“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain said, “but it does rhyme.” Harvey Shapiro did repeat himself (when he was reading his poetry), and unless I missed something, he did not rhyme.
I met Harvey 30 years ago at a memorial service for a friend of Harvey’s, a poet, who was also my uncle. When I met Harvey again years later at a dinner party in East Hampton, he said that it was the funniest memorial service he ever attended.
In Harvey’s retelling of the story, the first three eulogists blessed my uncle with banalities. Then, according to Harvey, I spoke the truth, which was that my uncle was not a very nice man. (Harvey referred to him as “a son of a bitch,” a man who fit A.J. Liebling’s caustic description: “Show me a poet, and I’ll show you a shit.”) Laughing at his affectionate recollection of the event, his eyes twinkling, Harvey said that everyone who spoke after me also spoke the truth.
This suggests I speak the truth at memorial services, at least according to Harvey. So here’s the truth about Harvey: He was a man with a big heart and a big brain and a wonderful, deep, booming laugh, an excellent conversationalist, a man with many friends and colleagues who respected him, and a fond mentor to many young writers.
Harvey and Galen Williams were frequent guests at dinner parties in our home in Northwest Woods, and he would read his poems on request with great energy and enthusiasm. He read our favorite, “New York Notes,” at the brunch that launched our tree house (described in a “Guestwords” column in The East Hampton Star on April 10, 2008).
During dinner and table talk, his eyes would often appear to glaze over, as if he were dozing or in a trance. But he would insert a brilliant remark on point, frequently to show he was as completely attentive and as observant as ever. He remained this way to the very end.
Harvey always chose his words carefully. So it was a special treat to get a very short note from him after he read an essay I wrote for The Star. Four words only: “Good work. Keep writing.” Whenever I write, I think of Harvey and this example of his passion for brevity. (Being verbose, I heed his advice so often that I am a candidate for membership in that legendary support group for the long-winded . . . On-and-On Anon.)
Harvey loved to laugh; I loved to hear his robust, heartfelt laugh so much that I told him jokes every time we met. On one occasion, he said, “That was the worst joke I ever heard.” In this way, I learned Harvey did not suffer fools gladly. The next time he and Galen visited us for dinner in East Hampton, I practiced and vetted the joke to make sure it was good enough for Harvey.
Here’s one he especially liked. “If a tree falls in the forest and my wife is not there to hear it, is it still my fault?”
This essay is adapted from remarks Stephen Rosen and his wife, Celia Paul, presented at a memorial service for Harvey Shapiro on April 28 in Brooklyn. Mr. Shapiro, who lived in Brooklyn and East Hampton, died on Jan. 7 at the age of 88. Another service and reading will be held at Stony Brook Southampton’s Duke Lecture Hall on Saturday at 6 p.m.