Nemerov, Howard 1920–
An American poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, editor, and playwright, Nemerov is best known for his poetry which blends traditional lyricism and ironic detachment. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Nemerov] has always been, very individually, one of the best poets of his generation, but with the emergence of his New and Selected Poems it becomes necessary to class him outside the category of a mere generation; for the book makes it clear that he is one of the best poets writing in English.
Nemerov's early poems were like marvelous tricks, brilliant in themselves, but each in a sense isolated from the rest. In some of them it almost looked as if he were setting himself difficult problems in style and tone for their own sake…. But the value of the apprenticeship served in the early poems becomes apparent in his succeeding work: for rhetoric is now an instrument with which he can pry open what he pleases.
He is at equal ease in the modes of epigram, comic poem, meditation, and narrative, yet his work in each is now clearly related to his work in all the rest. His style has great range. He can write [an] abstract statement … which is careful and qualified, and derives much of its strength from Renaissance writing…. He can also, however, elaborate images in [a] much more casual, seemingly random manner…. What the two [styles] have in common, perhaps, is an easy authority of tone, by means of which particular observation is generally placed and generalization is seen in relation to a particular context.
The latest poems, occupying more than the first quarter of the book, are the most exciting. For from traditional materials he has fashioned a kind of blank verse which I believe to be, in Pound's sense, an invention. Its most striking characteristic is the almost continuous use of runovers…. The effect in Nemerov's poems, in say "Mrs. Mandrill" or "Death and the Maiden"—two of the best—is of an unceasing flow, an unchecked movement without looseness or breathlessness: the unit of the line is never destroyed or forgotten (though it is true, as often in blank verse, it has become less important than the unit of the paragraph), and the constant use of runovers, instead of causing the disintegration of form, has created a new form. I find this a technical invention of great importance, and have little doubt that Nemerov will have his imitators within a few years. What is more, the speed at which the verse moves enables the writer to introduce a great many juxtapositions of detail which would seem forced in a slower-moving verse. Seemingly discrepant images are caught up and absorbed by the swift movement to bring about a continuous enrichment and qualification of meaning.
There is in fact a concentration of experience without the loss of richness and variety that concentration can involve.
Most of the poems in this selection possess a similar authority, and are composed—to apply to him one of his own phrases—with "a singular lucidity and sweetness." It is a distinguished and important book. (pp. 586-88)
Thom Gunn, in The Yale Review (© 1961 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), June, 1961.
Mr. Nemerov's finest poems have always had a peculiar freshness, a buoyancy and a hush all their own: in "Runes," a quiet meditative lyric that ought to survive any change of fashion, and in The Blue Swallows, his most elegantly sustained volume, Mr. Nemerov placed himself among the few poets of his generation identifiably blessed with a character. Yet it has to be allowed that his connection with poetic tradition is strongly visible and at times uneasily specific, from Auden to Yeats.
And now to Frost. Because the typical poem in The Western Approaches is a poem that takes its verbal energy, its motive and moral, from the air one first breathed in Frost, generally late Frost. (p. 1028)
[Hardly] a nature poem in the book—many of its best poems are about trees and seasons—can be read without some shake of the head: one is seeing double. "The Consent" has to do with the fall of leaves from ginkgo trees, suddenly, in a single night. "If this," asks the poet, "Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?/What use to learn the lessons taught by time,/If a star at any time may tell us: Now." One trusts these lines, from the second and generalizing stanza, since the first has provided a cue with exquisite description. Nevertheless, the poem strikes one as a footnote to "Spring Pools": as do many others in this volume.
But I realize that I have begun to sound grudging, and that is not what I meant at all. "Every idiom has its idiot," a wise man observed. Few are lucky enough to have an employer as nimble as Mr. Nemerov. His dealings with his own latest idiom are sometimes, indeed, so intelligent that his poems become a second nature to Frost's. To learn something new in an old language is of course to learn something new. Here and there, it is true, Mr. Nemerov likes to play with words, to play the words like an instrument, to have his way with them; in his epigrams—which I do not especially care for—he only seems fierce; what drives him, as a rule, in his unhappiest moments, is a free-floating nervous energy, the need to behold a thriving creation of lines joking at each other or words joking within a line, to make a more impressive tension from what started as a tic. But, in any case, he errs on the side of plenitude. Over large stretches of The Western Approaches Mr. Nemerov resumes activity as the very serious and very American poet who emerged in The Blue Swallows—whatever he finds useful to keep himself going is useful to his readers—and we are simply grateful to have him among us. (p. 1029)
David Bromwich, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1976, by the University of Georgia), Winter, 1976.
Howard Nemerov's poetry in The Western Approaches is a poetry mostly of saying rather than singing, even when it speaks of the power of traditional, transcendent song. The saying includes some skilled modes of speech, in some of the best poems, notably "Learning the Trees" and "A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed" (the kinship of subject is nearer essence than accident), reaching a firm and fair contemplation, mastered in technique, with an important, reverberant something to say. The reverberation comes from understanding quietly won. The book also offers fine poetry of physical description, and some high song.
The book, then, is important in itself, and in its place in the development of one of America's best and most highly reputed men of letters. Since the book is important, I shall take it seriously and, thus, disapprove some. Mostly I shall attempt to define what constitutes Nemerov's typical style, attitude, metrical convention.
His style, in deep intertwinings with attitude, is witty, analogical, speculative, and uncertain. Yet it is also nostalgic and reverential, especially toward great past poetry and music; also slangy, chatty, obscene; with some unusual combinings. The uncertainty underlies, interlaces, and unlaces much of the rest.
The uncertainties also affect his criticism. He is one of the best living practical critics, wonderfuly responsive, astute, discerning. He is, argument by argument, one of the best living theoretical critics; he defends very ably diverse and contradictory theories of literature and criticism…. He does not choose between the varied theories. Typical remarks are "grains of salt will be handed out by the ushers" or, more centrally, speaking of poetry: "Sacrament or con game? As impossible as unnecessary to decide." But that will not serve. Some poems are beautifully sacramental, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual beauty; some are very like con games; the former are preferable.
The uncertainties affect the poetry, especially in the ways jokes intersect or bethump the meanings. His convention is more settled in The Western Approaches than in the earlier work; the disruptive joke and the crude clash of levels of propriety occur less often. Rather than such vacillations, what is typical in the newer poems is a cool yet gloomy distancing from the subject so that the ironies, analogies, and whatever are not so much funny or sad as just there. The tone is mild, amused, resigned, factual, observant, speculative, cool yet consistently uncertain of itself, somehow ghostly, everyday, yet unified.
A highly typical poem is "Fiction," which has admirably clever jokes and emblemings of fate and religious lostness. Do we laugh? Do we cry? No, we watch, unsure just how to respond. The tone is a balancing, almost a vanishing act. (pp. 130-31)
"The Backward Look" has perhaps the greatest variety, gracefully modulated among the various tones: quiet reflectiveness, satiric counterposings, love of the warmly ordinary, the cold severity of space, gathered terror, nostalgia for Dante's more certain vision; the factual, many-analogied precision of the close: "We take our dust and rocks and start back down." The poem also has a grand completeness of structure; it is one of the best poems on space travel we are apt to have.
"Boy with Book of Knowledge" starts with talk, remembering tenderness, a little joshing, appropriate to the boy's youthful enthusiasm, then moves into the fierce and holy presence of the last two stanzas, probably the greatest poetry—in theme, resonance, depth, precision—that Nemerov has ever written….
"The Consent" is also a remarkable poem. I swore off the adjective brilliant some years ago …, but hereby revoke my pledge. The poem is brilliant like fireworks (if every fluttering fan of light stayed perfectly in descending place), brilliant as a starry night, brilliant in order and persuasive rhetoric. The ending is deeply moving, even though it crosses (tends to cross—however jolting, the conclusion is hypothetical) some of my deep convictions. (p. 136)
The book may well be Nemerov's best book of poems, which ranks it high. Too much is still too ready of wit, merely and pointlessly if cleverly speculative, self-mockingly relaxed, curiously analogical. Who else but Nemerov would devote a whole, rather carefully written poem to asking whether the fishing hook or the question mark is upside down? But, then, who but Nemerov would be apt to notice the reversed likeness? It's the lively and observant intelligence that occasions the problem. Nemerov is conscious of the difficulty and has answered the charge "that my poems are jokes, even bad jokes" by saying "I incline to agree, insisting however that they are bad jokes, and even terrible jokes, emerging from the nature of things." The pun on bad joke is a pretty good joke, but not a sufficient defense. At least to me his jokes seldom sound expressive (as those of Randall Jarrell's sometimes do) of a desperate-absurdity-locked-into-the-tears-of-things.
The convention he usually adopts is, all in all, too deliberately and casually talkative, too uncharged and uncertain. Uncertainties can be the stuff of strong poetry, in Shakespeare, Donne, Dickinson, Hardy, Hopkins, Tennyson, Winters, Jarrell. Nemerov's uncertainties do not emerge so; they link in special ways with his linguistic wit, his speculative and analogical gifts, to tune down his poems from often reaching his best effects. Even in his best poems he dallies with the slacker strings too often.
But—it's quite a but—the intelligence is just of a different order than that at work in most books of poetry; the fun can be lively fun; the self-putting-down can be genuinely amusing and finely perceptive ("Du rêve, de la mathématique, et de la mort" is my favorite of that sort); the linguistic and metrical skills prompt admiration, even admiration in the older sense: he's awesomely gifted. The best work—excellent physical description; the controlled variety and feeling of "The Backward Look"; the intricate, precisely registered intelligence that in "A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed" reaches contemplative poetry of the first rank; the greatly haunting conclusion of "Boy With Book of Knowledge"; the fine completeness of "The Consent"—requires high praise and much gratitude. For Nemerov more than most poets, his best is the enemy of his many-skilled normal; he is too near to poetic greatness to step modestly away. (pp. 137-38)
Paul Ramsey, "To Speak, or Else to Sing," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 130-38.
In an 1892 review, W. B. Yeats defined "noetry" as "descriptive of verse which though full of intellectual faculty, is lacking in imaginative impulse." Noetry was then "a term of most constant utility." Recalled, it is serviceable for describing what Howard Nemerov has been writing recently [as in The Western Approaches]. It is not that his verse lacks imaginative impulse, but that it is artfully ideational. Formerly a fidgety, near-sighted stepsister, noetry has come of age as a fascinating companion for solitary nights.
Noetry relies without shame on mental constructs. Nemerov, sometimes compared to metaphysical poets, offers numerous examples. "Two Pair," for instance, links the odds of poker, two laws of thermodynamics, and two holy testaments (with, of course, couplets) to reach the turnstile where mind is left to itself. That limbo, fated or self-chosen, is Nemerov's Parnassus. Others may have their soulful landscapes, heartbreaks, headaches, and pretty things: Nemerov has modern ideas pretty much to himself and turns them back where others begin.
Of making many books there is no end,
And like it saith in the book before that one,
What God wants, don't you forget it, Jack,
Is your contrite spirit, Jack, your broken heart.
Lines like these are indicative of Nemerov's calculated deflation. Disinclined to strut for the ivory stages, disdaining untethered imagination, he is skeptical to the quick…. Elsewhere he punctures mythologies, psychology, the nation's auto craze, and spelling conventions.
Nemerov's Gnomes and Occasions (1973) gave ample warning that his taste for poetic economy was running to epigram. The course continues…. (pp. 272-73)
W. G. Regier, in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1976.
Howard Nemerov … has interested himself in the elaboration of a distinct tradition in English poetry: that of the secular contemplative lyric. For Nemerov,… the sources of poetry lie "far out in the sea of tradition and the mind, even in the physiological deeps", as he puts it in The Measure of Poetry, a prose poem in his latest collection [The Western Approaches: Poems 1973–75] which explains a great deal about his attitude and method of composition. For Nemerov, measure is an elemental order, which he compares to the rhythm of the tide, and which is acted upon in the process of writing by "the objects which are to appear in the poem". This dynamic working relationship between basal constancy and individual variousness yields "moments of freedom, moments of chaos", "relations which it may be that number alone could enrage into being"; that is, without the underlying, reassuring sense of order provided by rhythm, we perhaps could not afford to tolerate wildness, nonsense, fine excess.
This is not a reading of the world with which everyone will agree; but even a superficial appraisal of this witty and deft collection, Nemerov's ninth, will reveal that The Measure of Poetry is a distillation of long experience, and not empty theorizing. In more than seventy expertly lucid, pungent, and economically-managed lyrics, Nemerov makes use of "the objects" of contemporary upper-middle-class life—its games, its gadgets, its intellectual enterprises—as well as of nature, as occasions for an unending flow of gently ironic observations on the flux of personality in the continuum of history. Nemerov is both urbane and humane—not always necessarily a congenial combination; he is Horatian in his perspective, academic in his precision. His poems do something we're not accustomed to these days: they aim at the articulation of what it is not unfair to call a kind of rarefied commonplace, "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd"…. (pp. 164-65)
[His] kind of calm straightforwardness goes against the noisy self-advertising mainstream of current writing, and it deserves praise and attention for that. There's genuine intelligence and feeling here, and the fact that the verse doesn't call attention to itself—except, perhaps, by dint of its polish—is part of the point. The Western Approaches affords pleasures close to those which belong to music that is playful, various, and elegantly resolved. (p. 165)
Jonathan Galassi, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1976.