REPORTS OF MY DEATH

By Karl Shapiro

Algonquin Books. 277 pp. $22.95

TOWARDS THE END of the 1950s, Karl Shapiro, poet, critic, little-magazine editor, university teacher -- until then a rather conservative, even Establishment figure -- dropped a bomb in the literary world with an essay acclaiming Henry Miller, whose "dirty" books were not even available in America, as "the greatest living author." I can well remember the impact of that grenade when it first detonated. It was as though John Foster Dulles had disclosed a taste for Fanny Hill, or Ike himself had announced his conversion to nudism. Shapiro had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning war poet, the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, and the editor of Chicago's venerable Poetry magazine. His own dense, Audenesque verse was typical of his generation of writers: clipped, ironic, discreet and oblique. He was a poet in hiding, surrounded by style.

It was the cusp of the '60s, a moment for dramatic literary conversions. Norman Mailer noisily abandoned his old impersonal manner in Advertisements for Myself. Robert Lowell renounced formal poetry and brought forth powerful clumps of autobiography in Life Studies. The Beats and Black Mountain poets were on the scene, laying down a sharp challenge to the reigning academic verse. Soon Karl Shapiro brought out In Defense of Ignorance, an incendiary collection of essays designed to overthrow the literary dictatorship of Eliot and Pound in the name of passion, primitivism, immediacy, as represented by unfashionable writers like Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Miller and William Carlos Williams (who had been battling Eliot's dominance for four decades). A few years later Shapiro, now in full-fledged rebellion, barnstorming from campus to campus, published a somewhat surreal collection of prose poems in the Beat manner, ironically entitled The Bourgeois Post, to be followed later by a racy confessional novel.

It was a good act but it didn't wash. Where Mailer and Lowell and Ginsberg became culture heroes for the new decade, Shapiro's maverick role seemed strictly literary. When Lowell and later James Wright and John Berryman loosened up their writing, bringing it closer to flexible prose and odd talk, they broke through and did some of their best work. Conversational rhythms also fire up Shapiro's deliciously emphatic essays, which at their best are as quotable and as wickedly entertaining as the polemics of H.L. Mencken and Randall Jarrell, on which they are modeled.

Though Shapiro argued well and stirred up a considerable fuss, he couldn't sustain the radical role he set for himself. There was something willed and exaggerated about his wildman stance, his "mad dog criticism," as he calls it in this second volume of his autobiography. As a result he was easily set aside as a mere gadfly, someone who was being deliberately outrageous. He lacked the self-destructive flair and genius, the genuine extremism of a Lowell or a Berryman. He was a master of prosody, not cultural politics; he was neither an alcoholic nor a potential suicide; his poetry didn't flourish under the new dispensation. He became an "evangel" for the Beats, but only made himself sound like "a forty-five-year-old hippy," as someone remarked to him. The Bourgeois Poet was possibly his worst book; certainly it was his least authentic. Though he would go on publishing poems prolifically, the '60s turned him into a prose writer, perhaps the last thing he really wanted. IN ANY CASE, Shapiro has led an eventful literary life. The charming first volume of his autobiography, The Younger Son, which came out two years ago, dealt with his family background, his literary aspirations, and his wartime experiences in Australia and Southeast Asia, where he had the leisure to write several books of poetry. The sequel, Reports of My Death, describes his life as a writer and cultural combatant from 1945 through the 1980s. Despite its downbeat title, Shapiro comes across as a survivor -- almost unique in his doomed generation of poets -- and an all-around professional man of letters. This is not what Shapiro has in mind: He calls himself "the poet" throughout the book. He also wonders whether there was something "cynical" about his romance with the Beats. "Yes, he would aid and abet, contribute to and fondle the Revolution and never be a part of it." In the end he was truly a "bourgeois poet," as Theodore Roethke (a genuine extremist) had affectionately described him.

But for all his domesticity, his tendency to pull back once he gained the limelight, Shapiro had a lifelong need to strike dramatic poses. He called one book Poems of a Jew though little of his work is markedly Jewish. As far back as 1946, after he had published a 2,000-line "Essay on Rime," in verse, one study of American poetry paid sardonic tribute to "his gifts for showmanship and poetic journalism." Reports of My Death is a virtual anthology of the poses he has struck -- as war poet, as a cultural bureaucrat, as the lone dissenter when a stellar group of writers chose Ezra Pound for the first Bollingen Prize, as itinerant lecturer, as editor of Poetry, as a neo-Romantic literary maverick, and finally, by the end of the '60s, as something of a curmudgeon who had come to detest the very revolution which he had helped invent. (At this stage, enraged at rock music and cultural illiteracy, he sounds remarkably like Allan Bloom. ) It seems obvious that Shapiro joined no club that would have him for a member.

Shapiro feels that after his 15 minutes of fame he has been gradually forgotten over the last two decades. These are the memoirs of a "posthumous" poet who, at 76, has accumulated a long series of slights. Once the Wunderkind of American poetry, he sees himself dropped from the anthologies, ignored by the critics and neglected by the public. What most unnerves him was finding his name listed in articles about American writers who had taken their own lives, including Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman. (As "Late U.S. poet," Shapiro even popped up in a 1978 New York Times crossword puzzle, which he duly reprints.)

Instead of brushing it off, as Mark Twain did when he said that the report of his death was greatly exaggerated, Shapiro felt canceled and nullified by this creepy bit of misinformation, and even sued the magazines that published the articles. It confirmed his sense of failure. "The imputation of suicide would stick, any future readings of his poems would be tainted with it." It never crosses his mind that the mistake is less a premature burial than an involuntary tribute to his performance as a literary troublemaker and poe`te maudit.

My guess is that this painful post-mortem theme is a piece of Shapiro's showmanship, another of his dazzling poses: after the war poet, the academic poet, the Jewish poet, the born-again Whitmanic poet and critic, well, then the forgotten poet -- once again the outsider, "posthumous" but still prolific. Wrapped in this unlikely metaphor, Shapiro has written a beautiful book, not only tracing the long career of "the poet" but doing so in dreamy, mellifluous sentences that sometimes left me feeling euphoric. Of a year spent teaching at the University of California at Davis he says:

"The year had no resonance and almost no imagery, so that when he tried to recall it he had only the sensation of looking at postcards of the place, all too bright and with a Sunday deadness, with that emptiness of postcards which sets them apart even from photography."

Describing his "first adultery" he writes: "The white-haired artist had come from Australia and the three had had dinner together and the wife had gone to her father's bedside and the poet slept with the artist and was just dressed when the wife came home exhausted and the three went to sleep together in the same double bed because the snow was too heavy for anyone to drive home to where the artist lived." There were times when I felt the compelling rhythm of these musical sentences was the real substance of the book. BUT WELL-TURNED sentences do not always make for well-honed autobiography. This third-person narrative, remarkably private, meditative, internalized, makes all the dramatic passages of the poet's life seem muffled and distant: the year at the Library of Congress, the Bollingen Prize controversy which rocked the literary world, the campaign against Eliot and Pound, his three marriages. These come through as a dance of shadows, as if the poet, who once wrote that "everything was part of a setting . . . everything was acting," were taking his posthumous character too literally, as if those earlier performances now embarrassed him. Too often the dates are vague, the chronology uncertain, the key names left unnamed. The finely wrought, ruminative prose, is far removed from the declarative sharpness of Shapiro's best-known essays, including some blunt autobiographical pieces like "American Poet?" (1964). There are more precise details on the jackets of his earlier books than in whole chapters here. In Defense of Ignorance and The Poetry Wreck (1975), his selected essays, may be his real autobiography.

Perhaps Shapiro, convinced that he's forgotten, has lost his sense of an audience -- or gotten too far away from these experiences. Or perhaps he sees this work as a final testament, all passion spent: a personal mosaic affirming his idiosyncratic place in our literary history. In any case the book feels accidentally overheard, like an interior monologue, or one addressed to family or posterity rather than to ordinary readers curious about his story. Yet what mesmerizing eloquence he wrings out of this impressionistic reverie! Morris Dickstein, the author of "Keats and His Poetry" and "Gates of Eden," teaches at Queens College.