Howard Nemerov’s poetry revolves about the theme of the absurd place of humankind within the large drama of time. It also illustrates his divided temperament, about which he wrote in Journal of the Fictive Life, “I must attempt to bring together the opposed elements of my character represented by poetry and fiction.” These conflicts—the romantic-realist, the skeptic-believer, the scientist-poet—reflect the fragmentation and angst of modern existence. He did not employ scientific terms in a sentimental manner in his poetry but included nebulae, particles, and light-years as true poetic subjects, not simply metaphors for human concerns. Nemerov was a Renaissance man in his breadth and an eighteenth century man of letters in his satire, wit, and respect for form. His spiritual questions and his refusal of any orthodoxy, whether religious or artistic, made him a twentieth century existentialist.
Like any great figure, however, Nemerov defied categorization. He lived his life in and for literature in an age that values, as he wrote in his Journal of the Fictive Life, “patient, minute analysis”; he gave himself to “the wholeness of things,” “the great primary human drama” in a time when some consider that loving the human story is “unsophisticated, parochial, maybe even sinful.”
Many writers reach a plateau; Nemerov kept growing. In his evolution, he became less bitter and more loving. As he became more complex, his language grew simpler, elegantly expressing his subtle mind and his ultimate sadness at the tragic position of humanity in the universe. Nemerov’s divided nature shows in his poetry’s empiricism and acceptance of objective reality and his subjective, poetic self that searched, perhaps futilely, for a definite Word of God.
The Image and the Law and Guide to the Ruins
Nemerov’s first three poetry collections, The Image and the Law, Guide to the Ruins, and The Salt Garden, demonstrate his growth from a somewhat derivative writer to a mature poet with a distinctive voice. The Image and the Law is based on his dual vision, what he called “poetry of the eye” (the image) and “poetry of the mind” (the law). He tries to illustrate the “everpresent dispute between the two ways of looking at the world.” The Image and the Law, as a first book, was competent, but was criticized for lack of unity and for being derivative. Critics found too many echoes of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens—admittedly Nemerov’s models.
Nemerov’s second book, Guide to the Ruins, drew the same complaint, as did The Salt Garden. The latter collection, however, was recognized as exhibiting the beginning of his “most characteristic voice, a quiet intelligent voice brooding lyrically on the strange beauty and tragic loneliness of life,” as Peter Meinke has described it.
In The Image and the Law and Guide to the Ruins, not only is Nemerov practicing what he has learned from Yeats, Eliot, and others, but he also starts to purge himself of war-won realizations. Although The Image and the Law deals mainly with the city, war, and death, it also contains religious imagery and wit. His poems wail, like an Old Testament lament—“I have become a gate/ To the ruined city, dry” (“Lot’s Wife”). The poems in The Image and the Law exhibit ironic detachment as well as seriousness, for to Nemerov “the serious and the funny are one.” The dualism in the poems is suggested in the title.
Guide to the Ruins has a broader scope than his first collection and reveals artistic growth. The “ruins” are those created in World War II, although the war is not actually over. Again, there is duality in the poems; the poet feels trapped between art-faith and science-reality, but sides with neither wholeheartedly. His tension between the two produces a Dostoevskian religious agony that visits Christianity, but consistently returns to Judaism. Several poems in Guide to the Ruins unite war and religion into a pessimism that will become more evident in later works. Paradoxically, and typical of his dualistic vision, he celebrates life not only in spite of war but also because of it.
The Salt Garden
The Salt Garden, while still exhibiting some derivation, exhibits not only the poet’s own voice but also a “center,” that center being Nemerov’s interest in nature. True to his double vision, he contrasts “brutal” nature with “decent” humankind. The link between the two is found in liquids such as ocean and blood, which combine into humankind’s “salt dream,” the call of the subconscious toward wildness. The poems in The Salt Garden range from a decent, rational man’s reflection on his garden to the nightmarish, Freudian dream “The Scales of the Eyes.” A brilliant combination of the “civilized” and the “wild” is found in “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee.” By degrees, this poem shows the submerged anguish of a prosperous nineteenth century woman. The whalebone stays of her corset are a central image, leading to other images of sea, mirrors, and light, until “the black flukes of agony/ Beat at the air till the light blows out.” The Salt Garden treats not only humanity, “brutal” nature, and the link between the two, but also death as a part of “time’s ruining stream.” Water, sea, and blood are beyond moral categories; they are the substance of life. In this respect, according to Julia Bartholomay in The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov (1972), Nemerov’s...
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