“Untitled,” Harvey Shapiro

Untitled (from Poetry, December 1964 – found here)
Harvey Shapiro

That one wrote out of a life lived
So I envied him. Naturally,
I could imitate his manner
But the life lived (which, believe me,
I do not want to hear about)
Was his. To others I leave
The memory of themselves.


1. “That one wrote out of a life lived” is ambiguous. It can mean that one’s experiences were noteworthy and established one as a model for others or an explorer who lived more than most people. But that difference isn’t what I’m interested in.

No, one can be written out of one’s own life. This might be death, where one’s reputation or lack thereof outlasts one. But one doesn’t have to die in order to have either a past or an established moment that outstrips one. As noted before, Michael Jordan is living in the shadow of his former, almost-if-not immortal self. Even his present successes aren’t enough for him.

2. Any of the above readings of “one wrote out of a life lived,” emphasizing either prominence, death, or fame outlasting one, can be seen as causing the speaker’s envy. I think we have to assume “envy” leads to the speaker saying he could imitate “naturally,” but does not want to “hear about” or claim possession of the other’s life.

The problem with this poem is reconstructing any kind of problem. Re: the speaker’s situation – so what? Who cares if you felt envious and want to imitate someone but also want to be independent? Who cares if you leave us the memory we’d have anyway? This speaker isn’t very powerful or convincing. In fact, I don’t think he can even convince himself to be envious.

3. To be really envious, he’d have to give up his independence for something else. He’d have to hear everything that wasn’t him, he’d have to take possession of another’s life. Again, so what? But this isn’t just envy being talked about, I don’t think. This is a matter of what the speaker believes. There’s a reason why people’s names change in the Bible when converted.

Our speaker doesn’t believe in some fundamental sense. This leads to an imitation that isn’t an imitation, envy that isn’t envy. He doesn’t want to hear. What stands out is not just envy as only an impetus, but the lack of wanting to possess. There’s something that feels strangely noble about this. It isn’t clear he really has any sort of power or independence. What he realizes is what he has and what he leaves: “To others I leave / The memory of themselves.” This is his independence, what he cannot and will not appropriate.

1 Comment

  1. Although I do not know this poet, I couldn’t resist commenting on another Shapiro’s work :-)

    Is the speaker envious (or jealous) of “that one’s” life, or possibly envious of “that one’s” ability to write about his/her own life? Perhaps “that one’s” life was not extraordinary or even interesting, but it was written about.

    The last statement “To others I leave…” sound a little bitter, and as you point out strangely noble. I like this poem.

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