“Homage to the Word”: On Robert B. Shaw’s “What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems”

By Timothy SteeleJune 25, 2022

“Homage to the Word”: On Robert B. Shaw’s “What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems”

What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems by Robert B. Shaw

ROBERT B. SHAW’S impressive What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems offers work from his seven earlier books of verse, as well as a group of recent, previously uncollected poems. In a brief foreword, he tells us he wrote the earliest poem in this volume in 1966 and the latest in 2021. He adds, “I have reached a point suitable for some self-assessment and the winnowing that goes with it” — a statement that suggests the principle of selection that has determined the book’s contents. Rather than representing each stage of his development equally, he has sifted the chaff from the grain and has included his best poems, regardless of when they first appeared. Specifically, he has dropped a good deal of his early work, and has retained most of his later, more assured compositions. He reprints, for instance, only 10 of the 47 pieces from his first collection, Comforting the Wilderness, whereas he incorporates 42 of the 50 from the most recent one, A Late Spring, and After. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have not only been reading Shaw from almost the beginning of his career but have also known him personally since the early 1990s.)

Shaw writes in a wide range of verse forms and genres, but we can distinguish several fundamental characteristics of his style. For one thing, he practices meter and storytelling with unaffected dexterity. This skill animates his short lyrics especially. A good example is “Morning Exercise,” in which the poet’s son watches him shave. The poem features quatrains of cross-rhyming iambic trimeters, with feminine rhymes in the odd-numbered lines. The short measure imposes grammatical compression on the language, but Shaw nicely varies the lengths of the sentences that he lays into the stanzas and flexibly modulates the rhythms of the individual lines. Effective, too, are the occasional metrical variants, such as the inverted or trochaic foot that begins the final line and gives an emphatic movement to the statement that ends the poem and sends its subjects out into the larger world.

My son assists me shaving.
On a laundry hamper lid
he sits, big-eyed, behaving,
watching the busy skid

of blade leveling stubble
his chin has yet to sprout.
An urge to be my double
is what it’s all about,

and so I lend him lather
(there’s plenty for us both)
to play at being father
while I cut back on growth.

I notice, bending nearer,
the decades’ detriments,
then try the kindlier mirror
his upturned face presents.

Admiring how intently
he pares his suds away,
I view my flesh more gently.
Now for another day.

“Morning Exercise” illustrates another quality of Shaw’s poems. It gives us an immediate purchase on meaning — we can enjoy and understand it in a single reading — but it rewards closer attention as well. If we wish, we can take a deeper interpretative dive into it and note, for example, the deftness with which the poet develops the concept of doubling. His poem involves reflection in the sense of mirroring and in the sense of thinking about a situation. He is mirrored literally in the glass and figuratively in his son. He cuts back on growth both in shaving and in recognizing, as his son mimics him, the boy he once was. For that matter, as we continue reading What Remains to Be Said — “Morning Exercise” appears about a quarter of the way in — we may remark that Shaw is fascinated with correspondences and that several of his later poems, including “In the Rear-View Mirror,” “River and Road,” and “Through a Glass, Darkly,” likewise deal with mirrors and reflections.

Thanks to Shaw’s observant eye and extensive, accurate working vocabulary, his poetry also features fresh descriptive details. These appear to particularly good advantage in his narrative or meditative poems in blank verse. (Shaw has written an excellent historical and practical guide to blank verse, and he has well employed the medium throughout his writing life. This current book’s approximately 7,500 lines are pretty evenly divided between those that rhyme and those that don’t.) Here, for instance, is Shaw’s account of a trio of wild turkeys:

Out of the woods and into the side yard
they come in a slow march, a band of three,
dowdy, diaconal in somber plumes
that so englobe their awkward, ambling bodies
it is hard to believe their pipestem legs
truly support them as they promenade.
Their raw red necks and bare heads — slaty blue —
go with the legs, austere, deliberate, wiry,
seconding every step with a prim nod,
while now and then pausing to stoop and nip
whatever seeds or beetles their bead-eyes
have got a bead on. When they reach the foot
of the hill they advance gamely, helping themselves
with little hops and only a faint stirring
of wings, going up with uncanny lightness,
almost as though inflated […]

“Englobe[d]” perfectly renders the turkeys’ spherical bodies. “Deliberate,” “prim,” “stoop and nip,” “little hops,” and “uncanny lightness” capture their herky-jerky gait and feathery buoyancy. Equally spot-on is the one unusual word in the passage — “diaconal.” In their finicky procession, the turkeys are “deacon-like.”

Another property of Shaw’s poems is wit. They’re intelligent and, at times, abstrusely original — “metaphysical,” in the sense in which Samuel Johnson applied the term to John Donne and his school. In addition to his book on blank verse, Shaw has written a study of Donne and George Herbert, and, like them, he has a penchant for striking analogies, allusions, paradoxes, and comparisons. For instance, his “March 20” features a conceit — an extended metaphor — in which he treats winter and spring in equinoctial New England as a pair of sumo wrestlers “straining to shove each other out.” At first blush, this trope may seem as peculiar as Donne’s comparison of himself and his beloved, in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” to the two legs of a compass. But Shaw’s unusual figure captures his subject as ingeniously as Donne’s captures his. Meteorologically, New England in March is a mighty conflict: balmy days collide with arctic spells, and they jolt each other every which way.

Shaw’s wit appears additionally in the frequent puns and plays-on-words in his work. An example occurs in the poem about the turkeys, when he tells us that “their bead-eyes / have got a bead on” things in the grass. In another poem, a digital clock says, “Look, no hands.” In yet another, a pair of crows, who have been arguing over territory, compose their differences and flap away, a situation Shaw summarizes with the comment: “Flyting gives way to flight.” And when, in the very funny “Old Man of the Mountain,” he speaks of the collapse, in 2003, of the famous profile-like projection on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire, he describes the event by literalizing an idiom indicating sudden disappointment: “his face fell.”

Yet with all their witty, figurative elements, Shaw’s poems are grounded in colloquial speech, and, as “Morning Exercise” demonstrates, he can be effectively plainspoken when the occasion calls for it. Another case in point is “The Sun Room Plants,” a moving sonnet that is part of a series of 13 elegies Shaw wrote for his wife of 43 years, who died of cancer in 2014:

I water them, and watch as their green lives
give up the ghost for all that I can do.
Without her care it seems that nothing thrives.
They grope for light they lost when she withdrew.

Each root and leaf and intervening stem
weakens without her gift for nurturing.
Could I repot them? — But to look at them
hurts, and confirms they never were my thing.

If poets can be divided into those absorbed by a single theme and those engaged by various topics, Shaw is in the second camp. He’s closer to, say, Thomas Hardy, whose poems were, in his own view, “miscellaneous,” than he is to Wallace Stevens, who focused for most of his career on the relationship between imagination and reality. As the poetry I’ve quoted indicates, Shaw writes about perennial concerns like love, death, family, and nature, and the novelty of his verse derives not from these matters in and of themselves but from his treating them in a personal and contemporary context with individually distinctive language. Other issues Shaw addresses include astronomy, geology, art and artists, mythology, and politics. In connection with this last topic, “After the Latest Mass Shooting” is a fine and bitter satire about the epidemic of gun violence in the United States, while “Dinosaur Tracks” comments on our reluctance to get serious about climate change. He also treats the historical complexities and religious dimensions of the American experience.

The longest and strongest of Shaw’s poems involving history is “The Post Office Murals Restored,” a dramatic monologue of some 300 lines spoken by a painter repairing New Deal–era murals in the lobby of a small town’s post office. The murals feature generic scenes of agriculture and industry, along with vignettes from our country’s past: Native Americans and colonial fur traders exchanging pelts for metal tools at a campfire in a forest clearing; a station on the Underground Railroad, where a local parson ushers fugitive slaves fleeing to Canada into the shelter of his cellar for the night; a post–World War I Memorial Day celebration in the town square outside the post office. In addition to contending with the technical challenges of repairing the gaps and colors in the murals, the restorer struggles with his awareness of the damage that our republic’s ideals have suffered over time. While cleaning the vignette of the Native Americans and the trappers, he reflects:

     […] was there a moment by the fire
when both sides could have made a better deal?
Dabbing it clean by inches I was bothered
by weird sensations, as if I could feel
the textures changing hands in these transactions.
The red men handed over something warm
and soft, and got in payment something cold
and hard. They couldn’t possibly have known
what they were buying into, any more
than they or their pale guests could have divined
that this unbroken wilderness they sat in
would in a century and a bit be axed.
The trees were fair game once the game was gone.

The restorer recognizes that social progress has occurred since the era of the WPA’s Federal Art Project. But he knows as well that The-War-to-End-All-Wars has been succeeded by countless additional conflicts; that racial and economic inequities are as sharp, if not sharper, than ever; that unbridled commercial development has continued to degrade the environment; and that the town the post office serves has, as have many rural communities, decayed in recent decades. He says, “Too much has happened since those old hard times,” and concludes:

I see cast over all what I would paint
if I were ever given the commission:
that dinginess hope leaves when it deserts us,
that smudge of squandered opportunity.

Shaw’s poetry is religious in that it engages the culture of Puritan New England, and, behind it, the larger Protestant tradition. This engagement reflects his family background and biography. Shaw’s maternal grandfather, who appears in several of his poems, was a Presbyterian minister, and Shaw is an Episcopalian; so he has experienced both the Calvinist-Congregationalist side of Protestantism and the more hierarchal and Catholic-leaning Anglican dispensation. And though born in Philadelphia, he has lived for most of his life in Western Massachusetts, where he taught for over 30 years at Mount Holyoke, Emily Dickinson’s school, and where he served, toward the end of that time, as the college’s Emily Dickinson Professor of English.

On some occasions, this background provides Shaw with subjects. “Pilgrims,” for example, laments the decline of the self-sacrificing piety and communal spirit that the early New England colonialists expressed at their best. “Vessel” describes the font from which his grandfather christened him, and amusingly contrasts Presbyterian restraint with Baptist enthusiasm: “[T]here seems to be a submerged theme / swirling about: sprinkling versus immersion.” “Blue Period Sketch” involves a moment when the poet looks up at the sky and feels the perfect union with it that he sometimes did as a child. The experience is, he says, “transcendental,” an adjective that harks back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the liberalizing energy that the Romantic movement and Unitarianism contributed to the character of New England.

On other occasions, the religious background informs Shaw’s work more generally and entails the belief that nature expresses its Creator and can communicate, if we pay it close attention, important information about life and our condition. Though many cultures and communities share this belief, it is essential to Protestantism, as is the related belief that individuals should be allowed to study the moral and physical universe without having to bow to ecclesiastical authority or doctrinal orthodoxy. In a number of poems, Shaw says of a natural object or occurrence — such as a paper birch tree, an arbor of grape vines, or a winter sunset — that it “hints” at something; and the poems attempt to draw meaning from these hints. Shaw recognizes that it’s unreasonable to interrogate nature too intently. In a poem about a geode, he observes that breaking it is the only way to access the crystals and ancient mineral water inside it: intellect must always respect what escapes it and must preserve the unknown or unseen when the alternative is, as with the geode, destroying it:

Better to keep it homely and intact,
a witness to the worth of hiddenness,
which, in regard to our own kind, we call
reticence, and in terms of higher things,
mystery […]

This proviso notwithstanding, Shaw writes, as do Dickinson and Robert Frost, in the faith that even nature’s humblest phenomena and organisms illuminate reality and merit investigation and contemplation.

“Shut In” exemplifies this aspect of Shaw’s work. The poem describes a fly in a warm kitchen in autumn. In some ways, the insect resembles the one in Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” In both poems, the insect serves, as it often does in still life paintings, as a vanitas image — a reminder of the transience of life. However, Dickinson’s fly is distinct from her poem’s speaker, who, from the far side of the grave, spookily remembers it as having “interposed” between herself and the light of the living just as she expired. In contrast, Shaw’s fly exists concurrently with its human counterparts and undergoes with them the same organic processes. Shaw establishes this connection in the poem’s opening couplet — “Like many of us, born too late, / (like all of us, fenced in by fate)” — and the poem develops from there. Here are the final four of its nine stanzas:

Patrolling with adhesive feet
the ceiling under which we eat,
            he captures at a glance
            the slightest threat or chance,

and flaunts the facets of his eyes
that make him prince of household spies.
            And as he watches, we,
            if we look up, will see

a life of limits, like our own,
enclosed within a temperate zone,
            not harsh, not insecure,
            no challenge to endure,

but yet, with every buzz of need,
by trifles running out of speed.
            One day he will be gone.
            Then the real cold comes on.

What Remains to Be Said contains some of the very best poems of recent decades. Among contemporary poets, Shaw stands out for his combination of thoughtfulness, emotional power, and technical panache. Most important, he is a good servant of the Logos, the generating spirit of language. In “Postscript Ahead of Time,” he alludes to this spirit and closes by hoping that his poems will continue to honor it when he no longer can:

Let them give homage to the Word
by whom the leaves of life are stirred.
What I write now, let them say then.
And let the last word be Amen.


Timothy Steele’s collections of verse include Toward the Winter Solstice; The Color Wheel; and Sapphics and Uncertainties. He has published as well as two books about poetry — Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing — and has edited The Poems of J.V. Cunningham.

LARB Contributor

Timothy Steele’s collections of verse include Toward the Winter Solstice; The Color Wheel; and Sapphics and Uncertainties. He has published as well as two books about poetry — Missing Measures and All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing — and has edited The Poems of J.V. Cunningham.


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