Harvey Irwin Shapiro, an accomplished author who suggested that Martin Luther King Jr. pen his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” died Monday in Manhattan from complications caused by a recent surgery.
Throughout a body of work which includes more than a dozen poetic anthologies, Shapiro poignantly conveyed the ways that he was influenced by his urban upbringing in New York and the 35 missions he flew over Germany and Austria as a radio gunner during WWII.
Born to an observant family from Kiev, he also frequently depicted the world through a Jewish lens. In “The Talker,” for example, he retells a midrashic legend to show broader truths about the world.
While all the choiring angels cried:
Creation’s crown is set awry!
God fabled man before he was,
And boasting of his enterprise
Bade angels say the simple names
That mark in place each bird and beast.
But they were dumb, as He Foretold—
When man stepped from the shuddering dust,
And lightly tossed the syllables,
And said his own name, quick as dirt.
Then angels crept into their spheres,
And dirt, and bird, and beast were his.
The poet refers to a pasuk in Bereishit that reads, “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the animals and over the land and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth,” but he also seems to expound on the meaning of the pasuk in the elegiac tone of a philosopher who decries the way that man himself can only be responsible for the destruction of mankind.
Shapiro possessed a religious spirit that forever tried to make sense of the world through words that he hoped would touch others. He also praised the poets who placed an emphasis on sincerity and made sure that his own writing was similarly genuine. As he writes in “Through the Borough,”
And the music
From car radios is so effortless.
And so I strive to join my music
To that music. So that
The air will carry my voice down
The block, across the bridge,
Through the boroughs where people I love
Can hear my voice, saying to them
Through the music that their lives
Are speaking to them now, as mine to me.