An Interview with Harvey Shapiro
By Norman Finkelstein
Harvey Shapiro's newest collection of poems, How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems, will appear in 2001. Born in Chicago in 1924, educated at Yale and Columbia, an Air Force gunner during World War II, Shapiro settled in New York and worked as a journalist, serving for eight years as the editor of the New York Times Book Review and eventually becoming a senior editor of the New York Times Magazine. In his Introduction to Shapiro's Selected Poems (1997), James Atlas, his colleague at the Magazine, observes the "rare unity" in Shapiro's life and work: "He has lived in the same place, Brooklyn Heights, for nearly his entire writing life; he has immersed himself in the rituals of his own neighborhood with an almost religious intensity." Mentored by the Objectivists but belonging to no one school, Shapiro is often regarded as a quintessential New York poet, tough but compassionate, jazzy and modernistic, but almost classical in his humane skepticism. His lyrics have the sound of chastened conversation-and his conversation produces a kind of punchy lyricism that is, for his interlocutor, both chastening and immensely pleasurable.
This interview took place on March 17, 2000, at the home of Galen Williams in East Hampton, New York. Since I had never conducted an interview before, Shapiro put me at ease with an anecdote about his only interview, with President Jimmy Carter. I stopped the tape recorder to check the sound; when I turned it back on, we were already discussing Louis Zukofsky. Wet snow fell throughout the darkening afternoon as Shapiro reminisced about the Objectivists and spoke incisively about his own poetic practice. By the time I left, the evening light had the quality of that found in some black and white photographs, reminding me in turn of the effect of many of Shapiro's poems.
SHAPIRO: You know, the only interview I ever did in my life was one I did for the New York Times when I was running the Book Review. It was with Jimmy Carter in the White House. Carter came into the Oval Office and there was nobody with him. I was kind of impressed. I figured there would be some kind of handler. He sat down. I pulled out my tape recorder and said do you mind if I tape this, and he said no and we started to talk. I began by asking him about Dylan Thomas . . . somebody told me he was a Dylan Thomas fan. He started to recite out of his head Dylan Thomas poems to me. I asked him, when did you memorize these? And he said in Georgia, when the peanut business was slow, I'd sit on bales of peanuts and memorize Dylan Thomas. I was very impressed and when I got back to New York I sent him a little New Directions pamphlet by Dylan Thomas called Deaths and Entrances. And he sent me a letter saying this would now be part of the presidential library.
SHAPIRO: I moved from the Village to Brooklyn Heights about 41 years ago (my oldest son is 41 today) and I remember I brought him back from the hospital to that house on Willow Street. Louis owned the house next door.
FINKELSTEIN: So you lived next door to the Zukofskys?
SHAPIRO: I used to see him mainly through my friend Eli Wilentz, who ran the 8th Street Bookstore and who also lived in that area. I think I first met Louis at a party that Eli gave and then I saw him over the years. He sold his house and moved to an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. I guess the last time I saw him he was living in the Village, I think on 14th Street, in an apartment house. Paul had an apartment downstairs in the same building.
FINKELSTEIN: Zukofsky has that late poem called "The Old Poet Moves to a New Apartment 14 Times."
SHAPIRO: It was difficult for me to see Louis towards the end. Louis had published a poem in the New York Times, which was very bitter toward the world and bitter towards his old friends, and I think David [Ignatow] called me and said we should go see Louis. I said yeah, I haven't seen him in a while. David didn't come with me but I did go over to see him. It was difficult for me to see him in those days because I was very close to George [Oppen]. George had now moved to San Francisco. At some point in the evening this is what usually would happen. Louis would start to run down George, didn't have a good thing to say about him. Obviously it got in the way of our talks. Rezi [Charles Reznikoff] used to say to me very flatly that the only thing the Objectivists had in common was Pound's ABCs-the dos and don'ts he published in Poetry. Rezi was very dismissive of Louis's work. He thought it was needlessly obscure and had no patience for it. I don't think I ever heard Louis talk about Rezi. George was the one he hated at the end. Last time with George when he had Alzheimer's, we were walking down on the San Francisco waterfront and he began to recite some of Louis's work to me. He said he hadn't realized how much Louis rhymed. And he began to talk about how the split between them was a great wound for him. Why did it happen? He was still working it over in his head.
FINKELSTEIN: Various critics have aligned you with the Objectivists: you had a friendship with Oppen and you knew Reznikoff, you knew Zukofsky. But how much of their particular techniques, the ideas themselves, do you still feel operating in your practice as you write now?
SHAPIRO: I knew Charles's work first and I got to know George's work a little later. But I was already writing; I had already published a number of books, so they were not formative influences. I don't consider myself an Objectivist poet. On the other hand, I don't put myself in any particular school. Each of them meant different things to me. What I learned from Charles was the handling of the city, a way of writing about New York that I liked and a kind of protagonist in the poems, a narrator in the poems that I liked, that figure of a middle-aged walker in the city, trying to find his way through the maze of the city and also picking up religious epiphanies. Who thinks that happens in the city? That was very important to me and I picked that up from his work before I met Charles. I first came across Charles's work in the Gotham because of a review that had Milton Hindus published in the New Leader. I found some of his privately printed books and I bought them. But George was the one I saw the most. George lived a couple of blocks from me when we became friends, which was after I had reviewed, without knowing him, The Materials for the Times Book Review. I was working at the magazine then but doing reviews for the daily and also for the Sunday Book Review. George was a counselor for me. His seriousness, his responsibility as a poet to the world . . . he's an iconic figure for me.
FINKELSTEIN: So when you say counselor, you mean a literary counselor?
SHAPIRO: Well, he read my work and commented on it and even when he went to San Francisco some of our correspondence is about my poetry. What all their work meant to me has to do with Joyce's phrase, "the ineluctable modality of the visible." As in George's poem "Psalm": The truth follows and it's the small nouns, the world those nouns point to and the belief that there is such a world. It is also semi-religious in that it assumes the healing power that the visible world can have. Also from them I got the sense that the world did not exist to be exploited in rhetoric. That there was a way of writing about objects, things, landscapes, trees, that gave the object its own life, its own space, while still permitting the poet's imagination to create the poem. That was very important to me. And it was a kind of moral lesson in poetry that differentiated Oppen and Rezi from other poets I admired like Berryman or Lowell, that whole strain, where the world feeds the ego machine of the poet who's creating this romance that's marvelous to read. But it does not give the world its space.
FINKELSTEIN: I hear a distinction between your city poems and Reznikoff's city poems. I think it has to do with a certain sharper edge to your work that seems to inhabit a space somewhere between romanticism and cynicism, though it never goes over entirely into cynicism. But it's a much more sharply critical attitude, I think, than Reznikoff usually achieves.
SHAPIRO: He's very different. A different generation. His city was a different city. Even when we read together in Brooklyn Heights, Charles wore high-top shoes and a tie and suit. It's different way of bearing oneself in that world, and he was a much sweeter man. He was extraordinary for a poet. He was a man who had published all his own work for the most part up until rather late and had no recognition. George once said that Rezi's total lack of recognition almost drove him mad at some point. But you would never know this when you met him. I met him in the 60s. He was not envious, he was not bitter, he felt only joy that people were beginning to pick up on his poetry. But my view of the city is different also because it begins with Hart Crane. Crane and Whitman. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and The Bridge are behind what I do with the city in some of the poems. And Williams plays a role in what I do.
FINKELSTEIN: Williams seems to be the missing person there. When we think of you as a New York poet there's that kind of walking around the city making observations. There are moments when you invoke Frank O'Hara in your poetry, who is obviously a very different kind of New York poet.
SHAPIRO: There's a poem in my new book that is after O'Hara, and I liked his work. I read him early on but procedurally he doesn't figure for me that strongly . . . it's a very different kind of intelligence. But sure, O'Hara and Schuyler were poets I read. They changed the city that I look at.
FINKELSTEIN: This brings me to a related issue that I've always wanted to ask you about. You've talked about yourself in one of your essays as being a bourgeois poet, and the bourgeois life as the life that you quite deliberately chose. Yet you have known and gone among poets who would recognize themselves or identify themselves more as avant gardists. What is your take on poets being avant garde? Is it only a pose or does it genuinely inhabit the work in some way?
SHAPIRO: The avant garde poets that I've known like Armand [Schwerner]? There are poets who work out of a program of ideas and I've never done that.
FINKELSTEIN: As in, say, ethno-poetics?
SHAPIRO: Exactly. I've never done that. There are also poets who work out of intellectual structures, the poems fill in intellectual diagrams sometimes. I'm not into that. But you can't be a poet and be completely bourgeois, you're basically leading this insane life, that is, you're spending your energies creating objects that have no value in the bourgeois world. It can hardly be called bourgeois. It's not going to get you a dime. I've never expected it to get me anything, once I left the teaching life. In the academic world it will get you something. Outside of the academic world it really buys you nothing. I wandered into the world of editing. I was a poet. I became an editor because I'd been teaching. I had taught at Cornell and I left Cornell and came down to the city and I was teaching at Queens at night. I worked for the Village Voice during the day when it started up. I was writing poems just on Jewish themes and publishing only in Commentary and Midstream. One of the editors of Commentary, Robert Warshow, was interested in my work. He asked me one day what I was doing, what my plans were. He could see that I was quite at sea in the city, didn't know what I was going to do. He suggested that I try some editing for them and gave me some piecework. He was very young but died very suddenly. I was given his desk. and that's how I became an editor. Happenstance. I don't think one could say I chose a career, but that's how I've made my living for many years.
FINKELSTEIN: And there you were as a "bourgeois" poet.
SHAPIRO: Well, what I've said isn't completely true, because I know there was a conscious decision on my part. It's a pose. It's like when you get up to teach in the classroom. You may not have figured out exactly who you are in front of that class when you begin but there are certain models that you've chosen, other teachers that you've known. I was influenced by Thomas Mann and Tonio Kr–ger: that notion of being bourgeois as a way of hiding in the world. I remember reading that story and thinking, yes, this is how I'll conduct my life and in fact I did and it did furnish me with a kind of plot for my poetry. That evaporates as the books proceed, but it was certainly there very strongly in the beginning. I was married, I did have two sons, I did have a steady job, and I wrote at night. I wrote against the pressure of the daytime work, which, as it turned out, was a useful pressure. I would not necessarily recommend that as a way of life for other poets. However, it did matter to me that Williams was a full-time doctor and that Stevens was working in an insurance office.
FINKELSTEIN: But your use of the word evaporation in this context is very interesting. Not only does it allow you an identity to write against, but the vicissitudes of that identity crept into the poems in all sorts of ways. And I'm not saying here that you're writing autobiographical poetry.
SHAPIRO: I never have written autobiographical poetry. But that basic plot certainly informs the work.
FINKELSTEIN: And when in specific poems that gets challenged or begins to evaporate most strongly, are those the moments of artistic crisis also?
SHAPIRO: Can we talk about a particular poem?
FINKELSTEIN: Let's take a poem like "Middle Class" for example, since we're talking about the bourgeoisie. [Recites poem.] I think that poem is an example of what I'm talking about because it seems to me that there are moments of personal crisis resulting in a very productive linguistic crisis there. There seem to be moments in that poem where you're really looking for what the next line is going to be--and you find it. And then you call the thing "Middle Class"!
SHAPIRO: Yes, because if I get up when the alarm rings tomorrow I can pay for the hour and all the hours. This poem came after the breakup of my marriage. I remember the woman I was living with (who shows up in the last line) but who also explains to me on the phone all the things I have to live for. Some of the poems of that period come out of that crisis. But in a way it's a crisis that exists throughout all my work, that is, the tension of the pull between chaos, which is where I've always lived to some extent, and then this very routinized, middle class existence that I was living in also. So a lot of the poetry shuttles back and forth between the two. It's also middle class because there's some identification here with all those people that you get from riding to work on the subway in the morning. "On the subway I see nobody finds it easy." If I have to point to the line in the poem that means the most to me, that would be the line. In that life of going to work on the subway and coming back I feel that one's life does speak to one occasionally and surprisingly. To a poet, when that happens is the moment of writing poetry. For other people it's a recognition of something, a feeling in the gut. One suddenly becomes surprised by it, by the interior life that has suddenly surfaced. That's what that poem is about and I guess that's why it's called "Middle Class."
FINKELSTEIN: That's what I was asking you about-a bourgeois life.
SHAPIRO: Even in that bourgeois life, of course, a lot of my poems were written with the help of booze. I would start working about 11:00 at night after I had come back from work. In those days newspaper culture was a very alcoholic culture, three martinis before lunch. I'd come back and I'd always have some bourbon before dinner, and then when I started to write at night I would usually work with bourbon and sometimes beer chasers.
FINKELSTEIN: So was that fuel for the writing?
SHAPIRO: I had to get up after the day's work and it helped me to get up. All of that was part of the bourgeois life.
FINKELSTEIN: Though that also has a dimension that is not bourgeois at all. That's also the wild man kind of life.
SHAPIRO: Yes, I always aligned myself with poets, and poets who were leading very different kinds of life from mine; they were basically my spiritual brothers. I felt closer to Paul Blackburn or to Armand than I did to the people I was working with in the office. There was never any question about that in my mind.
FINKELSTEIN: You have spoken about how working in the office in some ways gave you a very salubrious perspective on writing generally too, in terms of revision.
SHAPIRO: It was certainly helpful to me in my own work, learning how to revise, and I had a great respect for the people I work with (and still have great respect for the people I work with at the newspaper), people who write captions and headlines and copy edit.
FINKELSTEIN: Are you still working at the paper? Part-time?
SHAPIRO: I retired about four years ago but I kept my office. You should really come see me there. And I sign a contract every year for a minimal salary. I do editing, and come to meetings of the Magazine staff, help to initiate stories, etc.