Howard Nemerov Essay - Nemerov, Howard (Vol. 6)

Nemerov, Howard (Vol. 6)

Nemerov, Howard 1920–

Nemerov is an American poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, and playwright, and winner of many awards. He is a skillful intellectual poet, employing a variety of traditional verse forms, whose poetry is especially distinguished as an attempt to come to terms with the "hard science," as well as the psychology, of our age. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Howard Nemerov, known to most readers as one of our better poets and critics, certainly possesses enough natural literary grace to be a fine short story writer. He writes carefully and exceptionally well, doesn't strain for effects, and knows how to convey his ideas with a minimum of effort. But in Stories, Fables and Other Diversions we see a writer who is comfortable and successful when working in a traditional, realistic vein trying to master other, less conventional—one is tempted to say more fashionable—styles and forms. While we appreciate Mr. Nemerov's spirit of adventure, we are not gratified by the results. (p. 37)

Ronald De Feo, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 25, 1971.

A scholar, Nemerov is erudite without being pedantic. His poems and essays, ranging in theme from the topical to the abstruse, display a highly original intelligence which turns reflexively on its subject and develops new insights and patterns of meaning. Whether discussing "The Marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta" [in Poetry and Fiction] or commenting on the banalities of contemporary life…, Nemerov's voice and perspective are distinctly his own. Though strongly disciplined in his craft, his approach to experience is one of "attentiveness and obedience." Because he continually views the world with a morning freshness, he is often likened to Thoreau, yet such a comparison seems rather specious in that Nemerov, unlike Thoreau, is not strictly a nature poet or a philosopher of nature. Both men perceive the visible world with the objectivity of naturalists and, as poets, draw analogies from natural forms. Both men regard the generative cycle as the supreme model of the artistic process but not for the same reasons. As a student and philosopher of nature, Thoreau discovers an animating principle manifested therein and expounds it as a way of life, whereas Nemerov probes more deeply into the problem of mind and world and finds the natural process ultimately secret and mysterious. Like Robert Frost, he begins and ends with the riddle of eternity.

Representing no poetic school or movement, Nemerov stands apart in his generation—a giant, if a lonely one, who continues to shun identification with literary fads and band-wagons. Although Louise Bogan [in "Books, Verse" in New Yorker, April 1, 1961] cited his work as "an example of the well-written intelligently ordered poetry that has been termed 'academic' by the experimentalists" (and called "mandarin" by Kenneth Rexroth), Nemerov has not engaged in the cold war between the "New England Poets" (academicians) and the "Black Mountain/Beat Group," representing the short-lived San Francisco Renaissance and the confessional poetry of the fifties and sixties. At a time when Whitman is very much in vogue, Nemerov speaks out for Frost as the dean of American poets. Currently, Nemerov appears to be moving in the direction of Frost in his later years—toward a simpler, more immediate, and epigrammatic form of expression. (pp. 4-5)

Having evolved from the continuum of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Stevens, Nemerov acknowledges their influence on his early work. However, in The Salt Garden these influences are mastered and a unique style emerges, which has continued to develop. Endowed with a brilliant mind, a kaleidoscopic eye, a sensitive ear, and a marvelous wit, Nemerov was born a poet. Such gifts combined with curiosity and awareness, a deep sense of calling, and an honest acceptance of the demands of his art, have made the poet's rise to eminence as inevitable as it is unspectacular. (p. 5)

Nemerov demands more from his readers than do most poets. He brings to his art an extensive knowledge of diverse areas of experience, and his imagery is, paradoxically, simple and complex, though never obscure. Like Blake and Coleridge, he presents images with objectivity, which is not to say that they are literal or not transformed into something rich and strange. However, he is never a solipsist—not even in the highly personal, surrealistic "The Scales of the Eyes." Just as we know that Blake's magnificent tiger—with all of its terrible fascination—will never turn into melted butter, so do we recognize that Nemerov's swallows are real birds, whose being is not dependent on the poet's consciousness or (as in the case of some poets) a lack of it. Images, though used in an original way, are never distortions. The mirror held up to nature may not always be beautiful, but it is never cracked. (pp. 6-7)

In spite of [his] apparent simplicity, Nemerov is exceedingly complex. His images are multivalent, governed by a prismatic mind and eye, and have plural significance for which the reader must dig. Nemerov's response to the totality of experience presupposes a certain awareness on the part of the reader, since the poet has a meaning to convey through language, not through guesswork. For example, the reader who has scientific understanding will discover the organic beauty of the seed and water imagery in "Runes" and experience the poem on all levels of meaning, whereas the reader who is not scientifically oriented will regard the seed and water as symbols only, and will miss the generative power of the poem. (p. 7)

Nemerov's concept of imagination and his multivalent imagery are too complex to be defined in strictly aural terms. Imagination is both limited (visually) and unlimited (aurally)…. Perhaps this basic perceptual dualism underlies the two different, though not necessarily antithetical, attitudes which appear consistently in the poet's work. On the one hand, he is very much the witty, sophisticated, and urbane man of his time, particularly when he writes in the satirical vein. Aware of man's dehumanization in an automated mass society where the split human condition is intensified, Nemerov often views life with a humorous but bitter irony. When he spoofs society, the visual impact is strong; witness "Blue Suburban," "Mrs. Mandrill," "Boom!," "Keeping Informed in D.C.," or "Life Cycle of Common Man." (pp. 20-1)

On the other hand, the poet perceives the world ontologically. His experience may be philosophical, subjective, lyrical, or even mystical. In the poems where his vision moves outward or inward toward the Mystery, his imagination is dominantly aural. Poetry becomes a matter of listening to the landscape, and he envisions a world made intelligible through imagination, through language—spirit and word. (p. 21)

The dual aspects of Nemerov, as a man and poet, are not unique in themselves, but what is original is the way in which his imagination reflects the vision that has evolved over the years through his poems. While there is no particular period when one or the other attitude dominates, a parallel does exist between the development of the man and that of the poet. His first three books, filled with wit, satire, irony, and ambiguity, are primarily the work of a young urban poet who writes of what he knows: the city, war, and the paradox between the ideal and actual—all fairly universal topics. The titles of these books read like a Baedecker of the postwar world: Guide to the Ruins, The Image and the Law, and The Salt Garden. However, even in these volumes, the identity of the poet is emerging in such poems as "Under the Bell Jar," "Lot's Wife," "Unscientific Postscript," and "The Scales of the Eyes." (p. 22)

Generally, Nemerov's imagery works within a spatial-temporal context which is both circular and linear. As an aspect of vision, this dual dimension of space-time should not be thought of in fixed Euclidian terms but as an artistic extension of Einstein's theory of relativity. More importantly, this double focus on space-time, like the two attitudes voiced in the poems, extends the poet's dual concept of imagination. Human experience is perceived in two ways: ontologically, or substantively, in the circular context, and objectively, or formally, in the linear context. From this duality certain primary paradoxes emerge: darkness/light, eternity/time, the one/the many, substance/form, and actual/ideal, all of which evolve from the poet's fascination with creation and its reverse process, metamorphosis, and the relation, or identity, of the evanescent with the enduring. These basic antitheses are redefined in more immediate paradoxes: mirrors and windows/reality, and statues and effigies/life, both of which paradoxes are contingent upon the divisiveness, fragmentation, complexity, and absurdity of modern existence. Most often the basic antitheses underlie the philosophical, religious poems, whereas the secondary paradoxes find expression in satirical or tragicomic poems which, owing to the poet's sense of dramatic irony, are no less profound. (pp. 35-6)

Nemerov's position as a poet in the Scientific Age is singular, if middle-of-the-road from a philosophical standpoint. Avoiding the two extremes of solipsism and phenomenalism, he is also careful not to misappropriate scientific theory in using it for analogical purposes in his work. His vision, always prismatic, must necessarily reflect scientific knowledge as part of human experience—and, therefore, not alien to poetry—although no one sees with greater irony the impact of science and technology on our lives. Yet he also recognizes that the purpose of the poet and that of the scientist are supplementary—two different ways of the mind to draw nearer to the shadow of an external world. (p. 73)

Nowhere is Nemerov's vision more beautifully conceived than in "Runes," which may be the greatest poem by an American poet in the twentieth century. Epic in scope, timeless in meaning, and representing a subjectivity "as nearly as possible universal in character," "Runes" could only have been written by a poet of our time. Metaphorically, the poem synthesizes all aspects and attitudes of the contemporary mind: religious, philosophical, scientific, and psychological. The poem is an odyssey of mankind and of the poet himself; its mood is alternately reflective and apathetic, tragic and comic, despairing and hopeful. Yet, like all great poems, "Runes" is a revelation of past, present, and future—"the story of the night told over." (p. 110)

"The Scales of the Eyes" is the argosy of a younger poet, seeking identity, or selfhood, whose individual style is just beginning to emerge. "Runes" is the odyssey of a more mature poet who has found himself and, now, searches for meaning in the world around him. Although both poems proceed on a circular space-time continuum, the earlier poem follows the logic of a dream, or stream of consciousness, whereas "Runes" revolves on the relative theory of space-time and includes the linear dimension of recorded history. While the introspective theme of "The Scales of the Eyes" gives full rein to the poet's imagination, the imagery is so profuse, literary, subjective, and intricate that the reader cannot always share the poet's experience, particularly at a first reading. On the other hand, "Runes" evolves from three basic universal images which, even though they may be interpreted on several levels, are clearly and objectively configured throughout the poem. In spite of its literary references and general complexity, "Runes" is immediately experienced by the reader and, like all great poems, unfolds new meanings on each successive reading. The vast scope, depth, and universal significance of "Runes," combined with its organic beauty and clarity and simplicity of style, which the mature poet has achieved, make the poem Nemerov's finest literary achievement. (pp. 111-12)

Nemerov's most consistent stance over the years, despite his sensitive ear and aural imagination, has been as commentator on the action, rather than as lyricist. His particular talent and temperament, combined with his early set of experiences, do not enable him to take off his vest and sing in the manner of Robert Burns or Dylan Thomas. Because of his intellect, wit, and reserve, Nemerov is a master of the long philosophical poem, the ironical portrait, and the incisive epigram. (pp. 152-53)

Nevertheless, the pervasive quality is lyrical, even in the philosophical poems, because the poet, however much he is the commentator, is a musician also with a humble, implicit faith in a deeper reality. Perhaps his most significant development, from his early to his later poems, is the dialectic between poet and world, moving toward a wholeness of vision which is never static. This development, following the ascent pattern in terms of elemental imagery, may have evolved from the poet's deepening response to the natural world and to nature as the source of language. A possible corollary to this development is the poet's growing tendency to simplify his style by cutting away all that is irrelevant, obscure, or superimposed, in order to "say over the certain simplicities,/The running water and the standing stone…." (p. 153)

Although elemental imagery and the ascent pattern are part of poetic tradition, Nemerov's poetic vocabulary and idiom, evolving from earth, water, space, and light, are original. So is his unique development of the reflexive image and the narrative epigram, which are excellent techniques to convey his prismatic vision and aural imagination. Water and light are dominant elements in his work. Together they are the generative force of creation, identified with body and mind, respectively. (pp. 153-54)

The poet's preoccupation with light imagery in his later work grows out of a concern for spiritual matters and for the problem of mind in relation to world—the problem of imagination. Although Nemerov never loses his sense of the ironic or his doubting attitude, a quiet faith illumines most of these poems, even when the poet is acting as commentator on the scene. In his search for meaning and a simpler, purer mode of expression the poet is following, in his own way, the road taken by Frost, where the natural signs are riddles and epigrams. (p. 154)

Julia A. Bartholomay, in her The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov (copyright © 1972 by the State of Florida Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund), University of Florida Press, 1972.

In Gnomes & Occasions, Howard Nemerov's eighth volume of verse, there is much wit, modest wisdom, and an abundance of sheer poetic pleasure—ours as well as Mr. Nemerov's—a relishing of the word, just right, and positioned perfectly within the rhythmic pattern. Admiring these well-made natural lyrics, one recalls Eliot's stylistic ideal—"The common word exact without vulgarity,/The formal word precise but not pedantic"—and Frost's "figure a poem makes: it begins in delight and ends in wisdom," or "a momentary stay against confusion." In poem after poem in this collection a meticulous craftsmanship playfully realizes a poignancy of meaning, and a little ironic shock is tellingly administered. This technique is especially evident in the "gnomes," or aphorisms, which appear in each of the book's four sections but predominate in the first two. These terse, finely turned couplets and quatrains appear in manner to be modeled after Ben Jonson's satirical epigrams, but here the ironic thrust is more metaphysical than social, and existential paradoxes are impaled. (pp. 193-94)

Elsewhere, however, the poet in his delight in the quirks of language itself accidentally-on-purpose stumbles upon an accident of orthography and as here in "Being of Three Minds," discovers an uncanny depth of significance: "Some spellers say it was the little i/That differences deify and defy." Serendipity and bravo!

In the third and fourth sections of the book, where "occasions" predominate, Nemerov's tone modulates as saving wit gives way to wistful contemplation, reminiscence, and prayer. The mask of irony is lowered and Nemerov writes a more sustained elegaic verse. As he muses on man as maker—particularly the painters Brueghel and Klee ("modest and humorous in sufferings")—on seasons of butterflies, lawn sprinklers, and snowflakes, he is also meditating on himself as artist—no longer young—and on human cruelty and curiosity, neither destined ever to be fully satisfied. True, the epigrammatic manner remains in evidence—this is a very well-balanced collection—but the wit is here tinged with whimsy and warmth: despite the cruel hooks of Lake Michigan fishermen who hook gulls for kicks, sometimes, the final impression is less barbed—more of a benediction. (pp. 194-95)

Harvey Gilman, "'Unassuming Virtuoso'," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1973 by Chicago Review), Vol. 25, No. 1, 1973, pp. 193-95.

Unlike Frost's, Nemerov's poetry seldom commits organized violence upon language; the words don't dance around, they say what they mean without ever rising to urgency…. But at their best they produce gentle shocks of mild surprise that carry to the heart and that make [Gnomes and Occasions] one of the real satisfactions. (p. 583)

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973.

This new collection of poems [Gnomes and Occasions] by Howard Nemerov is a literary event of real importance. Its range is broad, its craft meticulous; it reminds us once again that Nemerov is the most interestingly and actively thoughtful poet now writing in America. The "gnomes" are epigrams which display simultaneously the distinctiveness of contemporary speech and the formal definitiveness which the epigram requires. The longer poems are concerned with a variety of nominal subjects, many of which have the unifying theme of aesthetic perception. One noteworthy exception to this description is "September, the First Day of School," a wise and moving account of a father's reflections as he leaves his son at the first-grade door: "Even our tears belong to ritual. But may great kindness come of it in the end." (p. xi)

The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974).

In Howard Nemerov's Stories, Fables & Other Diversions the relationship between form and content seems particularly felicitous. The book is as its title indicates a miscellaneous collection of fictions. Some amuse, some provoke thought; all are meticulously written, stamped with the poet's gift for compression and for metaphor….

In all the stories, fables, and diversions, Howard Nemerov appears to be having a great deal of fun. That the characters are flat rather than round seems beside the point. It is the craftsmanship, the sense of play, the wry comment on the human condition that make Mr. Nemerov's stories so eminently worth reading. (p. 85)

Dorothy Mintzlaff Kennedy, in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1974), Winter, 1974.

[Few] poets have [Nemerov's] gift for blending humorous observations or effects into essentially serious poems [as he does in Gnomes and Occasions]. It is a mistake to think, as some people do, that gag-lines in serious contexts are a sign of the smart-alec; funny things do happen, even in serious contexts, and Nemerov's vision is sufficiently broad to include them. Furthermore, his jokes help to remind us of his basically tragic vision; people who joke in solemn circumstances are often those who most deeply wish they could take them seriously. In poem after poem, Nemerov trains his eye on real things, some trivial, like the tone-arm on a phonograph, and some less so, like the paintings of Breughel or Klee; and his meditations move from perceived detail to moving contemplations of time and loss. Nemerov has seen that the world does not need him; his power is such that he can make us need to hear him tell us that. (p. 93)

Henry Taylor, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1975), Winter, 1975.