Karl Jay Shapiro was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended the University of Virginia, The Johns Hopkins University, and Enoch Pratt Library School. In World War II he served in the U.S. Army for three years in the South Pacific. During this absence from the United States his fiancé, Evelyn Katz, saw two of his books through the presses, including V-Letter, and Other Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1945. In 1946 and 1947 he served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress; for the next three years he taught as a professor of writing at Johns Hopkins. From 1950 until 1956 he edited Poetry magazine in Chicago; he then went to the University of Nebraska and edited Prairie Schooner until 1968, when he joined the English faculty of the University of California at Davis.
Shapiro’s early poetry established him firmly among the best poets of his generation. Person, Place, and Thing contains such familiar poems as “Haircut” and “Auto Wreck”; “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” and “The Leg” appeared in V-Letter, and Other Poems. Poems in these volumes are characterized by an immediacy of experience and an indebtedness to traditionalist poetry. Having written some of the best war poems of the decade, Shapiro found himself out of the army and in the midst of the literary “establishment”; despite the success of his earlier work, Shapiro seemed to doubt the significance of the “established” tradition. Consequently, in his essays, he attacked the lack of newness in the poetry of his contemporaries and embraced the “open” prosodies of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Convinced that emotion or feeling should take precedence over traditional form, Shapiro began to explore the broader applications of the Whitman tradition.
Some of these explorations, such as In Defense of Ignorance and The Bourgeois Poet, constitute extreme reactions against the intellectual tradition fostered by T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden; others, like Poems of a Jew, are attempts to establish a positive state of sociopolitical consciousness from which to speak.
Later, as in The White-Haired Lover and The Old Horsefly, Shapiro’s poetry became more personal and reflective. Most significant to Shapiro’s later work, however, is neither poetry nor criticism. The Younger Son and Reports of My Death are candid, third-person autobiographies that examine the poet’s involvement in World War II, his years as editor of Poetry, and controversies involving Ezra Pound and the editing of Prairie Schooner. While his most memorable poems are perhaps the war poems of V-Letter, and Other Poems, the prose poetry of The Bourgeois Poet and the exacting essays of The Poetry Wreck account also for the greatness and diversity of Shapiro’s work.