Poetic Lives I: Harvey Shapiro, in conversation with Galen Williams
Harvey Shapiro has published 11 books of poetry. His most recent is How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems (Wesleyan University Press, June 2001). He is now working on a new manuscript. Since the 1950s, he has worked at the New York Times, both as editor of the Book Review and as an editor of the Times Magazine, where he is still currently a consulting editor.
Galen: We’re going to begin this interview for the Brooklyn Rail. It’s the first of May, May Day, and I’m sitting in a nice sunny kitchen with Harvey Shapiro in Brooklyn Heights. Harvey, how did you get to Brooklyn in the first place?
Harvey: Well, I came to Brooklyn through happenstance. Of course, it was 43 years ago, and I can say that I’ve lived most of my adult life in one corner of that borough. I came from the West Village, from Patchin Place. This would have been in the early '50s. You know how poetry has a local habitation and a name, and I guess for me, that’s been Brooklyn. I came over from the West Village, because in those days the West Village to Brooklyn was a migration route for expanding families- young couples expecting children- they either went out to the suburbs or they moved over to Brooklyn Heights. In fact, when I landed in Brooklyn Heights, the only people I knew were ex-Villagers. Before that going to Brooklyn for me posed the same question it still does for most Manhattanites: How do you get there? You have to cross the water, and that seemed kind of odd. But every New Year’s Day I used to go to visit friends of mine, Dan Bell, the sociologist and his wife then, Elaine. They had a great annual party. They had a terrific apartment with a view of the harbor and I always enjoyed going there. When we had to get out of Patchin Place because my wife was expecting our first son, we looked at ads and I saw one for this very apartment. Dan and Elaine were now split and leading separate lives in different parts of the country so we took their apartment and there I was.
It was difficult leaving the Village because the Village was in those days for us, like Paris. That is, everybody I knew was doing something interesting in the arts. We lived a very kind of neighborly life. We never went above 14th Street, and the idea was to get a job that didn’t take you across 14th Street. In Patchin Place I lived across from E.E. Cummings and Djuna Barnes lived directly below me. In fact, she used to come up and complain about the noise sometimes. She had a big broom or a cane- I think she in fact walked with a cane- and she would rap on the ceiling if we were making too much noise.
Galen: Tell us about Cummings and some of the other leading local poets of the day.
Harvey: Cummings was one of the first poets to read at the universities. He was very popular at the women’s colleges, at Smith and Vassar, and on spring nights in Patchin Place, girls from Smith and Vassar would come into the alleyway and they would chant up to his window: “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death,” referring to that marvelous Buffalo Bill poem of his, hoping to lure him out, which they never could.
I knew lots of poets. I used to go to parties at May Swenson’s. Jean Garrigue was a friend and was the major poet in the Village for me in those days. Ruth Herschberger was there, as were Jane Mayhall and Leslie Katz. It was hard to leave the Village for Brooklyn. But in fact Brooklyn had poetry associations for me from the start and accreted more as I lived there. This is the area where Walt Whitman lived and where he went to work, just a couple of blocks from me at the Brooklyn Eagle down by the Bridge. When I first came to Brooklyn, I lived at 28 Willow Street and when I went to work, I would walk up Middagh Street to take the Eigth Avenue subway. I’d pass this little Spanish eatery- I think it was on the corner of Henry and Middagh- that had a plaque on it which said- “This is where Walt Whitman printed his first edition of Leaves of Grass.” There were two palms or hands facing up- like pushing the spirits- and underneath was written “Passage to India,” one of Whitman’s poems. So it was Whitman country.
It was also Hart Crane country and Hart Crane was very important to me. I had done my Master’s thesis at Columbia on Crane’s White Buildings, the book that preceded his lone epic of “The Bridge”. He lived on Columbia Heights, so I knew I was walking in his steps and the steps of Whitman. The house next door to me was owned by Louis Zukofsky, and then a couple of blocks across Atlantic Avenue from me lived George Oppen. I met Louis first, but Oppen became a major influence on my work. He was a father figure to me. There wasn’t all that much difference in age- certainly there was a great deal in terms of where we were in our craft- but there was enough difference that he became a mentor and a father figure.
Galen: When did you first immerse yourself in the Brooklyn poetry scene?
Harvey: Brooklyn became a place of poetry to me due to both its associations and my friendships with the poets who lived there. The apartment on 28 Willow that I lived in for a number of years was a duplex for $120 a month, and the roof had an unobstructed view of the harbor; so did the dining room. I looked out over the lower bay, the Statue of Liberty. You couldn’t have asked for more. A lot of my poems were written on that roof.
I first ventured out of that little corner of Brooklyn because of Betty Kray and the academy of American Poets. When Betty came in to direct the Academy of American Poets, she had a lot of poets go out and speak in the public schools. She ran a much more democratic institution, I think, than the Academy is today. That is, she embraced a wider variety of poets. Paul Blackburn, Armand Schwerner, me- poets who would not be welcome in the Academy today. Because I lived in Brooklyn, she would send me into schools in the borough. So I saw areas of Brooklyn that I had never been to, and that was useful for me, both in getting my sense of geography and in finding out what was happening in the different areas.
When I first came to Brooklyn Heights, it was very run down. The houses were mostly rooming houses, and it was only later that it became “yupppified” as it now is. In terms of the poetry scene there now, there’s Bob Hershon, Donna Brook, Kimiko Hahn, Dennis Nurske and others. Bob is a poet I’ve loved reading with over the years. He runs the Hanging Loose Press from his house on Wyckoff Street, a terrific poetry press. If you’re looking for an authentic Brooklyn voice, he has it in his poetry. He’s a hard man to read with, though- too much competition.
Galen: Harvey, you mentioned poets that influenced you- George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky- but was there anyone else who influenced you who lived there at the time?
Harvey: Well, if you’re thinking of other members of the Objectivist group, there is Karl Rakosi, but I didn’t meet him until years later when I went to visit Oppen in San Francisco. Oppen is sometimes thought of as a San Francisco poet, but the bulk of the work was written on Henry Street in Brooklyn. In the last part of his life, he moved out to San Fransisco. I read Charles Reznikoff before I read any of the others because I picked up a review of his work in The New Leader by Milton Hindus. Charles couldn’t get a publisher, so he learned how to print. He put a printing press in the basement of his father’s house and printed his books there. I liked the lines quoted in the review and went to the Gotham Book Mart and found some of his books. I got to know him after I had reviewed By the Waters of Manhattan for the Times Book Review.
I was working at the magazine then, but I was doing reviews both for the daily Times and for the Sunday Book Review. Charles didn’t live in Brooklyn, he lived in Manhattan, but we had one memorable reading on the Brooklyn Promenade.
Kathleen Norris writes about this in her new book The Virgin of Bennington. She worked for Betty Kray at the time and this was a reading set up by the Academy, in a program called Readings in the Park. I read with Charles at Bryant Park, behind the library, and then on the Promenade. He was great. When he came to a reading he wore high shoes, suit, tie, very formal. We stood on the Promenade and he started our reading. People began to collect. People just strolling up and down came together, to listen to him. They had never heard poetry like this, that simple description of their own lives and the streets they walked every day of their lives put into verse.
Galen: You mention the three poets or four with Rakosi who had been members of the group called The Objectivists. What is it about their work that drew you to it and would you consider yourself in some form an Objectivist?
Harvey: Well, I consider myself in some form, that is very loosely, an Objectivist. After all, I had been writing before I met George and Charles. If I had to say what I share with them, it is a belief in the healing power that resides in the eye’s ability to see the world and the belief in that world.
I think it is best expressed in Oppen’s poem “Psalm”. It’s the belief that words don’t point to words but that words point to real things in the world. It’s the opposite of the Language Poets.
What I also admire about Objectivist poets was that the world wasn’t turned into material for their rhetoric. They managed to write about the world and to make their poems, but the things they mentioned had their own space and their own sanctity. This set them apart from the other poets who were writing at the time. Reznikoff had a special meaning for me probably because I was very interested in Jewish subject matter. When I began I wrote a kind of academic poetry, looking back on it now. Then, in an attempt to get in touch with my childhood, I got interested in Jewish subject matter. I was a kid who spoke Yiddish before I spoke English. When I went back to mine that childhood material, I began to write poems that came out of my tribe. Of course, Rezi did that sort of thing brilliantly. He was also important for me because I like the protagonist in his poems. The man who is in all his poems is a city man and he’s troubled and moving through the city as if it were a kind of labyrinth, looking for the way. He’s not heroic, he’s not Byronic. He’s used, abused, and having trouble and I identified with that.
Galen: Harvey, you’ve lived in Brooklyn 43 years, here in the Heights. What might you say that Brooklyn has come to mean for you in your poetry? Will it still continue to mean something?
Harvey: I look out at the Harbor and see Ellis Island, and that’s where my parents, both of them, came from Russia to the New World. So, I like being in touch with the very beginning. Partly, in my poetry, I am trying to figure out what I’m doing here. It’s a question we all have. What are we about? Somehow, being in touch with- being able to look out on the harbor and say “that’s where my parents first came here and started a new life”, is a help to me.
Galen: One of your most famous poems included in many anthologies is “The National Cold Storage Company”, which was in Brooklyn. Would you like to talk about that particular poem and how it got written?
Harvey: Sure. That’s a poem about the death of John F. Kennedy. In those days I was working on the magazine section of the Times and it was the time of his assassination. We put out a special issue about the assassination. In those days the lead–time for the magazine was much shorter than it is today because there was no color; it was black and white. So you closed sometimes on Friday afternoon and you saw it on Sunday. I had been working on stories that whole week about JFK and his death. It was a Friday evening and I was walking down the Brooklyn Promenade towards the Bridge. Right under the Bridge- you can’t see the sign now but the building is still there- is the National Cold Storage Company. I had lived across from that building. When I was on 28 Willow Street, I used to sit on the roof and look at that building. It was always in my view and it had a kind of- I don’t know what. Sometimes you see something that has a significance for you and you can’t quite work it out. But I began to write this poem in my head on my walk and came back and just set it down. I don’t think it changed much. It was clear to me that the National Cold Storage Company was the repository of American History. The poem is partly a quarrel with Whitman and there’s an allusion to Crane, to the harp of the bridge, and to their vision of America. It’s a somewhat frightened poem. It’s a poem of foreboding. After JFK’s death came the Vietnam War and all the turbulence of the '60s, and I think I sensed a lot of that when I wrote the poem.
New York Notes
By Harvey Shapiro
Caught on a side street
In heavy traffic, I said
To the cabbie, I should
Have walked. He replied,
I should have been a doctor.
When can I get on the 11:33
I ask the guy in the information booth
At the Atlantic Avenue Station.
When they open the doors, he says.
I am home among my people.
Galen: For a long time you were the editor of the Times Book Review and you also worked on the Times Sunday Magazine for many other years- two very high pressure jobs. How did you manage to find the time to write poetry?
Harvey: If you are a poet, you have to find the time to write poetry. No matter what you’re doing, you arrange your life in such a way that there is time. People who say they don’t have time to write the novel or write the poems are just kidding themselves. If this is what you want to do, this is what you do. But, when I started with the Times, which was a long time ago, I felt lucky to have the job. It was a union job for one thing, the first union job I had. I came over from the New Yorker and that was the first time I had any kind of job security. This was very important to me because I had bounced around from place to place. I was a member of the Guild. If you went through your six month probation and they hired you, it was very hard for them to let you go. That’s not the case today. The Guild was much stronger then. I had a real sense of security. That helped me. That allowed me to write. But sure, my days were filled. I’m not somebody who wrote poetry in the office. It wasn’t that kind of job. I never had that kind of job. There was always a lot of tension. Also, newspapers are 19th century institutions. They’re not smooth. They don’t have a modern veneer. There was a lot of yelling; there was a lot of shouting; there were tyrannical editors you had to deal with. But I managed. I’d come home, have dinner with the family.
I had a house then on Hicks Street, near the corner of Joralemon that I’d bought for about $30,000- that’s what houses went for in those days. I went up to my study about eleven o’clock at night and tried to write every night. I’d bring up some beer and some bourbon because I needed that to get me up enough to write. If there was nothing really in my head, I’d do a lot of automatic writing. I have notebooks filled with that stuff. I started keeping notebooks in 1966. I would do a lot of automatic writing and going back over it, I would sometimes find a line on every other page that I could put together. I’d find a poem; something had been gestating there; something had been working itself out. But I worked every night and that’s how the poems got written.
I remember once when I was teaching at Bard, Wallace Stevens came up- it was his first honorary degree. At a party for him, I went over and asked him how he got his work done. I had published some of his work in a little magazine I helped edit then called Poetry New York. We had exchanged letters. Stevens was vice-president of an insurance company- Hartford Accident Indemnity Company in Hartford. “Well”, he said, “on the weekends my wife stays in her wing of the house and I stay in mine and we don’t meet until Sunday dinner and that’s how the work gets done.” His was a different kind of life.
Galen: Harvey, you mentioned that you had been writing before you got to Brooklyn. When did you start writing poetry?
Harvey: I wrote poetry when I was a kid. I can’t remember what kind of poetry it was, but I do remember I wrote some poems for my high school literary magazine. I don’t know how serious I was. I vaguely thought of myself as a writer. I don’t think I thought of myself as a poet. I remember I was very taken with the radio plays at Arch Obler. They had a big influence on me and my early stuff.
But I realized I wanted to publish poems, maybe even a book of poems, during the war. I was in the Yale class of 1945. Pearl Harbor was my freshman year, and when I left Yale to go into the Army’s Air Force, I was an international relations major. I don’t know what was in my head, what I thought I was going to be. It was a kind of stupid choice. Maybe I thought I was going to be a diplomat, but there were no Jewish diplomats in those days. Anyway, when I came back from the war, I became an English major. I knew then that I wanted to write poetry. I started seriously think about it overseas when I was in combat. There is a clarifying chill in those extreme situations. That’s why people like them. They do clear the head and it was then that I understood that what I wanted to do with my life, whatever else I did, was to write poetry.
Galen: Didn’t you also come across a book by Whitman during the war?
Harvey: The army printed their own editions, which they distributed free or very cheaply. They did a book of Whitman’s. I had read Whitman as an adolescent, but I read him again overseas in Italy in one of those army editions. That helped me decide what I wanted to do.
By Harvey Shapiro
The lights of two bridges
framed in my study window
are more pleasant to me
because more constant to me
than the ornate lit cathedral
across from my hotel in Barcelona.
Let them be my memorial candles
When I’m through with this world.
Galen: I know that your eleventh book of poetry is about to come out from Wesleyan University Press, called How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems. Do you like to give readings from your work?
Harvey: Usually, yes. I like to give readings when I am asked. Readings are most useful to me when I’ve got a manuscript that is coming together. When you give readings, you put poems together to see if this goes with that. I use readings usually to try out my new work. In putting poems together, you begin to see that some work well and some just fall away. They might have been poems that I had thought were pretty good. So reading can be very helpful in getting a book together. And this last book, How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems, was put together partly through a process of giving readings from the manuscript that I was working on. It’s not audience reaction. Sometimes I read a poem aloud that I think is pretty tinny. Audiences might like it because I read well. But it isn’t the audience reaction I respond to: it’s the way I feel when I’m reading a poem that’s important to me.
Galen: When people write about you they often choose one aspect of your many-faceted work. Sometimes they concentrate on your war poems, or your Brooklyn poems. You’re also a poet of the city, they say, a Jewish poet, a writer of love lyrics. How would you like to be known?
Harvey: I hope the many facets merge, come together, make a coherent whole, though that’s not for me to say. It’s not anything you can think about when you’re writing. You write the poems that you can write. The most important of those things you’ve mentioned, I guess, is urban poetry, city poetry. I don’t know if I’d say Brooklyn. After all, a lot of my working life has been spent in Manhattan. What I’ve tried to do in my poetry is portray a quest, a looking-for-the-way, using the city as a trial, as a kind of maze. I guess I have a somewhat religious sense of it- a man tries to find himself and the right way to live.
Poems from How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
GALEN WILLIAMS ran the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in the 1960s.