Though known primarily for his poetry, Howard Nemerov (NEHM-eh-rawf) wrote novels—The Melodramatists (1949), Federigo: Or, The Power of Love (1954), and The Homecoming Game (1957)—and short stories, collected in A Commodity of Dreams, and Other Stories (1959) and Stories, Fables, and Other Diversions (1971). Two verse dramas, Endor and Cain, are included with his collection The Next Room of the Dream. His criticism and reflections on the making of poetry are to be found in various volumes: Poetry and Fiction: Essays (1963), Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics (1972), Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry, and Other Essays (1978), New and Selected Essays (1985), and The Oak in the Acorn: On “Remembrance of Things Past” and on Teaching Proust, Who Will Never Learn (1987). Journal of the Fictive Life (1965) is a series of candid autobiographical meditations.
As a poet, novelist, critic, and teacher, Howard Nemerov was a man of letters in the eighteenth century tradition. He was identified with no particular school of poetry. Scholar Peter Meinke says that Nemerov’s work explores the dilemma of “the existential, science-oriented (or science-displaced) liberal mind of the twentieth century.”
Almost every available award came to Nemerov; his honors included the Bowdoin Prize from Harvard University (1940), a Kenyon Review Fellowship in Fiction (1955), a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1961), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1968-1969), the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize (1968) for The Blue Swallows, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1970), the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1975), the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award (both 1978), the Bollingen Prize from Yale University (1981), the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry (1987), and the presidential National Medal of Art (1987). He served as a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress from 1963 to 1964 and again as poet laureate consultant in poetry from 1988 to 1990. The National Institute of Arts and Letters (1960-1991), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Alpha of Massachusetts all claimed him as a member. He served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1976 to 1991.
Nemerov was the poet of the modern person. His deep division of temperament and his interest in science illustrated the fragmentation and scientific bent of the twentieth century. His sense of the tragic nature of the human condition and his spiritual questing with no subsequent answers reflected the twentieth century search for meaning. Although his poetry has a decidedly religious quality, Nemerov appeared to resolve his spiritual questions by honoring life’s mystery rather than by adopting specific beliefs.
Bartholomay, Julia A. The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1972. Discusses Nemerov’s poetic techniques and recurrent themes. Provides detailed information about the poet drawn from his letters and conversations. An excellent source.
Burris, Sidney. “A Sort of Memoir, a Sort of Review.” Southern Review 28 (Winter, 1992): 184-201. Burris presents a memoir of Nemerov as well as critiques of A Howard Nemerov Reader and Trying Conclusions.
Kinzie, Mary. “The Signature of Things: On Howard Nemerov.” In The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Examines the body of Nemerov’s work.
Knock, Stanley F., Jr. “Renewal of Illusion.” Christian Century, January 16, 1962, 85-86. In this review of Nemerov’s verse drama Endor, Knock shows how Nemerov transports an Old Testament story into the context of existentialism and the Cold War. Rather than “see ourselves as others see us,” as poet Robert Burns advised, Nemerov finds hope not in the stripping of illusion, but in its renewal.
Labrie, Ross. Howard Nemerov. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A standard biography in Twayne’s United States Authors series. Includes an index and a bibliography.
Meinke, Peter. Howard Nemerov. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968. One of the most comprehensive books on Nemerov insofar as general knowledge is concerned. It covers not only biographical data but also the effect some life incidents had on his work. Includes brief comments on Nemerov’s major works, tracing Nemerov’s rise to literary prominence.
Nemerov, Alexander. “Modeling My Father.” American Scholar 62 (Autumn, 1993). A notable biographical piece.
Potts, Donna L. Howard Nemerov and Objective Idealism: The Influence of Owen Barfield. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. Potts contends that Nemerov was profoundly influenced by the objective idealism of British philosopher Barfield. Includes excerpts from the thirty years of correspondence between the two and selections of Nemerov’s poetry.
Vaughan, David K. Words to Measure a War: Nine American Poets of World War II. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009. Vaughan provides an examination of war poets, contrasting those who became famous before and during World War II, with those who became known as poets after the war, such as Nemerov.