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There are many reasons why Karl Shapiro is no longer taught or on the lips of MFA students.

First, he was part of the post-war formalist/structuralism/urban boom in poetry, but he had enjoyed great success (Pulitzers and whatnot), and he was a Jew. A Jew with a Pulitzer in the 1940s/1950s who was neither humble nor particularly unwashed and earnest (Shapiro…was dapper) was treated with some envy and contempt.

Second, the Beats had visited him and not thought themselves properly treated (they expected a hipster jazz sort of poet because it was Shapiro–not Ginsberg–who first start writing in long rhapsodic free verse lines in emulation of Whitman). Shapiro became for them the symbol of stuffed shirt bougie poetics (as you will see from this poem, Shapiro was anything but. He was sexually open and using the long free verse line a good ten years before Allen Ginsberg came anywhere near it).

Shapiro was buried under the reps of Lowell, and Jarrell, and Berryman. Of those three, Berryman appeals most to post-structural poets (he’s the darling of every grad students MFA program). Lowell has enjoyed a rise in fortune after a ten or fifteen year eclipse. Jarrell’s name is starting to come up again, albeit more for his essays than poems.

But here’s the rub: Shapiro was doing everything they got the credit for innovating a good ten years before they were doing it: including confessional poetry. Those who run poetry are shrewd. They know the best way to disappear a poet is to refuse to talk about him–neither to praise nor ridicule, simply relegate him to a non-entity status. Ginsberg (and I think this makes Ginsberg a total self serving piece of shit) would not admit that it was Shapiro’s sexually explicit, long lined free verse poems, and not Whiman’s, that influenced him most immediately. (Whitman made for a more exciting father). Shapiro was a Jew with a Pulitzer. It was Shapiro to an extent who represented the most legitimate use of Whitman in terms of modern poetry–not Ginsberg. So what were Shapiro’s sins? He was eloquent, and proud. He probably pissed off the Columbia school (Trilling may have sniped at him, and Ginsberg and the Beats were Trilling’s pet primitives).

It doesn’t matter. He is a superb poet who does not deserve to be in obscurity but will remain so. Below is his “Aubade,” written in the 1940s when Ginsberg was a student. It’s elaborate, courtly, sexually explicit, but purposefully artful, and it uses the long Whitmanesque line and the sense of humor–the American suburban wise ass that Ginsberg would employ in Supermarket in California. We must return to Shapiro. We won’t. So it goes:

AUBADE – KARL SHAPIRO

What dawn is it?

The morning star stands at the end of your street as you watch me turn to laugh a kind of goodbye, with
love-crazed head like a white satyr moving through wet bushes.
The morning star bursts in my eye like a hemorrhage as I enter my car in a dream surrounded by your
heavenly-earthly smell.
The steering wheel is sticky with dew,
The golf course is empty, husbands stir in their sleep desiring, and though no cocks crow in suburbia, the
birds are making a hell of a racket.
Into the newspaper dawn as sweet as your arms that hold the old new world, dawn of green lights that
smear the empty streets with come and go.
It is always dawn when I say goodnight to you,
Dawn of wrecked hair and devastated beds,
Dawn when protective blackness turns to blue and lovers drive sunward with peripheral vision.
To improvise a little on Villon
Dawn is the end for which we are together.

My house of loaded ashtrays and unwashed glasses, tulip petals and columbine that spill on the table
and splash on the floor,
My house full of your dawns,
My house where your absence is presence,
My slum that loves you, my bedroom of dustmice and cobwebs, of local paintings and eclectic posters,
my bedroom of rust neckties and divorced mattresses, and of two of your postcards, Pierrot
with Flowers and Young Girl with Cat,
My bed where you have thrown your body down like a king’s ransom or a boa constrictor.

But I forgot to say: May passed away last night,
May died in her sleep,
That May that blessed and kept our love in fields and motels.
I erect a priapic statue to that May for lovers to kiss as long as I’m in print, and polish as smooth as the
Pope’s toe.
This morning came June of spirea and platitudes,
This morning came June discreetly dressed in gray,
June of terrific promises and lawsuits.

And where are the poems that got lost in the shuffle of spring?
Where is the poem about the eleventh of March, when we raised the battleflag of dawn?
Where is the poem about the coral necklace that whipped your naked breasts in leaps of love?
The poem concerning the ancient lover we followed through your beautiful sleeping head?
The fire-fountain of your earthquake thighs and your electric mouth?
Where is the poem about the little one who says my name and watches us almost kissing in the sun?
The vellum stretchmarks of your learned belly,
Your rosy-fingered nightgown of nylon and popcorn,
Your razor that caresses your calves like my hands?
Where are the poems that are already obsolete, leaves of last month, a very historical month?
Maybe I’ll write them, maybe I won’t, no matter,
And this is the end for which we are together.
Et c’est la fin pour quoy sommes ensembles.

Whether as a gadfly to the bigger kids in communist Romania or as a teenager in Chicago, part of me always wanted to be hip, but another part always knew that it was too much work.

What does it mean to be hip? It means to be urban, wired, social, to occupy the latest spaces, to perform the most contemporary habits according to a precise code. If being hip means being urban, multinational, vanguard, does being unhip end up meaning that one has to be rural, nationalistic, or even parochial?

Speaking about downtown Los Angeles on BBC2 in the early 1990s, Dr. Edward Soja mentions how postmodern architecture can manifest as the feeling of de-centeredness quickly followed by a desire to submit to authority, any authority. How does this desire to find a center relate to the desire to lose a center? More precisely, as a first-generation immigrant American poet like myself who is interested in finding his place: how do the hardships of feeling lost play out in contemporary American poetry?

Recently, Swedish-American poet Johannes Goransson has suggested a link between the hipster and an excessive aesthetic on his popular blog called Montevidayo: “The hipster lets the art become excessive, lets art become “graffitiesque” (ie when art takes over the space of the everyday).” Perhaps hipster poets like Goransson, Ariana Reines, Sean Kilpatrick, and others, as practitioners of excessive aesthetics, offer useful responses to the moral-relativism articulated by postmodern urban spaces. Perhaps art is still that thing that helps us conceive of getting lost as an adventure.

What does it mean to take seriously the central lesson of the European avant-garde, via Tristan Tzara, that life is art? How can contemporary American hipster poets’ various understandings of excess help us understand the terrifying idea that life is an adventure and not a time-keeping instrument? What kind of self-expression or Romanticism is still possible after the death of the center?

Describing herself (and literature as such … since biography is written and, as well, it writes the self she describes), Ariana Reines writes in Coeur de Lion:

I don’t mean some internet-ready
self-reflexivity, self-irony, whatever
people call it, as if a self were so fixed
just ironizing “it” could constitute
a surge of consciousness. (7)

And here she is holding pop culture at a properly disdainful and therefore hip distance:

Apocalypto is a awesome title, we agree.
And Mel Gibson is like some kind of grotesque rendition
Of a stupid, stupid Georges Bataille
But his bloodlust, in its excess, is dull.
Its voracity runs too headlong
Into the carnage, or something, it doesn’t
Exploit the eros of violent possibility enough. (12)

Reflecting on the rather self-obsessed and confessional mode of the book, the same speaker writes:

When do you
decide you’re talking to
Literature too? It’s hard
To separate a body from
The words it lets fall.
And then the difference
Between what’s written
And what seems, outside
Of writing, almost just to be.
Writing has to do with
Time. It comes very close
After. Or
It can. This is very
Close after.
So close that it could
Scare me. I hope it
Will. I really hope it will. (50)

In his gothic and Google-age-surrealist book Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, Johannes Goransson writes: “His dingle-dangle is a strange fruit. Get out of here if you don’t know how to raise a child, how to save a child, from this disease. It’s a disease of language. I suspect I have it already. Shit.” (6)

In 1922, Tzara said: “Dada is useless, like everything else in life … Dada is a virgin microbe which penetrates with the insistence of air into all those spaces that reason has failed to fill with words and conventions.”

Sean Kilpatrick’s sexual and aggressive book called fuckscapes offers a series of horrific images in a variety of textual shapes cutting up pith and anger and idiom and confession all with a syntax that implicates the reader in this apocalyptic mess. He writes:

Neat breaks of ammo stung the weather.
They played my father’s rigor mortis over the loudspeaker.
Doctors with poor eyesight wearing rubber boots
Through his carrion, with southern accents in his carrion,
On lunch break, the color of lotion, his carrion in tents,
Said, “toothbrush removes father.” They
Said, “he served us well, your daddy pile
Of Frogger super-genes gone splat. (24)

Americans like their personal space and the Internet would seem to offer the ultimate in disembodied connectedness with its main utopian offering of a self that promises to be everywhere, a ubiquitous self. However, because we conceive of the Internet as a kind of space-space continuum that is out of time, it performs Dr. Soja’s “spatial turn” in the Humanities as a modal default. Because of this aesthetic or modal default as a spatial trope, an uncensored Internet is the most powerful instrument in the Democracy 2.0 movement.

How does space relate to the cool poets? Contemporary American hipster poets comprise a network of agglomeration in urban centers and as a causal consequence of this proximity to one another they create the necessary buzz for the literary mutations we come to recognize as progress. Sure, progress is a myth in the service of colonial projects but it is also the way each generation understands the geography of the past.

If the hipster makes art that is everywhere, does the marginalized maker make art that is nowhere? If we are the ones who construct space in poems and in burnt out downtown districts, what is the role of the oligarch who sponsors building projects? When a city generates excess, this garbage or grotesque excess offers once again the primary lesson of the European avant-garde: life is art. Consider the terrain of mortality; consider performing life as a fellow traveler to death. After all: nihilism shows us the amorality of fashion, but only if that amorality is seen from a critical distance rather than just lived. How, then, do we exploit the eros of violent possibility so we may live our art to the fullest?

Neither a memoir nor a novel, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton UP, 2010) by Andrei Codrescu measures the speed of our psycho-poetic times. It seems we are moving faster and faster knowing less and less where. On the sheen of it, the book runs through the first day of an Intro to Poetry Writing class wherein Codrescu narrates his process of assigning “Ghost-Companion” poets to students according to the first letter of their last names. Underneath the glaze of this conceit, however, the book prods for lessons about the American Academy’s marketing of the imagination through creative writing classes.

I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions. While I was peeing I didn’t think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can’t. I’d have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that’s exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. (98)

Codrescu, with his trademark humor and eye for the ladies, unleashes a number of schemes to shock his poetry students into making it new (here “it” also means their lives and not just their texts). Musing on our mania for the new, Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) A bit later, he expounds explicitly on the role of the poet in society: “The poets’ job was to cast a weary second glance on the world and to look fondly into eternal sentiments with a musical insistence that made them new.” (109) Upon critical reflection on Codrescu’s observations that we are addicts of the new, a question might arise: how can a poet ever be more than a hipster, a fashionista, or a mere bodysurfer of the new? Turning Walter Benjamin on his head, one might ask: what is freedom without fashion?

College students need the kinds of Humanistic insights that Codrescu offers throughout his diaristic recounting of the first session of his last class. For instance, Codrescu brings up linearity, that crutch of old-man positivism:  “I like to start at the beginning, I adore chronology even though I know only too well (and explain to my advanced classes) that chronology is arbitrary and that you can get to or at anything starting at any point, because all things touch on every other thing with at least one point of their thingness. Or maybe all things are round.” (116) I like to think that such an image (of how all things are really connected) lounging in the heads of young people might make it difficult for them to conspire to profit off of their neighbor. Eternal sentiments like the interconnectedness of all things or the sensuality of life or the transitory nature of all things are the functional purview of a Liberal education.

Though the form of Codrescu’s pedagogy seems based on a set of labyrinthine rules and draconian discipline; the content, represented through deft summary and talky quotation, suggests his abiding interest in learning what it means to be a poet from his students. Reflecting on his poetry-life, Codrescu writes:

If anything consoles me now it is that attached to these poets and their publishers and my friends and their work were stories. I had thousands of stories to tell about these people and their products because this was my life, a life spent hanging out, talking, writing poetry, alone or with others, seeing twisted shapes in the night and crisp aphorism at dawn. (103)

The book rambles through delightful scenes of perky soldier-students and feral cats that have laid siege to the LSU campus where Codrescu is teaching his last class before retiring. “Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.” (108)

Like the Romanian-born literary critic and professor Matei Calinescu, Andrei Codrescu, synthesizes the histories of European Avant-garde and American Modernism with calm lucidity. He chucks around terms like ideology, postmodernism, and kitsch with the cock-soreness of a smithy. Really? Take his word for it. Here Codrescu describes the perennial distrust between generations: “It had always been thus, but it was worse, I think, now, when every proof for one thing or another was intellectually available, but tips and hints on how to really live are rarer than asparagus stalks in Eskimo cuisine.” (57)

So, what is the poetry lesson? The poetry lesson is that poetry is a practice. What kind of practice? Poetry is the kind of practice that afflicts you with the microbe of identity crisis. If you don’t have an identity crisis, you have been rendered spiritually destitute by the readymade suggestions of capital. Seek the guidance of spirits.