(Nostalgic) Time and (Immediate) Loss
‘Repetitions to be sharpened....’
To call David Shapiro a poet of the surreal, of collage, of the erotic, of endless transition, of formless form, of fin-de-siecle regret is to touch upon the variety of poetic techniques he has explored in eight books of poetry published between 1965 and 1994.[Note 1] All of these descriptions are accurate. However, they omit a distinguishing (and heroic) aspect of Shapiro’s work: for over thirty years, he has refused to write poetry which organizes the real into a clean and neat poetic. Eschewing the comforts of order, he has engaged in a process of rediscovering the objects of poetry through a verbal and graphic confrontation with past time and present language. This process marks Shapiro’s poetry as distinctive from his New York precursors Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, as well as from the concerns of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, and Ron Sillman.[Note 2] Within the space of Shapiro’s poems, we meet uncanny images and our attention is called to the surface of words, while the ‘depth’ of narrative or confession is exposed as illusion. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, memory, the past, and history are always already present in the surface of Shapiro’s poems: in ‘House (Blown Apart)’ he acknowledges ‘the traces of old work / Embedded in this page, like your bed / Within a bed. My old desire to live!’ Six of Shapiro’s poems [‘Poetry Without Fear’ (1969), ‘The Carburetor at Venice’ (1971), ‘Music Written to Order’ (1977), ‘Falling Upwards’ (1983), ‘After a Lost Original’ (1994), and ‘Sentences’ (1994)] exemplify his range and trace over and over the problems of memory, without settling into a comfortable solution, and how it returns to that ‘old desire to live’ in, with, and through poetry.
A bee flies out for a meal
What strikes one first is the absurdity of a bee providing its own plate. Not only is the bee’s action apparently absurd, but we then wonder, what about those children? Are their actions equally absurd? If so, is their ‘boo[ing]’ or their ‘collaps[ing]’ absurd? What is Shapiro suggesting, if he is suggesting anything, by making this parallel between the children and the bee? Writing ‘On Realism in Art,’ Roman Jakobson reminds us that ‘in order to show an object, it is necessary to deform the shape it used to have; it must be tinted, just as slides to be viewed under the microscope are tinted. You color your object in an original way and think that it has become more palpable, clearer, more real’ (26). ‘Poetry Without Fear’ engages in a similar project of trying to present a clear, palpable, and real object through a process similar to what the Russian Formalists would have described as ‘de-familiarization.’ But more is happening here than the representation of strange, surreal images or the reworking of a trace of early twentieth-century techniques. There is a visual and aural play within these lines. Think grammar: ‘A bee flies out for a meal, providing its own plate. These children who booed me so often collapse at the gate.’ Two sentences: brief and clear. Each sentence takes two lines to complete. With the five-space indention of the second and third lines, Shapiro creates a certain geometrical elegance. Writing about Denise Levertov’s ‘Merritt Parkway,’ Shapiro calls attention to the visual elements of poetry: ‘The luxury of such a poem is its close positioning, its geometrical congruence, in the device of traffic and the poetic cadences in which this poem makes its shape felt.’[Note 4] Shapiro also plays with the grammatical structure of sound. Linguists discuss phonemes as the basic unit of meaningful sound; they see the aural field as a space in which the speaker intends to produce meaning. As a poet with an incredibly acute ear, Shapiro provides us with meaningful units of sound — phonemes — and links these into grammatically acceptable and recognizable patterns — sentences. Yet despite this apparent movement toward linguistic meaning, the opening stanza complicates a linear equation between meaningful sound (phoneme or grammatical sentence) and understandable sound (in the sense of poetic theme). Sounds may have meaning (‘A bee flies out for a meal’), but the image Shapiro produces here prevents the reader from easily comprehending the sounds’ meaning. In fact, the following phrase, ‘providing its own plate,’ makes the bee’s image absurd and cartoon-like. Despite its initial absurdity, however, there is a certain accuracy and truth in the sentence: bees do provide their own plates because they don’t use anything for a plate. The initial distance and then the subtle connections between truth and absurdity in the poem’s language send us on a hunt for meaning. But later in the poem, Shapiro writes ‘words do not speak’ and ‘in my opinion the words cannot be blended.’ Although Shapiro is speaking specifically of the words ‘gate’ and ‘latch,’ one could read this statement about the impossibility of blending words as a larger part of his aesthetic. Shapiro’s poems engage in an attempt to take us back to the surface of signs — to the visual and to the aural components of language.
If students visit for signs
Shapiro’s work and the concept of the trace has clear connections with Derridian ideas. However, in Shapiro’s work the concept of a trace, a line going over and perhaps changing, redirecting what has been gone over in the past, needs to be considered in connection with the visual arts — an area that looms large for many New York poets (e.g., O’Hara and Ashbery). In one of his works of art criticism, Jasper Johns Drawings, Shapiro has written that ‘each mark of Johns is a disagreement, a contradistinction, a modification of the mood’ (11). In Shapiro’s own work a trace is made on the flat surface of language; in good Derridian fashion it denies the transcendental signified, but it also suggests ‘a modification of the mood,’ a change in the direction of the poem. While the surface for painters is tactile and textured, the surface of Shapiro’s work is graphic and aural: language exists on the page, but it also exists out there in sound or in the reader’s memory of sounds as she reads over the page silently. His poetry moves the reader toward a careful consideration of, and reflection on, the intersections between sound and sight, between the graphic and aural. And in this negotiated space, among the surfaces of words, a reader may discover that the satisfactions of poetry come from the senses not the meanings of the words. In poetry, words are more than their semantic definitions; they are sounds, they are sensations of lips, tongue, and teeth. But this is nothing new; Auden told us long ago that poetry was a mouth.[Note 5] What Shapiro adds is an insistence that the sense, the surface, the mouthing of poetry satisfies us when it reminds us of the past.
Life is no less complex and mysterious than it has always been. That we dwell in enormous cities, and invent and use astonishing machinery, does not simplify it, but continually reveals the dissolution of limit after limit to physical possibility. Our still tentative awareness of the great gulfs of the unconscious, in constant transformation like the marvelous cloudscapes one sees from a jet plane, must surely lead to awe, not to supposed simplicity. Therefore if our poetry is to seek truth — and it must, for that is a condition of its viability, breath to its lungs — then it cannot confine itself to what you, the editors of things, in your prospectus, have called direct statement, but must allow for all the dazzle, shadow, bafflement, leaps of conjecture, prayer and dream-substance of that quest. (Poetics of the New American Poetry 308-309)
Indeed ‘an interesting city under an airplane’ also echoes within Shapiro’s art criticism: while discussing Jasper Johns’ drawings, Shapiro writes that ‘technology divides us from the consequences of our perception: what we see outside the airplane window, for example, has no real bearing on our passage to a continent whose language we may not comprehend’ (Jasper Johns Drawings 12). Our relationship to machines, to technology, then affects our perceptions not only in a comedic fashion but also in the arena of language: ‘Open your mouth and lie.’ In ‘The Carburetor at Venice,’ a poem that, at times, borders on the banal, Shapiro achieves a balance between the cliché and the striking. He presents the reader with a verbal present, a final stanza that is both uncanny and cliché: ‘A silver brain. / I have had an accident. I cannot see. / I like you very much. Do you like me?’
Now and then, now and then, now and then
The repetition of the sounds ‘now’ and ‘then’ underscores the verbal construction of time and memory, and highlights the visual and aural fields that make up the space of memory. Memory exists somewhere between ‘now-ness and then-ness.’ Error also exists within the convergence of these fields. In fact, in ‘Music Written to Order’ Shapiro may be suggesting that memory is made up of elaborate and elegant errors. We, as readers, do not know how to use the poem’s device of memory. We are listening to ‘a projector’ rather than watching the images it reproduces. Memory, ‘Music Written to Order’ suggests, conflates sight and sound into a kaleidoscopic cacophony. However, ‘Music Written to Order’ is not primarily about the failure of memory to bridge the distance between sight and sound, past and present, now and then; rather, the poem is an observation of the complexity of memory. The poem does not claim the ability to forget completely nor to remember completely; instead, it creates a double movement: back to ‘revisit your ancient home’ and forward to ‘your new home of late.’
A certain violinist had a beautiful violin
As this image recedes into the reader’s consciousness, the music begins:
What was there to do? It is said You cannot live life in quarter tones.
And the music — as poetry concerned with the immediate — continues to play, taking a theme, a trope, ‘What was there to do?’ and introducing a variety, a difference. In the end, the poem ends as it began, with a sentence that is part of a story: ‘What was there to do? It is said the violin was a swan, / seized the boy, falling upwards to some height above the earth.’ A mystical and surreal ending, perhaps.
When the translation and the original meet
But to be valuable, memory or art must ‘astonish,’ must strike us, must, as Jakobson reminds us, ‘deform the principles of composition as advocated by the Academy.... We must resort to metaphor, allusion, or allegory if we wish a more expressive term. It will sound more impressive, it will be more striking’ (21). Shapiro’s poetry does not rely on its surrealist images to strike us: ‘Letters written on clouds, snakes on curtains and naked devices / Frighten them no longer.’ Although they are stunning moments, they do not carry the poem. They are part of a technique to get at memory, to trace an object’s surface, to make us see ‘the visible’ — what Barbara Guest describes ‘as in the past / subsisting in a layered zone / refuses to dangle / oaths on marsh field / whitened or planned / memorial distance’ (13). Shapiro’s poetry astonishes us by its insistence that it occupies the space between ‘now and then,’ the space between ‘the original and the translation.’ This spatial and temporal opening bears a distinct resemblance to what Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition called ‘groundless ground.’ Paradoxically, Shapiro’s poems are fields of loss which enable us to see not everything but at least ‘rivulets of the truth.’
What are questions now?
Shapiro’s poetry makes memory elegant and terrible; his uncanny images, his ability to play between the graphic and acoustic surfaces of words, his obsession with the space between ‘now and then’ remind us that the real plurality of language is a blank, a loss, a nostalgic longing for the past and a hand outstretched toward the future. At certain moments, one would like to think that poetry is beautiful in-and-of-itself, that the pleasures of poetry are in the sounds of the words, that the joys and sorrows of poetry are in the action of reading, and maybe this is the case. But David Shapiro’s poems insist that aesthetic pleasure is not a purely transcendental function; real poetry is neither an absolute presence nor an absolute absence. It exists between the immediate present and the lost past. One of the pleasures of reading Shapiro’s poetry is the discovery of a futile and paradoxical desire for ‘anything’ but (or beyond) the immediate — a desire for memory, a desire to live. In the end, Shapiro’s poems are familiar because they remind me of grammar; they remind me of a riddle told in the past (perfect) tense.[Note 6]
[Note 1] January (1965), Poems from Deal (1969), A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel (1971), The Page-Turner (1973), Lateness (1977), To an Idea (1983), House (Blown Apart) (1988), and After a Lost Original (1994). In his book-length study of Shapiro’s poetry, Thomas Fink notes that a wide variety of poets, literary critics, and book reviewers have acknowledged Shapiro’s poetry, including Jack Kerouac, Kay Boyle, Jerome McGann, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Harold Bloom, and Philip Lopate (Fink 14). However, there has been very little extended, academic, critical analysis of Shapiro’s work. In some sense then, Shapiro remains a poet’s poet, his work relatively neglected in poetry courses and critical journals compared with the space dedicated to discussions of either earlier New York poets or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.
[Note 2] I have tried to avoid using the term ‘New York School’ as a description of O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, and others because in the introduction to An Anthology of New York Poets, which Shapiro edited with Ron Padgett in 1970, they try to distance these poets (and themselves) from the confining idea of belonging to a single ‘school.’ The problem of reducing a complex group of poets to a single school also exists when discussing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers. Borrowing from Padgett and Shapiro, I would suggest that New York poets or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers share a ‘fulcrum,’ a point they use ‘to get as much leverage as possible in literature.’ Whether poets share a ‘fulcrum’ that is a place — New York — or a method of writing seems less important than its potential usefulness as a concept to draw on when writing about poetry. Still, one should remember that the lines between, among, around these groupings of poets are not absolutes.
[Note 3] Discussing the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, Jerome McGann has pointed that they ‘are involved with writing projects which fracture the surface regularities of the written text which interrupt conventional reading processes’ (207). He says that ‘their reviews and critical comments on poetry display little concern with “interpretation”; rather, they elucidate as it were the behavior, the manners, the way of life that various kinds of writing perform and live’ (209).
[Note 4] Shapiro cites the following lines from Levertov’s poem:
And the people — ourselves
[Note 5] See W.H. Auden’s often quoted and often anthologized ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats.’
[Note 6] I don’t know why or how, but Shapiro’s poems remind me of a cantor’s voice, heard but not heard fully. His grandfather (Berele Chagy) was a cantor, but that alone does not explain it. It is as if one is in the children’s service of a synagogue, and down the hall or upstairs, between the men’s mumbled prayers, the hazzain’s voice floats in a minor key. As a child you hear longing, but not complete longing, unsure incomplete, fragments that seem beautiful and sad, but you’re not certain of their sadness. As a child in synagogue, it is as if you want to say, ‘It is raining on the town, but I don’t believe the town exists.’ When the child matures, his mind wanders back to that time, to that space of memory, and he tries to recapture the faith, the belief that existed there before him, outside in that other room, but he cannot reach it, instead all he remembers is the words, the sounds drifting in fragments toward him — it is this that Shapiro’s poetry reminds me of, the beauty of nostalgia, but also the loss. In the title of his latest book, After a Lost Original, this moment becomes solid for a second and then flickers along the screen of nerves, along our memory of language, and then it too vanishes. Revelation is found in the repetition of prayer, but one is never certain if one is saying the words quite right. One will try to follow the fathers, but their voices are lost, distilled in the morning air as the vision of an Arabian ghost, shimmering, flickering at the edge of memory, not sight, not geometry, but sound — the notes of a violin, the notes of a voice.
Allen, Donald, and Warren Tallman, eds. The Poetics of the New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press, 1973.
Andrews, Bruce. Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996.
———, and Charles Berstein. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
Auden, W.H. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library, 1976.
Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1943.
Fink, Thomas A. The Poetry of David Shapiro. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.
———. ‘The Poetry of David Shapiro and Ann Lauterbach: After Ashbery.’ American Poetry Review 17:1 (January/February 1988): 27–32.
Guest, Barbara. Selected Poems. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1995.
Jakobson, Roman. Language in Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Lyotard, Jean-Francis. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
McGann, Jerome J. Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Miller, Stephan Paul. ‘Jasper Johns and David Shapiro, an Analogy.’ Master’s Thesis. City College of New York, 1983.
Padgett, Ron, and David Shapiro, eds. An Anthology of New York Poets. New York, Random House, 1970.
Schwartz, Leonard, Joseph Donahue, Edward Foster, eds. Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Jersey City: Talisman House, 1996.
Shapiro, David. After a Lost Original. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1994.
———. ‘Denise Levertov: Among the Keys.’ Twentieth Century Literature 38.3 (1992): 299–304.
———. House (Blown Apart). NY: Overlook Press, 1988.
———. January. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.
———. Jasper Johns Drawings 1954–1984. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981.
———. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
———. Lateness. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1977.
———. A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1971.
———. The Page–Turner. New York: Liveright, 1973.
———. Poems from Deal. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969.
———. To an Idea. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1983.
August 2003 | Jacket 23