A prerogative of tears: Alan Shapiro's new poems

The English poet Henry Vaughan once wrote that books have the power to illuminate

Burning and shining thoughts, man's posthume day,

The track of fled souls, and their Milkie-way,

The dead alive and busie....

Alan Shapiro's new book, "The Dead Alive and Busy," has won this year's Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for its power to do just that. The annual prize, awarded by Claremont Graduate University in California, has this year grown to $75,000, the largest sum ever awarded for a single book of poetry.

Shapiro, an English professor at the University of North Carolina, recently lost two siblings, and his parents are struggling with failing health. Many of his poems in "The Dead Alive and Busy" focus on how family relationships are vitalized in times of grief or impending loss. "It's not without joy, not without tenderness and intimacy," he says.

For instance, in his poem "On Men Weeping," Shapiro remembers his father crying at his grandfather's funeral.

My father had no prerogative of tears, not in the stark arena

of the rest of us, not after he had filed out with his sisters

from the back parlor sealed off like a privy where

the body of his father lay. Only there behind the door...

only there was he allowed to give in at last and wail the way he hadn't since he was a child...

Next year, Houghton Mifflin will publish Shapiro's newest poems in a collection called "Song and Dance," in honor of his late brother, a Broadway actor. "And that I hope will bring this period to a close," he says.

Shapiro admits he's excited and honored by the Tufts financial award, "but the recognition is ultimately much more important and more meaningful."

"And in a way more durable," he jokes, " 'cause that can't be taxed."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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