The Conscientious Objector

By Karl Shapiro 1913–2000 Karl Shapiro
The gates clanged and they walked you into jail
More tense than felons but relieved to find
The hostile world shut out, the flags that dripped
From every mother’s windowpane, obscene
The bloodlust sweating from the public heart,
The dog authority slavering at your throat.
A sense of quiet, of pulling down the blind
Possessed you. Punishment you felt was clean.

The decks, the catwalks, and the narrow light
Composed a ship. This was a mutinous crew
Troubling the captains for plain decencies,
A Mayflower brim with pilgrims headed out
To establish new theocracies to west,
A Noah’s ark coasting the topmost seas
Ten miles above the sodomites and fish.
These inmates loved the only living doves.

Like all men hunted from the world you made
A good community, voyaging the storm
To no safe Plymouth or green Ararat;
Trouble or calm, the men with Bibles prayed,
The gaunt politicals construed our hate.
The opposite of all armies, you were best
Opposing uniformity and yourselves;
Prison and personality were your fate.

You suffered not so physically but knew
Maltreatment, hunger, ennui of the mind.
Well might the soldier kissing the hot beach
Erupting in his face damn all your kind.
Yet you who saved neither yourselves nor us
Are equally with those who shed the blood
The heroes of our cause. Your conscience is
What we come back to in the armistice.

Karl Shapiro, “The Conscientious Objector” from Selected Poems (New York: Library of America, 2003). Copyright © 2003 by Estate of Karl Shapiro. Reprinted with the permission of Wieser & Elwell, Inc.

Source: Selected Poems (2003)

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Poet Karl Shapiro 1913–2000

Subjects War & Conflict, Social Commentaries, Life Choices

Occasions Gratitude & Apologies

Holidays Memorial Day

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 Karl  Shapiro

Biography

Karl Shapiro’s poetry received early recognition, winning a number of major poetry awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, during the 1940s. Strongly influenced by the traditionalist poetry of W. H. Auden, Shapiro’s early work is “striking for its concrete but detached insights,” Alfred Kazin wrote in Contemporaries. “It is witty and exact in the way it catches the poet’s subtle and guarded impressions, and it is a poetry full of . . .

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SUBJECT War & Conflict, Social Commentaries, Life Choices

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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