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David Shapiro

A song cycle of David Shapiro’s sonnets called Unwritten has been written by the great young composer Mohammed Fairouz and will be played at Carnegie at Recital Hall on March 21st. Word on the street is that David Shapiro himself may play the coda.

NOTE: In this new series, THEthe writers share their first experiences with poetry or discuss the first poems they ever loved.


My first sense of poetry was music, songs my mother told me taught me, as they say. My father loved to scream Milton at me, so my first memory of my father is: Hurled headlong flaming! Or Disemboweled (the word alone).

He also loved to say: Bah Humbug! Or Latin poems: Non amo te nec possum dicere quarere hoc tantum scio.

I do not like thee Doctor Fell–my mother read poetry to me at night and my father had the family recite Shakespeare: Be not afeard the isle is full of strange noises.

My father and my uncle the pianist were best friends in high school and they both loved to write poems. My uncle was often in the NY Times with a sonnet–my father would test us as violinists memorizing many pieces–Who dost defy the Omnipotent to arms–My father also did a good Tyger, Tyger.

Now it comes back to me a lot, my father screaming Lasciate ogni speranza you who enter here. Longer and longer passages I memorized and received money from a neighbor for Paul Revere. And I certainly knew Antony’s oration.

If you had memorized your concerto you could just practise with no music-stand and walk around the room and think. I knew the genius of music listening to my grandfather pray and sing at gigantic Brooklyn synagogues and his records.

Later I loved reciting The Waste Land–at least the part l knew by heart–and I set some of it to music composed (too Coplandy).

I hated school because the poems were terrible or Mrs Popper’s apothegms: Before you spread a rumor Put it through the three sieves–the golden sieve of truthfulness, the silver sieve of kindness, and the pearl sieve of necessity.

I did love speed in counting and multiplying and concentrating. I loved music and words together madrigals, Christmas carols. (We hid from our grandfather in case he saw my Mom singing and carolling delightedly. We felt such guilt I felt God would kill me when I played O Come All Ye Faithful.)

for David Shapiro



Underneath the garden,
loose stars stapled to ribbed snail shells
in octaves of sky,
the revised mistranslation
of a black pool
what an inveterate tuba suggests:
a broken interflow
inhabiting the honeysuckle–
but diction is unlivable,
a plastic replica
stuck in low tides,
the snow’s psyche nearby,
and the pool, its live-in help,
third-persons the loud night,
its open mouth
an analogy of vowels…

Such fierce quantums
ingest roman à clefs, gondolas
drifting on changed names
below rows of dead windows. Oh,
the globe’s pallor
is so themelessly narrow,
its doors glamorous and blind.
Messy cement, set by geometrics,
cannot fix it,
though music’s lost paragraph



its pale-colored loops. mental and spiritual,
its woeful exaggerations
primitive as tequila
resonated through salt in vacuums
invented by thieves–
lorry lingo, islets, milkweed–
and, yet, its purple-and-silver drivers
get a groom’s reprieve,
obvious boundaries, and a private life
in the engaged comedies of cutlery and confidence,
so unoccupied
are the avalanches.

It is best to place pillows beside this tear,
politely veined as the sun
lazily screaming
the anti-grammar of happiness,
then accelerate, burstingly,
through space,
for the sun is multiple
and unhumiliated,
like the green certitude of a blank page,
and love, its blue beetle,
engraves the edges.



The kneeling roadside,
its film of oil callowly cooled
by “timbrel dissonance,”
subsists below an imperfect hardhat,
its unanswerable flashlight noli me tangere;
and where the beam’s wandering error
stares seems dark as a motive
that permits no friend
beneath the grillework of an eyelid,
that mournful interior that slides
like a bed across a sun spot
into cross-sections of fate,
wheels rolling as buttons from a mannequin,
elocutions on too many colors.

Oh brother, those throttles of weather,
unsmiling, cloudless,
technically precise, creamed innocence
until rats themselves lay comatose
in the cemetery,
its futuring approach keeling
below hardhats of memory.



Suburbia’s psychological chrysalis
is truthless and whirls
like the shadow of an ancestor
awake in the West,
an effaced death partly singing
across the aluminum horse show’s loutish goodbyes,
late copy
in the contaminated dust
with its Brechtian vacation spots
moteled by Duchamp
under margins of clouds,
their simulations left by deleted sculptors
who once galloped
across these fragrant walls.

You see, Russianly,
all– the other mind’s Alexandrian
prayer, stranded
like a disarrayed laurel
from that frightening tree,
its manifold precedents
trapped in the bric-a-brac of coherence’s
confusing clichés. Born to combat,
driven and infantile,
the chrysalis’s governance wavers
under this jagged emitting,
tainted and fragmentary,
restless, while you
argue through the fragile kitsch of the spatial
nothing but hope.



These half-seeded gardens,
feel suspect–
time-lapse ruptures
blurring the poplars’ plaintive mustards.
A softening
is thrust across connoisseurs,
a smeared hurrah in “the spray of time,”
something doubtful
like the explication of “z”
with red octagons aswirl in the rigmarole
that punctuates the pleasantries,

but I ramble
from a chair at the bottom of an swimming pool
without a scatterbrained portal
to frame uncloistered predictions,
while the crickets’
rainy gravity
adjusts pencil-dots made by Rouault,
and your violin swims
in waters brimming with black lamps,
half-tuned in the vigil
where osmosis is improvised,
like soft petals
brushed against the cymbal’s inner sides.



The skidding fountains,
their compassionate kilometers
slowed by toy boats,
interrupt “the tiny dead day,”
its lodestone splash
confused by hundreds of muffs
surrounding the word “uh.”

Winter, flightlessly noticeable
like butterflies on a cello,
the cascade’s twists,
dilatory as pity,
but the seasonal paysage
is like Niobe’s entourage: in trouble–
a beagle without eyes.
You said so,
in your spraycan diary
which is why fountains,
their pistol-silver laxity, are still-lifes,
even five dreams away,
and so pretty.



God– a red stain on cardboard,
a recognizable accent, morning embedded–
loosen me among layers of street
in raw materials made white by Utah’s inland sea,
saline-green and collaborative.
Secrets nod to nomads
and the psychotic connection’s pastels
break the glass.
Lend me limits, optics tilted,
and lame ledges, love’s
terrible mania colloquial yet tamed,
tea-time amazed
by your architectural downtowns,
by the sound of mud,
its ministering sensuality.
Exemptions race by me in ultra-red fog–
traced traumerei
taking a ferry across a painting.
Enter my wary brain,
its splitting sunlight,
Jonah’s complex unsharable night.

We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)


That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.

If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.

That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.

And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.

Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.

All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.

Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.

I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.

—Robert Kelly, February 2010

The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway.  For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:

  1. They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
  2. They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.).  No one was going to out-sophisticate them!  Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his  “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency.  Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.

Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.

Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense.  The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn.  This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all.  What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate   imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”

Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed.  But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.

The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time.  It’s the execution that makes the poem special.

The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato.  Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds.  Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art:  the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.

It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:

  1. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras).  Yeats couldn’t have said it better
  2. “Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending.  Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson.  The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold.  So much for sentimentality.  And so:

The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.”  This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.

One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:

If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.”  In other words:  real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.

—Bill Wadsworth