Prose from Poetry Magazine

Improvisations

Making it new—with stickers.

by David Shapiro


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Is that a painting?
—Jackson Pollock


It is so much more than sweet of you to welcome my poor pictures into Poetry. A poet friend saw a few I showed him, and he said three times: “Oh, why are you destroying those pretty pictures?”

Collage is not destructive. Meyer Schapiro reminded us that collage, like the grid, is an old story—gold and precious jewels as different materials within one medieval work. One day he told me that Duchamp’s found objects were a logical sequel to driftwood. Who doesn’t have a taste for urban driftwood?

Could you forgive my typos? I’m in a dark room with my intentional tremors. My paintings are without typos—I hope.

I think I learned the joy of stickers when my son by accident started to decorate our dining room butcher block. It made the heavy wood look rococo. Then I began to stick them everywhere—alarmingly for my son on lawyers’ jackets.

The exercise is: Treat an apple without contempt.

I use postcards because they are a very cheap medium, and I always prefer cardboard to be as interesting as gold, rather than the reverse. Postcards of Rimbaud and Baudelaire can be found as kitsch, and I love all that multiplicity gone up in philosophical smoke. I asked Jasper Johns whether my paintings would last forever and he said, “Probably not but who cares?” The greatest fate for them is to appear framed in my favorite artist’s house. Montale heard that Mayakovsky had read his poems, and thus, he said, they had reached their destination.

Fairfield Porter told me so much. He praised a doodle of mine and put it up in his room. He said, “That’s the shameless way that you should paint.”

I have two friends among painter-critics. Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, upon seeing my work, will look at me charmingly and murmur: “Have you written some poems recently, David?” Or also, more woundingly and precise: “Did you make these all this morning?” My friend Lucio Pozzi, who believes in the mysteries of promiscuous game playing, told me they were some of my best work, and he would introduce them if I needed that. Having these friends has helped me.

Kenneth Koch painted for a while, but when he saw me decked out with a violin he griped: “Congratulations on your dual career.” He always felt that poets should be fixedly devoted, and I agreed. Still, I preferred playing Bach for Frank O’Hara, because he called up a friend and asked him ironically whether he knew which violinist was playing. I played the Nigun by Ernst Bloch for Allen Ginsberg, and he asked if I had made it up just for him. I said, “Well, it is called Improvisation.” Allen asked me if I were a virgin. He also said that I should write about the local pathetic grocery boys.

Larry Rivers once said that Frank didn’t revise much, maybe a word here and there. I said, “Larry that is for us what brushstrokes are for you. It is not little.”

Meyer Schapiro was a radiant pluralist. He told me that the only thing that could transcend relativism was the advantage of purity.

I loved to paint in childhood, but my mother said I was ruining her basement floors.

A violin was placed in my crib; music was my first language. My grandfather, a golden cantor, said he would die singing, and he did. It was called the best death.

My art teacher Mrs. Tso held up a painting I had done in imitation of Mondrian and said, “Poor David! At least he can play the violin.”

I told E.M. Forster in Cambridge that I had given up music. He said, with some alarm, “I fail to see how anyone can give up music.” I never said it again. Nor have I.

Adolph Gottlieb told me to see how big my ideas could be. I thought: Why not how small? De Kooning once praised a tiny photo-booth portrait I had done with eraser fluid. But Richard Upton told me that after a divorce he was lugging gigantic canvases about. His father said to this fabulous draughtsman: “Why so damn large?” And he never painted more than 10'' by 10'' again, that is inches, not feet. They stand together, like little poems of Dickinson, who was so vastly compacted herself.

I learned a lot when one of my young students wrote a poem about a feather but destroyed the feather as he recited his poem: “A feather loves to fall apart and be imperfect, a little bit imperfect, the imperfect is really perfect.” That was Jonathan Rosenstein at muse, a children’s museum where they had instructed me not to waste the enormous feather.

Make it new is a quotation.

We protect paintings during our grisly wars. I think Picasso’s daughter, when quizzed about her father’s prices, said it is very little compared to military airplanes.

A friend thinks that we are addicted to art. Motherwell said he liked the paint in tubes so much he wanted to drink it. I think of those tubes of paint like fresh words in the dictionary. But in small New York apartments I have been banished to the cheapest of media—stickers for a world that rarely suffers passage. When I need something else I have eraser fluid, my favorite medium. And I have learned to melt Jewish candles and drip them on Venus.

Some of us are mad and have that advantage, but a very ordinary vision is also radiant and will suffice. Fairfield Porter didn’t look for terrifying intensity. He looked at the ocean and told me, “David, I would have every sermon end with these words: Pay attention, pay attention to ultimate reality.” John Ashbery asked, “What does ‘ultimate’ mean, Fairfield?” I said, “John has his religion of the outsides of things.” Fairfield then spilled the beans: “That’s it, it’s not behind everything, it is everything.”

My wife and I met discussing de Kooning in 1967. He, like Meyer Schapiro, was my god, and I was monotheistic. Meyer saved de Kooning, as the artist told me, from a great depression about perfection in art. Practicing poetry, call it. I tried to write forty-eight hours a day from 1956 until my son was born. Then he could practice with me. We loved to speak Latin in the street, and hexameters we sang.

Poetry for me is a liberty, and though I love rules, it should not stop a bed from being made and used.

I was lucky today to hear a bitter friend say loudly that poetry is not work as proved by its lack of compensation. However, thinking later, I could see no greater role for poetry, music, architecture, dancing than its utter Kantian uselessness. Auden deposes it but gives his life up to it, and I mean his life.

An analyst said I’m not demented because I still know The Waste Land by heart. My mother said to memorize many poems: “It will be good for you in prison.”

“The audience gives you something,” said Keith Haring one day. I had said another audience was perhaps God, the most intelligent person, the you of love, the you that Borges finds so strange in Whitman. The audience may well be those who broke into Libyan palaces and discovered a festal collection. The audience for me has been my friends, who accept gifts of these silly things.

I love the moments when poets at last try to explain their work—and fail, of course.

And ending like an idiot on Oscar night, I thank you deeply, and know it’s an honor. I’ve even made three films, one got into the Lincoln Center Film Festival really by Rudy Burckhardt and my son and me. One day you’ll see! I want to thank the following my mother her mother my Uncle John a great pianist and my grandfather a great singer and my father whose true favorite was Finnegans Wake and Shakespeare...I’m sure my father’s poor sculptures every day made me crazed with envy. I thank Chicago and most of all Seurat in Chicago. I want to thank color and line themselves. But now I must be gone. Yours again—David or Davoid

Originally Published: November 1, 2011

COMMENTS (2)

On November 7, 2011 at 8:55pm Laura Carter wrote:
So wonderful. Thank you. Music was my first language, too.

On January 16, 2012 at 10:44am Lauren wrote:
Funny -- would anyone say you were ruining a poem by writing on it?

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2011

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 David  Shapiro

Biography

Poet David Shapiro grew up in Deal, New Jersey, in an artistic family. His grandfather was a cantor and composer, his father was a physician who had studied sculpture, and his mother was a musician. Trained as a classical violinist, he was considered a prodigy and appeared on the Voice of America program at age five. As a teenager, he played with a number of orchestras. Shapiro also came to poetry early, publishing his first . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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