Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Poetry of Loss

On Thanksgiving Day, I suddenly realized it was also November 22, the anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

Missing from the family table and in the hospital was Harvey Shapiro, whose son is married to my daughter-in-law’s sister, a man of my own age who also fought in World War II and spent his working life as a teacher and editor, most notably for prompting Martin Luther King to write his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Now Harvey Shapiro is being laid to rest amid eulogies that also recognize him as one of the finest poets of his generation.

Half a century ago as elegists around the world were pouring out their shock and grief over Kennedy’s killing, he wrote one of the finest poems of all, “The National Cold Storage Company.

Today it summons up deep feeling about what my generation felt then and what we miss now as our human losses mount:

The National Cold Storage Company contains

More things than you can dream of.

Hard by the Brooklyn Bridge it stands

In a litter of freight cars,

Tugs to one side; the other, the traffic

Of the Long Island Expressway.

I myself have dropped into it in seven years

Midnight tossings, plans for escape, the shakes.

Add this to the national total--

Grant's tomb, the Civil War, Arlington,

The young President dead.

Above the warehouse and beneath the stars

The poets creep on the harp of the Bridge.

But see,

They fall into the National Cold Storage Company

One by one. The wind off the river is too cold,

Or the times too rough, or the Bridge

Is not a harp at all. Or maybe

A monstrous birth inside the warehouse

Must be fed by everything--ships, poems,

Stars, all the years of our lives.

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