Figures of Thought

by Howard Nemerov

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Figures of Thought

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Howard Nemerov has long been concerned with the nature of poetry, its status as a form of human discourse and the distinctive ways it uses language. This interest he shares with many poets before him; unlike most poets, however, Nemerov is given to ordering his thoughts into essays and publishing them in books. When he does so, as in this volume, he enters a world of discourse in which the requirements for success are often quite different from those desirable in a poet. The poet must be a good writer of poems; Nemerov is clearly that, as his distinguished career and numerous awards attest. The critic, on the other hand, must be above all else a good reader of other people’s poems, one who can enrich and illuminate and enliven for us the poetic achievement of someone else. Nemerov is certainly a capable reader, at least of some others’ poems; particularly, his discussions of Yeats in this volume are moving and insightful. However, Nemerov clearly feels a tension between his role as poet-critic and the place in literary culture of critics who are not poets. That tension informs the tone of many of the essays in this book.

Such tension underlies the testy attack Nemerov makes on Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence in the essay which gives its title to this volume. In the midst of a radically simplified summary of Bloom’s complex argument, Nemerov lets slip the problem; he just does not understand Bloom’s theories. Our choice of one interpretation over another, he says, is chiefly a matter of whether we like it or not; it suffices to say that Nemerov does not like Bloom’s. Nemerov’s stance in this essay is one which basically says, “I do not understand all this, and you, dear reader, needn’t either, because I am a certified poet, and who is Bloom, not a poet, to tell us what poetry is all about, anyway?” While one may or may not agree with Bloom’s admittedly complex and controversial theories about the development of poetry since the Romantic Age, Nemerov’s basis for objecting to it is hardly adequate.

Nemerov’s attack on the academic criticism of literature in this essay and in others scattered throughout the volume points to a serious division which exists in our literary culture at this time between the professional scholar and critic and the amateur or dilettante. Nemerov, as a critic, belongs to the latter camp; he faces the company of professional scholars who devote their lives to furthering our understanding of the major works of our literary heritage, equipped with high standards of learning and documentation. While it is understandable why an active poet whose reputation is to some degree in their hands would feel threatened by such people, it is not clear why he feels it necessary to attack directly or by condescension those whose careers are devoted to the study and dissemination of our literary heritage. One can understand why writers on literature in the popular press who are busy with their careers as poets, or whatever, cannot, or do not want to, reach the standards for publishing professional literary criticism. This does not prevent them from making an occasional insightful observation, as Nemerov does in a few places in this volume. The cost of not holding to such standards is, however, also clear. At one point, for example, in this book, in an essay in which he makes a number of fine points about Yeats, Nemerov belabors the commonplace that World War I had a decisive influence on the course of modern poetry. Clearly he believes this;...

(This entire section contains 1106 words.)

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clearly, also, it is true. But to offer it as an original observation is to ignore all those who have made the point before, and made it more cogently.

The major usefulness of this volume must be seen not in terms of how true a picture of modern poetry it presents but in terms of its presentation of the view of modern poetry held by one practicing modern poet. For that, those interested in Nemerov’s poetry will find its lengthy discussions of how poems mean, how thought is expressed in words, how modern poetry is to be read, to be helpful for what they tell us about Nemerov’s poetry. The best essays in this book are those casual ones in which the author ruminates about his experience of time, the complexities of poetic language, and the low estate of poetry in our day. Students of Nemerov’s artistic works should find such pieces extremely helpful in understanding his own aims and techniques in his verse.

The most interesting is probably the first essay in the volume, entitled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Skylark,” in which Nemerov offers some reflections on the nature of poetry and poetic uses of language. His basic point is that poetry works with those experiences which seem wonderfully unique but which, under examination, turn out to be of universal applicability. From this beginning, he moves on to suggest that poetry resists precise definition, but invites a variety of definitions; it is both that form of discourse which inspires human purpose and the chief means by which human beings confront the hopelessness of their lives. Poetry is thus paradoxically both didactic and an end in itself; it calls attention to itself as much as it directs our attention to its subject.

A similar point is made in another essay, “Poetry and Meaning,” which really focuses Nemerov’s two concerns in this book. Here, Nemerov states that poetry is “getting something right in Language”; he wonders whether we have not lost the ability to feel the “rightness” which is basic to poetry. Much of the blame for our loss of this ability he lays at the door of academic treatments of literature, which share, he argues, the cultural tendency to seek results at the expense of mystery. As a result, Nemerov wonders whether we are not approaching the end of poetry in English. The vigor with which poetry is being written and published in our day would seem to give the lie to his concern. But this misses the point: it may well be that poetry as Nemerov understands it and likes it is coming to an end. That idea is something different altogether.

In sum, the admirer of Nemerov’s poetry will find this book fascinating as a view of the world from Nemerov’s perspective and as a gloss on his work. Those interested in a truer and more just picture of literature and literary criticism must look elsewhere.


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Library Journal. CIII, March 15, 1978, p. 665.

New Republic. CLXXVIII, April 8, 1978, p. 29.

New York Times Book Review. April 16, 1978, p. 11.