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Analysis of Poem "Auto Wreck" by Karl Shapiro

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Karl Shapiro

Karl Shapiro

Karl Shapiro and a Summary of Auto Wreck

Auto Wreck is a poem that concentrates on a "live" car accident and brings the reader directly into contact with the consequences of such a violent, horrific scenario.

It is a commentary on a modern phenomena, that of the highway smash, but goes beyond the world of traffic and tarmac to explore the human mindset when normality is no more. Think disaster, think war, think pandemic.

Full of vivid imagery, it also asks important questions about the nature of human fragility, and how we react to such sudden death. Four powerful stanzas, some stunning individual lines and much food for thought.

Karl Shapiro was no stranger to the negative effects technology can have on humans. He served in the second world war and wrote war poems which reflected his experiences of trauma and violence.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1945, aged only 32, and went on to become one of the voices of modern poetry in the United States. A great student of humanity he remarked:

“A civilization without poets is a moribund civilization: it has no love of its way of life. But a civilization in which the artist is worshipped is on the point of suicide.

Auto Wreck was published in his first book People, Place and Thing, published in 1942.

Auto Wreck


Analysis of Auto Wreck

Auto Wreck is a 4 stanza poem in free verse, there is no set end rhyme scheme and the meter varies from pentameter to tetrameter, in iambic form mostly but trochaic feet are also present.

What this tends to do is break up the rhythm and introduce a choppy beat which shifts the emphasis and slightly confuses the flow. The poet intended this to happen and it brings a little uneasiness for the reader, reflecting the auto accident scene.

  • Each stanza brings a different perspective. The first stanza is a kind of live commentary on the mechanics of the accident, the second and third involve the crowd and uses the collective, questioning 'we', whilst the fourth is an answer to these questions about human innocence.

All in all a powerful poem that is full of imagery, reality and logic. It also has a strange detachment, as if the poet were a cameraman or documentary maker, stumbling across this horrific accident, asking soul searching questions about the randomness of death.

Further Analysis Line by Line

Lines 1 - 7

From the first line the senses are jolted into excitement, the initial commentary bringing the aftermath of a car crash right into the reader's immediate space. An ambulance is speeding towards the scene. Note the alliteration - soft, silver bell beating, beating - just like the heart which pumps blood around the body. The word flare indicates that this is an emergency and time is of the essence.

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A mix of pentameter and tetrameter form the first four lines, lengthening and shortening the focus, an echo of the ambulance as it arrives at the wreck. The red light is likened to an artery, that which takes blood to the tissues in most cases, pulsing through the night.

  • There is also a surreal element in this vivid image. The ambulance appears to float, as if it's on wings, bearing down on the scene of devastation. Could this be an allusion to an angel, coming to rescue and heal the poor unfortunates caught up in the accident?

The ambulance slows down into the crowd of onlookers. Perhaps the dark has added to the idea that this is no ordinary vehicle, it is a spiritual entity winging its way into the human world. This personification helps connect the mechanistic to the unreal.

Lines 8 - 14

Light empties from the back of the ambulance, as if fluid, and the bodies lifted onto stretchers and into the 'little hospital'; then the bell tolls - just like a church bell tolls when receiving the dead - and with a rocking movement, pulls away.

  • Note the language used here, it is direct and a little crude. The poet chooses mangled to describe those who have been injured in the crash and goes on to use terrible cargo, as if the victims are nothing but a load of freight. This is in complete contrast to the previously implied idea that the ambulance was a winged being, coming to put things right.

No. The reader is confronted with the grim reality of death, death on a public road. So serious is the situation, so stark the nature of a fatal crash, that the ambulance doors seem not to matter when they are closed.

More Analysis Line by Line

Lines 15 - 21

There is an acute shift in perspective in the second stanza. The speaker has become part of the crowd, is a spokesperson for the crowd, and the picture widens a little as the police are introduced. Gone is the rather detached, objective description of the scene.

As the cops go about their business of taking notes and cleaning up, the crowd are in shock, disbelieving what they have just witnessed. The cars are seen as locusts, insects that are traditionally a nuisance, often in plagues, and they are clinging to iron poles they have crashed into.

Are the cars are so wrecked, with metal strips sticking out, panels busted and headlights popping out, that the speaker is reminded of large insects, a peculiar association but quite a striking image to consider.

The language used to pinpoint the action of the cops is again unusually blunt. One rinses ponds of blood (not pools) down the gutter. The word douche refers to rinsing out of body cavities. All in all, quite a visceral scene.

Lines 22 - 32

There is still confusion, perhaps denial; there are questions to be asked. The speaker becomes victim, the crowd become the souls of those departed, become the people killed in the accident. Are these the wounds of the victims or the onlookers suffering mentally and emotionally?

Tourniquets and splints bind, support and help heal. Perhaps the crowd watched as these were being applied to those fatally wounded - not an ideal pastime, to be a voyeur at the side of the highway.

  • Gauche is to be socially awkward, and who wouldn't feel a bit strange being part of a gawking crowd? But they have also seen something unique and feel somehow bonded by the experience.

They are asking serious questions despite wanting to be light-hearted, to make light of such things happening in the locality. They are asking questions only God might answer, or the Fates. Who shall die? And why?

Analysis of Final Lines of Auto Wreck

Lines 33 - 39

The final stanza attempts to put the deaths of the auto wreck into perspective by contrasting them with war, suicide, stillborn and cancer. All of the latter have a reason or are relatively easy to understood causes of death but a car crash comes out of the blue; death is random and the reasons are hidden.

As humans we find such sudden accidental deaths hard to take. We inhabit a world of cause and effect, simple physics, so why do we have to experience such illogical fatalities? Shock and an altered state of consciousness results to help us deal with such scenarios and the poem explores this with powerful imagery and direct language.

  • Denouement means to tie up loose ends, so the speaker is suggesting that there are no neat conclusions to be drawn from an auto wreck in which people die. The onomatopoeic spatter is used, again a strong visual image to finish off a highly impressionistic piece of work.


© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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