Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Written in the middle of one of the most kaleidoscopic decades in American history, “Deep Woods” includes almost as much hodgepodge reflecting on mankind’s history as one would need to describe the 1950s—almost, but not quite. This decade is difficult to define in terms of any one great scientific invention, social movement, war, art or entertainment development, political action, or technological advancement. All these things and more occurred, causing the 1950s to stand alone in an era of innovation and changing attitudes. After World War II, Americans in particular were anxious to keep the economic boom provided by the conflict growing ever stronger and to avoid the miserable conditions of the pre-war depression. World War II also taught Americans that science could have a greater impact on the lives of ordinary citizens than they had ever imagined. The atomic bomb brought a mixture of fear and pride to many individuals and would pave the way for the “Red Scare,” McCarthyism, and air raid drills that all became a part of the culture of the 1950s.

The decade began with the United States involved in another overseas conflict, this time in Korea, where American and South Korean troops battled Chinese and North Korean troops over control of the entire country. At the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, the northern half becoming communist, the southern half an ally of the United States. Although the division was intended to be temporary—only until a national election could be held—skirmishes began to break out along the dividing line, turning into all-out war by 1950. When an armistice was finally signed in 1953, a demilitarized zone was established at the 38th parallel, and the country remained divided. This confrontation with communism established America’s role as the “policeman” for the world, with the determination to stop the spread of communism a rallying cry for American involvement in other nations’ internal affairs. This, in turn, led to the arms race and the...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Blank Verse
Nemerov’s “Deep Woods” is constructed in blank verse, with nearly every line written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Though blank verse can generally refer to any unrhymed poem, most often the lines contain five two-syllable feet with the first syllable accented, the second unaccented. If the poem is read through slowly, tapping out each syllable with a finger, the number of syllables adds up to ten per line with an accent pattern of TA-da, TA-da, TA-da, and so forth. This poem is more relaxed in style than Nemerov’s earlier work, and the ideas are presented in a more direct manner than those demonstrated through strict adherence to line number and rhyme scheme. Describing the poems in The Salt Garden, critic Ross Labrie, in his book Howard Nemerov, says the poems’ “lines are less jagged than had been the case earlier as Nemerov begins to settle into a flexible blank verse, the frequent use of enjambment giving rise to the sort of graceful fluidity that is characteristic of his mature work.” (In poetry, enjambment is the continuation of a syntactic unit from one line to the next, with no pause. For example, in “Deep Woods,” there is no pause between lines 4 and 5, 6 and 7, 9 and 10, etc.). Considering the complexity of Nemerov’s work, it is beneficial to the reader that the poet began to write in a more direct, loose manner so that the intellectual ideas are not made more elusive by a difficult style.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Blair, Walter, et al., The Literature of the United States, Vol. 2, 3rd ed., Scott, Foresman and Company, 1953, pp. 915–17.

Dickey, James, “Howard Nemerov,” in Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. 1968, pp. 35–41.

Jones, Brian, in London Magazine, May 1968, pp. 75–7.

Labrie, Ross, Howard Nemerov, Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Meinke, Peter, Howard Nemerov, University of Minnesota Press, 1968.

Nemerov, Howard, The Salt Garden, Little, Brown and Company, 1955.

Perkins, David, “The Collected Nemerov,” in Poetry, Vol. CXXXII, No. 6, September 1978, pp. 351–55.


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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of cold war espionage, are executed. The Rosenbergs had been found guilty of conspiring to leak atomic bomb secrets to the Russians, but the accusations were controversial, and today many Americans believe their death sentences were a miscarriage of justice.

Today: Robert Philip Hanssen, a counterintelligence specialist and FBI veteran, is accused of selling secrets to Russia for $1.4 million in cash, diamonds, and deferred money. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

1955: Disneyland, part of the empire that Walt Disney built, opens in California, the first theme park in America’s history of leisure.

Today: The Walt Disney Company is a multibillion dollar entertainment giant, operating theme parks all over the world, including Great Britain, Japan, France, and Australia.

1959: Anthropologist Louis Leakey finds the skull of “Nutcracker Man” in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, suggesting that human evolution began on the continent of Africa, not Asia.

Today: In Ethiopia, a freshly unearthed skull and jawbone provide scientists with new details about the human ancestor called “Nutcracker Man”; other digs at the same site have turned up remains of a direct human ancestor, Homo erectus, suggesting that the two species may have coexisted in the same area.

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Choose one person or event alluded to in “Deep Woods” and find out all you can about your subject. Write an essay explaining the person’s or event’s significance in history and tell why Nemerov may have selected the allusion for this poem.

Write a poem from the perspective of the “giant oak” that leans against the birch trees instead of falling “as heroes should.” What would the oak think of the human being passing by in the woods? How would it describe its own situation?

Read Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and write an essay comparing it to “Deep Woods.” Other than the obvious difference in length, how does the Frost poem contrast to Nemerov’s? In what ways are the two similar?

Howard Nemerov had a famous sister, also in the arts field. Find out who she was, what her profession was, and write a brief biography of her life.

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

There have been several recordings of Nemerov taped by the Library of Congress, including “Language, Nonsense and Poetry” (1989), “The Poet and the Poem” (1990), and “Professor Gifford Interviews Howard Nemerov” (1990).

Nemerov recorded a seventy-four-minute tape while reading at the New York Poetry Center in 1962. A two-cassette collection was also recorded in 1962 by Jeffrey Norton, simply titled “The Poetry of Howard Nemerov.” These items most likely contain a good deal of material from The Salt Garden since the book was published only seven years earlier.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

A Howard Nemerov Reader, published in 1991, is a collection that includes some of the writer’s best poems, short stories, essays, and the comic novel Federigo; or, the Power of Love. For the full scope of Nemerov’s writing talents, this book is an excellent source.

Guy and Laura Waterman were known for their writings on preserving natural habitats and living in harmony with the environment. After her husband’s death in 2000, Laura Waterman released a special edition of their book, Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness. In this call-to-action book, the Watermans describe what they call nature’s spiritual dimension, its fragile, untamed wildness, which is being...

(The entire section is 283 words.)