Figures of Thought

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...

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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.