By Stephen Corey
Featured Image: Angel by Louise Howland King Cox 1895-1910
The place was Harpur College, now Binghamton University; the time was 1967—my sophomore year in school; the Introduction to Poetry course text was Oscar Williams’ New Pocket Anthology of American Verse (1955); the poem that revved me up and that I decided to analyze for our first assignment was . . . well, to the eyes and sensibility of my 2010 self, perfectly dreadful.
What I can also see, however, is that the poem’s awfulness is beautiful in the sense that it was crucial to my initial development as a writer. Karl Shapiro’s “The Minute” is so overwrought, so all-over-the-poetic-gestures map, that for the neophyte language lover in me it served as a lush sampler of so many of the moves at a poet’s disposal. Think of a toyshop or a candy store: what matter that the Rama of the Jungle side pistol is shelved next to the Uncle Wiggly board game, or that the jar of nonpareils is right above the one filled with anise drops? All you have to do is want them all.
Comprising five seven-line stanzas—with lines that are unrhymed but often forcefully end-stopped and always quite musical—the poem wastes no time in showing its incessant and illogical bent toward metaphor and analogy. Here is the first stanza:
The office building treads the marble dark,
The mother-clock with wide and golden dial
Suffers and glows. Now is the hour of birth
Of the tremulous egg. Now is the time of correction.
O midnight, zero of eternity,
Soon on a million bureaus of the city
Will lie the new-born minute.
Whew! Reading this in my pre-dotage, I feel a bit like that gang of Central Park grade school punks in the Will Ferrell Christmas movie Elf, when his title character defends a small buddy from the nasty boys’ snowball attack with a Gatling gun barrage of like spheroid projectiles: here comes the walking building . . . whoa, here comes the clock that’s like a mother—and one in labor, no less . . . whoops, the mother is laying an egg, so maybe she isn’t human . . .
Yes, I’m making fun of the poem—“Chuff, chuff,” as D. H. Lawrence said of Walt Whitman in the process of praising him—but I do so fully aware that both individual and aesthetic perspectives change over time. I loved this poem, somehow, in 1967, because at nearly every turn of a line it does some- thing different, something that back then was new to me in the realms of language usage. I mean, where had I ever heard anyone say “tremulous egg”? Yes, the phrase is sentimental and silly, but it also contains that smart assonance of e and e. I needed assonance in my life, if I was going to get anywhere as a poet—and I also needed the repetition-via-reversal that Shapiro uses going from stanza one to stanza two: “Soon on a million bureaus of the city / Will lie the new-born minute. / The new-born minute on the bureau lies.”
In case you’re wondering, “The Minute” gets worse—much worse—in its remaining four stanzas. In the second, that time unit scratches the glass cover of its clock with “infant kick,” lets loose with a “diamond cry” that cuts the “crystal and expanse / Of timelessness,” and then morphs into the “pretty tick of death”—all in the space of three lines. And then the narrator shows up—yes, he’s got a bureau, too, apparently—after which the “The Minute” is really in trouble:
Titanically in distant sleep, expelling
From my lungs the bitter gas of life.
Whew again, in a more literal sense—but at least the expulsion was from his lungs, and “titanically” proves to be comparative only in the Greek mythology sense and not in the iceberg one. “Titanically” actually ends up being a kind of clue, a foreshadowing—there’s another device I needed to know about—because in stanza three we encounter angels: the “clean angels,” who range around within the “shining works” of the clock—maybe the big one on the office building, maybe the one in the narrator’s bedroom—and end up “studying that tick” (the minute-turned-second) “like a strange dirt.” (This simile strikes me now as the most poetically interesting move—when taken in isolation—of the entire poem.)
Ye gads, where can we be going with all this?
Well, to the devil, of course . . . or, actually, to the devils. Here’s stanza four, which comes just after the moment when those clean-but-not-too-bright angels, not knowing what that “tick” might be, won’t touch it “Nor move it gingerly out of harm’s way”:
An angel is stabbed and is carried aloft howling,
For devils have gathered on a ruby jewel
Like red mites on a berry; others arrive
To tend the points with oil and smooth the heat.
See how their vicious faces, lit with sweat,
Worship the train of wheels; see how they pull
The tape-worm Time from nothing into thing.
I’m inclined toward thinking that Shapiro slipped up here, letting in a couple of plausibly factual images—the ruby jewel of the pre-digital-days clock, and the oil—but there’s also the “fact” that he’s wedded these realities to sweaty mite-like devils plus metaphorical trains and tape worms, so I’ll let him slide.
But wait . . . I wasn’t letting him slide in 1967, I was holding him up in adulation: some firework seemed to be going off in nearly every line of his poem, enshrouding the notion of time’s passing in new masses of glittering and then in new clouds of smoke.
I was nineteen. How much sex in a single day would be too much? How many beers would be too many? How many tropes would tie a poem into hopelessly indiscriminate knots?
Did I mention that Karl Shapiro (1913-2000) was a fairly young man when he composed “The Minute” in the 1940s? Perhaps he was hot from his readings in Francis Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, still a fairly standard schoolroom text in the 1920s and 30s. Maybe he was testing his relatively-free-verse wings while still carrying the generally maudlin/purple burden of High Romantic and Victorian floridity that are omnipresent in the “modern” pages of Palgrave’s anthology.
When I was a kid I loved Red Devils at the movie house and angel food cake at home, and by college I think I’d left the Devils but still went for the angel food—which nowadays tends to set off my gag reflex. Will I ask to be read Karl Shapiro’s “The Minute” when I’m on my deathbed? I hope not, but . . .
Stephen Corey retired in 2019 after thirty-six years of editorial work with The Georgia Review. He is the author of nine poetry collections and, most recently, Startled at the Big Sound: Essays Personal, Literary, and Cultural (Mercer U. Press, 2017), which includes “Just a Goll-durn Minute . . . .” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website, stephencorey.com, is under construction and will go live in early 2021.
Originally published in NOR 7