Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Alan Shapiro's Heroic Impotence

Alan Shapiro has been Robert Pinsky’s choice  a number of times for the Slate's Tuesday poem installment, and he is writer who is inconsistent in his execution. He is , as a poet, by turns clever, subtle, able to bridge vague quandaries with concrete emotion . At other times he will become parochial, stale, a self- aware mess who too often mistakes an examination of his own powerlessness as a fit subject , of itself, for a poem. This is the case with prolific poets; there’s so much dedication to producing the work that one hasn’t the time, nor the inclination, to give the newer material the disinterested editor’s scan and detect where one’s worst tendencies surface.“Triumph” is one of the lesser poems Shapiro has had published here, an attempt to write a poem about a homeless person the narrator, the poet most likely, he sees daily. There are telling details Shapiro picks out and presents with a journalistic precision, especially in the clean way in which he describes the homeless man’s bedding ritual:

I
saw him as I drove by—
I don't have to tell you what he looked like—
Spreading a plastic sheet out
As for a picnic
Except he wasn't picnicking;
He was lying down to sleep
In the middle of the sidewalk
In the middle of the day
On a busy street,
The spoils of him lying there
For everyone to gawk at
Or step around.


There’s nothing here that would open the


I would suppose that Shapiro intended this little tour of his psyche’s interior decoration to operate as a criticism of how literary types allow their infatuation with metaphors, tropes, generic conventions and relativizing their reactions to real events, but what his results are less effective as commentary on alienation than it is a specimen of narcissistic self-regard.

Yes, even measures of negative self-estimation are narcissistic and are evidence of larger vanity since they remain instances in which the author becomes the subject of what’s been written. The homeless man is made less real, and is no more than the misery idex’s equivalent of a nice sunset inspiring a poet to rhapsodize about their frolic under clear skies on a warm day. The poet here ignores an obligation to frame the world he witnesses and to offer an image that would help us think differently about circumstances separate from our set attitudes. This is a formula confession from Shapiro, a poet who should know better ; the easy slide into self-dramatization is galling. It’s offensive.
But whatever I did or didn't do
I did it to forget that
Either way
He was the one asleep on the sidewalk,
I was the one borne along in the car
That may as well have been a chariot
Of empathy, a chariot
The crowd cheers
Even as it weeps
For the captured elephant too wide
To squeeze through
The triumphal arch
And draw home


earth and the skies of our awareness of the hard facts of this man’s life, but there is a hint given to a witness’s arsenal of associations that try to comfort the leery from too much bad news. Shapiro’s narrator thinks of picnics at first instead of realizing that the destitute man was carving a space out for himself for a night against the elements, both weather and human. The problem with the poem comes when Shapiro, the poet, tries to figure out what to do with the scene he has just established; it wouldn’t be enough to allow these circumstances speak plainly and loudly for themselves, sans a lecture or the slippery rationalization of why one does nothing. Shapiro reveals his real intention of the poem, which wasn’t to establish empathy with a fellow human’s struggle but rather to examine his own apathy and his desire to remain in his head, piling metaphor upon upon metaphor as he processes the unruly sights he repeatedly sees and repeatedly drives away from;

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