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Karl Shapiro

Auto Wreck

Even more challenging questions!

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:

"Our throats were tight as tourniquets,
Our feet were bound with splints."
  • Identify a SIMILE and a METAPHOR in these lines. Comment on their apt usage. (6)

[Need help?]

"Like convalescents intimate and gauche,
We speak through sickly smiles and warn
With the stubborn saw of common sense,
The grim joke and the banal resolution."
  • Contrast the poet's use of the word "convalescents" with the overall scene at the auto wreck. (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why would these "convalescents" be both "intimate" and "gauche"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why has the poet chosen the word "saw" in the line "with the stubborn saw of common sense"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • There is a grim truth behind the poet's words "the grim joke". What is it? (2)

[Need help?]

"Already old, the question, Who shall die?
Becomes unspoken, Who is innocent?"
  • Explain fully the meaning of this "question". (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why should the auto wreck raise this question, whereas other forms of death do not? (2)

[Need help?]

"But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of dénouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones."
  • What is an "occult mind"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why should the auto wreck "cancel our physics with a sneer"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is the meaning of "dénouement"? Why is this word particularly useful as a conclusion for this poem? (4)

[Need help?]

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