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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Number 26: Karl Shapiro "Manhole Covers"

Manhole Covers

The beauty of manhole covers--what of that?
Like medals struck by a great savage khan,
Like Mayan calendar stones, unliftable, indecipherable,
Not like the old electrum, chased and scored,
Mottoed and sculptured to a turn,
But notched and whelked and pocked and smashed
With the great company names
(Gentle Bethlehem, smiling United States).
This rustproof artifact of my street,
Long after roads are melted away will lie
Sidewise in the grave of the iron-old world,
Bitten at the edges,
Strong with its cryptic American,
Its dated beauty.

--Karl Shapiro

Hap Notes: Karl Shapiro (1913-2000) started out winning the Pulitzer Prize for his V-Letter and Other Poems in 1945 and ended up becoming a thorn in the side of the established aesthetics of poetry by not falling into line behind T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. When a group of poets got together in 1948 and hoped to give Ezra Pound the first Bollingen Prize- an award sponsored by the Library of Congress- in the hopes that Pound could be released from prison if he won an award, Shapiro, who was on the board for the prize, voted against it. It darkened his reputation for years.

Let me rewind just a bit. Pound was in prison for treason. He was a supporter of the Nazi Party while he lived in Italy during WWII. He called Hitler a "saint." He did propaganda radio broadcasts under the sponsorship of Mussolini. Pound wrote vile things about Jews (called them "Kikes" and that was the nicest thing he said), blamed them for everything bad in Europe and called Mussolini "the boss." Now, there's no doubt Pound was a few screwdrivers short of a tool kit and, as such, it's hard to determine how much of Pound's stupidity was just mental illness. He was not treated well in prison and that was a sad shame.

Shapiro, however, was a Jew. I cannot imagine having a conscience of any kind and wanting to award Pound anything in 1948. Poets who lined up behind Pound included T.S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, e.e. cummings, Allen Tate, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren and the writer Katherine Anne Porter. Shapiro was pretty much ignored after his "no" vote.“I was suddenly forced into a conscious decision to stand up and be counted as a Jew,” he said. The prize was awarded to Pound. It didn't make him any the less disturbed and he continued to be anti-semitic and also associated with people from the KKK. No kidding.

The Bollingen Prize, not surprisingly, was taken away from the Library of Congress after this and the prize has since that time been awarded by the Yale University Library. Shapiro actually won the Bollingen in 1969 along with John Berryman.

In 1959 Shapiro wrote an article in the New York Times Book Review saying that poetry was a "diseased art" and took aim at the Eliot/Pound "high Modernism" and "New Criticism" as one of the reasons why. This, at the time, was like saying the pope wears a funny hat and smells bad. His outspoken views ostracized him even more.

I love the poetry of most of the people who stood up for Pound and I love some of Pound's work, too. Let's face it The Wasteland would not be the dazzling poem it is if not for Pound's blue pencil. Pound was a brilliant editor.

However, I lean towards Shapiro because he had a hell of a lot of chutzpah. He was not a fan of Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore or William Butler Yeats and I am. However, poetry needed a good dowsing in cold water and Shapiro gave it a tub's worth. Unfortunately, this ended up marginalizing him even more, which is a pity because so many poets owe him so much, most notably Billy Collins, Nikiki Giovanni and even Kenneth Koch and Stanley Kunitz.

Shapiro found an appreciative academic home at the University of California in Davis. Regardless of his irreverence and ire at much of academia, the college gave him a long rope and he needed one. He was full of vinegar but there was honey in him, too, and he had a wonderful sense of humor.

For example, our poem "Manhole Cover," where he compares the iron manhole covers of a street to "medals struck by a savage khan." I think he's referring, since the list goes on more or less archeologically, to a Mongol leader of some type. ( Although it's worth noting that Kahn is the Germanized form of Cohen, as Kaplan is its Russian form and Copeland, too. A cohain (Cohen) is another form of Kohanim- a Jewish religious leader- Aaron was the first in the Old Testament.) I don't think that Shapiro is thinking this but, it's certainly possible.

It's both amusing and a little disconcerting to think of manhole covers as future artifacts in history, as remnants of our iron age. Shapiro had a love/hate thing with cars and wrote poems about them. He even wrote a fictional novel called Edsel. Electrum is a naturally occurring mix of gold and silver that was often used for coins in ancient Rome; see how he takes us down through the ages with the ancient civilizations including the Mayans?

Our artifacts are marked with the companies who made them, Bethlehlem (gentle) or the smile the words "United States" form on the edges of a manhole cover in a "c" shape. The inscriptions, so obvious to us, will not be so after the street has "melted." (nuclear meltdown?) Interesting progression, too: medals, calendars, coins, manhole covers.

I love his appreciation for this everyday thing. And he's saying something about all civilizations isn't he?

Here's a good Shapiro quote: "The poet is in exile whether he is or he is not. Because of what everybody knows about society’s idea of the artist as a peripheral character and a potential bum. Or troublemaker."

And another, "I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than turning out a good stanza or a good piece of prose."

You can find more Shapiro here:

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