Karl Shapiro, 86, Baltimore-born prize-winning poet

May 16, 2000|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Karl Shapiro, the Baltimore-born Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who burst on the literary scene during World War II, died of cardiac arrest Sunday at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Manhattan. He was 86.

Named Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress in 1947, he won a number of top poetry awards as a young man, including the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for "V Letter and Other Poems," which had been published the year before, while he was an Army medic in New Guinea.

His early themes were drawn from the technological world, racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, industrial blight, bigotry and the impersonality of death by machine. He called himself a foe of the "dehumanized technocracies."

As a young man, he spent hours at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library and trained to become a librarian there. He was drafted during World War II, two months before his graduation from the Pratt training class.

"I remember him as a handsome young man with dark brown hair," said Richard H. Hart, retired head of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's literature department. "He was rather quiet and withdrawn. I had to assure him of the quality of his first work."

Mr. Shapiro remained a friend of the Pratt library throughout his life. In a 1992 profile in The Sun, he recalled, "It was a beautiful place. You could sit down in armchairs and smoke while you read."

He was born in Baltimore and raised on Brooks Lane in Reservoir Hill. He was a graduate of Baltimore City College and attended the University of Virginia and the Johns Hopkins University in the 1930s.

"Baltimore was very important to Karl. It figures in many of his poems, especially those dealing with racial conflict," said Stanley Kunitz, a colleague and fellow New York poet.

The work that brought him the Pulitzer Prize, "V Letter," referred to letters written by American soldiers and microfilmed by censors before they reached home. Despite the praise it received, Mr. Shapiro said he felt more honored when he found out that it had been placed in all U.S. Navy ship libraries.

One of his early poems, "University," referred to his experiences at the University of Virginia in 1932:

"To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew

"Is the curriculum."

The school later awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Mr. Kunitz said his friend had a "famously brilliant literary debut, which generated more enthusiasm and acclaim than most poets experience in a lifetime. It belongs to the annals of American poetry."

His poetry appeared in The New Yorker, Nation, New Republic, Harper's and in Poetry magazine, which he edited from 1950 to 1956. He also taught at a number of universities, including Hopkins, Nebraska and California, Davis, where he was a professor of English from 1968 to 1985.

In 1988, he wrote the first volume of his autobiography, "The Younger Son." Critics noted that he divulged little about his relationship with his parents but was more expansive about treating wounded soldiers. The second volume, "Reports of My Death," appeared several years later.

"Poets owe Karl Shapiro first for creating a sound and music in language that no other poet has surpassed," said critic Leo Connelan in Small Press Review.

In 1945, he married Evalyn Katz. They divorced in 1967. He then married Teri Kovach, who died in 1982. In 1985, he married Sophie Wilkens, who survives him and lives in New York.

A memorial service is pending in New York.

He also is survived by a son, John Jacob Shapiro of Alexandria, Va.; a daughter, Katharine Shapiro of Montpelier, Vt., a sister, Margery Shapiro Zierler of Towson; a brother, Irvin Shapiro of Chevy Chase; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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