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Karl Shapiro

Auto Wreck

Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 22 January 2014
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An ambulance rushes to the scene of an accident, and hurriedly gathers up the victims before rushing them away.

The poet then explores the emotions felt by the spectators before finally raising the philosophical question of why those particular people had died -- were they innocent, or were they guilty of something deserving death?


Karl Jay Shapiro was born in Baltimore in November 1913. Although he studied at the University of Virginia (1932-33) and later at Johns Hopkins University (1937-39), he nevertheless never earned a college degree.

He served in the army for the duration of World War II and it was then that his poetry began to be published. He would send poems home to his fiancé, who had them printed.

His first collection -- V-Letter and Other Poems -- was published in 1944. It portrayed the feelings of soldiers who were fighting for their country during the war but whose letters were censored before being delivered to their loved-ones back at home.

As early as 1945 Shapiro won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this work. He was then only 32 years of age.

He was therefore already a noted man of letters by the time he returned from the war, enabling him to become the American Poet Laureate in 1946 and 1947 -- a title which at the time meant "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress".

Despite his lack of the usual academic credentials, Shapiro not only served as editor of two prestigious journals -- Poetry: A Magazine Of Verse and Prairie Schooner -- but he also taught at a number of campuses including Johns Hopkins University, the University of Nebraska and the University of Chicago.

He was a professor at the University of California when he retired in the mid-1980s.

Shapiro was awarded several prizes for poetry, including the Shelley Memorial Prize (1945), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1945-46 and 1962-63), and the Bollingen Prize (1968).

He was also elected to a number of prestigious organizations, such as the National Institute of Arts & Letters, the National Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the Library of Congress's Fellows in American Letters.

Contrary to a statement in a prescribed anthology, Shapiro was NOT "married and divorced" to several "young students". Indeed, he was married only three times.

The first was in 1945 and it was to his editor and agent, Evelyn Katz, with whom he had two children. This marriage lasted 22 years but ended in divorce in 1967.

That very year he married to Teri Kovach but she died in 1982, leaving him free to marry once again. He would, however, wait another three years before doing so, this time to Sophie Wilkens.

She would survive him when he himself died in New York in May 2000. He was then 86 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery."
  • What is ALLITERATION? Why is it used in a poem? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Identify an example of alliteration in the example above and explain the purpose for using this alliteration in this poem. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet describe the red lights atop the ambulance as "one ruby flare" and "pulsing . . . like an artery"? (4)

[Need help?]

"The ambulance at top speed floating down
Past beacons and illuminated clocks
Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,
And brakes speed, entering the crowd."
  • The poet uses the image of some large white bird -- like a huge white goose -- landing at the scene of the accident. What words imply this image? Why would the poet choose the image of a bird? (6)

[Need help?]

  • What are the "beacons and illuminated clocks"? (2)

[Need help?]

"Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted
And stowed into the little hospital."
  • How serious was this accident? Support your answer by providing evidence from throughout the poem. (6)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet call the ambulance "the little hospital"? (2)

[Need help?]

"Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once,
And the ambulance with its terrible cargo
Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,
As the doors, an afterthought, are closed."
  • Why would the poet choose the word "tolls" to describe the ambulance bell ringing? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What do the words "its terrible cargo" tell us about the outcome of this auto wreck? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why are the ambulance doors closed only as "an afterthought"? (4)

[Need help?]

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