Karl Shapiro was born in Baltimore, Maryland, attending Baltimore City College high school and the University of Virginia, before studying to become a librarian. He had already published one collection of poetry before he was drafted in March 1941, aged 27. Sent for initial training to Fort Lee in Petersburg, Virginia, Shapiro was assigned as a clerk-typist in a hospital unit, giving him plenty of time to write poetry.
One can write because everyone writes in the Army. People who have never put pen to paper spend hours composing letters. I found I was in a Writer’s Colony! [David K. Vaughan: Words to Measure a War: Nine American Poets of World War II, McFarland, 2009, p. 15]
Expecting to be in the peace-time army for only 12 months, Shapiro was shocked to discover after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that he would remain in the army indefinitely. His unit was dispatched to Australia and then to New Guinea: during his three years in the South Pacific he published three books of poetry published to critical acclaim in the United States: Person, Place and Thing (1942), V-Letter and Other Poems (1944) – awarded the Pultizer Prize for Poetry in 1945 – and Essay on Rime (1945) and was included in Five Young American Poets in 1941. ‘As a result, he attained great visibility during the war, becoming widely recognized as the poetic “voice” of fighting Americans.’ [David K. Vaughan: Words to Measure a War: Nine American Poets of World War II, McFarland, 2009, p. 27]
Shapiro returned to the United States early in 1945 and married his girlfriend – Evalyn Katz, who had been responsible for getting much of his poetry published during his absence – in March 1945. He was out of the army when the war in Germany ended. He served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1946 to 1947 and then became editor of Poetry magazine.
David K. Vaughan says ‘Only V-Letter, of the books published during the war, contained poems written while he was serving in, or on his way to, the South Pacific area. The poems in this volume demonstrate Shapiro’s “outsider” attitude towards his subjects: clever, perceptive, detached, and more about the landscape through which the soldiers travel than the events that have brought them so far from home.’
Karl Shapiro’s Poems
Resources for Karl Shapiro
Kal Shapiro, Poet Volume 1: The Younger Son (Algonquin Books, 1988)