The Fly by Karl Shapiro: Analysis & Theme

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

'The Fly' is one of the later poems written by American poet Karl Shapiro. This lesson will look at the poem's use of literary devices, like simile and metaphor, and possible themes found in the poem.

The Subject of Flies

All poems, whether traditional like this one by Karl Shapiro or more experimental in form, have some sort of subject - something that the poem is about. In the case of ''The Fly'', published in Selected Poems in 2003 (after the poet's death in 2000), the subject is easy to identify.

Almost everyone has some experience with those small flying pests that seem to be everywhere, especially in the warm weather when we want to be outdoors enjoying time with friends and family. Shapiro's poem reminds us of a fly buzzing around, a fly sitting on our drink glass, or a fly landing annoyingly on our hand.

Summertime Pest

The average person does not think twice about getting rid of a fly (or multiple flies at a cookout) by whatever means necessary. Shapiro's poem discusses not only the obnoxious fly itself but its often gruesome means of death.

The Structure of the Poem

Shapiro's poem ''The Fly'' is fairly traditional in structure, with six stanzas of eight lines each. An interesting twist on the format is that the first four lines of each stanza follow the rhyme scheme of ABCB, while the second four follow a different scheme: ABBA. The effect of this quirky rhyme scheme is to remind the reader of the buzzing flight of a fly as it ventures toward a target and then back out. Flies move this way, right?

The division into stanzas allows the poet to focus on some different aspects of the fly subject in each section:

1) the nastiness of the fly

2) flies and other creatures

3) the vulnerability of flies

4) what can happen to flies

5) death at a man's hands

6) the after-death fate of a fly

Metaphor and Simile

This poem makes effective use of simile and metaphor: figurative language that involves comparison. Regarding the fly itself, Shapiro begins the comparison in the very first line.

'hideous little bat, the size of snot' (1)

Most people find bats rather creepy and avoid them at all costs; the reader's first picture of the fly from the poet's view raises a negative feeling. Immediately after that, the size of the creature is given as the size of snot. Yuck! Snot is not something we like to think about. This word choice gets the description of the fly off to a repulsive start.

Thinking about how gross the little fellow is, mentioning maggots just makes it more graphic. Even those of us who can tolerate a small buzzing fly find maggots absolutely disgusting. The filthiness of the fly is emphasized in stanza two.

The third stanza compares a horse's swishing tail to a hurricane, which makes us think about how small a fly really is. To a tiny fly, a horsetail might seem like a hurricane of movement. So even though the little guy is pretty gross, you have to admire the fly's intrepid attempts to get what it needs. It actually makes sense to think of the fly as a hunter: how many of us have flicked a fly off of a food item or glass of juice at a picnic?

Hunting for Sweet Food
fly on food

Unfortunately for the fly, the poet has every intention of killing it without any remorse. Those last four lines of the fifth stanza use similes to make light of the substance of the fly. For the reader, we see how powerless and short-lived the fly really is.

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