Friday, May 24, 2013

War Stories

Harvey Shapiro (1924–2013)
From Poets of World War II

Harvey Shapiro standing next to his plane in April 1945. Courtesy of the author.

Earlier this year, on January 7, poet and newspaperman Harvey Shapiro died at the age of 88. For forty years, until he retired in 1995, he worked for The New York Times, and he was editor of the Book Review section from 1975 to 1983.

During World War II, Shapiro flew thirty-five missions over central Europe as a B-17 radio gunner based in Italy, and he edited Poets of World War II for the American Poets Project series (published by The Library of America). The anthology was both a critical and commercial success, and there are nearly 18,000 copies in print. In the introduction, he explained the collection’s underlying purpose:
. . . to demonstrate that the American poets of this war produced a body of work that has not yet been recognized for its clean and powerful eloquence. Comparisons can be odious, but common wisdom has it that the poets of World War I—Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg—left us a monument and the poets of World War II did not. My hope is that readers of this book will come away convinced that is not the case.
In an interview with Maggie Paley for BOMB Magazine, he elucidated his selection criteria for the anthology: “What I really wanted were poems from soldiers who had actually seen combat, men and women who had served in one way or another, and from civilians who had actually experienced something.”

The anthology includes Shapiro’s own poem “War Stories.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of World War II, literary scholar Margot Norris discusses the poem at length, noting that the opening scene portrays how a “loss of innocence precedes war experience.” The reader follows the narrator to Italy and then on bombing runs in the skies of Germany. The poem’s closing lines, “with its evocation of modern media, returns to the beginning with its newspapers, comics, and radio programs. A double reversal has occurred.” After the war, the experiences of combat will be “seemingly restored to the innocence of media representations, the movies and television of civilian life, and the grandiose rhetoric of postwar history books.” Yet the reality is the “antithesis” of these “war stories.”

Note: Westbrook Pegler was a popular American columnist in the 1930s and 1940s, famous for his criticisms of the Roosevelt administration.

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Audio: Click here to listen to an audio recording of Harvey Shapiro reading “War Stories” in 2005.
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© 2008 Norman Finkelstein and Harvey Shapiro; courtesy of PennSound

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My father read the World Telegram & Sun.
Sometimes he agreed with Westbrook Pegler. . . .
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