Note to the capture: Jim Harrison in 1969 at his farm in Michigan.
Note to the capture: Karl Shapiro
By JIM HARRISON
Published: January 28, 2007
I recently wandered through my home library in Montana and rediscovered Karl Shapiro’s “Bourgeois Poet” (1964), a book of prose poems I first read during the vile winter of 1966. My wife and I had moved back to northern Michigan, after I’d left behind a good job in Boston on the promise of my first book of poems, “Plain Song,” having been accepted by Norton. I don’t recall what shape I expected the promise to arrive in: I ended up trimming Christmas trees and working construction for two and a half bucks an hour. Our rented house was only $35 a month, but it was drafty, the furnace was faulty and frequently the place couldn’t be brought up to 55 degrees. All of these numbers can actually describe a life.
Reading Shapiro’s prose poems under such conditions was wonderful in that I was decidedly not bourgeois. As a young Francophile, mostly because high school textbooks of American and English literature in the ’50s were so dreary, I was sympathetic with the prose poem, essentially a French genre. Shapiro seemed to be deranged by the prosperity of his academic position — he was a professor at the University of Nebraska — and since I had flunked out of graduate school for reasons of arrogance I was familiar with the atmosphere he was evoking: “Now when I drive behind a Diesel-stinking bus / On the way to the university to teach / Stevens and Pound and Mallarmé / I am homesick for war.”
I was empathetic to Shapiro’s travails up to a point, but then my wife and I were eating altogether too much macaroni and cheap cheese and he sounded like a man who had had a huge porterhouse and half a cheesecake for dinner and was complaining about indigestion. The subtext, unworded but looming, was that, like coal miners, poets have to make a living, and Shapiro had children.
It should be remembered that bourgeois was a volatile word in the 60s, frequently an insult. After our horrid winter I ended up teaching at Stony Brook on Long Island, where I occasionally noted professors in bell-bottoms with long hair saying, “All power to the people,” whoever they might be. Obviously our workday clothing is also a costume signifying who we wish to be, and professors at the time could be nervous about being bourgeois. Only a Republican would wear a clean trench coat.
Shapiro (1913-2000) had gotten the title for his book at a party, after giving a reading in Seattle, when Theodore Roethke called him a “bourgeois poet.” The question is why it caused Shapiro such severe unrest that he poured heart and soul into what is really one very long poem?
I suspect Shapiro’s evident misery started early in his life with a heroic notion of the poet. Any poet knows that to become immortal all you have to do is write a single great poem. This is unlikely indeed. Perhaps there are tens of thousands of mules and draft horses across the countryside who dream of winning the Kentucky Derby. Better yet, a bartender in Seville told me last March, “We have thousands of aspiring Lorcas but only one Lorca.” Very early on a poet is struck by the cruelty and lack of democracy in the arts — so few get it all, and the hordes receive nothing but the pleasure and pain of an overdeveloped consciousness. Ted Kooser, the former United States poet laureate and a friend of Shapiro’s at the time “The Bourgeois Poet” was written, told me Shapiro was obsessed with the French symbolist poets. This explains a lot, since Shapiro’s notion of what a poet was implies the outsider, the outcast, the outlier, one who purposefully deranges his mind to write poems like Rimbaud, or one who could not walk, so borne down was he by his giant wings, to paraphrase Baudelaire. I must here imagine myself an English department chairman, who has to deal with these troublesome creatures, and say that a poet is hubris through and through in the same manner that an unruly pig is solid pork.
Shapiro was massively famous in the 1940s and ’50s, in the manner of Robert Lowell or Allen Ginsberg in the ’60s and ’70s, though his fame seemed to dip after “The Bourgeois Poet.” He served in World War II, then published “V-Letter and Other Poems” and won the Pulitzer Prize at 32. He became consultant in poetry, now known as poet laureate. Later, on a prize committee made up of famous poets, he was one of only two who voted against awarding Ezra Pound the Bollingen Prize, and it was a grand literary scandal at the time. Shapiro cast his vote as a Jew in opposition to a renowned anti-Semite. He was also voting against the wishes of T. S. Eliot, the virtual pope of poetry during the postwar years. I would suggest the possibility of anti-Semitism in the decline of Shapiro’s reputation. But when you begin your career as grandly as he did, where can you go but down?
“The Bourgeois Poet” is disturbingly brilliant though occasionally it is inadvertently comic. How can you be raffiné, much less stridently Whitmanesque, on a campus in Nebraska? A poet must discover that it’s his own story that is true, even if the truth is small indeed. The work is marvelous in small pieces but deflates a bit in the face of Shapiro’s heroic posturing over what a poet is. There is a wonderful carelessness possible only because it is the kind of poem in which every sort of effluvium fits into the plan. The danger here is that it must be interesting effluvia.
Often in the poem Shapiro refers to himself as “The Beep”:
The Beep feels seasonal, placid as a melon, neat as a child’s football lying under the tree, waiting for whose hands to pick it up.
He also writes, the torpor overwhelming:
Office love, love of money and fight, love of calculated sex. The offices reek with thin volcanic metal. Tears fall in typewriters like drops of solder.
They erect a bust of me after my death. I know the right alcove, where the students sit, in the library corridor, smoking and joking about the professors. “I fought with tooth and nail to save my niche.”
Perhaps as a corrective and a cautionary, “The Bourgeois Poet” should be taught to the thousands taking M.F.A.’s in creative writing who wish to become poet-professors. As I said I tried it myself but found the work too hard. There’s a subdued but relentless hurly-burly in academia that swallows up discretionary time. It’s like living with a slight backache, not fatal but enervating. Besides, academic salaries are falling behind and it’s become questionable if poet-professors have truly achieved bourgeois status. Maybe lumpen bourgeois.
In the ’60s I was actually on a committee in New York City with R. V. Cassill from Brown and Ben DeMott from Amherst, among others, trying to figure out how to get universities to hire more poets and novelists. Through no fault of our own it worked out that way.
Historically, of course, the scales are tipped in favor of the non-bourgeois poet. Yeats warned that the hearth was more dangerous for a poet than alcohol. Rilke said, “Only in the rat race of the arena, does a heart learn to beat.” Well off the margins of the page in “The Bourgeois Poet” there’s an invisible Greek chorus singing, “You’ve got to earn a living.”
Ultimately for a poet the fence is so high the top is invisible, but it is what we are designed to reach for. Everything else is mere scaffolding. You will most likely get the back of the muse’s hand whether you have a chair at Harvard or are pumping septic tanks in Missouri. I must say my sympathies are still with César Vallejo, a grander poet than anyone now living on our bruised earth. In Paris between the world wars Vallejo and his girlfriend would pick out the empty wine bottles in trash receptacles to earn their keep.
Jim Harrison’s new novel is “Returning to Earth.”