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Friday, January 11, 2013

Harvey Shapiro, poet and New York Times editor (1924–2013)

Poet and editor Harvey Shapiro died earlier this week, on January 7, at the age of 88. Shapiro had a storied career, publishing a dozen books over the course of six decades. For forty years, until he retired in 1995, he worked for The New York Times; he was editor of the Book Review from 1975 to 1983. A frequent and beloved presence at The Library of America headquarter offices and at events, he edited Poets of World War II for the American Poets Project series; the anthology was both a critical and commercial success, with nearly 18,000 copies in print.

As the obituary in The New York Times recounts, Shapiro played a role in the publication of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous pieces—only to face insurmountable resistance from his own colleagues at the Times:
In the early 1960s, as an editor at The Times Magazine, Mr. Shapiro made what was almost certainly his most inspired assignment. Reading about one of Dr. King’s frequent jailings, he telephoned the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The next time Dr. King was in jail for any significant period, Mr. Shapiro suggested, he should compose a letter for publication.

In April 1963, while jailed in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. King did just that. But according to several published accounts, including Carry Me Home (2001), Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize–winning chronicle of the civil rights movement, Mr. Shapiro was unable to persuade his superiors at the magazine to print it.

“Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which endures as one of the canonical texts of the civil rights movement, was published instead in The Christian Century, The New Leader and elsewhere.
During World War II, Shapiro flew 35 missions over central Europe as a B-17 radio gunner based in Italy. (The photo above, reprinted in Poets of World War II, shows him standing next to his plane.) One of the many poems based on his war experiences, “Battle Report” (originally published in 1966 and included in the WWII volume), describes how the war still haunted his dreams:
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.
There will be a tribute to Harvey Shapiro this Sunday, January 13, on The Next Hour, airing on WBAI (New York) at 11:00 a.m. Janet Coleman, the program’s host, will lead a discussion featuring poets Hugh Seidman and Bill Zavatsky, Library of America editor-in-chief Geoffrey O’Brien, and author Maggie Paley.

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