. He served as editor of Poetry magazine from 1948-1950, and later became a member of the English faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he was the editor of Prairie Schooner from 1956-1966. There he solicited and published many important twentieth-century poets, including Richard Eberhart, Josephine Jacobsen, Josephine Miles, John Frederick Nims, Octavio Paz, and William Carlos Williams. He would later resign his position after the editorial board of the magazine refused to print a sexually explicit submission.
Shapiro's fame broke important ground for Jewish-American poets. In 1948 he cast the lone dissenting vote in the Bollingen Prize committee's decision to grant an award to Ezra Pound, on the grounds of Pound's rampant anti-Semitism. In 1950 he published Poems of a Jew. Shapiro received a Levison Prize, the Contemporary Poetry Prize in 1943, an Academy of Arts and Letters Grant in 1944, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Shelley Memorial Prize. He also served as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress, a position which is now known as U.S. Poet Laureate. Shapiro died in New York City on May 14, 2000.
The poet's archive is part of the Ransom Center's collections.