On Harvey Shapiro's 'A Momentary Glory'
Harvey Shapiro passed away on January 7, 2013, less than a month short of his eighty-ninth birthday. As his literary executor, I was given the task of looking over his remaining papers. I did not anticipate a big job: in 2009, Harvey moved from an apartment in a brownstone on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights to a high-rise a few blocks away on Montague Street, and before the move he had sold most of his papers (notebooks, manuscripts, and letters of over fifty years) to the Beinecke Library at Yale, his alma mater. His collected poems, The Sights Along the Harbor, had appeared in 2006, including about twenty pages of new work. After its publication, in his last years, I knew he was continuing to write at a leisurely pace, and he would casually mention poems forthcoming in one publication or another. My impression, therefore, when I began to consider his remaining files, was that I would find only a handful of poems beyond the ones that he had published since Sights had appeared.
As it turns out, I was utterly mistaken. Harvey had left behind a mass of manuscript pages in two file folders. I found drafts of the dozen or so poems that had appeared in periodicals, but they were mixed together with close to a hundred pages of recent work. These pages were undated, but from internal evidence, I could tell that most of the poems had been written in the last six years. I realized quickly that here was a book that needed to be edited, and that Harvey was probably looking toward such a book before he entered the hospital for the last time. I spent two days on Montague Street. There on the thirty-third floor, with the apartment’s magnificent views looking south across Brooklyn and west across lower Manhattan and the harbor, I sorted through the files, keeping most of the work and setting aside only those pages that seemed unfinished or still in the process of revision. Most of the pages were either completely clean or very lightly emended in Harvey’s hand. A word might be cut or a line break altered, and in each case it struck me as just the right decision. I returned home to Cincinnati, and a week later, Galen Williams, Harvey’s companion, mailed me photocopies of the poems.
Organizing the manuscript proved relatively straightforward. In these poems, Harvey’s overlapping subjects and themes remain the same as in the past, as readers familiar with his work will quickly see. There are poems about the places where he spent his last years, wry observations of city life, and of the Hamptons, and of the Florida Keys. There are poems based on his service in World War II (in 2003, the Library of America published the anthology that Harvey edited, Poets of World War II). There are love poems — Harvey is one of our great erotic poets. There are poems concerning some of the poets who meant the most to him, and of the writing life. And there are many poems of the sort that I consider an updated version of wisdom literature, suffused with Jewish irony and compassion, often anecdotal and bordering on the parabolic. But in all of the poems in this last manuscript, there is an intensity, an urgency, and a deep, meditative awareness that I find quietly astonishing.
A Momentary Glory: Last Poems is a sustained act of inspired writing, the passionate outpouring of a brilliantly gifted poet in the face of age, illness, and mortality. The language is charged with unprecedented gravitas. Yet the work is as edgy as ever, and Harvey never abandons the supple, even jazzy wit that is central to his style. The verbal economy, the razor-sharp lineation, the perfectly timed presentation of detail that are his trademarks — all are subtly at work here, never flashy, still in the service of a poetic sensibility in search of what Harvey always called “the way,” from halakha, the Hebrew term for the Law. Indeed, although he was not observant, Jewish culture, belief, and identity remain constants in his poetry. His book Mountain, Fire, Thornbush (1961) deals exclusively with Jewish themes, but he also turned to Jewish texts — Bible, Midrash, Kabbalah, modern Jewish philosophy — throughout his later work as well.
Perhaps above all, Shapiro was a consummate poet of New York City. He felt a strong literary kinship with Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Frank O’Hara, but his closest connections, both poetically and personally, were to the Objectivist poets. William Carlos Williams was an important early influence; Shapiro and Williams corresponded, and met at Yaddo in 1949, when both had summer residencies there. In New York, Shapiro became friends with Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, and George Oppen. Both Zukofsky and Oppen lived for a time near Shapiro in Brooklyn; Oppen in particular served as a crucial mentor and role model. Shapiro was also close to other poets of what could be called the Objectivist milieu, including David Ignatow, Hugh Seidman, Michael Heller, and Armand Schwerner, often spending summers in the Hamptons near Heller and Schwerner.
When Harvey and I visited Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania in September 2005, we gave a reading together and the next day presented a discussion of the Objectivists, moderated by Bob Perelman. Thinking back to that visit (our presentations are recorded and available on PennSound), I’ve chosen two poems from A Momentary Glory that reflect Harvey’s relation to the Objectivist tradition. Additionally, here are three poems about World War II, about Brooklyn (where he lived most of his life), and about facing mortality. As Harvey might say, these five poems, all previously unpublished, are a vorspiese — an appetizer. In his last years, he has provided us with one more elegant feast.
For William Carlos Williams
My rhetoric imagines you as your rhetoric says you.
You are in the city, drinking coffee,
a morning break. The poem in your head
is neighborly to all you see. Those who
sit next to you are not foreign to your lines.
Impure identities, they fill your poem with essences.
You do not build tombs for posterity
but open spaces where we can breathe
intelligence and the pain of love.
The bread of life is what we die to taste.
I taste it in your poems.
When the words won’t come right
Charles would do what?
He never told me. High-laced black
shoes. Went out to a poetry conference
in the west for five days and never
shat. So he complained to me on his
return. Late afternoon, and he decided,
since I was leaving, to walk down from
his place in the 70s to Times Square
where he could purchase, at his favorite
kiosk, his copy of the Times Literary Supplement.
Fortunately, I thought, he stumbled when
he first hit the street so I was able
to persuade him to take a bus downtown.
Waved to me from the window.
Told me once that he had no use for
Zukofsky’s work — too obscure.
He was after a Chinese clarity. He said
two things Oppen, Louis, Rakosi and he
had in common: they couldn’t get published
and they admired the Do’s and Dont’s
Ezra Pound was publishing in Poetry.
The day I almost died
was near Vienna when I was
nineteen. And the day
I almost died was over
Regensburg when I was twenty.
And the day I almost died
was in a Southampton hospital
when I was eighty. Maestro, is
this a song that never ends?
This evening, for example,
when the sky cleared, the light
at the end of Atlantic Avenue
over the water —
so that everyone crossing the street
turned for a moment,
touched by something.
I don’t have to spend
my eternity in Queens
because the family plot in Queens
is as crowded as a subway
at rush hour. Instead,
I can choose my own ground
and my own tree
and my own crow to croak Kaddish.