Monday, March 19, 2007

Nothing is harder or more tricky than a selected poems. As Robert Grenier demonstrated when he delivered a selected Creeley that showed the poet’s work centering around the poems that confront language most directly – focusing on Words and Pieces more than on the earlier “popular” For Love – not everybody views the same poet the same way. Several Quietist poets have suggested that Mauberly represents the pinnacle of Pound’s achievement, but then I would edit a selected Eliot completely absent of the molasses that is the Quartets. It would be fun, just as an exercise, to see just how many different John Ashberys we could create via a selected poems. And we know how some poets, including both Auden & Moore, actively revised their own pasts through cautious, if injudicious, editing.

So it pleases me no end to see that the David Shapiro who emerges from New and Selected Poems (1965-2006) captures what is unique about this most difficult (& just possibly most rewarding) of all New York School poets. One way of looking at Shapiro might be to import Zukofsky’s musical notion of the integral & to suggest that for Shapiro, the upper limit is Joe Ceravolo, the lower one Kenneth Koch. That’s a range with a discernible path, but an enormous reach from one to the other: Here is a poem that has elements of both:

A Problem


There are two ways of living on the earth

Satisfied or dissatisfied. If satisfied,

Then leaving it for the stars will only make matters mathematically worse

If dissatisfied, then one will be dissatisfied with the stars.


One arrives in England, and the train station is a dirty toad.

Father takes a plane on credit card with medical telephone.

One calls up America at three-thirty, one’s fiancĂ©e is morally alone.

But the patient is forever strapped to the seat in mild turbulence.


Thinking of America along psychoanalytic lines, and then

delicately engraving nipples

On each of two round skulls

You have learned nothing from music but Debussy’s ions

And the cover of the book is a forest with two lovers with empty cerebella.


Beyond the couple is a second girl, her head smeared out.

This represents early love, which is now “total space.”

These are the ways of living on the earth,

Satisfied or unsatisfied. Snow keeps falling into the brook of wild rice.

It took me quite a few years to learn how to read a poem like this, in good part because, while I “got” Joe Ceravolo instinctively as a young poet, it took me a long time to warm toward the work of Kenneth Koch whose surrealism originally struck me as far too derivative of what I’d read elsewhere translated from the French. Here, I once would have found myself loving certain lines & images (“the train station is a dirty toad” and that great final sentence, which has both image & tonal echoes of Grenier’s early work – I’m not sure that Shapiro even knew of Grenier at the time this must have been written in the very early 1970s), wishing they hadn’t been “stuck” in the midst everything else. Now, however, I can see all the ways in which “everything else” really is necessary, just how very closely calculated every decision is, like when to use punctuation & when not. There’s a whole narrative here just in how periods are used & where: it’s no accident that they turn up midline just twice, both times following the very same phrase, each at the end of similar, tho not entirely parallel, sentences. Aesthetically, read aloud, the two sentences could not have a more profoundly different sense of sensuality – and the second makes the final sentence so much more powerful.

The poem is also both sad & serious in ways quite unlike Koch, unlike Ceravolo also for that matter, an emotional register that one finds in Shapiro that is rare anywhere else in the New York School – there are instances of wistful regret in Ashbery perhaps, but that’s about it. As if one of the registers of how difficult it is to live day-to-day in New York City is that, even as a poet, you never can let your guard down. In this way, Shapiro is completely different from Berrigan, O’Hara, Padgett & many later poets, precisely because he lets us see the jagged vulnerability that is such an important part of his psyche:

The snow is alive

But my son cries

The snow is not alive
The snow cannot speak!
The snow cannot come inside!
You cannot break the snow!

But the snow is alive

And the tree is angry

This is the first section, of two, of a poem that takes its title from that first line, a part of the title series from After a Lost Original, written some 20 years after “A Problem.” Formally, you can see how close this poem gets to Ceravolo’s sense of a magical world, but nowhere in Ceravolo will you ever find this tone, which is both layered & complicated, with more than a little hurt.

If Shapiro is emotionally the bravest poet among the New Yorkers, it’s not accidental that he’s also the most political – indeed, one might say he’s almost the only political presence, at least for his generation. Once you get to Joel Lewis, Eileen Myles & after, this isn’t so rare, but before Shapiro – who was very visibly a presence during the Columbia student strike circa 1968 – it appears not to have been even an imagined possibility. Try to imagine Frank O’Hara or John Ashbery at an anti-war rally a la Ginsberg, Bly, Levertov or Rothenberg. Or Ted Berrigan organizing a rally to support his best friend Anselm Hollo back when the immigration service was trying to deport this partaker of cannabis. Political action is not only a fact of Shapiro’s biography, it’s in the work, in poems as diverse as “House (Blown Apart)” from the 1980s or the very recent “A Burning Interior,” one of whose sections is this “Song for Hannah Arendt”:

Out of being torn apart
comes art.

Out of being split in two
comes me and you. HA HA!

Out of being torn in three
comes a logical poetry. (She laughed but not at poetry.)

Out of the essential mistranslation
emerges an illegitimate nation.

Better she said the enraged
than the impotent slave sunk in the Bay.

Out of being split into thirteen parts
comes the eccentric knowledge of “hearts.”

(Out of being torn at all
comes the poor-rich rhyme of not knowing, after all.)

And out of this war, of having fought
comes thinking, comes thought.

The very flatness of these lines almost echoes Levertov’s most political pieces, even if Shapiro’s source undoubtedly is (again) Koch, (again) put to purposes Koch himself could never have imagined. But it’s simplicity is undercut with the two post-rhyme interjections – and consider how that laughter sounds at the end of the fourth line: it is very much laughter without joy, an extraordinarily complicated emotion to present in a poem, even in this one, which in so many ways is heart-breaking.

When Joe Ceravolo’s selected poems, The Green Lake is Awake, appeared, it had a huge impact on people’s sense of the New York School, gen. 3 and beyond, because Ceravolo had been something of a secret save to the people for whom he was really really important (a situation not unlike Jack Spicer’s during the decade between his death and the appearance of the Collected Books). Shapiro’s selected won’t have the same impact – tho it should – in part because he’s never truly disappeared, steadily bringing forth books now for more than 40 years, doing important work as an art critic, visibly a presence around New York. Yet I’ve never been certain just how many poets actually know David Shapiro & his work. Because Shapiro wrote superbly when he was very young – January was not only a book of poems published Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1965, a time when even Frank O’Hara couldn’t find a real publisher among the trades (Grove Press was a bottom feeder there), but was written for the most part by Shapiro when he was still in high school – it would have been easy (but wrong) to impose on him the narrative of the brilliant savant, and not to recognize the decades of discipline he’s subsequently added to what he brought to the blank page in the 1960s. He’s not Frank Stanford goes to New York. Nor is he a jack of all arts, master of none, tho his skills as violinist (the career ultimately not taken) and art critic are daunting. And because he’s one of the more anxious souls around the poetry scene, I’m not sure just how many people really know him as the generous, loyal, brilliant friend to so many poets he’s been all these years. The person he reminds me of most in that regard is Bob Creeley.

So this volume is one of the great “must have” books of the year. If you have any interest in the New York School, or in the New American Poetries, or even just broadly in the history of the post-avant, David Shapiro’s New and Selected Poems is required reading. It’s also a great, if complicated, joy.