Auto Wreck by Karl Shapiro: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Karen Harker

Karen has taught high school English and has a master's degree in Shakespearean Studies

This lesson will present a summary and analysis of Karl Shapiro's poem 'Auto Wreck' by breaking the poem down into three stanzas and exploring the author's use of language and imagery as a means of finding meaning in the poem.

Stanza One: Creating Urgency and Chaos

Have you ever had something urgent to say to someone and when you begin speaking, everything comes out too fast or choppy? Often, we can hear a sense of urgency through the pace, sound, and structure of another person's language, even if we don't quite understand what they are trying to say. Such is the case with Karl Shapiro's opening sentence of his poem 'Auto Wreck'. If you pay attention to the author's use of punctuation in the first stanza, you will notice that a period, or full-stop, is not used until the end of the seventh line. If you try to read these opening seven lines aloud, you may notice that this use of punctuation creates a sense of breathlessness, communicating a sense of panic and urgency which is fitting with the subject of the poem: a car accident.

Observing a car accident

We've all probably ridden by a car wreck, like in the picture, at some point. In the poem, the first stanza functions as a play-by-play of what can be seen and heard in the chaos of an auto wreck, just as if we are observing the scene as it as unfolding. It engages with our senses, observing the flashing of red lights and the sounds of the siren. Shapiro uses poetic techniques to reinforce the tone of urgency and panic these sensory images create in order to bring us into the scene of the wreck. The use of alliteration in the opening line 'Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating' helps to create the rhythm of a beating heart through the repetition of the 's' and 'b' sounds.

This image of a heart is continued through the use of a simile, or a comparison using 'like' or 'as', in the following two lines, 'And down the dark one ruby flare | Pulsing out red light like an artery' which compare the flare of the red lights approaching the scene to the pulse of an artery. The choice of words like 'pulse' and 'artery' in these lines function on two levels. First, they remind us of our own quickening pulse as we learn of the auto wreck. Secondly, combined with the color words 'red' and 'ruby', they remind us of the blood that might be at the scene, creating vivid imagery so that the reader is connected with the poem's opening presentation of urgency and mortality. The stanza ends with the driving away of the ambulance, which is personified through the description of the doors 'leaping' open and the ambulance 'rocking' as it drives away.

Stanza Two: The Collective 'We'

Rather than giving a blow-by-blow of the events of the auto wreck as in stanza one, stanza two provides an introspective glance of those who witnessed this auto wreck. The use of 'we' and 'our' throughout the stanza works to create anonymous, yet shared experiences of the aftermath, giving examples of how differently we react to tragedy.

Using some of the same literary techniques as found in the first stanza, Shapiro creates the whispers of the onlookers through alliteration of the 's' sound: 'We speak through sickly smiles and warn | With the stubborn saw of common sense'. The use of simile in the line 'our throats were tight as tourniquets' gives the imagery of breathlessness also found in stanza one, perhaps embodying the choking back of tears.

Shapiro also creates a contrast between the police officers and the collective 'we'. As the cops are 'large and composed' as they clean up and make notes, the collective 'we' is 'deranged', still reeling from the horrific accident. The stanza closes with the ominous rhetorical questions 'Who shall die?' and 'Who is innocent?'

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