There is a quality of indirection and resistance - perhaps a reflection of the work's agonistic nature - which makes Thomas Shapcott's poetry a challenge. One of the most sustained considerations of Shapcott's poetry to date is Livia Dobrez's discussion of it in Parnassus Mad Ward. For Dobrez, the 'problem' of Shapcott is one of subjectivity, and it is one he seems to have solved. Shapcott's reticence, he argues, 'stems from a deep-rooted timidity. Shapcott the poet is shy, he approaches himself sideways, gradually (though there is, as with Hall, an opening out in the later poetry)' (40). Dobrez does not develop this last statement; the later poetry is either ignored or silently collapsed into the diagnosis. Certainly Dobrez's metaphors suggest a kind of critical aetiology: 'He is utterly unsure of himself, so much so that he does not know precisely what introspection might discover' (41); or 'Shapcott comes full of selfconsciousness, wondering - the all-important thing - what you will think of him (not what he will think of you). And there's the rub: he is vulnerable, your penetrating eye might light up everything ... ' (41). Dobrez concludes that Shapcott has a need for confession, but he 'wants to hide, as much as to reveal, to tell ... Shame is the basso continuo, always present ... ' (44).
Is it really so simple? Probably not, but Dobrez's, rather over-determined, criticism suggests something of the paradoxical quality of Shapcott's work. There are other paradoxical features: Shapcott is intensely Australian, but he is also undeniably cosmopolitan; he relishes in masks and the dramatic monologue, but he writes intensely autobiographical- sometimes confessional- verse; he is interested in the grand narratives of the past as well as the quotidian and recording the momentary; and, like Thomas Hardy, he is an artist who lacks 'smoothness', whose artistry often, enigmatically, appears 'home-made'. There is something disarmingly blunt about Shapcott's poetic utterances. At the same time, though, individual poems can be strangely oblique.
Added to this is an uneasiness amongst critics about Shapcott's place. Even as supportive a critic as Martin Duwell can write in 1989: 'I don't think anyone is confident about his poetic status' (10). And in a positive review of Shabbytown Calendar Robert Gray points to what he sees as a 'lack of discrimination' (18). One reason for the lack of confidence is the range of Shapcott's endeavours. He is suspiciously prolific; a contemporary man of letters. In addition, he, along with Rodney Hall, holds a curious position in relation to the so-called New Australian Poetry, the two looking a little like Wordsworth and Coleridge surrounded by a host of Shelleys, Byrons and Keatses.