Harvey Shapiro (1924-2013) was an admired poet and editor of both the New York Times Book Review and the New York Times Magazine. As an editor with the Times, he is credited with having suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King write his landmark document “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” As a poet, Shapiro authored twelve books, including The Eye (1953), This World (1971), and The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Selected Poems (2006).
Shapiro’s first language was Yiddish. He grew up in New York in an observant Jewish family and served as a gunner in the Fifteenth Air Force during World War II, where he flew missions over Austria and Germany. As a young poet, Shapiro was mentored by the Objectivists Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, and George Oppen, who inspired in him the belief, as he says on this recording, made in January 2010, that a poem was not “an arbitrary slice of an ongoing chat or a flowing text but that it was a made thing, it was an object.”
Shapiro begins with a reading and analysis of Richard Wilbur’s World War II-inspired poem “Terza Rima.” As part of a discussion of the war’s impact on poets of his generation, Shapiro reads his poems “Italy, 1996” and “Italy, 1944” and quotes Wallace Stevens’s observation: “in the face of an overwhelming actuality, consciousness takes the place of the imagination.” He continues the reading with a number of poems collected in Sights Along the Harbor, including “The Boast,” “Desk,” “Cathedral,” “Bus Ride,” “Five Days in Paris,” “In the Louvre,” “Paris,” “The Tapestries at Cluny,” “Tourist,” and “Nights.” The reading concludes with Shapiro’s translation from the Yiddish of poet Joseph Rolnik, “Riverside Drive,” followed by “Ditty,” “Riding Westward,” “The Ticket,” “New York Notes,” and “The Old Man Has One Thought and Then Another.”
From KWLS 2010: Clearing the Sill of the World.