Friday, November 30, 2007



"Burning Interiors": David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics, edited by Thomas Fink and Joseph Lease
(Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007)

This year, coinciding with David Shapiro’s sixtieth birthday and the publication of his New and Selected Poems, 1965-2006, Farleigh Dickinson University Press has published this collection of essays responding to Shapiro’s body of work (nine prior books of poetry, as well as numerous critical works––including the first book-length study of John Ashbery––and several collaborative work). Shapiro is a wonderful, complex, innovative poet who became involved while still in his teens with the New York School poetry scene of the mid sixties; while strongly influenced by the neo-surrealist, collage-oriented, richly visual frivoliste proclivities of older poets such as Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Joseph Ceravolo and Frank O’Hara, he managed to break through the veneer of irony and acoherence which typified his peers’ work, and to invent a poetry of emotional and political intensity and great thematic cohesiveness. Shapiro has become an influential elder in his own right, as a teacher as well as a writer (he has described himself as teaching “architecture to poets and poetry to architects” at the Cooper Union School), and this collection edited by two younger poets, Joseph Lease (who was a student of Shapiro’s) and Thomas Fink (who wrote the first book-length study of Shapiro’s work, The Poetry of David Shapiro, in 1993), is a fitting way for the U.S. poetry community to honor him. There are essays by twelve poets––Lease, Fink, Paul Hoover, Judith Halden-Sullivan, Joanna Fuhrman, Carole Stone, Stephen Paul Miller, Daniel Morris, Denise Duhamel, Noah Eli Gordon, Ron Silliman, and Tim Peterson––as well as one by the art critic and painter Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and a poem by Timothy Liu dedicated to Shapiro.

The book as a whole provides a useful overview of numerous themes and aspects of this complex poetry. There is a recognizable set of recurring motifs which appear gradually through the earlier books and are recycled, transformed, and interrogated, giving the work a particular consistency and familiar personality, while also exploiting the ironic or comically arbitrary aspects of self-reference and self-parody––like Ted Berrigan in The Sonnets, Shapiro acknowledges his own poetry as well as that of others as fair game for collage. Gordon cites David Shapiro’s description of his teacher Meyer Schapiro’s essay on Cézanne as restoring “our sense that an artist is deeply invested in his usual constellation of images,” and offers a list of elements of Shapiro’s “constellation”: “snow, knives, venetian blinds, clouds, violins, the page, photographs, golf balls and billiard balls, insects, airplanes, and, of course, the . . . copy, with all its ancillary lexicon: trace, parody, shadow, original, outline, rewrite, correction fluid, and so on”––to which must be added the house and other architectures, the sphinx, fire, hair, and––as a form of the copy––the translation or “strong mistranslation” which so dominates his 1994 book After a Lost Original. Gordon speaks of “images”, but I want to insist on the obvious point that it is words that recur, always in different context and always by their recurrence drawing attention to their character as words; snow in Shapiro’s poems is not precisely analogous to apples, say, in Cézanne’s painting, and it seems misleading to equate each noun with an “image” in a poetry that constantly clowns with and fusses over the arbitrariness and opacity of language, that consistently uses ambiguous grammar, incomprehensible similes and other verbal devices to obfuscate or refract any “direct presentation of the thing”.

Shapiro’s linguistic devices are many, but there are a few which recur constantly. The words like and as, for instance, take on an extraordinary life of their own in his work, abdicating the poetic simile’s customary concern with similitude in favor of wildly ramifying juxtapositions:
Sunken rocks are sunless
like a fence in iniquity
or a hedge in oblivion
or sunshine at supper
like the supreme being in surgery
restrained by oscillating powers
sweeping the dirty body
useless as if agreeable stuff
like saccharine might look upon
love’s clean teeth
(“Music Written to Order,” New and Selected Poems p. 94)

Peterson’s essay “Distorted Figures: Mannerist Similes and the Body in David Shapiro’s Poetry” examines this device, which Peterson sees as derived from Raymond Roussel via Ashbery, but which has become uniquely Shapiro’s own, one of the things that makes any discussion of “image” in his poetry so difficult: in the absence of logical relations, each thing is grammatically linked to each other thing in the poem.

This “mannerist” or “specious” simile is also discussed in passing by Fuhrman in “’Not a Bridge’: Dialogue and Disjunction as Didacticism in the Later Poetry of David Shapiro,” and she goes on to examine another device, the psalmic or liturgical list held together by a repeated phrase, as in:
What was there to do? It is said you cannot live life in quarter tones.
What was there to do? It is said you cannot live your life in silence.
What was there to do? It is said you cannot live your life playing scales.
What was there to do? It is said you cannot live your life listening to the Americans.
(“Falling Upwards,” New and Selected Poems p.124.)

Blessed is the architect of the removed structures
Blessed is the structure that weathers in spring snow like lies
Blessed is the crystal that leaps out of the matrix like a fool
And blessed is the school
(“A Burning Interior,” New and Selected Poems p. 221)

Other specific aspects of Shapiro’s poetry discussed here are his collaborations with children (in Duhamel’s “Plays Well with Others: The Collaborative Poetry of David Shapiro”), the ways in which his family and his New Jersey childhood are invoked and distorted through his mainly non-autobiographical, anti-confessional practice (in Stone’s “David Shapiro: New Jersey as Trope”), and the influence of the painter Jasper Johns on Shapiro’s work (in Miller’s “David Shapiro and Jasper Johns: Ego in the Egoless Pie”). Shapiro wrote the text for a book of Johns’s drawings, and dedicated his new collection of poems to him; Miller describes their friendship, which began in the sixties, and draws intriguing but somewhat strained analogies between Johns’s anti-illusionistic investigations of sign and emblem––maps, flags, names of colors, numerals––and Shapiro’s nondescriptive, nonnarrative use of language, leading the critic to the (false) claim that the poet has “no subject matter except language.”

It is interesting to note that the most illuminating and ambitious of these essays, the clearest and the most charming, is also the only one not written by a poet: Gilbert-Rolfe’s “House Blown Apart.” He begins by explicitly emphasizing that his is a view of poetry “from outside,” but goes on to summarize beautifully the situation of poets at a time (the essay was presumably written in the mid eighties, after the publication of Shapiro’s House (Blown Apart)) when “Advertising and politics––more or less the same thing––provide a discourse so entirely detached from the world, while completely obscuring it, as to keep the general public’s imagination locked into a poesis of the banal, a poesis in which symbolic instructions lead unerringly into another entirely symbolic formulation, in which desire is paraded and resolved without ever coming down to earth.” He maintains that “It was always like this, but presumably not always so extremely linguified, so liquefied by the domination of language, of a world in which there are in the beginning so many names that one never gets to the thing––in the beginning were words, and as a consequence the world has been indefinitely deferred.” (One is used to hearing poets, talking about more or less the same situation, deplore the domination of image, and with no less truth, I think: the world is dominated by a linguistic economy whose primary tool is symbolic imagery.) To this condition poets have responded by “preserving, in flagrant contradiction to all that characterizes the twentieth century, the idea of the private”; they are “interstitial figures who attract our attention, when they do, by the strength of their irrelevance. . . . But they remain, as ever, the only people who know how the language actually works. And, like all people who are privy to special knowledge, they accordingly pretend that they are chiefly concerned with just keeping it alive. Like all custodians, they are instead, pace Foucault, changing it by the minute, and are themselves quite unable to keep up with the change.”

This generalization is acute with regard to Shapiro’s poetry, which imitates the marginal and self-inventing speech of children, transforms and hybridizes multiple traditions in an effort to memorialize and preserve them, and seems to dramatize the struggle of thought to keep up with an accelerating and snowballing event in language. The attempt to understand language and to preserve it involves Shapiro in a chain of considered and spontaneous actions which constantly threatens to escape his control; often his poems resort to sudden swerves away from sense, comic or awkward or pathetic readjustments of form and tone, contradictions and tautologies, the opacities and aporias any sincere verbal exploration runs into––“bumping into walls like a poet,” as Baudelaire wrote.

“Does he know what he’s doing?,” asks Gilbert-Rolfe in discussing Shapiro’s venture into “the workshop of Mallarmé and Verlaine, the place of the moment’s pretence to significance and the book’s to be at once organic, staining as a kind of writing, and architectonic––made of glass, pages as doors.” The influence of French symbolism is little discussed elsewhere in the book (it is a subject still largely taboo in U.S. poetry, eighty-odd years after Pound’s and Williams’s pronouncements against it), but Gilbert-Rolfe proposes it as one of “three and a half historicomythical worlds” on which Shapiro draws. The “half” is “American poetry since the Second World War,” especially the New York scene around Ashbery and O’Hara; the first whole “world” would seem to be that of American modernist poetry prior to the war. These the critic passes over quickly, noting that Shapiro offers “a more scholarly view of mainstream modernism––Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Cummings, in a word, them––than one finds, for the most part, in the New York poets of the preceding generation.” He then launches into a brilliant discussion of Shapiro’s “weirdly revisionist” use of French symbolist techniques.

His symbolism, Gilbert-Rolfe writes, is distinguished by “the extremism of its playfulness.” And: “This is probably what annoys people most about his poetry. It tends to engage in pathos without being earnest.” The “weirdness” he attributes to the “willed regressiveness”––the lateness––of Shapiro’s return to a Symbolism which “was the pre-Freudian moment, in which all that psychoanalysis would ever say, and, perhaps, far more than it would ever see, was spelled out by poets.” (Compare Shapiro’s use of Freud’s phrase “Ordinary Unhappiness” as the title for one of the sections of House (Blown Apart)). Shapiro then is attempting “a reconciliation, through a kind of (symbolic) regression, of two obviously quite irreconcilable conditions”––the “masterful and uninvolved” view of the Dandy, and the “mastery of innocence,” equally peripheral, which belongs to childhood––“the brilliant child playing in a world made out of anxiety.”

Gilbert-Rolfe goes on to offer a very interesting definition of poetry’s task: “He knows what he’s doing. . . . Poetry knows itself to be the guardian of language and, in that, language’s archivist: the ultimately adult language, and in that language at its most uninvolved, ‘useless.’ It also knows itself to be where language can play, quite without reference to the reality principle: the ultimately infantile language, once again, language at its most uninvolved.” He then comes to the last of the “three and a half worlds”: “the one that Shapiro has invented for himself. Geographically, its borders encompass both Passaic and Prague, linguistically it is prone to dialects, a result of its inhabitants being conversant with both Ovid and Percy Sledge” (a reference to Shapiro’s wonderful poem “A Song,” which improvises at length on the motif of Sledge’s 1966 hit “When a Man Loves a Woman”). He points to Shapiro’s tendency “to deploy the grandfathers [e.g. Kafka, Arendt, Forster, Scholem, Benjamin, Meyer Schapiro] to overcome father” (that is, the New York school poet, his most immediate peers) as one of the strengths that distinguishes his poetry, with “its complete lack of either knowingness or naïveté,” from theirs: “It is quite without the slickness which characterizes so much New York poetry, sure as it is of the common assumptions of its audience, the privileged role within it of certain themes––or perhaps only one: the psychology, as far as that can be articulated through poesis, of the very sensitive and at the same time either very weary or very self-absorbed.” This is spectacularly unfair, but the point is a good and necessary one. The earlier poets were concerned with brilliant inventions of tone and technique, and created a new way of poking fun at poetry’s pretense to present consciousness (e.g. The Tennis Court Oath) which quickly evolved into a genuine new way writing about consciousness (e.g. Mountains and Rivers), and then settled, sometimes with a disturbing complacency or facility, into the long business of exploring this new territory. Shapiro, appropriating all the gifts of his elders, has developed a poetry of much greater emotional and intellectual range, making parody’s voices resonate as lament and hymn, endowing collage with a new historical and psychological awareness of what it is to collage, “trying, and I should say succeeding,” as Gilbert-Rolfe puts it, “to make poetry topple one kind of reading into another as only it can do.”

Ron Silliman contributes a reprint of his blog post of March 22, 2003, an essay on Shapiro’s 1971 sequence “A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel.” It is the closest thing in Burning Interiors to an extended close reading, though it focuses on only three of the poem’s eighteen sections. Silliman’s theme is the political implications of the poem as a whole––not only the one clearly political section, “The Funeral of Jan Palach,” about the Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet occupation, contemporaneous with the self-immolations of Norman Morrison and others in the U.S. protesting the Vietnam War. The limits of the blog format are evident in the brevity of the essay and in its failure to address the structure or themes of the piece as a whole, or specify about its politics, while asserting vaguely that “the ways in which these poems invoke history, as well as discourses such as science, make it instantly evident that the social realm is what is at stake––that for me is an almost perfect evocation of the political.” On the other hand, Silliman makes quite acute and interesting observations about the style and structure of the three sections he does look at. His piece also highlights one of the strengths of the blog as opposed to the academic essay, its tendency to put the act of reading into a very specific personal and historical context. Thus he notes that “it was possible, even plausible, in 1971, to read ‘A Man Holding and Acoustic Panel’ . . . without recognizing it for the political poem it is”; that “at the time, my own response was incomprehension––I simply did not have the critical framework in my head . . . to recognize the work for what it was, and is.” In a nice reversal of the critical commonplace that political works are doomed to become dated and irrelevant in a few years, this one has only ripened after three decades, and continues to bring up new associations: “So it is no accident, I suppose, that I have been thinking about this poem this week, not only in the context of the tragedy of Iraq, but also the homicide of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old Olympia, Washington native who was literally bulldozed to death by the Israeli army last weekend. Unlike Palach and his American and Vietnamese counterparts in the 1960s, Corrie did not plan her fate.”

Joseph Lease ends the book with an essay called “Afterword: The Night Sky and to David Shapiro,” which seeks “to place David Shapiro in a tradition of prayer, elegy, litany, and sincerity.” It is less a work of criticism than a personal tribute to a poet and teacher from whom Lease, himself very exciting poet, has learned so much. In making a plea for sincerity (while professing “I also love camp, goofy irony, breathless irony, unappeasable (ironic) anger, and so on”), he marshals quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alice Notley, Henry Thoreau, Donald Revell, Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin, but the most illuminating quotations come from his own 1990 interview with Shapiro, who describes his search for a mode “less lenient with history”: “I had an anti-imperialistic theme, politically, that was very difficult to match with monochrome and I was less taken with camp than with Jewish earnestness and with prophetic qualities in Isaiah that were my first sense of poetry.” And: “I’ve been interested in achieving the kind of massive, depressing sense of melancholy that one gets again and again in Jasper Johns (in many ways my aesthetic standard) and the mania for prophetic structures in John Hejduk’s great imaginary cities. And I often dream of a poem that will be as labyrinthine as one of John’s analogous cities.”

There remain a few topics of interest which I think are not sufficiently examined by the essays in this book: Shapiro’s use of traditional forms (especially the villanelle and the rhymed quatrain); the ways in which he uses political and religious themes, and specifically the ways his poetry attempts to confront the physical and linguistic violence of the American empire, from the Vietnam War to the present atrocities; and, on the other hand––or perhaps not––the rich and complex humor that is almost ubiquitous in his work. Shapiro is one of the funniest poets alive, although his funniest poems are often terrifying, depressing, disturbing, and incomprehensible as well, veering between satirical deadpan and a manic clownishess on the verge of nonsense, and often making use of that all-too-familiar dialect of empire, hilarious and inscrutable foreign-language phrase-book English. As Gilbert-Rolfe points out, “some of Shapiro’s funniest stuff has to do with the arbitrariness of language, . . . the nonrelationship of words to things”; Shapiro is fascinated by the pathos of noncommunication and the bathos of miscommunication in political and erotic relationships, where language is often a kind of eraser fluid, a kind of blindness:
I have had an accident. I cannot see.
I have broken my glasses and I’ve missed my train.
I like you very much. Do you like me?

I need a guide. I need a secretary.
For when? For tomorrow. I will come again.
I have had an accident. I cannot see.

I need an interpreter. Here is my key.
Ouch! Stop! How long will it take? Please use novocaine.
I like you very much. Do you like me?

Remove your clothes. Open your mouth and lie
Like an interesting city under an airplane.
I have had an accident. I cannot see.

The battery is dead. Charge up the battery.
Can you draw me a map of the road I’m on?
I like you very much. Do you like me?

Can I see you today for the whole day? How long will that be?
Here is a present for you. A silver brain.
I have had an accident. I cannot see.
I like you very much. Do you like me?
(“The Carburetor at Venice,” New and Selected Poems p. 66)

Some of the essays in this collection suffer from a surplus of ill-defined abstract terms (“abstraction” itself being the most blatant one), sloppy semiotics (“Postmodern lyric finds its elegiac note exactly in the lost identity of word and thing, but in its yearning rescues the word as it drowns the referent”), and a recurrent false dichotomy which sets up the sin of “referentiality” against the virtue of “opacity” or “undecideability.” There is too great a tendency to generalize about Shapiro’s oeuvre as a whole, sometimes with an affectation of academic argument but without any real controversy, when it would be more to the point to offer close reading and thick description of the ways particular poems work. Innovative poetry in the U.S. is very exciting these days, but this book suggests our critical practices are not quite adequate to keep up with it. I say this not to quibble, but because I have a genuine desire for critical writing that might help me to read better Shapiro’s very complex and sometimes frankly overwhelming poetry, and did not always find such help in his book.

However, Burning Interiors does succeed as a testament to Shapiro’s growing importance, to the extraordinary originality and coherence of his work to date, and to his influence on a generation or two (how do you count generations, anyway?) of younger poets. It provides numerous opportunities to see pieces of his poetry anew by the simple fact of excerpted quotation and juxtaposition, and offers, as a whole, a comprehensive catalogue of Shapiro’s main themes, influences and techniques. Nearly every essay hits, at least once, an authentic note of gratitude and affection for the Shapiro. Fink and Lease have put together a timely collective love letter from the U.S. poetry community to one of its great poets.


Sam Lohmann lives in Portland, Oregon. He edits a yearly poetry zine called "Peaches and Bats," and has published some chapbooks, most recently "Listen and Run."

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