The last time Karl Shapiro was invited to the White House, JFK was in and history got in the way. He and 200 other poets had come to town to honor Robert Frost on his 80th birthday. There was a reading at the Library of Congress.
"Just before we were supposed to climb in these big blue buses to take us over to the White House, one of the librarians got up and said the whole thing was off, that an 'international incident' had just taken place. He said it involved a naval blockade. It was the Cuban missile crisis."
Not all was lost that earlier trip, though: It inspired a poem. Shapiro wrote it after he got home. He called it a "Parliament of Poets," and like most of his stuff, it was spins and curves. He can't remember it all now, but it starts like this:
"Two hundred poets are sitting side by side in the government auditorium . . . to read for five minutes . . . the young, the old, the crazy, the sane, all in alphabetical order."
"Actually, some of those boys were crazy, I think," he says, tucking an ironic smile into place. "Delmore Schwartz gave a strange reading."
Karl Shapiro has been trashing his fellow American poets with beautiful language and crisp metaphor for nearly four decades. It's probably all a game, some sly, cockeyed wink, though he doesn't say. That would puncture the paradox.
A poet "Has no more memory than rubber," he once penned. "Towards exile and towards shame he lures himself/ Tongue winding on his arm, and thinks like Eve/ By biting apple will become most wise."
Another time, in a more down-to-prose essay, he wrote: "For certainly the poet is as corruptible as anybody else, and more times than not displays the manners of a corporal and the morals of a bellboy."
Yesterday, at 4 o'clock, Karl Shapiro and several score of his fellow noted bellboys went to the White House to be feted and officially hosannaed by Rosalynn Carter and the Washington establishment. You got the idea the event wasn't exactly going to change Shapiro's life. Poetry and poets still aren't for the masses, suggested the laureate who once wrote of another fete, about a poet who: Shall be sat Like an ambassador from another race At tables rich with music. He shall eat flowers, Chew honey and spit out gall. They shall all smile And love and pitty him.
So here he sits, benign as cheese, in a Rooster tie and herringbone coat and a suave mane of pure, white, grandfather hair. Noon is slanting into the Jefferson Hotel. The accent is southern and Virginia-soft. Paradoxes are at work.
"It's not how you are in person," he says. "It's what you write. I guess when I get behind a typewriter, I turn into a wild man."
As Malcolm Cowley wrote in 1942 of a young army enlisted man then lighting up poetry skies: "He seems to be one of those young men who are not rich, not athletic, not socially proficient or popular with their classmates, and who therefore take refuge in that other world where they have a chance to excel, the world of their minds."
Shapiro's wife, Teri, also a writer who is about to publish her first novel under the pen name Tess Oliver, has gone out for a couple bottles of wine. There is to be a party of poets later. "It's better than drinking that damned vodka all the time," Shapiro says to his wife as she departs.
A paradox: Karl Shapiro has won the Pulitzer Prize. He has served a term as consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. He was once editor of Poetry magazine. He has published many books. His war poem, "The Leg," is considered a small classic. Who can forget its power? Among the iodoform, in twilight-sleep What have I lost? he first inquires . . . Later, as if deliberately, his fingers Begin to explore the stump. He learns a shape That is comfortable and tucked in like a sock.
And yet, today, at 66, Karl Shapiro is fairly unknown. People who have graduated with degrees in literature can give you blank stares at mention of his name. Or confuse him with Harvey Shapiro, another American poet. All of it is irony, poetic irony, and none of it is lost on Karl Shapiro.
"Poetry springs from the love of personal truth and it results in a thing of beauty" he once wrote. He might have added: And that is all there is. The rest is fleeting.
He doesn't publish much anymore. When he does, it's usually in The New Yorker. Although he does not have a college degree, he has been a professor on and off since 1948. "I haven't sent anything out for a couple of years," he says. "I've been working on one poem now for over a year. I'm sure I could get it published if I wanted, but I'm not satisfied with it. It's a poem about these -- what do you call them? -- artificial sawdust logs. You see, I love trivial-seeming subjects. It's about what they look like, the fact that they haven't any smell. I'm trying to use it as a metaphor for all kinds of things -- not only fire, but pseudo fire, inflation."
That's the hang of it, you see, he says, tucking the wry little smile back in place. "Poetry is the stepchild. It's not one of the arts that has any monetary value, like, say, painting, or drama writing. By its nature it is the most esoteric of the language arts. It's not really a democratic institution at all -- even though Whitman thought it could be and wanted it so."
The thing about poets is their obsession with language, he says. Of course, novelists have this, too, but novelists are not as -- suddenly his voice cracks, dips, in laughter -- weird as poets. Novelists eventually have to talk to people. A poet could live forever in a garret.
"He lives in a world of words. It's not the words themselves. It's everything that's behind them, which he is trying to squeeze into the words. Actually, I think poetry is a separate language. It's a language in which you never really come to the point. You're always at an angle. How did Dickinson put it? 'Slant language'? Something like that. I think my memory is going."
For just an instant, he looks frustrated.
Actually, it's a wonder poets aren't all locked up. "You take a person like T. S. Eliot, who made himself into the perfect, mannered Englishman. And yet when he wrote 'The Wasteland', he was having a nervous breakdown, had to be hospitalized. And Pound, whether he had a screw loose or not, was a fanatic. He had fixed ideas.
"Whenever I talk to other poets, I'm amused at our efforts to have sane conversation. It's like we're playing at talk. A poet's language is full of shadows and mysteries."
All of which is a mite odd when you consider Karl Shapiro came from a line of businessmen and professional people who marched back as far as he can remember. His dad was in moving and storage, and later became vice president of the Universal Match Co. in St. Louis. A brother, Irvin, is a Washington, D.C., advertising man.
"I do remember that our dad used to bribe us to read Dickens. I remember he gave my brother 50 cents to read 'David Copperfield'." In high school, in Baltimore, Shapiro stole a rhyming dictionary. That, too, may have helped a budding literary career.
His early years were spent in Norfolk. When people wouldn't claim their belongings from his dad's storage company, there would be an auction. "Just before, we would go and loot the books." Once, buried in a box, he found two letters from Robert E. Lee. "I traded them to a friend for three used golf balls."
He can barely get this out, the bald absurdity of it all. Yes, he agrees, it might make a poem.
Not that he will necessarily write it. "I've become very disgusted at what I think of as Conveyer Belt Poetry. There are now hundreds, maybe thousands, of junky little magazines out there -- all publishing welfare poets. People who don't have anything else to call themselves, so they call themselves poets."
Karl Shapiro is cackling. Gently.