Sepia For Sadness
Trial of a Poet, and Other Poems.
by Karl Shapiro.
New York, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947. 81 pp. $2.00.
Basically an extrovert, Karl Shapiro would have society bear the brunt of his aggressiveness, which is, however, conditioned by his own insecurity. That is exactly what the long dialogue poem from which this book takes its title amounts to. Yet, whether as a self-evaluation or as a work of art, this longish piece is practically valueless. Behind a Miltonian motto it hides little more than the poet’s feeling of utter disconnectedness. It is in fact a parlor discussion with some imagery—blurred daydreaming rather than clear-cut vision—plus some high-pitched prose, and choruses on the line of Auden’s in “The Dog Beneath the Skin.”
Undoubtedly, it is his relation to modem society that now puts so many of Shapiro’s firm lyrical statements in the interrogative mood. It goes without saying that his consciousness of being determined by society has been accentuated, perhaps even over-accentuated, by his service in the army. Poems like “Homecoming,” “Demobilization,” or “The Conscientious Objector” bear this out, and their very titles mirror his fervently negative reaction to the state-controlled mass adventure: “Your [the CO’s] conscience is What we come back to in the armistice.”
As long as he confines himself to jotting down his personal reactions, the poet is in his own right. But it is not up to him to investigate his relationship with society, at least not so long as he writes poetry. Investigation implies a far greater amount of critical detachment than the creative processes of poetry would allow. The mission of the modem lyrical poet, from Shakespeare’s sixty-sixth sonnet to Eliot’s “Waste Land,” and beyond, is to show the impress of society on the poet’s ego rather than for the poet to typify and use himself as a sort of guinea pig in a pretendedly impartial treatise on “Social Behavior in the Contemporary Poet.”
Thus, Shapiro is at his best when purely personal. In sixteen “Recapitulations” covering the time from his birth “under the roof where Poe expired” to his marriage, he gives a condensed and artistically competent diary of his inner life. Formally, he succeeds in applying and adapting to his purpose diversified lyrical patterns. He uses the chanty raised to the A. E. Housman level (XIV), a witty transformation of a German Stundenlied in two-lined stanzas (II), and the abridged scheme of Villon’s refrain (X and XIII), thus integrating his cultural heritage into his personal account.
It is in this last sense that Shapiro’s Jewishness appears. Unlike Delmore Schwartz, whose Jewishness is part and parcel of his intellectual background and a link in the chain by which he makes contact with Christianity and modern civilization, Shapiro tends to look upon his origins as upon a strange relic forsaken in an otherwise completely cultivated landscape. He feels bound to assert his Jewishness—and does so indeed on the very first page—cherishing it as one of the sources of his uneasiness as well as of his brilliance. But this time he fails to achieve the impact and simplicity of his earlier “Synagogue.” Jewish-ness, too, has become a highly questionable subject, as shown in his epithalamium (“Recapitulations,” XVI). Yet he does not want to flee from it. He still accepts it as the material for his creative conflict, as a thorn in his flesh which might, one day, become a thorn in the wreath wound round the temples of the living poet.
Now in his middle 30’s, Karl Shapiro still writes verse that reminds one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Glanz von einer leeren Seite, aus der noch alles werden kann (“brilliance of an empty page, from which everything is still possible”). The most advanced among his poems—like the stirring pseudo-historical pageant, “Progress of Faust”—prove that his soul is still full of creative unrest and the sincere desire to break through tradition and those inhibitions which have been inherited, or acquired from the poet’s ponderings over The Poet’s attitude toward society. His vitality is unbroken by the spiritual exercise demanded by modem creation. His innate sense of color has not yet been dimmed by books and big city life. “And there is blue for night and red for fire—And sepia for sadness.”
Eventually, he might very well find the solution within his poetic work, adding unabashed red and blue to the lingering sepia of his metropolitan melancholy.