The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Karl Shapiro
Karl Shapiro pic
Karl Shapiro, article title
Voltaire would weep for joy Plato would stare.
What is it, easier than a church to enter,
Politer than a department store, this center
That like Grand Central leads to everywhere?
-excerpt from Karl Shapiro's poem "Public Library," which he dedicated to Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library

He came by it naturally, some might say. Karl (born "Carl") Shapiro was born in Baltimore's Church Hospital, the same hospital where Edgar Allan Poe had died over half a century earlier. He spent a lot of time walking around Baltimore to places where he liked to sit and write. "[I] would walk as much as 20 miles a day to remote historical landmarks like Ft. McHenry," he said, "where [I] sat and wrote a Petrarchan sonnet about the failure of America, at the same place where the Star Spangled Banner was written on a British prison ship." Closer to his neighborhood, he wandered around Druid Hill Park, where Upton Sinclair had sat under a tree some years before reading Shakespeare. And then there was his father's "limp scarlet leather collection of [Oscar] Wilde's poetry in the living room" whose pages, Shapiro said, were "edged in bright gold, like a naughty Bible."

As he grew older, he became increasingly conscious of and self-conscious about his Russian Jewish roots. He considered changing his name to Karl Camden (after Baltimore's Camden train station), "but I decided to stick to my name" (although he did change "Carl" to the more Germanic "Karl"). And even though he wasn't particularly religious, the decision to keep his name, Shapiro said, "made me 'Jewish.' And since I had made the decision I wrote poems about Jewishness."

His academic career was, apparently, nothing to write home about. He attended school in Baltimore, Chicago, and Norfolk, began writing while attending Baltimore's Forest Park High School, and continued writing at Baltimore City College High School, from which he graduated in 1932. He attended the University of Virginia for a couple years and then spent a couple more at Johns Hopkins University but never graduated. He decided to become a librarian and worked briefly at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, attending librarian school there, until 1941 when he was drafted.

And that's when his career took off.

He published four books of poems during his military hitch in Australia and the South Pacific, including his best seller "Essay on Rime," Person, Place, and Thing, and V-Letter, which won the 1944 Pulitzer Prize. "I would lie awake nights trying to remember notes I had made six years ago at home," he said later, describing the experience. After the war ended, he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as Poet Laureate of the United States).

Scholars have described Shapiro's poetry as clear, vivid, and direct. In his book The Bourgeois Poet (1964), he said that he was interested in writing poetry that expressed "what ideas feel like...ideas on Sunday...thoughts on vacation."

Also after the war ended, he married his longtime girlfriend, Baltimorean Evalyn Katz, who had also served as his literary agent and chief promoter during the early years of his career.

Living in the shadow of Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken, whose obstinate, curmudgeonly wit taught him to "take the other side of almost any argument," Shapiro didn't run from controversy, either in his writing or in his life. His poem "University" declares that higher education is set up to "hurt the Negro & avoid the Jew." In 1948, he alienated much of the literary establishment when he voted against awarding a major prize to Ezra Pound on the grounds that Pound's offensive moral and political views, including anti-Semitism, outweighed the quality of his poetry. In 1956, he resigned his teaching position at the University of Nebraska, as well as his editorship of the literary journal Prairie Schooner, when, according to Shapiro, the university's administration refused to let him publish a short story that included a homosexual character.

In 1957, while speaking at Johns Hopkins University, where he had his first teaching job, Shapiro said, "The poet gives the world one thing and one thing only: the present. Others give the past. Others give the future. The poet gives this moment, and that is all. Poetry is humanizing, not civilizing...It allows men to survive in the only world they know-the world of themselves..." In addition to Hopkins and Nebraska, he also taught at the University of Chicago and University of California/Davis, and edited the prestigious journals Poetry and The Newberry Library Bulletin.

Karl Shapiro moved to New York late in life and lived in seclusion with his third wife until his death in 2000.

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