Karl Shapiro, 1913-2000

Tuesday, Jan 12 2016

Karl Shapiro, 1913-2000
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1945; Poet Laureate, 1946-47; **Bollingen Prize for Poetry, 1969

By Sue Mizrahi, Managing Editor

Karl Shapiro was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was proudly Jewish…and too few have ever heard of him. Born in and raised in Baltimore, Shapiro was nevertheless not a child of the South. As a Jew and as a poet, he felt himself always an exile. In his words, "The poet is in exile whether he is or not." Shapiro had a scathing social conscience, and found impetus and subject matter in the public crises of the 1940's. Counterpoint to the rise of Hitler was the rising anti-Semitism in the American landscape. For a short time before WWII he attended the University of Virginia, and immortalized it in a poem called, "University", in which he said "to hate the Negro and avoid the Jew is the curriculum".

He declared his Jewishness at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. In his introduction to his volume "Poems of a Jew (1958) he wrote "As a third generation American I grew up with the obsessive idea of personal liberty, which engrosses all Americans except the oldest and richest families."

**The Bollingen Prize was established in 1948 by Paul Mellon, and was funded by a grant from the Bollingen Foundation. The inaugural prize, chosen by a jury of Fellows in American Letters at the Library of Congress, was awarded to Ezra Pound for his collection of poems, The Pisan Cantos. The choosing of a work by a man who had been a committed Fascist sympathizer infuriated many people and Karl Shapiro voted against it.

He did not write many poems specific to his Jewish sensibilities. One of the most powerful is "Israel," which follows this article.

The poem opens with the poet in chains – behind the "great black English line" that symbolizes oppression and subjugation….the uncomfortable Western chair the sign of alienation.

The beginning of liberation – "the drop of chains, the starting forth of feet" – And moves to the establishment of the State – the redemption and freedom and dignity that have been impossible before "the living land."

This poem was commissioned to be read at a celebration of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and was performed at a mass meeting in Baltimore in that year.

The poet remains in exile.

From "Poems of a Jew":
"No one has been able to define Jew, and in essence this defiance of definition is the central meaning of Jewish consciousness. The Jew is unique among mankind, and the word Jew remains its eternal shock, a shock that has nothing to do with Christ or the Crucifiction. The shock has to do with the Covenant, the intimacy of Jew and God. This intimacy is not sentimental; on the contrary, it is unfriendly."

"The 151st Psalm" – The poet remains in exile – exiled from his Land, from his People, from his God.

For the poet, the Covenant is ruptured. God is absent. In the poignant phrases of "The 151st Psalm" Shapiro speaks to the absent God; asking, perhaps, for the reopening of the dialogue between God and His exiled People. (There are, of course, only 150 Psalms) He envisions God as seeking His people – We as wondering where He is.

"The 151st Psalm" was commissioned to be performed for the celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Jews in America. Shapiro addresses the issues of alienation, anti-Semitism, Jewish identity – of Jewish Peoplehood and of dispersion... unchanging, unchanged and familiar to all of us. Karl Shapiro is a master poet, and spokesperson for his people. We are delighted to re-introduce him.

When I think of the liberation of Palestine,
When my eye conceives the great black English line
Spanning the world news of two thousand years,
My heart leaps forward like a hungry dog,
My heart is thrown back on its tangled chain,
My soul is hangdog in a Western chair.

When I think of the battle for Zion I hear
The drop of chains, the starting forth of feet,
And I remain chained in a Western chair.
My blood beats like a bird against a wall,
I feel the weight of prisons in my skull
Falling away; my forebears stare through stone.

When I see the name of Israel high in print
The fences crumble in my flesh: I sink
Deep in a Western chair and rest my soul.
I look the stranger clear to the blue depths
Of his unclouded eye. I say my name
Aloud for the first time unconsciously.

Speak of the tillage of a million heads
No more. Speak of the evil myth no more
Of one who harried Jesus on his way
Saying Go Faster. Speak no more
Of the yellow badge, Secta nefaria.
Speak the name only of the living land.

The 151st Psalm
Are You looking for us? We are here.
Have you been gathering flowers, Elohim?
We are your flowers, we have always been.
When will You leave us alone?
We are in America.
We have been here three hundred years.
And what new altar will You deck us with?

Whom are You following, Pillar of Fire?
What barn do You seek shelter in?
At whose gate do You Whimper
In this great Palestine?
Whose wages do You take in this New World?
But Israel shall take wht it shall take,
Making us ready for Your hungry Hand!

Immigrant God, You follow me:
You go with me, You are a distant tree;
Your are the beast that lows in my heart's gates;
You are the dog that follows at my heel;
You are the table on which I lean;
You are the plate from which I eat.

Shepherd of the flocks of praise,
Youth of all youth, ancient of days,
Follow us.


Reflections on Karl Shapiro

By Karen Feit, Israeli/Jewish Culture

As a reasonably well educated and well-read American Jew, I had never heard of Karl Shapiro….not as a Pulitzer prize winning poet, not as poet laureate of the United States, and not as a noteworthy American Jew who had contributed to American culture. I wondered why.

As a Zionist, and as one who teaches about Israel, Zionism, and Diaspora-Israel relations, I found Shapiro’s poetry, as well as his writing about his Jewishness compelling, disturbing, and paradigmatic of the dilemma of the American Jew in the Diaspora.

First and foremost, Shapiro is a social critic. Although he acknowledges his Judaism, it is not his central focus. It seems ironic that his poem addressed to God, The 151 Psalm, reads as a challenge and almost a rebuke, rather than as a song of praise.

As the quintessential Diaspora Jew, Shapiro expresses mixed feelings as the modern state of Israel comes into being in the poem Israel. While he watches the rebirth of the Jewish nation from afar, he remains rooted in his “Western chair.” He is moved, but from afar. He is alienated, in both poems, from God and faith by the pain and suffering of history, ancient and immediate.

The issues and the anguish expressed in these poems may not have reflected sentiments that suited popular attitudes in the Jewish community of the day, but the brutal honesty of Shapiro’s words sets a model for discussion for those who are looking for more nuanced discussions of the birth of Israel, and the meaning of Zionism for Diaspora Jewry.

These articles are part of the December 2015/January 2016 edition of Women Who Learn. To obtain a PDF version of the full edition, email us at jewisheducation@hadassah.org.

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