I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers

By Karl Shapiro 1913–2000 Karl Shapiro
I am an atheist who says his prayers.

I am an anarchist, and a full professor at that. I take the loyalty oath.

I am a deviate. I fondle and contribute, backscuttle and brown, father of three.

I stand high in the community. My name is in Who’s Who. People argue about my modesty.

I drink my share and yours and never have enough. I free-load officially and unofficially.

A physical coward, I take on all intellectuals, established poets, popes, rabbis, chiefs of staff.

I am a mystic. I will take an oath that I have seen the Virgin. Under the dry pandanus, to the scratching of kangaroo rats, I achieve psychic onanism. My tree of nerves electrocutes itself.

I uphold the image of America and force my luck. I write my own ticket to oblivion.

I am of the race wrecked by success. The audience brings me news of my death. I write out of boredom, despise solemnity. The wrong reason is good enough for me.

I am of the race of the prematurely desperate. In poverty of comfort I lay gunpowder plots. I lapse my insurance.

I am the Babbitt metal of the future. I never read more than half of a book. But that half I read forever.

I love the palimpsest, statues without heads, fertility dolls of the continent of Mu. I dream prehistory, the invention of dye. The palms of the dancers’ hands are vermillion. Their heads oscillate like the cobra. High-caste woman smelling of earth and silk, you can dry my feet with your hair.

I take my place beside the Philistine and unfold my napkin. This afternoon I defend the Marines. I goggle at long cars.

Without compassion I attack the insane. Give them the horsewhip!

The homosexual lectures me brilliantly in the beer booth. I can feel my muscles soften. He smiles at my terror.

Pitchpots flicker in the lemon groves. I gaze down on the plains of Hollywood. My fine tan and my arrogance, my gray hair and my sneakers, O Israel!

Wherever I am I become. The power of entry is with me. In the doctor’s office a patient, calm and humiliated. In the foreign movies a native, shabby enough. In the art gallery a person of authority (there’s a secret way of approaching a picture. Others move off). The high official insults me to my face. I say nothing and accept the job. He offers me whiskey.

How beautifully I fake! I convince myself with men’s room jokes and epigrams. I paint myself into a corner and escape on pulleys of the unknown. Whatever I think at the moment is true. Turn me around in my tracks; I will take your side.

For the rest, I improvise and am not spiteful and water the plants on the cocktail table.

Karl Shapiro, “I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers” 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 Social Commentaries, Religion

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 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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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, Religion

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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