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November 10: Poet Laureate Shapiro

Lawrence Bush
November 10, 2016
Karl Jay Shapiro, the fifth Poet Laureate of the U.S. (1946-47), was born in Baltimore on this date in 1913. His book, V-Letter and Other Poems, written while was serving in the Pacific during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1945. (V-letters were letters written by American soldiers and microfilmed by censors before delivery to the United States.) “From the very beginning,” wrote David Wohajn in Poetry, “Shapiro identified himself as an iconoclast, and his outsider’s role extended beyond his attacks on social injustice. At a time before it was fashionable to do so, he proudly proclaimed his Jewishness and set himself against the main trends of Modernism.” Shapiro edited Poetry for several years, as well as Prairie Schooner, and wrote numerous essays about poetry. His other poetry collections include Person, Place and Thing (1942), To Abolish Children (1968), The Old Horsefly (1993), and the posthumous Coda: Last Poems (2008). He also published two volumes of a planned three-volume autobiography. Shapiro received the 1969 Bollingen Prize for Poetry. He died at 88 in 2000. To hear five of his poems, look below. “I’ve always had this feeling -- I’ve heard other Jews say -- that when you can’t find any other explanation for the Jews, you say, ‘Well, they are poets.’ . . . The poet is in exile whether he is or he is not. Because of what everybody knows about society’s idea of the artist as a peripheral character and a potential bum. Or a troublemaker… I always thought of myself as being both in and out of society at the same time. Like the way most artists probably feel in order to survive -- you have to at least pretend that you are ‘seriously’ in the world. Or actually perform in it while you know that in your own soul you are not in it at all.”--Karl Shapiro

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.