Karl Shapiro: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Danielle Reed

Danielle works in digital marketing and advertising. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and an MBA.

Learn more about the life of Karl Shapiro, the fifth Poet Laureate of the United States. He influenced poetry in the United State and around the world with his verse and variety of writing styles.

Karl Shapiro - An American Poet

Karl Shapiro (November 10, 1913 - May 14, 2000) was an American poet born in Baltimore, Maryland to Joseph Shapiro and Sarah Omansky. He earned a number of poetry distinctions in his lifetime including the Pulitzer Price for Poetry, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, and an appointment as the 5th Poet Laureate of the United States in 1946.

Early Life

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Karl Shapiro graduated from high school at Baltimore City College and attended the University of Virginia for less than one year and then Johns Hopkins University from 1937 to 1939. Without earning a degree, he left Johns Hopkins. Shapiro landed at the Enoch Pratt Library School in Baltimore to become a librarian.

As a young man, Shapiro felt the pressure of his Jewish and Southern upbringing. He did not always like how his Judaism defined him and considered changing his last name for a time. In the introduction to Poems of a Jew he says, 'I grew up in an atmosphere of mysterious pride and sensitivity…isolated within my own world, like a worm in an apple, I became a poet.' He felt the isolation because of being a Jewish man and a poet.

Before graduating, Shapiro was drafted into the Army and fought in World War II. While serving in New Guinea with the U.S. Army, Shapiro published the volume V-Letter and Other Poems which won him the Pulitzer Prize.

karl shapiro

After the Pulitzer Prize

After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, he was made the 5th Poet Laureate of the United States for the year 1946 to 1947. He wrote poetry full time at this point and began building a more diverse set of skills. Shapiro wrote everything from a formal verse to blank verse poetry.

Formal verse is poetry written to follow a set rhythm and rhyme scheme. An example of formal verse by Shapiro is from the poem The Olive Tree. 'Blue as the blue silk of the Jewish flag

Over the valley and out to sea. / It is bluest just above the olive tree. / You cannot find in twisted Italy.'

Blank verse does not have rhymes in the verse. An example of this is from Troop Train. 'It stops the town we come through. Workers raise/ Their oily arms in good salute and grin. /Kids scream as at a circus. Business men/ Glance hopefully and go their measured way.'

He was the editor of Poetry magazine from 1948 to 1950. He joined the English faculty at the University of Nebraska during 1956. He published may important poets while working at the University. He then spent the rest of his career in post-secondary education, the editing of publications, and writing poetry. Shapiro published a considerable amount of poetry volumes throughout his lifetime. He had aspirations of a three-volume autobiography, but ended up publishing two: The Younger Son and Reports of My Death.

In his personal life, Shapiro married three times. He also considered converting to Catholicism after studying the religion for some time. He was a bit of an eccentric, especially later in life. He was actually reported as dead in more than one publication. He then titled the second volume of his autobiography Reports of My Death which shows us his sense of humor.

Some of the other awards he earned in his lifetime include: The Contemporary Poetry Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, a Charity Randall Citation, an Oscar Blumenthal Prize, Kenyon School of Letters fellowships, the Shelley Memorial Prize, an American Academy of Arts and Letters grant, and more. He died in New York City on May 14, 2000.

Karl Shapiro's Poems

In some of his earliest writings, Shapiro began to establish himself as an outsider, against the main trends of the Modernist movement, and against social injustices. In 1942, The New Yorker said Shapiro was 'on all grounds, the finest young American talent to appear in many seasons.'

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