A Poetic Life
HARVEY SHAPIRO with Galen Williams
Harvey Shapiro, who passed away in early January just weeks before his 89th birthday, was the partner of my mother, Galen Williams, for 15 years. They had known each other for decades beforehand, as Harv (as I came to call him) moved in the same literary circles for many decades that my mother and my father, the late William Rossa Cole, traveled in. In fact, there’s a photo taken at a literary party in the ’70s where my mother’s profile can be seen in a mirror next to where Harvey is standing. Bill Henderson, the founder of Pushcart Press, gave them the photo a few years ago and wrote on it, “Remembrance of things to come.”
I remember that when I first met him, Harvey struck me as a bit taciturn and gruff. But as I got to know him—and especially the self that he portrayed in his many poems—I came to see him as someone with an honest melancholy, vulnerability and blunt humor. In our many conversations over the years, I think he most enjoyed being able to convey literary anecdotes to a (decreasingly) young buck that seemed to give a damn.
But, most important of all to me, is that he really loved my mother. I will never forget the particularly sharp guffaws he would emit as he listened to her converse in social situations. And as his health problems began to mount over the last decade or so, she cared for him ardently. I could see the gratefulness in his eyes that he wasn’t alone. And I could see that the poet who so often wrote about the big questions of existence and death had found a reason to hang on for as long as he could.
In his honor, the Rail is excerpting an interview that Galen did with Harvey back in 2001.
Galen Williams (Rail): It’s the 1st of May, May Day, and I’m sitting in a nice sunny kitchen with Harvey Shapiro in Brooklyn Heights, an area of Brooklyn he has lived in for the last 50 years. Harvey, how did you get to Brooklyn in the first place?
Harvey Shapiro: I came to Brooklyn through happenstance 43 years ago, and I can say that I’ve lived most of my adult life in one corner of that borough. Poetry has a local habitation and a name, and I guess for me, that’s been Brooklyn. I came over from Patchin Place in the West Village in the early ’50s. In those days the West Village to Brooklyn was a migration route for expanding families; young couples expecting children 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 had 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, the sociologist Dan Bell and his then wife Elaine. They had a great annual party at their apartment on Willow Street. 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 for the very same apartment at 28 Willow Street that Dan and Elaine had lived in. It turns out they 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 in those days the Village, for us, was 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.
Rail: Tell us about Cummings and some of the other leading local poets of the day.
Shapiro: Cummings was one of the first poets to read at the universities. He was very popular at the women’s colleges. On spring nights in Patchin Place, girls from Smith and Vassar would come into the alleyway and 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 the major poet in the Village in those days. Ruth Herschberger was there, as were Jane Mayhall and Leslie Katz. Although it was hard to leave the Village, Brooklyn in fact 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. I would walk up Middagh Street to take the Eighth Avenue subway. I’d pass this little, Spanish eatery 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 The Bridge. He lived in Columbia Heights, so I knew I was walking in his steps and the steps of Whitman. Louis Zukofsky owned the house next door to me, 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, but there was certainly enough difference in terms of where we were in our craft that he became a mentor and a father figure.
Rail: When did you first immerse yourself in the Brooklyn poetry scene?
Shapiro: Brooklyn became a place of poetry to me due to both its associations and my friendships with the poets who lived there. The 28 Willow Street apartment was a duplex for $120 a month, and the roof and dining room had an unobstructed view of the harbor. 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, 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. She embraced a wider variety of poets: Paul Blackburn, Armand Schwerner, me—poets who would not be welcome there now. 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 “yuppified” 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 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.
Rail: You’ve mentioned George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky. Who else influenced you who lived there at the time?
Shapiro: Well, if you’re thinking of other members of the Objectivist group, there was Carl 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 Francisco. 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 section of the Times then, but I was doing reviews both for the daily Times and for the Sunday Book Review. Charles lived in Manhattan, not Brooklyn, but we had one memorable reading on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Kathleen Norris writes about it in her new book The Virgin of Bennington (Riverhead Books). 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.
Rail:What is it about the work of the so-called Objectivist group that drew you in? Would you consider yourself in some form an Objectivist?
Shapiro: Very loosely. 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, Reznikoff 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 of 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.
Rail: 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?
Shapiro:I look out at the harbor and see Ellis Island, and that’s where both my parents 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 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.
Rail: One of your most famous and widely anthologized is “The National Cold Storage Company;” the eponymous company was in Brooklyn. Could you talk about that particular poem and how it got written?
Shapiro:That’s a poem about the death of John F. Kennedy. I was working at the magazine at 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 J.F.K.’s death. It was a Friday evening and I was walking down the Brooklyn Promenade towards the bridge. Right under the bridge was the National Cold Storage Company. You can’t see the sign now although the building is still there. 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 the 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 J.F.K.’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.
National Cold Storage Company
The National Cold Storage Company contains
More things than you can dream of.
Hard by the Brooklyn Bridge it stands
In a litter of freight cars,
Tugs to one side; the other, the traffic
Of the Long Island Expressway.
I myself have dropped into it in seven years
Midnight tossings, plans for escape, the shakes.
Add this to the national total –
Grant’s tomb, the Civil War, Arlington,
The young President dead.
Above the warehouse and beneath the stars
The poets creep on the harp of the Bridge.
They fall into the National Cold Storage Company
One by one. The wind off the river is too cold,
Or the times too rough, or the Bridge
Is not a harp at all. Or maybe
A monstrous birth inside the warehouse
Must be fed by everything—ships, poems,
Stars, all the years of our lives.
Rail: 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?
Shapiro: 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.
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 WILLIAMS is the founder of Poets and Writers.