Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2349
Howard Nemerov’s poetry revolves about the theme of the absurd place of humankind within the large drama of time. It also illustrates his divided temperament, about which he wrote in Journal of the Fictive Life, “I must attempt to bring together the opposed elements of my character represented by poetry and fiction.” These conflicts—the romantic-realist, the skeptic-believer, the scientist-poet—reflect the fragmentation and angst of modern existence. He did not employ scientific terms in a sentimental manner in his poetry but included nebulae, particles, and light-years as true poetic subjects, not simply metaphors for human concerns. Nemerov was a Renaissance man in his breadth and an eighteenth century man of letters in his satire, wit, and respect for form. His spiritual questions and his refusal of any orthodoxy, whether religious or artistic, made him a twentieth century existentialist.
Like any great figure, however, Nemerov defied categorization. He lived his life in and for literature in an age that values, as he wrote in his Journal of the Fictive Life, “patient, minute analysis”; he gave himself to “the wholeness of things,” “the great primary human drama” in a time when some consider that loving the human story is “unsophisticated, parochial, maybe even sinful.”
Many writers reach a plateau; Nemerov kept growing. In his evolution, he became less bitter and more loving. As he became more complex, his language grew simpler, elegantly expressing his subtle mind and his ultimate sadness at the tragic position of humanity in the universe. Nemerov’s divided nature shows in his poetry’s empiricism and acceptance of objective reality and his subjective, poetic self that searched, perhaps futilely, for a definite Word of God.
The Image and the Law and Guide to the Ruins
Nemerov’s first three poetry collections, The Image and the Law, Guide to the Ruins, and The Salt Garden, demonstrate his growth from a somewhat derivative writer to a mature poet with a distinctive voice. The Image and the Law is based on his dual vision, what he called “poetry of the eye” (the image) and “poetry of the mind” (the law). He tries to illustrate the “everpresent dispute between the two ways of looking at the world.” The Image and the Law, as a first book, was competent, but was criticized for lack of unity and for being derivative. Critics found too many echoes of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens—admittedly Nemerov’s models.
Nemerov’s second book, Guide to the Ruins, drew the same complaint, as did The Salt Garden. The latter collection, however, was recognized as exhibiting the beginning of his “most characteristic voice, a quiet intelligent voice brooding lyrically on the strange beauty and tragic loneliness of life,” as Peter Meinke has described it.
In The Image and the Law and Guide to the Ruins, not only is Nemerov practicing what he has learned from Yeats, Eliot, and others, but he also starts to purge himself of war-won realizations. Although The Image and the Law deals mainly with the city, war, and death, it also contains religious imagery and wit. His poems wail, like an Old Testament lament—“I have become a gate/ To the ruined city, dry” (“Lot’s Wife”). The poems in The Image and the Law exhibit ironic detachment as well as seriousness, for to Nemerov “the serious and the funny are one.” The dualism in the poems is suggested in the title.
Guide to the Ruins has a broader scope than his first collection and reveals artistic growth. The “ruins” are those created in World War II, although the war is not actually over. Again, there is duality in the poems; the poet feels trapped between art-faith and science-reality, but sides with neither wholeheartedly. His tension between the two produces a Dostoevskian religious agony that visits Christianity, but consistently returns to Judaism. Several poems in Guide to the Ruins unite war and religion into a pessimism that will become more evident in later works. Paradoxically, and typical of his dualistic vision, he celebrates life not only in spite of war but also because of it.
The Salt Garden
The Salt Garden, while still exhibiting some derivation, exhibits not only the poet’s own voice but also a “center,” that center being Nemerov’s interest in nature. True to his double vision, he contrasts “brutal” nature with “decent” humankind. The link between the two is found in liquids such as ocean and blood, which combine into humankind’s “salt dream,” the call of the subconscious toward wildness. The poems in The Salt Garden range from a decent, rational man’s reflection on his garden to the nightmarish, Freudian dream “The Scales of the Eyes.” A brilliant combination of the “civilized” and the “wild” is found in “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee.” By degrees, this poem shows the submerged anguish of a prosperous nineteenth century woman. The whalebone stays of her corset are a central image, leading to other images of sea, mirrors, and light, until “the black flukes of agony/ Beat at the air till the light blows out.” The Salt Garden treats not only humanity, “brutal” nature, and the link between the two, but also death as a part of “time’s ruining stream.” Water, sea, and blood are beyond moral categories; they are the substance of life. In this respect, according to Julia Bartholomay in The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov (1972), Nemerov’s perspective is biblical. Water is creative and purifying; it “sanctifies that which it permeates and recreates, for all objects are but fleeting forms on the changing surface of eternity.”
Mirrors and Windows
Nemerov’s interest in nature, which is first evident in The Salt Garden, continues in The Next Room of the Dream, Mirrors and Windows, and The Blue Swallows. Nature, in these poems, has objective reality; it is never merely a projection of human concerns. Like Robert Frost, Nemerov not only describes nature as something “other” than himself but also brings philosophical issues into his nature poems. In Mirrors and Windows, Nemerov indicates that poetry helps make life bearable by stopping it in a frame (poem). It sheds no light on the meaning of life or death; it only reveals life’s beauty or terror.
The Next Room of the Dream
The Next Room of the Dream, a collection of poems and two verse plays, illustrates Nemerov’s decision to stay close to what he calls in Journal of the Fictive Life the “great primary human drama.” His plays Cain and Endor, based on biblical themes, illustrate his humanitarianism as well as his quest for ultimate truth. This quest is ironically expressed in “Santa Claus,” which begins, “Somewhere on his travels the strange Child/ Picked up with this overstuffed confidence man,” and ends, “At Easter, he’s anonymous again,/ Just one of the crowd lunching on Calvary.”
Nemerov’s plays, however, provide no spiritual resolution to humankind’s questions. Stanley Knock in The Christian Century comments, “Nemerov succeeds only in revealing the devastating emptiness of contemporary beliefs.” The poem “Nothing Will Yield” sums up Nemerov’s perception of human helplessness in the face of reality; even art is no solution, although poets will continue to speak “holy language” in the face of despair. In The Next Room of the Dream, the poems become simpler, with more precise natural descriptions and more obvious compassion for humankind.
Nemerov’s dark vision mellows in his later work. In two later collections of poetry, Gnomes and Occasions and Sentences, the emphasis is spiritual, the tone elegiac. In The Western Approaches, the topics range from speculation about fate (“The Western Approaches”) to the sterility of space travel (“The Backward Look”).
The Blue Swallows
The Blue Swallows, published twenty years after his first collection, indicates further growth in Nemerov’s technique and development of his philosophy of “minimal affirmation.” In this book, Nemerov’s paradoxical view of humanity as both helpless and indomitable is expressed in images of gulls and swallows that circle around this world, only to find it illusory and strange. His duality is expressed in symbols of physics and theology, again underlining the division between science-reality and art-faith. According to his philosophy of minimal affirmation, human beings may be crushed, but they rise “again and again,” as in the end of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The final emphasis of the poem is simultaneously on the absurdity of life and death and the inexplicable resilience of humankind. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” expresses the central theme of The Blue Swallows, a theme that was to remain constant in Nemerov’s works until his later years.
Critics have commented profusely on Nemerov’s witty pessimism and urbane helplessness. Though Bartholomay acknowledges Nemerov’s dualistic nature, she finds other meanings in his poems besides wit and hopelessness. She sees Nemerov as a witty sophisticate who responds to life bitterly, yet she also points out his capacity to be “philosophical, subjective, lyrical, or even mystical.”
To support this contention she calls attention to “Runes,” considered by many to be Nemerov’s finest poem. Mutability is the theme of “Runes,” but with a recognition of the mystery of life. The poem expresses pessimism but avoids nihilism, attacking the emptiness of modern life while affirming “the stillness in moving things.” “Runes” is religious in that it is concerned with the mystery of creation and finds resolution in total submission to life’s riddle.
The major artistic triumph of “Runes” is the integration of external and internal through which its paradox is resolved. This unity is achieved through the brilliant treatment of three reflexive images: two objective images—water and seed—and a subjective image—thought itself. “Runes” is perhaps the most complete expression of Nemerov’s philosophy of minimal affirmation. In it Nemerov returns to the mystery of creation, in which he finds the beginnings of art. Imagination is reality’s agent, revealing “the divine shadow of nature’s signature on all things.”
Gnomes and Occasions
Gnomes and Occasions consists of epigrams, riddles, meditations, and reflections, all poems that stress origins and ends. They have the epigrammatic style of wisdom literature—pithy, sage, and provocative. The language is rife with references to the Bible, priests, grace, and God, as well as nature. There are also the characteristic wit, irony, and doubt, as expressed in “Creation Myth on a Moebius Band”:
This world’s just mad enough to have been madeBy the Being his beings into Being prayed.
Nemerov’s interest in nature is also apparent in this book, in poems such as “Late Butterflies” and “The Rent in the Screen,” a lyric dedicated to science writer Loren Eiseley. Nemerov’s sharp observations of nature are here transformed into melancholy, sometimes irony. “The Rent in the Screen” ends by commenting on the lives of moths and men, “How brief a dream.” Compassion for the fate of butterflies in winter ends with the dry “We take our pity/ Back in the house,/ The warm indoors.”
The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov
The publication of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov in 1977 led to a critical revaluation of Nemerov’s work. This collection (which includes all his poetry written through 1977) exhibits “a gradual intensifying of a unified perspective,” according to critic Phoebe Pettingell. The effect of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov is to delineate the depth and breadth of Nemerov’s insights. Throughout the volume certain questions recur—questions having to do with the nature of reality and the role of poetry in revealing the world’s appearances and sometimes, perhaps, what lies beyond appearances.
Despite the increasingly religious quality of his language, Nemerov, as usual, does not make specific religious statements. It is poetry, if anything, that comes closest to being an intercessor between God and humanity, and this link is the theme of Sentences. Here Nemerov applies his belief that “in the highest range the theory of poetry would be the theory of the Incarnation, which seeks to explain how the Word became Flesh.” In a letter to Robert D. Harvey, he wrote,Poetry is a kind of spiritual exercise, a (generally doomed but stoical) attempt to pray one’s humanity back into the universe; and conversely an attempt to read, to derive anew, one’s humanity from nature . . . In the darkness of this search, patience and good humour are useful qualities. Also: the serious and the funny are one. The purpose of poetry is to persuade, fool or compel God into speaking.
Indeed, the main theme of Sentences is the coherence art gives to life’s randomness. In accordance with his theory of connecting through the power of art, the book is divided into sections titled “Beneath,” “Above,” and “Beyond”; these sections correspond to sex and power (beneath), metaphysics and poetry (above), and human destiny (beyond). The first section is ironic, the middle is speculative, and the last is moving. Critics generally disliked the first part of Sentences, but applauded the other two sections.
Inside the Onion and War Stories
After Sentences, Nemerov published another stunning poetry collection, Inside the Onion. The title wryly implies his subjective-objective, romantic-realist nature. In this book, Nemerov blends the homely and the humorous into poems that avoid the dramatic and highlight the commonplace, making it arresting.
War Stories contains forty-six poems grouped into three parts: “The War in the Streets,” “The War in the Air,” and “The War in the Heavens.” This volume is Nemerov at his metaphysical best, grounding his spiritual musings in everyday experience. His interest in science and modern events is linked to literature—for example, the advent of Halley’s Comet is hailed in the language of the speech in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (c. 1000) that compares humankind’s life to a swallow’s brief flight through a mead hall. These poems range from an elegy for a student to explorations of subtle psychological insights to profound spiritual observations: “Though God be dead, he lived so far away/ His sourceless light continues to fall on us” (“The Celestial Emperor”).
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