The Sights Along the Harbour (New and Collected Poems)
Harvey Shapiro

(Teachers  should encourage students to discuss all the issues raised here. There is lots of time, after all.)

The cover of the book shows a painting of
Brooklyn Bridge. Discuss the expectations you had
Before reading the book of the poet and the poems.
For example, were you disappointed by the lack
Of boats? Discuss how the book looks on your desk.
Does it sit comfortably among other books
Of New York poems? Discuss the poet's cultural background.
Do not be afraid to mention Jews and The Bible.
Discuss the poet's preoccupation, in his early poems,
With earth, water, fire and air. What, if anything, do you understand
By the line 'Voice, the perch of speech, finding dominion'
In the poem 'Summer'? What does the poet mean
When he says that 'Snow falls upon the sin of our involvement'
In the poem 'December'? Discuss the poet's grandmother.
Does he love her? Was she actually 'a witch',
Or did she only act like one, or look like one?
(If students wish to draw a picture of the grandmother at this point
It's okay; it's not like there are any rules.)
Discuss the title of the poet's 1961 collection of poems called
'Mountain, Fire, Thornbush'. What does this title make you
Think of? Do not be afraid to mention Moses and The Bible.
Can you think of a rhyme for Elijah? Discuss the idea
That poets have to write the poems they write because
They have no choice. Discuss how you feel when you read poems
On a Saturday, when you should be sleeping,
Or having your hair re-styled. The poet's 1966 collection,
 'Battle Report', sees a shift to a briefer poem,
A stepping away from the more conventional
Appearances of the earlier work. Do you agree? Do you care?
Discuss how short poems can often seem very long.
What does the poet mean when he says 'The dolphin floats gently to shore
On the winds of his own corruption' in the poem 'These Lives'?
Do you think dolphins are corrupt? The poem 'Battle Report'
Is about the poet's time as a radio gunner in World War II.
Discuss the role of the U.S. Air Force in the European campaign.
What do you think about the lines
'In this slow dream's rehearsal,
Again I am the death-instructed kid,
Gun in its cradle, sun at my back,
Cities below me without sound.
That tensed, corrugated hose
Feeding to my face the air of substance,
I face the mirroring past.' Pay particular attention to the corrugated hose
And 'the air of substance' but be careful and do not disparage
The poet's experience of the horrors of war. However, you can

Mention the horrors of poetry. Discuss how some poems
Make you want to go shopping with the girls. Discuss
The tone of the poems. Do they trudge along in a monotone,
Or do you find them all of a piece, and agree with the critic
Quoted on the back cover of the book that the poet
'has written his great long poem in small increments,
poem by poem, detail by radiant detail.'
Or have you been reading diligently and waiting
For something to make you sit up and take notice of –
Well, anything… Discuss the notion of 'radiant detail'
With particular reference to the poem
'Through The Boroughs' and the lines
'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…..' Discuss how you feel sequestered at your desk
With this poem. Do not be afraid to mention how you are missing
'The O.C.' Discuss the role of the Poetry Editor at
Wesleyan University Press. Do they have a Poetry Editor? If they do,
Does he or she have the best and easiest job in the world or what?
Discuss the notion of 'radiant detail' again, but this time
With particular reference to the poem 'Nightsounds'
And the lines
'You throw one leg
Over the covers.
A gleam of snatch
In the half light.'
Discuss the options that were open to the poet here,
With particular reference to his chosen vocabulary.
What other words could he have used
Instead of the overly-lyrical 'snatch'? You may continue
The discussion long into the night if necessary.
Students may want to work together in pairs at this point.
Discuss the theory that one day in the middle of the 20th century
Some poets decided that they could throw any old crap
Into their poems and it would be okay. Discuss the fact
That the 'any old crap' aesthetic still holds sway
In lots of poetry manufacturing areas, and nobody
Seems to give a damn. Discuss the fact
That it is easy to fall asleep on page 129.
Discuss how some poems seem designed
To have examination questions asked about them
And cause literature students anguish. Are these
Those kind of poem? Or do they, on the other hand,
Have so little in them beyond the direct small personal
That reading them is almost pointless,
And the only thing more pointless
Would be to read them twice (but you never do,
So it doesn't matter.) Discuss all this, now. Do not
Be afraid to sit on the fence and claim the middle ground.
Discuss the poem 'May 14, 1978', all six lines of it,
But pay particular attention to the final line:
'I cannot answer him for joy or dread.'
The poet says in 'From An Autobiography'
That he was conceived on the night of his sister's funeral
As, he suspects, 'a replacement'. Discuss the notion
Of the poet as a replacement for something else.
Do not be afraid to mention car radios,
Corrugated hose, and 'snatch'. Discuss these lines:
'and prayed to the white curve of your back
and cradled it like the ark of the covenant.' Do not be afraid.
In the poem 'How Charlie Shavers Died',
How did Charlie Shavers die? Could he have been saved?
Discuss the habit of name-dropping in poems. You may refer
To other poets if necessary. The poet writes a lot
About his experience of old age. Discuss. Discuss
The place memory has in these poems. Why does the poet
Call memory his 'prince of disaster'?
Discuss 'The Uses of Poetry'. Does this poem teach you
To not be afraid? Do not be afraid to mention
What page the poem is on if  you have nothing
More interesting to say. (Note to teachers: if students fall asleep
Be forgiving. They have their whole lives ahead of them.)

[The Sights Along the Harbour (New & Collected Poems)
by Harvey Shapiro is published by Wesleyan University Press. It has 290 pages, give or take, and costs 30 bucks, give or take, and its ISBN is 0-8195-6795-7.]

                © Martin Stannard 2006