Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Little on Poet Alan Shapiro (Revised)

I first learned about Alan Shapiro’s poetry a couple of years ago, when someone suggested I read his book Song & Dance. I loved it, and then when a colleague suggested Tantalus in Love, I ate that up as well. This spring, I decided try and teach Tantalus in Love in my “Introduction to the English Major” course at Lehigh, along with a couple of essays by Shapiro (including this moving memoir-like essay, from Virginia Quarterly Review, about which I have more to say below).

Earlier in his career, Shapiro was included in the movement known as the “new formalism,” where poets started to reconsider the classical forms, and come to use more rhyme, meter, and formal structures in their poetry. Shapiro was somewhat ambivalent about being described that way (by Robert Richman, in the conservative/reactionary journal The New Criterion), and Shapiro wrote an essay for Critical Inquiry called “The New Formalism” (Critical Inquiry 14, August 1987: JSTOR link), where he discussed his ambivalence about the movement.

Yet I am anything but cheered [to be referred to as a New Formalist]. And not because I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member, though this may be a part of it; but because I suspect that what Mr. Richman hails as a development may in fact be nothing but a mechanical reaction, and that the new formalists, in rejecting the sins of their experimental fathers may end up merely repeating the sins of their New Critical grandfathers, resuscitating the stodgy, overrefined conventions of the ‘fifties poem,’ conventions which were of course sufficiently narrow and restrictive to provoke rebellion in the first place. Any reform, carried to uncritical extremes by less talents who ignore rather than try to assimilate the achievements of their predecessors, will itself require reformation. If James Wright, say, or Robert Bly, produced more than their fair share of imitators, if they even imitate themselves much of the time, they nonetheless have written poems all of us can and ought to learn from. Maybe we have had too much of the ‘raw’ in recent years. But the answer to the raw is not the overcooked.

This strikes me as right on the specifics, but also worth considering as a general way of thinking about periodization in literary studies (not to mention, literary theory). Later in the essay, Shapiro dismisses the argument that form reflects a poet's ideological inclinations (i.e., if one were to say the New Formalists, who emerged in the 1980s, were in effect practicing "Reaganomics" poetry), and he reminds us that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound pioneered modernist free verse even as they espoused authoritarian politics.

Shapiro affirmatively cites Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," to support the idea that knowing the past well is essential for serious poets, if they want to avoid merely imitating the current fashion. Notably, however, Shapiro doesn't address Eliot's comments on "depersonalization." This is an important omission, because while Shapiro has been attentive to poetic form in his own work, the subjects of his work have in fact been directly personal -- autobiographical, in fact. Song & Dance relates to the death of Shapiro's brother (see "Sleet"), and books like Vigil and The Last Happy Occasion address the death of his sister. If anything, Shapiro appears to be a highly "personal" poet, someone whose subjects follow in the footsteps of those chosen by "confessional" poets, though his style differs sharply from theirs.


In "The New Formalism," Shapiro looks closely at the relationship between sound and sense in a series of poems, some by contemporary writers working with meter (not always well), and some from the English Canon (George Herbert's masterful "Church Monuments"). He likes Timothy Dekin's "Sunday Visiting Day" and Timothy Steele's "Profils Perdus"; he criticizes (quite carefully) Dana Gioia's "Cruising with the Beach Boys," and Norman Williams' "Learning to Whistle." Shapiro also draws a distinction between "rhythm" and "meter," which I found helpful ("The metrical norm of iambic pentameter... is an abstraction, a theoretical construction-- I am, I am, I am, I am, I am-- but because no two syllables carry the same stress, that is, the same length and degree of emphasis, every line of actual pentameter verse will and ought to depart to some extent from the metrical norm").

But Shapiro isn't rejecting formalist tenets out of hand. Rather, he aims to show that sound and sense go hand in hand, and that the use of form can in fact be crucial if deployed in the right way:

If the best poetry provides a model of consciousness at its most inclusive and active, then the formal tensions, the rhythmical interplay of stress and accent, sentence and line, become the technical extension or expression of the imagination's power to unify and balance. We can think of meter as analogous to the familiar, the expected, the more than usual state of order; and the variety of rhythmical effects as corresponding to the concrete, the sense of novelty and freshness and a more than usual state of feeling. In its active engagement with a subject, meter provides a kind of dynamic restraint. In much the same way that the narrow banks of a channel can intensify a flow of water, meter can hold in check the workings of passion at the same time as it speeds them on. But to restrain in this way implies the presence of some powerful energy in need of restraining. To arouse and heighten expectation and attention through the subtle recurrences and variations of sound implies something in the subject worth expecting and attending to. Meter in and of itself is worthless.


The poems in Tantalus in Love were written long after Shapiro’s essay, and what one sees is an openness to what looks to me like “free verse,” with strong suggestions of traditional meter and form informing the work.

The book in fact has some of the conventions of the oldest poetic form of them all, the epic poem. In Shapiro’s case, the book's poems are structured as a long narrative, but instead of figuring heroic acts, the story is of a modern marriage falling apart. He does offer a classical "invocation," and an "in medias res" opening. The poems themselves, variations on a central theme, might serve as "enumeratio."

I was intrigued to see, in the opening invocation, a variation of an elegiac couplet:

Let there be never again
a moment in which
your sudden shining isn't
sudden as it rends

the dark we walk in. Make us see
no matter where
we gaze that the bush burns

(Here, the second couplet is similar to elegiac meter, with a longer first line -- I'm reading the four lines as effectively two subdivided lines -- and a shorter second. It's really the second line that comes closest to classical elegiac, though: "we gaze that the bush burns/ unconsumed." The first line is iambic, in contrast to the first lines of elegiac couplets, which are trochaic.)

My students liked Shapiro's poetry, but were divided about his memoir-like essay, "My Tears See More Than My Eyes: My Son's Depression and the Power of Art." Several students were concerned that Shapiro exploited his son's depression in the essay, by including a number of potentially embarrassing details about his son's suicide attempt, his institutionalization, and even the fact that he's been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs: Even if all this is included in the essay with the son's permission, isn't it a bit much to use his suffering in this way? I defended the use of personal material in the essay, though in the end I did walk away wondering whether Shapiro might have been able to make the same point without including details that might be potentially harmful to others in his life.

Shapiro broader goal in the essay is to articulate a concept of art that is in fact fundamentally personal, in that it is based on suffering -- though it certainly doesn't end there.

Where there is suffering, which is to say, where there is human life, there is art. But art doesn't merely mirror the bad things that happen to us. It shapes what happens into meaning. And there is always great joy and pleasure, even happiness, in the fundamental act of shaping. It's not, as Plato believed that some part of the soul desires to weep for itself; it's rather that the soul possesses a stubborn need for pleasure; it urgently desires to convert weeping into laughter, the sorrow of subject matter into the joy of form. it is a uniquely human instinct--to bring the greatest degree of childlike exuberant playfulness to bear upon the harshest and most difficult realities, answering the tragic gravity of life with the comedic grace of imaginative transformation, shaping life into a vitally clarifying or comprehending image of itself.

The key phrase might be "the sorrow of subject matter into the joy of form." The idea that the form of art (the forming of our experiences through art), can be a way of expressing joy even in suffering, seems to bridge Shapiro's early essay on poetic form with his various poetic and essayistic representations of suffering around him. One doesn't write a sestina or a villanelle about cancer just because it's more likely to be approved by the editor of a poetry journal; one does it because it gives joy to try and find the form that expresses an intense thought or experience in poetic language. And for Shapiro at least, such poems can also directly express -- somehow -- traces of joy even in the face of great difficulty.

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