A Voice Saying Something Right
Harvey Shapiro, who died on January 7, 2013 at age 88, was a poet of, among many other matters, the worlds of Jewish learning, combat missions in the skies over Nazi Germany, life in Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the wisdom arrived at through making poetry out of this life. From 1957 to 1995 he worked for the New York Times; from 1975 to 1983 he was editor of the newspaper’s Book Review. He published eleven books of his own poetry and an anthology, Poets of World War II.
His poetry is straightforward, devoid of obscurity, complex syntax or devices of distancing. As he says in an early poem, “Urbanity obscures the mystery,” and his concern was the mystery to be found in normal life and captured in plain words. His dedication to simplicity of language puts the reader at risk of underestimating what is being given. Here, for example, in a poem titled “Genesis,” is his response to the phrase, “And God saw that it was good:”
He said it is good
and we go out
into it each morning . . . .
This looks completely artless, but who else has given us such a simple and direct application of these grand words of Torah to every day of our lives? Shapiro’s reading is the product of a clear mind that goes to the heart of things and a disposition that has no trace of pretentiousness in giving us its insights. As in so many of Harvey Shapiro’s poems, these are lines of useable wisdom. They are religious in a way that is compatible with orthodox belief but do not depend on or require faith in anything other than their own meaning. And the art that conceals art is there in a line-break that highlights the difference between “we go out,” in our self-centeredness, and “into it,” the vast external world we have inherited and are admonished to appreciate as being good.
And here, in “A Day’s Portion,” the title poem of a book published in 1994, is his response to the extended description of the Children of Israel collecting the manna in Exodus 16:14-35:
A day’s portion every day,
gather it is the commandment.
Again, a biblical passage that we all know, and that appears in context to be tied to the supernatural specifics of the Exodus story, is shown in the simplest of language to be applicable to everyday experience. The syntax chosen highlights the injunction to “gather it.” The story of the manna, which is presented in the Exodus narrative as a miracle, and which almost no reader understands in a personal way, has been transformed into useable wisdom.
In fact, for Harvey Shapiro the biblical words had the weight of events, as he says in “Ancient Days,” an early poem (in which he still capitalizes the first words of each line):
Great things happened.
They felt called upon
To bear witness.
The words, in themselves,
“Exodus,” another early poem, is a commentary on Exodus 13:19, “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him:”
. . . Joseph had said,
God will remember you
If you take me hence.
This was before the miracle
By the sea or the thundering mountain,
Before the time of thrones
And cherubim. . . .
But, as the poet tells us in the poem’s last lines, relating this seemingly incidental aspect of the Exodus narrative to a central disposition of the rabbinic tradition, “the remembering” had “already begun.”
Among the events Shapiro remembered were his experiences as a gunner of 19 and 20 on B-17 bombing missions against Nazi Germany in World War Two. In a relatively early poem, “Veteran,” he remembers by means of a photograph:
I’m close to myself again
In my fifty mission photo—
Poised in leather jacket, parachute harness,
By the twin guns of the bomber—
Twenty, numb, a survivor.
In every one of those missions, the young man that he was experienced extended stretches of time in which he knew each minute that he might be killed. The details of the trauma entered his poetry only later in life. Thus, in his late poem “War Stories,”
. . . colored tracers would connect bomber
to enemy fighter, and then the black flack
would spread in the sky, a deadly fungus.
Planes would blossom into flame
in that bewildering sky.
And in the poem “Combat,”
. . . I remember particularly the time
I bargained with God—the plane
seemed to be going down,
smoke filled the cabin—
if he would only get me out alive,
I would . . . . What was my promise,
my heartfelt vow?
But for the most part the adult survivor wrote poems of daily life in New York and Israel. These were locations that he felt as if they were words of Torah. In “These Are the Streets,” he wrote,
. . . These are the streets of New York, hung
with letters of white fire on black fire.
And in Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan, he wrote in “Memento Mori,” the sun
touches with light the streets and avenues
where you go in search of your life.
New York is, for Harvey Shapiro, a place where the coming of the messiah is discussed in the most mundane of settings, as in “47th Street:”
In the delicatessen
Were bantering about the messiah,
Lifting the mounds of corned beef
And tongue. He wouldn’t come,
They said, you couldn’t
Count on it. Meaning:
They would die in harness.
Israel, where his brother lived, is also a place of revelation in the poem of the same name:
In the desert
even the bare night sky
has its luminosity
as if the dark
were soaked with light.
The rabbinic writings were throughout his life a source of poetry. Here is the poet reflecting on Pirkei Avot in “Sayings of the Fathers:”
. . . A listening
For whatever stirs
An intense listening.
The writings of Rabbi Nachman inspired more than one poem, including “Learning:”
. . . Rabbi Nachman’s final message:
Gevalt! Do not despair!
There is no such thing as despair at all!
Shouted from the very depths of the heart.
In so many poems, early and late, there are simple lines of meditative wisdom, like those in “Two Cornell Deaths:”
. . . If you walk by the river, Manhattan
is like a book, the pages turn,
the words march down those pages. . . .
Whatever you needed was there, wasn’t it?
And in a poem set in his study in “Brooklyn Heights,” both title and location, he provides the words that for me characterize the greatness and rarity of the poetry he left us:
. . . Only
now and then a voice cuts through
saying something right . . . .
David Curzon is the author of books of poetry and midrash.