Karl Shapiro at the Enoch Pratt Free Library

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Karl Shapiro was a true Baltimorean. As a young man in the 1920s and 1930s, Shapiro fed his literary ambitions with the city's rich cultural history; for instance, writing love poems at Fort McHenry where Francis Scott Key was inspired to pen the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1939, Shapiro enrolled in the Enoch Pratt Library School at the library's central branch, an experience that would greatly influence his life and his writing.

Shapiro later expressed his gratitude to Enoch Pratt Free Library, by capturing it in the lines:
"Voltaire would weep for joy, Plato would stare.
What is it, easier than a church to enter,
Politer than a department store, this center,
That like Grand Central leads to everywhere?"

Open to all Baltimoreans since its 1894 founding, the city's first non-segregated cultural institution does indeed "lead to everywhere," thanks to the library's numerous resources and founder Enoch Pratt's firm belief in inclusiveness. The architecture of the 1933 Central Branch building exemplifies Pratt's philosophy. Designed to mirror a department store, library patrons, not just librarians, could access the books, and large exhibit windows advertised library news to passersby. Following Pratt's requirements, the building's entrance remained without stairs for the convenience of women pushing strollers. This revolutionary design went on to inspire library architecture nationwide.

Shapiro enjoyed studying to be a librarian; however, World War II intervened. "I couldn't take the final exam because I was drafted," Shapiro explained. "Because of my background of two years of college...they put me in the company headquarters office and gave me a typewriter." As the company clerk, Shapiro was never far from writing materials and had "endless amounts of empty time"–-everything a poet needs. He wrote prodigiously, sending his poems stateside to his Baltimorean fiancée, Evalyn Katz, who then published them.

Although 9,000 miles from home, the Pratt Library was never far from Shapiro's mind. He frequently wrote to his former colleagues, signing his letters with "Very best wishes to you and the Library." Meanwhile, the library also contributed to the war effort, housing various headquarters and providing basement air-raid shelters.

When the war ended in 1945, the library returned to business as usual, but Shapiro did not. Having left America only a student, he returned home an established poet. Shapiro published four books and received several prizes including the Pulitzer Prize during the war. Assuming a radically different life than the one he had left, Shapiro taught at several universities, and describes his role as "not really a professor, but a sort of mad guest." He also worked as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, a position known today as the Poet Laureate; edited poetry magazines; and of course, wrote poetry. All the while, Shapiro embodied the philosophy of Enoch Pratt, relentlessly fighting against prejudice and injustices both in his poetry and with his actions, until his death in 2000.

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Enoch Pratt Free Library (1972)

Enoch Pratt Free Library (1972)

View of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street. | Source: BG&E Collection, Baltimore Museum of Industry, BGE.48484 View File Details Page

Street Address:

400 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, MD 21201 [map]

Cite this Page:

Amelia Grabowski, “Karl Shapiro at the Enoch Pratt Free Library,” Explore Baltimore Heritage, accessed April 27, 2017, http://explore.baltimoreheritage.org/items/show/117.

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