Original poem reprinted online here: "University" by Karl Shapiro
Originally read: September 22, 2013
More information about the Poet: Karl Shapiro
Each stanza has three adjusted parts. The first three lines four lines in the poem are left adjusted, then the next three lines are adjusted as though indented, and then the last line which is a couple spaces off from the previous three.
But this is the structure, what the poem does is attack structure "University" without holding back, especially the first line, "To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew / Is the curriculum." This is the academic side which butts up against incoming interpretations, "In mid - September / The entering boys, identified by hats / wander in a maze of mannered brick." And what's the first thing of notice? The curriculum? The freshmen?
Where boxwood and magnolia brood
And columns with imperious stance
Like rows of ante-bellum girls
Eye them, outlanders.
Social anxiety. Yes, the freshmen could be a comparative metaphor for the curriculum: new, interpreted, and somewhat eyed at -- they are both "outlanders" in some way. But don't forget that the norm is related as a "feminine" construct, "ante-bellum girls."
The next stanza is more setting based, "In whited cells, on lawns equipped for peace, / Under the arch, and lofty banister, / Equals shake hands, unequals blankly pass;" So this poem is a dreamland for Post-Colonial theorist. Who has the power in this situation? The "encompassing" campus reflects an inequality -- equals are cordial, unequals (the other) are ignored, right? It's the trap since, "The exemplary weather whispers, 'quiet, quiet'" An uncontrollable outside source dictates (or at least asks) for silence for they to leave.
They? " And visitors on tiptoe leave / for the raw North, the unfinished West" something tells me this "University" is in the South-East with all the talk of "ante-bellum" and "negro" -- those that want more than silence leave while the other, "As the young, detecting an advantage / Practice a face." Think of practicing a front.
So the focus is back on the youth, "When, on their separate hill, the colleges / Like manor houses of an older law" yes, let's pound on the archaic here again, "Gaze down embankments on a land in fee / The deans, dry spinsters over family plate," Two things here. Past me stated to focus on "fee" and it's more of clever word play here, "land in fee" versus "land of the free." Also note that "dry" is used in the verb and the adjective form. The line by itself could reference how "deans" dry out "donors" (spinsters) or (the line extended further) how deans themselves have become spinsters who "Ring out the English name like coin" Prestige, "Humor the snob and lure the lout / Within the precincts of this world / Poise is a club" Poise here is looked at as a construct, and constructs can be personified. Of course not necessarily literal -- but this is more of a set standard.
"But" of course a change, "on the neighboring range, misty and high, / The past is absolute" This is some straight up rhetoric which shows more of a "difference" -- "some luckless race / Dull with inbreeding and conformity / Wears out its heart, and comes barefoot and bad" Now here's the question, how does these lines operate? On one hand this commentary could be about the "visitors" those who leave conforming to the standard of "manifest destiny" or this line could be taken as a very sarcastic authorial intrusion. The speaker does intrude through the rhetoric, granted. But the rhetoric is more of a selling point -- "we are not the 'dull inbreeding with conformity' at our university we change" but don't move.
For charity or jail. The scholar
Sanctions their obsolete disease;
The gentlemen revolts with shame
At his ancestor.
This part is tricky since the rhetoric above is slippery as far as tone and intonation is concerned. Yes, here the plight of the scholar is a bit overblown, but the shaming of the ancestor is a powerful rhetorical piece which can refer to "critiquing" the past for personal gain (as some writers do *cough* this guy *cough) or shaming the past to illuminate failures -- but illumination doesn't necessarily mean enlightenment.
The last stanza plays with intent versus honor. The focus is on the "true noblemen, once a democrat" whose "thought was shapely and whose dream was broad;" At this point, please note the semi-colons used in this poem and how they are more used as a building device until this point, "This school he held his art and epitaph." Great, symbols and signs, how about his "dreams" and "thoughts"
But now it takes from him his name,
Falls open like a dishonest look,
And shows us, rotted and endowed,
Its senile pleasure.
So harsh to donors. But what is here is the exposing of the symbol -- "University" as "rotted and endowed" with "its senile pleasure." Not progression, but stuck in the past.
Anti-intellectualism? Probably the strongest poem, but not the strongest argument which is comprised of superficially changed texts, unwelcome foreigners, bleeding of alumni and donors and then honoring them with not good progress, but lies. The conceit of the statements that they should be universally appropriated, and that depends on the reader on that. (I agree though).