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Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today, I’ll be talking about a poem by David Shapiro, titled, “Falling Upwards.”

David Shapiro was born on January 2, 1947, in Newark, New Jersey. His family was very big on music – they often performed string quartets together. This might’ve been part of what influenced today’s poem, which is about a violin player.

Like Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, poets I have talked about on past episodes of this podcast, Shapiro was a member of the New York School of Poets.

Though he was very proficient in violin from a young age and performed with orchestras for many of his teenage years, his first poetry collection was also published when he was young, at the age of 18, titled, “January.”

In addition to poetry, Shapiro wrote a lot about art, such as his book, “Jim Dine,” about the works of the painter Jim Dine.

Shapiro’s poems are good to read together due to his unique style. Sometimes, it takes reading a few of his poems to understand one, because a lot of his poetry is very abstract and surreal. It also focuses a lot on language and form, adding a rhythmic flow to his writing. For example, in his poem, “The Devil’s Trill Sonata,” he uses subtle rhyme throughout which makes it very musical to the ear. Shapiro often wrote about the bridge between music and poetry.

As an adult, Shapiro settled in Riverdale, a neighborhood in The Bronx, New York, which happens to be where I live as well! Shapiro died there on May 4, 2024.

A certain violinist had a beautiful violin

But before he had time to play her long and listen

To her tones as such, he was compelled to renounce music

And sell her, and go on a far journey, and leave his violin

   in the hands of the violin case.


What was there to do? It is said You cannot live life in

   quarter tones.

What was there to do? It is said you cannot live your life

   in silence.

What was there to do? It is said you cannot live your life

   playing scales.

What was there to do? It is said you cannot live your life

   listening to the Americans.


What was there to do. It is said you cannot live your

   life in your room and not go out.

What was there to do? It is said music disobeys

And reaches the prince’s courtyard even farther than smell

   and grits its notes like teeth and gives us food and drink.

And orders a fire to be lighted, famished silk to hang over it

   and repetitions to be sharpened.


What was there to do? It is said it is the violinists who

   do not sleep.

What was there to do? It is said we think and don’t think;

   we are asleep.

What was there to do? It is said music sinks into the mire up

   to its neck, wants to crawl out, but cannot.

What was there to do? It is said the violin was a swan,

   seized the boy, falling upwards to some height above the earth.

“Falling Upwards” contrasts music with life through repetition. It begins with an almost soothing tone, much like a children’s story or a folktale. However, the mood quickly becomes more somber, this contrast almost foreshadowing the comparison that will be highlighted in the next three stanzas of the poem.

The reader is told of a violinist who gives up music and sells his violin, unsure what to do with his life. But the poem itself isn’t that simple. The tale of the violinist is only a way of conveying a larger message – whether or not life and art can coexist, or if an artist has to give themselves up to make something truly meaningful.

The repetition is a key part of demonstrating this. The phrase, “what was there to do?” is repeated throughout the poem, and then followed by a statement. The statements, such as “you cannot live life in quarter tones,” connect life and music, and suggest that beautiful art is created by putting the whole of yourself into it and cannot be done any other way.

This makes the violinist feel conflicted about what he must do. In a way, he is fighting with himself – it comes across very obviously that he believes that his violin is beautiful, and that music is as well, but he still chooses to sell the violin and try to start anew.

The last line of the poem, about the violin “seizing the boy,” suggests that the violinist has enjoyed music from a young age. This makes the poem feel even sadder. The last stanza also portrays music as a kind of trap, one that the violinist is trying to avoid. It’s like music has chained the violinist, and he wants to be set free.

At the same time, it’s almost like, at the end of the poem, the violinist comes back to music – the violin calls to him and it is like he is the boy he was before. In this way, music is portrayed as very complicated – and that for some, it could be the life that they want to live. In that case, leaving it could be the wrong decision.

Music being “food and drink” and ordering the violinist around makes it seem like it is the only thing in a musician's life. There can be nothing else.

David Shapiro both played violin and wrote poetry, so he probably understood this conflict. Can you create true beauty when you are not dedicated completely to just one art form? In fact, Shapiro wrote a lot about music, almost combining his two talents.

However, the violinist in this poem does not have this option. It makes the reader wonder what he does after giving up music – he quit violin so that he could live life, but is it really life if he now has nothing to do and no art to create?

This poem really makes you think about the hard work behind the creation of music and poetry. Unfortunately, the next episode of Poetry Soup won’t be out for a while, since I’ll be going to California for break, but I hope you enjoyed this one, and I’ll be back in August!

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