Harvey Shapiro, Poet and Editor

Jan. 27, 1924 - Jan. 7, 2013
Harvey Shapiro - Jan. 27, 1924 - Jan. 7, 2012

    “I count myself a lucky survivor and am pleased, as I hope readers will be, with what I’ve done with my time,” Harvey Shapiro wrote in the author’s note of his final book of poems, “The Sights Along the Harbor,” published in 2006.
    An editor at The New York Times for nearly 40 years and the author of 12 books of poetry, Mr. Shapiro died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 88 and had been in failing health since an operation in November.
    Mr. Shapiro, who split his time between Brooklyn and East Hampton, worked at The Times from 1957 until his retirement in 1995, serving as editor of the Book Review from 1975 to 1983 and as deputy editor of The Times Magazine from 1984 to 1995.
    During his early years as an editor at the magazine in the 1960s, Mr. Shapiro was responsible for an assignment that produced a seminal treatise on the civil rights movement, suggesting that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. write a letter for publication the next time his civil rights activities landed him in jail. In April 1963, Dr. King penned what became known as “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” a piece that Mr. Shapiro was unable to convince his superiors to print, according to his obituary in The Times. It appeared instead in The Christian Century and other publications, but never in The New York Times.
    To his poetry, he brought a spare and observant, blunt and beautiful style, often with wry humor, as in one very short piece, “Chance Meeting,” included in his final book:

Just family trouble, said Lear,
and what’s new with you?

    He wrote about World War II, his Jewish roots, daily life, the East End, and was especially recognized for his poems about New York. In a 2006 review of his final book in The Times Book Review, David Barber, poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly, described Mr. Shapiro as “the reigning laureate of New York’s vox populi.”

“Through the Boroughs”
I hear the music from the street
Every night. Sequestered at my desk,
My luminous hand finding the dark words.
Hard, very hard. 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.

    “He specializes in the bite-size vignette, the laconic anecdote, the epigrammatic squib, the thumbnail sketch, and all manner of quick takes,” Mr. Barber wrote, and had a “knack for making short work of deep thoughts. . . .”
    “The two experiences that shaped me, other than specific things that have happened in my own private life, were the war and being the child of immigrants,” Mr. Shapiro told The Star in 1997.
    Mr. Shapiro was born on Jan. 27, 1924, in Chicago to Jacob Shapiro and the former Dorothy Cohen, Jewish immigrants, and spoke Yiddish before he spoke English. In his freshman year at Yale University, Pearl Harbor was bombed. “My grandfather had gotten him into West Point, which would have gotten him out of combat, but he enlisted because he wanted to go fight the Nazis,” his son Saul Shapiro said Tuesday.
    He served as a gunner in an Army Air Forces B-17, flying 35 missions over Germany and Austria, for which he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.
    “There is a clarifying chill in those extreme situations,” Mr. Shapiro told his longtime companion, Galen Williams, in a 2001 interview in The Brooklyn Rail. “That’s why people like them. They do clear the head, and it was then that I understood that what I wanted to do with my life, whatever else I did, was to write poetry.”
    He returned to Yale after the war, graduating in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in English, then earned a master’s in American literature from Columbia University in 1948. He considered joining the merchant marine as a radio operator, but there were no openings, he told The Star in 1997.
    He taught at Cornell University and Bard College for a time, and while he liked “the process of teaching,” he said that being in a university setting started to make his poetry “too literary.”
    He became an editor at Commentary magazine, “putting articles by sociologists and academics into English.”
    “Editing is good, clean work. It’s satisfying to help to shape and focus an article, or an issue of the magazine,” he said in 1997. “Writing captions, writing headlines — all of those things are very satisfying.”
    From Commentary, where he became the top editor, he moved to The New Yorker. He also worked briefly at The Village Voice, as poetry editor and ad salesman prior to his tenure at The Times.
    Mr. Shapiro’s marriage to Edna Lewis Kaufman Shapiro, with whom he had two sons, ended in divorce. The family began coming to Amagansett in 1966 and bought a house there in 1967. From that point on, Mr. Shapiro spent “all of his summers and a lot of his time in and around East Hampton and Amagansett,” his son Saul said. He was close with many of the poets who called the area home and was “an avid weekend fisherman,” his son Dan Shapiro said.
    By the time he became editor of the Book Review, he was a published poet with several books to his credit and many friends who were writers.
    That, he said in 1997, “was something of a problem. Although I didn’t write reviews of books by poets, some poets tended to hold me responsible for what was written about them.” And then there was the pressure to review books by friends or friends of friends. “It was a hard but interesting job. I tried to read all of the significant books that came out. My days were filled with editing and I read every night.”
    When work was finally through, he followed his muse. “If you are a poet, you have to find the time to write poetry. No matter what you’re doing, you arrange your life in such a way that there is time,” he said in The Brooklyn Rail interview. Among his other books were “National Cold Storage Company” (1988), “How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems” (2001), and “A Day’s Portion” (1994). He edited the anthology “Poets of World War II,” published in 2003.
    Whether the medium was poetry or prose, Mr. Shapiro had a deep love of the written word. “It seems miraculous to me that you can place words on the page and that they stay there for centuries,” he said in 1997, reflecting on the 16th-century poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. “It’s always meant a lot to me that the voice can remain, so clearly, for so long.”

After my death, my desk,
which is now so cluttered,
will be bare wood, simple and shining,
as I wanted it to be in my life,
as I wanted my life to be.

    In addition to Ms. Williams, his companion of 15 years, and his sons, Dan Shapiro of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and Saul Shapiro of Brooklyn and East Hampton, Mr. Shapiro is survived by three grandchildren.
    A private graveside service for Mr. Shapiro was held on Tuesday at Chevra Kadisha Cemetery in Sag Harbor. Rabbi William Siemers of Temple Israel in Riverhead officiated.
    Memorials are being planned at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in the spring and at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor in late spring or early summer.