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Howard Nemerov 1920–1991

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American poet, critic, novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and playwright.

Nemerov is known for a diverse body of poetry that has been praised for its technical excellence, intelligence, and wit. Writing verse in a variety of forms and styles—including lyrical, narrative, and meditative—Nemerov examined religious, philosophical, scientific, and existential concerns. Although Nemerov frequently has been labeled an academic poet because of his detached stance, his firm grounding in formal verse, and the moralistic tone of some of his work, he often incorporated irony, satire, and colloquial language into his works. In addition to winning numerous prizes for his verse, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977), Nemerov was appointed poet laureate of the United States in 1988.

Biographical Information

Nemerov was born in New York City, where his father was president and chairman of the board of an exclusive clothing store. After graduating in 1937 from the elite Fieldston School in New York, Nemerov earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1941. Nemerov served in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1941 to 1944 and in the U.S. Army Air Force from 1944 to 1945. He later incorporated his war experiences into such poetry collections as Guide to the Ruins (1950) and War Stories (1987). After World War II, Nemerov returned to New York and published his first poetry collection, The Image and the Law, in 1947. He worked as assistant editor of the irreverent magazine Furioso from 1946 to 1951 and was appointed consultant of poetry to the Library of Congress in 1963. During his academic career, Nemerov taught at such colleges as Brandeis University, Washington University, and Bennington College. At Bennington, he met such notable literary figures as Kenneth Burke, Bernard Malamud, and Stanley Edgar Hyman. Nemerov died in 1991 in St. Louis, Missouri, of cancer of the esophagus.

Major Works

In The Image and the Law Nemerov utilized a variety of poetic forms and introduced themes that would recur in his subsequent collections, including war, urban blight, art, death, and religion. The poems in this volume, the title of which reflects Nemerov's examination of the dichotomy between what he called "the poetry of the eye"

and "the poetry of the mind," are often pessimistic in outlook. "The Situation Does Not Change," for example, contains a description of New York City: "Only the dead have an enduring city, / Whose stone saints look coldly on a cold world." In the war poem "For W——, Who Commanded Well," which centers on a military officer who served in World War II, Nemerov wrote: "Money is being made, and the wheels go round, / And death is paying for itself." Guide to the Ruins, which also contains a variety of poetic forms, including sonnets, epigrams, and ballads, addresses similar concerns, particularly World War II and "the ruins" of post-war life. For example, in "Redeployment," Nemerov proclaimed: "They say the war is over. But water still / Comes bloody from the taps."

The Salt Garden (1955) marks a shift in the tone, style, and themes of Nemerov's poetry. Although his earlier poems were often abstract, esoteric, formal, and derivative of the works of such poets as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens, the poems in this volume are less rigid, impersonal, and bitter; they explore such subjects as perception, nature, and the duality of man. With this volume, Nemerov reached what many critics consider his poetic maturity; The Salt Garden was also the first verse collection to bring Nemerov widespread critical and popular attention. Mirrors and Windows (1958), which won the Blumenthal Prize from Poetry magazine, reveals Nemerov's increasing confidence as a poet. In addition to addressing the limits of perception and the boundaries between the inner and outer worlds, many of the poems in this volume examine the nature of poetry writing, including the difficulty of capturing reality in verse. In "A Day on the Big Branch," for example, Nemerov provided an ironic look at himself and his literary and academic contemporaries. In The Next Room of the Dream (1962), which contains two verse plays devoted to biblical themes, Nemerov simplified his poetic approach, emphasizing description, observation, and direct language over abstract philosophical concerns. The Blue Swallows (1967) is considered another turning point in Nemerov's career. In this volume, which won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Prize, Nemerov was less pessimistic than in earlier collections and used more short-lined poems in keeping with his trend toward simplicity. The Blue Swallows also evinces Nemerov's continuing concern with nature and his increasing interest in science and technology. In The Western Approaches (1975) Nemerov returned to the more formal metaphors and conceits of his earlier works. The poems in this collection, most of which are short lyrics, are divided into three sections: "The Way" contains ironic poems about modern life, "The Mind" includes verse about art and culture, and "The Ground" focuses on nature. War Stories draws on Nemerov's war experiences and addresses illusions and misconceptions about war and military life. In the poem "The War in the Air," for example, Nemerov declared, "That was the good war, the war we won / As if there were no death, for goodness' sake."

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Nemerov's verse has been as diverse as his poetic oeuvre. Scholars have consistently praised his technical mastery of various verse forms and the diversity of his subject matter; James Billington, at the time of Nemerov's appointment to U.S. poet laureate, stated that Nemerov's subject matter ranges from "the profound to the poignant to the comic." Joyce Carol Oates has also emphasized the diversity of Nemerov's works, writing that as "romantic, realist, comedian, satirist, relentless and indefatigable brooder upon the most ancient mysteries—Nemerov is not to be classified." Critics have also lauded his emphasis of philosophical themes, particularly his examination of individual consciousness and how it is affected by the external world. However, Nemerov has also been decried as an academic poet because of the difficulty of his verse. Similarly, his works have been called self-indulgent, cocky, obscure, and overly pessimistic. Nemerov's use of humor has also been called into question, with some stating that it sometimes descends into mere wittiness or sarcasm. Others, however, have observed that Nemerov's humor provides a counterbalance to the urbanity and intellectual weight of his poems. Despite mixed reaction to his poetry and a lack of what some consider serious scholarly study of his work, many critics have applauded Nemerov's ability to address contemporary concerns, including the dichotomy between inner and outer life, the isolation of the individual, and the limits of language, in a way that is relevant, compassionate, and thought provoking. Ross Labrie has observed: "No modern writer has more eloquently traced the subtle emanations of consciousness and its shadowy journeying through the fine membrane of language out into the strangeness of the external world."

Principal Works

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The Image and the Law 1947

Guide to the Ruins 1950

The Salt Garden 1955

Mirrors and Windows 1958

New and Selected Poems 1960

The Next Room of the Dream: Poems and Two Plays 1962

The Blue Swallows 1967

The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House 1968

The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems 1968

Gnomes and Occasions 1973

The Western Approaches: Poems, 1973-1975 1975

The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov 1977

By Al Lebowitz's Pool 1979

Sentences 1980

Inside the Onion 1984

War Stories: Poems about Long Ago and Now 1987

Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 1991

Other Major Works

The Melodramatists (novel) 1949

Federigo: Or the Power of Love (novel) 1954

The Homecoming Game (novel) 1957

A Commodity of Dreams and Other Stories (short stories) 1959

Endor: Drama in One Act (drama) 1961

Poetry and Fiction: Essays (nonfiction) 1963

Journal of the Fictive Life (autobiography) 1965

Stories, Fables, and Other Diversions (short stories) 1971

Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics (essays) 1972

Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry and Other Essays (nonfiction) 1978

New and Selected Essays (nonfiction) 1985

The Oak in the Acorn: On Remembrance of Things Past and Teaching Proust, Who Will Never Learn (nonfiction) 1987

A Howard Nemerov Reader (collected works) 1991

F. C. Golffing (review date 1947)

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SOURCE: "Question of Strategy," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. LXXI, No. 11, November, 1947, pp. 94-7.

[In the following mixed review of The Image and the Law, Golffing questions the dichotomy between images and ideas in the volume.]

Mr. Nemerov tells us—on the dust-jacket [of The Image and the Law], of all places—that he dichotomizes the "poetry of the eye" and the "poetry of the mind," and that he attempts to exhibit in his verse the "ever-present dispute between two ways of looking at the world." Though usually skeptical of programmatic statements, I find this particular one quite serviceable as a clue—a "way in"—to the plexus of Nemerov's poetry.

The dichotomy itself is fashionable, and it is peculiar. It has almost assumed the status of doctrine in the work of Wallace Stevens, who disassociates mind and eye while paying homage to both, and in the work of W. C. Williams, who, while exploiting sensory perception, makes short work of the mind. There are other poets—none of them of comparable rank—who would, on the basis of the same antinomy, dismiss sense-perception for the sake of pure intellection.

What matters here is not the individual emphasis of the poet but the fact that the underlying assumption is unsound. Eye and mind are not two contrary ways of looking at the world but two interdependent modes of prehension, the perceptual mode subserving the conceptual and normative. The poet who tears the two modes asunder and presents them as inimical commits a meaningless act of violence, which is likely to vitiate the intellectual framework of his poetry.

The fact that both Stevens and Williams have written a great deal of excellent verse cannot be regarded as proof of the soundness of their methods: verse as good as theirs or better has been written on principles that are now generally recognized as either flimsy or perverse (vide Shelley, Swinburne, Whitman, Hart Crane). While there is evidently no simple correlation between a writer's doctrine and his poetic practice, it is equally plain that a halfbaked or wrong-headed philosophy will tend to have an ill effect on his manner of composition. I am convinced that most of the failures in the work of both Stevens and Williams must be traced to a defect, not in sensibility or formal mastery, but in envisagement or, as Kenneth Burke might say, poetic strategy.

Being largely under the sway of Wallace Stevens, Mr. Nemerov has appropriated not only the basic dichotomy of that poet but also his special tactics of treating ideas and perceptions severally and oppositionally. About half of his pieces deal with "images," while the other half are concerned with the "law," i.e., the normative function of the mind. I can discern no methodological connection between the two sets, not even the dialectical one of active contrasts moving toward some kind of synthesis. Not a few of the "images"—that is, the strictly descriptive or anecdotal pieces—are quite good in their whimsical way; though rarely witty they have to their credit a certain mordancy, acumen, and lightness of touch. Stylistically they hover between Stevens and K. Rexroth, with occasional sallies—no spoils resulting—into Empson's domain. When Mr. Nemerov deals with ideas he is as a rule less satisfactory; partly through simple lack of style—his identification with Rexroth becomes intolerable at times, especially in his most ambitious attempt, "The Frozen City," which despite several impressive lines is a towering monument to bathos, cf. "Moving, I saw / The murderer staring at his knife, / Unable to understand, and a banker / Regarding a dollar bill with fixed / Incomprehension," etc.—partly through conceptual confusion, as in "The Place of Value," where a plea for relevance is made in the most irrelevant terms: the neurotic individual versus the healthy statistician, fortuitous versus expiatory death, etc. Yet, oddly enough, it is in this category that we must look for Nemerov's best poems: "Warning: Children at Play," "An Old Photograph" and, particularly, "Lot's Wife"—poems which suggest that ideation may after all be this poet's forte and that, by turning division of mind and eye into collaboration, he may yet achieve a fine body of poetry. "Lot's Wife" deserves to be quoted in full; though ostensibly an animadversion on religious and other revivals, the piece rises far above the level of controversy and assumes the grave beauty characterizing all consummate symbolic statements:

I have become a gate
To the ruined city, dry,
Indestructible by fire.
A pillar of salt, a white
Salt boundary stone
On the edge of destruction.

A hard lesson to learn,
A swift punishment; and many
Now seek to escape
But look back, or to escape
By looking back: and they
Too become monuments.

Remember me, Lot's wife,
Standing at the furthest
Commark of lust's county.
Unwilling to enjoy,
Unable to escape, I make
Salt the rain of the world.

Arvid Shulenberger (review date 1950)

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SOURCE: A review of Guide to the Ruins, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. LXXVI, No. VI, September, 1950, pp. 365-70.

[In the excerpt below, Shulenberger provides a mixed review of Guide to the Ruins, commenting on Nemerov's poetic style and the influence of Ezra Pound and William Shakespeare on his works.]

Among the forty poems in Mr. Nemerov's second book [Guide to the Ruins] there are several kinds: epigram, song, sonnet, fragment, and brief essay. They are written in formal or near-formal verse, and are concerned chiefly with the contemporary scene, "the ruins" of a post-war world. In the absence of many positive qualities, their striking characteristic is chiefly their conventionality. They employ conventions of tone, meter, and attitude. The most widely conventional tone of modern serious verse since at least the early work of E. A. Robinson has been that of irony, and many of these poems are heavily ironic. In "Song" the author writes of a dead friend:

And write him letters now and then
Be sure to put them in the post
Sound cheerful as you can
Care of the holy ghost.

(It is incidental to the matter of irony that the grammar here seems determined by the rhyme scheme.)

The chief metrical convention in modern poems has been that of variation from the traditional line, and of "prose rhythms" in verse lines. It is a delicate question, at what point of variation a given meter ceases to be interestingly new or experimental, and becomes merely bad. We can cite an extreme example, however, and observe that Mr. Nemerov does not often write this badly:

The art of writing an honest prose
Is no very difficult one, and may
Be mastered in little time by persons
Willing to obey such simple rules
As are to be found in almost any
Comprehensive handbook of the subject.

Such lines are not honest verse or prose; they have in fact only the weight of a recent and unstable tradition of accentual verse to recommend them to the reader at all.

The attitude informing a majority of the poems in Guide to the Ruins is humanitarian, and the defect of humanitarian feeling in literature is simply that it tends to become emotionally pretentious. It too often deals in entities which exist for the reader only as newspaper abstractions. And it is an attitude which has its own clichés; the tragedy of the recent war for example cannot be forcibly suggested by means of the figure of a totally disabled soldier, a "basket case," brought home and exhibited at a "world's fair." Even a shocking figure can become banal. It should be added, however, of these poems in general that their concern for the real political world and its people is one of their admirable qualities.

Mr. Nemerov writes of other modes of poetry than his own:

He seems largely unaware of the tradition within which he works. Yet most of the conventions of twentieth century poetry have existed now for nearly forty years, and can be considered a minor tradition in their own right. It is a tradition of elliptical, highly connotative verse, in meters that are generally accentual variations from older norms. Its virtues have been the beauty of sound and richness of suggestion displayed in the poetry of its few masters.

Mr. Nemerov's poems are highly diverse in form and style; he has plainly read both Shakespeare and Pound. There is hardly a "typical" poem in the book, or one which seems to show a strong quality which is the writer's own. The verses are in fact exercises in several modes, and many of them are modestly interesting when read as such exercises. The unresolved, suggestive epigram which Pound developed out of imagist verse is represented, and also the literary-archaic language of Pound's early adaptations, as in "Madrigal":

To such a year no springtime riseth,
Nor is no excellence in May,
But darkness in the sky abideth
Where the world wanders astray.

Not many writers can show an actual Shakespearean influence in a "Shakespearean" sonnet, and Mr. Nemerov's "Four Sonnets" have virtues of hardness and clarity not evident in his poems in the newer conventions.

Carolyn Kizer (review date 1958)

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SOURCE: "Nemerov: The Middle of the Journey," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. XCIII, No. 3, December, 1958, pp. 178-81.

[In the generally positive review of Mirrors and Windows below, Kizer praises the intelligence, daring, and maturity of Nemerov's poetry, but states that some of the poems in the volume are too long.]

With this book [Mirrors and Windows: Poems], his fourth, Howard Nemerov now belongs to that group of poets who are most difficult to review. To express joy in the accomplished poems, yet receive them ungraciously! For, alas, the homage a serious reviewer pays to a serious poet is a vigorous appraisal. Still, the poems must be handled with care, care in many of its meanings: mental effort, a sense of responsibility, solicitude, affection, and concern. Nemerov's own criticism has been distinguished by these qualities, so there is the added obligation of trying to serve him as well as he has served other poets.

Howard Nemerov is brave, intelligent, resourceful, crafty, accomplished and grown-up. He not only takes chances with poems and ideas, he is unflinching: The poem, "A Day on the Big Branch," provides us with, among other things, a long, frank and tenderly ironic look at himself and his contemporaries: the generation that was abruptly certified as adult in 1941, and that felt like surplus property from about 1945 on. How many of us marked or saved this poem when it appeared in Poetry because through it we saw our own unpoetic lives glowing with poetry? Hu Shih once said that to arouse sentiment, the speaker must not be sentimental about himself, or must have the art to conceal his feelings.

Though Nemerov uses technique and style to conceal his feelings, occasionally he uses them to conceal the absence of feeling, when the motive seems to be a poem-for-poem's sake. Then his equipment stands, polished but empty, like armor in the hall: the mechanical writing of "A Primer of the Daily Round" (the kind of thing that most of the younger English writers can toss off before tea); the long poem, "Orphic Scenario," where no amount of forcing can mobilize the dead-tired ideas; the rather limp selfconsciousness of most of the Orient-influenced poems, as if they were written on borrowed energy from an imperfectly assimilated world. The long, discursive poem, "To Lu Chi," has a grave and thoughtful central theme, muffled by too many unnecessary lines. Certain phrases and tags are embarrassing: "this somehow seems oddly Chinese … " "your words have not failed / to move me with their justice and their strength …" "so now / Goodbye, Lu Chi, and thank you for your poem." Though Nemerov may clog the poem with these bits of debris from time to time, there are lovely intervals when the flow is quite pellucid:

And then you bring, by precept and example,
Assurance that a reach of mastery,
Some still, reed-hidden and reflective stream
Where the heron fishes in his own image,
Always exists. I have a sight of you,
Your robes tucked in your belt, standing
Fishing that stream, where it is always dawn
With a mist beginning to be burned away
By the lonely sun …

The hard fact remains that many of the long poems are too long. The shorter pieces show that he has a firm sense of dramatic structure, but in poems like "The Loon's Cry" or "Ahasuerus" the thrust of the poem is hampered by a good deal of off-side activity: whole stanzas of nearirrelevancy wander in, the focus shifts, the intensity diminishes. Sometimes because he does not trouble to whip a line, he sends a stanza to do a line's work. Sometimes when he is preoccupied with exposition, or with overexplicit ironies, the poetry flattens out into prose. Nemerov has what one might call an untrammeled intellect; he is capable of convincing himself that a sensibility or a concept is sufficiently poetic in itself: the poem becomes a vehicle to carry these responses or ideas. But when he subordinates his intellect to the verbal and linear demands of the poem, the result is a magnificently sustained, fulfilled poem like "Brainstorm":

The house was talking, not to him he thought,
But to the crows; the crows were talking back
In their black voices. The secret might be out:
Houses are only trees stretched on the rack.
And once the crows knew, all nature would know.
Fur, leaf and feather would invade the form,
Nail rust with rain and shingle warp with snow,
Vine tear the wall, till any straw-borne storm
Could rip both roof and rooftree off and show
Naked to nature what they had kept warm …

That passage, with its felicitious echo of Hardy, is ripped from the center of a poem of thirty-nine lines. Most of Nemerov's long poems would be greatly strengthened if they were pared to more nearly this length.

Although Nemerov's ear is not always listening as hard as it should, his eye is, in Dr. Williams' phrase, infinitely pénétrant:

People are putting up storm windows now,
Or were, this morning, until the heavy rain
Drove them indoors. So, coming home at noon,
I saw storm windows lying on the ground,
Frame-full of rain; through the water and glass
I saw the crushed grass, how it seemed to stream
Away in lines like seaweed on the tide …

Or these lines, from "The Town Dump":

That magnificant line about money! But, oh, the flatness of those "results". This trick of word repetition in Nemerov is nearly always a signal that his mind is playing fast and loose with his poem: "… you may say / There should be ratios. You may sum up / The results, if you want results. But I will add …" This passage of "fill" occurs later in the poem, perhaps appropriately in a poem about a dump. But, leafing through his book, one finds: "modern American rocks, and hard as rocks …" "never batter that battered copy of Walden again …" "a venomous tense past tense", "Shadows emerge and merge …" "Miraculous result would have resulted …" "Could happen only as they let it happen, / Refused to let it happen …" and so on. Nemerov, now that he is mature, should renounce the verbal playground. However, the kind of mind which puns easily, can, under pressure, produce the well-wrought irony and the stern paradox which turns the whole world upside down:

On Saturday, the power-mowers' whine
Begins the morning. Over this neighborhood
Rises the keening, petulant voice, begin
Green oily teeth to chatter and munch the cud.

Monsters, crawling the carpets of the world,
Still send from underground against your blades
The roots of things battalions green and curled
And tender, that will match your blades with blades
Till the revolted throats shall strangle on
The tickle of their dead, till straws shall break
Crankshafts like camels, and the sun go down
On dinosaurs in swamps. A night attack
Follows, and by the time the Sabbath dawns
All armored beasts are eaten by their lawns.

This is the kind of writing that separates the men from the boys: unusual syntax firmly manipulated, artful punctuation, a texture clarified but never thin, an almost arrogant virtuosity. The poet, engaged in the sunlit nightmare of the contemporary world, both hotly observes it and coolly notes it down. Certain poems of Wallace Stevens, Stanley Kunitz, Richard Wilbur, come to mind…. That marvelous quality, opulent yet rigorous, of twentieth-century pentameter at its best.

Thom Gunn (review date 1961)

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SOURCE: "Outside Faction," in The Yale Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, June, 1961, pp. 585-96.

[In the following excerpt, Gunn offers a laudatory review of New and Selected Poems and discusses Nemerov's place in contemporary American poetry.]

Poetic theory in America is at present in an extremely curious state, resembling that of England during the Barons' Wars rather than that of a healthy democracy or wellrun autocracy. It is not even a decent civil war, tradition alist against modernist. At one extreme, it is true, there are the academic-suburban poets who aim so low that it is difficult to see why they bother to aim at all; at the other there are the remnants of the neo-Bohemians, who aim everywhere and thus nowhere. Between these comparative majorities of those who are timid or eccentric on principle exist the Barons, each commanding a troop of ill-equipped and determined fighters, and each against all the rest: Baron Bly, recommending a slightly surrealist imagery that looks a little old-fashioned nowadays; Baron Rexroth, exdirector of the Beat advertising campaign; Baron Fitts, who has just announced that the one distinguishing characteristic of true poetry is Strangeness; and a host of others who are convinced that they, and they alone, have discovered the criterion for good poetry. What is interesting, or rather, distressing, is that none of the Barons' retainers are good poets. Or if they are ever good, it is only when they can forget the precepts of their masters. Just as Herbert is good in so far as he is unlike the rest of the School of Donne, so James Wright, for example, is at his best only when he is not trying to write like Robert Bly.

The Barons certainly get the ear of the public; for one thing, they are mostly good journalists, and for another, they are so original. The result is that a Ginsberg, a Starbuck, an O'Gorman receives unlimited publicity for a brief season, while Howard Nemerov, Louis Simpson, Edgar Bowers, and a few others scarcely inferior are acknowledged only here and there, and often grudgingly. But it is these last, I suspect, who will still be read in fifty years' time. Part of their virtue lies in the very fact that they have not been seduced into literary politics: they have learned from the whole of literature, not merely from writers of a special kind; and they do not view the writing of poetry as a group activity, but as a lonely and difficult task for which the rules are so extraordinarily difficult to define that each poet must reformulate them for himself.

If one associates Nemerov with other poets, it would be only with the contributors to the defunct Furioso, who made up a group so loose that it hardly counted as such, including men as different as Coxe and Kees. He has always been, very individually, one of the best poets of his generation, but with the emergence of his New and Selected Poems it becomes necessary to class him outside the category of a mere generation; for the book makes it clear that he is one of the best poets writing in English.

Nemerov's early poems were like marvelous tricks, brilliant in themselves, but each in a sense isolated from the rest. In some of them it almost looked as if he were setting himself difficult problems in style and tone for their own sake. "History of a Literary Movement" and "Carol," for example, though they are excellent light verse, bear little relation to each other (in the way all of Robert Lowell's early poems bear a closely definable relation to each other) except in so far as they show an unusually efficient use of two different styles, parody and folksong. But the value of the apprenticeship served in the early poems becomes apparent in his succeeding work: for rhetoric is now an instrument with which he can pry open what he pleases.

He is at equal ease in the modes of epigram, comic poem, meditation, and narrative, yet his work in each is now clearly related to his work in all the rest. His style has great range. He can write the abstract statement of the following passage from "The Murder of William Remington," statement which is careful and qualified, and derives much of its strength from Renaissance writing.

There is the terror too of each man's thought,
That knows not, but must quietly suspect
His neighbor, friend, or self of being taught
To take an attitude merely correct;
Being frightened of his own cold image in
The glass of government, and his own sin,

Frightened lest senate house and prison wall
Be quarried of one stone, lest righteous and high

Look faintly smiling down and seem to call
A crime the welcome chance of liberty,
And any man an outlaw who aggrieves
The patriotism of a pair of thieves.

He can also, however, elaborate images in the much more casual, seemingly random manner of the beginning of "Writing":

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters,
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records in ice.

What the two passages have in common, perhaps, is an easy authority of tone, by means of which particular observation is generally placed and generalization is seen in relation to a particular context.

The latest poems, occupying more than the first quarter of the book, are the most exciting. For from traditional materials he has fashioned a kind of blank verse which I believe to be, in Pound's sense, an invention. Its most striking characteristic is the almost continuous use of runovers. It is normally difficult to run-over many consecutive lines and still write good poetry, since the metrical norm tends to get lost, as we can see for example in the more breathless passages of "Endymion," by which Keats was protesting—a bit inadequately—against the tightness of eighteenth-century verse. The effect in Nemerov's poems, in say "Mrs. Mandrill" or "Death and the Maiden"—two of the best—is of an unceasing flow, an unchecked movement without looseness or breathlessness: the unit of the line is never destroyed or forgotten (though it is true, as often in blank verse, it has become less important than the unit of the paragraph), and the constant use of runovers, instead of causing the distintegration of form, has created a new form. I find this a technical invention of great importance, and have little doubt that Nemerov will have his imitators within a few years. What is more, the speed at which the verse moves enables the writer to introduce a great many juxtapositions of detail which would seem forced in a slower-moving verse. Seemingly discrepant images are caught up and absorbed by the swift movement to bring about a continuous enrichment and qualification of meaning.

Nemerov gets a wide range of material and tone into these passages, yet there is a unity of effect. There is in fact a concentration of experience without the loss of richness and variety that concentration can involve.

Most of the poems in this selection possess a similar authority, and are composed—to apply to him one of his own phrases—with "a singular lucidity and sweetness." It is a distinguished and important book.

Hayden Carruth (review date 1963)

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SOURCE: "Interim Report," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. CII, No. 6, September, 1963, pp. 389-90.

[Below, Carruth calls most of the poems in The Next Room of the Dream "wisecracks " and discusses what he considers Nemerov's "technicalfailures."]

Half of this book [The Next Room of the Dream] is taken up by two verse plays on Biblical themes, and since I'm not qualified to discuss them, I'll pass them over; remarking only that the language seems to me nearly successful, but not quite; it lacks the vivacity or tone which we want from dramatic verse, even when the plays are, like these, reflective in intent. But the other considerations of structure, theatrical expediency, etc., I must leave to critics of the stage, though I earnestly recommend these two plays as excellent texts for their attention.

The rest of the book consists of short poems, most of which are wisecracks. For my purpose here, I define the wisecrack as a poem of wit in which the two parts fail to cohere. A proper conceit, as we know, consists of a joke and a moral; they must resist each other fiercely yet remain locked together—a sort of terrified embrace; and when they fall apart the joke becomes merely a joke, the moral becomes merely a platitude. Which is what happens in too many of Nemerov's poems. Why? When I reviewed his last book, I said flatly it was a defect of meter and let it go at that, and my friends chided me, quite justly, for being so short with a fine poet. Nemerov has a good ear for all verbal effects, as we know from his best earlier work; for example, that much-anthologized piece about the lady and the whale. There meter does what it should; it fixes the tone of voice, emphasis, and ultimately the meaning of the poem. Meter is, after all, what makes any artifice of language come alive, and I hope it's clear I'm not talking about metronomic or syllable-counting techniques. Nemerov's verse is far from these; his meter is varied and flexible; but I still think that in his recent work his metrical effects have become rather mechanical, rather predictable and repetitious. We recognize Nemerov all right, but a Nemerov who is copying his own manner by rote, turning the stuff out too easily and slickly. The general tone betrays fatigue; and the result is a meter which fails to do its work, fails to sustain and consolidate the feeling, in Nemerov's case the feeling—verve, élan—of wit in a forcing moral action. It isn't always a failure; there's a poem in this book, "At a Country Hotel," which is close to the whale poem in excellence, perhaps good enough to become a new anthology piece. But one poem will not support a book. The reviewer does not inquire, of course, into the deeper cause of a technical failure, especially in the case of a poet as gifted as Nemerov. One can only wish him, as I and I'm sure all readers do, the best of luck, and assure him we will wait for his next book with every anticipation of renewed enjoyment.

Peter Meinke (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: "Twenty Years of Accomplishment," in The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov: A Selection of Essays and a Bibliography, edited by Bowie Duncan, The Scarecrow Press, 1971, pp. 29-39.

[In the following essay, which was originally written on the occasion of the publication of The Blue Swallows and published in Florida Quarterly in October 1968, Meinke examines the first twenty years of Nemerov's poetic career, stating "more than any other contemporary poet, Nemerov speaks to the existential, science-oriented … liberal mind of the 20th century."]

It's a bad word, perhaps, but Howard Nemerov is really a philosopher. And judging from the scant space allotted him in the latest books on modern poetry, he is still one of our most underrated poets, despite a steadily widening audience (his New & Selected Poems, for example, is in its fourth printing). His latest book confirms what really has been evident since 1955 and The Salt Garden, more than any other contemporary poet, Nemerov speaks to the existential, science-oriented (or -displaced), liberal mind of the 20th century.

The Blue Swallows, published exactly 20 years after his first book, is Nemerov's seventh book of poetry, and the 67 new poems it contains represent not so much a culmination of his efforts as another step along a clearly defined technical evolution, and another elucidation (another series of examples) of what might be called a philosophy of minimal affirmation. Like his gulls and swallows, Nemerov circles around and around the things of this world, finding them insubstantial, frightening, illusory, beautiful, and strange. Nowhere is his basically pessimistic view of man as both hopeless and indomitable better expressed than in the conclusion of his new poem, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle":

There, toward the end, when the left-handed wish
Is satisfied as it is given up, when the hero
Endures his cancer and more obstinately than ever
Grins at the consolations of religion as at a child's
Frightened pretensions, and when his great courage
Becomes a wish to die, there appears, so obscurely,
Pathetically, out of the wounded torment and the play,
A something primitive and appealing, and still dangerous,
That crawls on bleeding hands and knees over the floor
Toward him, and whispers as if to confess: again, again.

In Nemerov's first two books, The Image and the Law (1947) and Guide to the Ruins (1950), the same pessimism is evident, but without the technical control, the assimilation of influences. In these early books Nemerov, an ex-RAF pilot, is "writing the war out of his system," as they say; he is also, more importantly, writing A) Eliot, B) Yeats, and C) Stevens out of his system:

The early poems in general have an abstract, literary quality, an esoteric vocabulary, many allusions. One marked tendency in Nemerov's technical development has been a growing simplicity and directness, not toward the "country" simplicity of Robert Frost, but the simplicity of a highly educated man trying to convey the substance of his meditations clearly.

Critics often note in his earlier work the influence of Auden. While one can find it in an occasional flatness of tone, Nemerov's wit is his own. (In the same way his novels have been compared to Evelyn Waugh's, but both of these similarities are only real insofar as wit is similar to wit.) Wit is certainly a constant element in Nemerov's work: puns, irony, satire, epigrams, jokes; these are not extrusive from his main body of poetry, but integral to it. Nemerov has said, "The serious and the funny are one." This is even more true of The Blue Swallows than of his earlier books.

The other main element besides wit that is carried over from his early poetry is a concern with theological questions, reflected often in Biblical subject matter (e.g., his two verse plays, "Cain" and "Endor"), but more often in a running dialogue with Christianity. Nemerov's own religious position seems to be that of a non-practicing Jew who is constantly wrestling with the problem of faith. An early sonnet ends: "The question is of science not to doubt / The point of faith is that you sweat it out." This is still an important theme in his latest book (e.g., "Creation of Anguish," "Cybernetics").

It was in his third book, The Salt Garden, that Nemerov first pulled together his talent and intelligence; originally a "city" poet, Nemerov moved to Bennington, Vermont, in 1948; and nature has been a unifying element in his work since The Salt Garden (in 1967 he was given the $1000 St. Botolph Club Arts Award for "a poet of accomplishment and promise, native to, or primarily associated with, New England). "The Goose Fish," "The Pond," "I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee," "The Salt Garden," are just a few of the poems from The Salt Garden which have become familiar to readers of contemporary poetry.

Also in The Salt Garden the two main influences on Nemerov emerge. His subjects and the flexible rhythms of his meditative blank verse reflect a close study of Wordsworth and Frost: he is one of the few poets to really learn from these masters:

Line, leaf, and light; darkness invades our day;
No meaning in it, but indifference
Which does not flatter with profundity.
Nor is it drama. Even the giant oak,
Stricken a hundred years ago or yesterday,
Has not found room to fall as heroes should …

The typical adjective used to describe nature is "brutal," and the link between brutal nature and "decent" bumbling man is found in the liquids, ocean and blood, which fuse into man's "salt dream," the submerged and subconscious call of the wild. And while Nemerov's lyrical intelligent voice brooding over nature and man dominates this book, there is also great variety of tone and subject: e.g., the telescoped images of "I Only Have Escaped Alone to Tell Thee," the surreal dream sequence "The Scales of the Eyes."

The trend toward nature begun in The Salt Garden continues in Mirrors & Windows (1958), the difference being that in the latter book Nemerov is consciously aware that he is a poet looking at nature, trying to capture it in his poems: "Study this rhythm, not this thing. / The brush's tip streams from the wrist / of a living man, a dying man. / The running water is the wrist."

"A Day on the Big Branch" is a good example of Nemerov's attitude, which might be called realistic romanticism. That is, the poems seem to be composed by a romantic sensibility which is at the same time too analytical and honest to see things other than as they are. Nemerov's rocks are "hard as rocks" and when the half-drunk card players climb into the wilderness nothing very glorious happens—except that as they talk of the war and of life, the majestic beauty of nature forces them into "poetry and truth":

so that at last one said, "I shall play cards
until the day I die," and another said,
"in bourbon whiskey are all the vitamins
and minerals needed to sustain man's life,"
and still another, "I shall live on smoke
until my spirit has been cured of flesh."

Another outstanding poem of minimal affirmation is "The Town Dump," a savage metaphor for civilization (in Nemerov's novels the pessimism is redeemed by the humor; generally speaking, in Nemerov's poetry the pessimism is redeemed by beauty, often symbolized by birds):

…. You may sum up
The results, if you want results. But I will add
That wild birds, drawn to the carrion and flies,
Assemble in some numbers here, their wings
Shining with light, their flight enviably free,
Their music marvelous, though sad, and strange.

Mirrors & Windows often reminds one of Hart Crane's lines which Nemerov used as an epigraph for his novel, Federigo: "As silent as a mirror is believed / Realities plunge in silence by …" The object of poetry is to catch as in a mirror the beauty and terror of life, not to make life prettier, not to make it easier for us, not even to help us understand it. "Some shapes cannot be seen in a glass, / those are the ones the heart breaks at." The poems in this book are life-reflecting mirrors, and windows through which we see with the poet's "infinitely penetrant" eye. Nemerov's poetry has become considerably more visual:

It was as promised, a wonder, with granite walls
enclosing ledges, long and flat, of limestone,

or, rolling, of lava; within the ledges
the water, fast and still, pouring its yellow light,
and green, over the tilted slabs of the floor,
blackened at shady corners, falling in a foam
of crystal to a calm where the waterlight
dappled the ledges as they leaned
against the sun; big blue dragonflies hovered
and darted and dipped a wing, hovered again
against the low wind moving over the stream,
and shook the flakes of light from their clear wings.

New & Selected Poems (1960) contains only fifteen new poems; the new note is an overriding concern with his "deare times waste." Time and the loss of innocence, of friends, of hope, are the themes: "I cried because life is hopeless and beautiful," he writes, and the beauty teaches him to "endure and grow." The central poem—Nemerov's longest—is "Runes," symmetrically consisting of fifteen-line stanzas (a stanza form very suitable to his talent, e.g., "The Beekeeper Speaks" in The Blue Swallows). Like "The Scales of the Eyes," "Runes" is a sort of dream sequence, but more tightly organized, the fifteen stanzas being meditations clustered around the images of water and seed, "Where time to come has tensed / Itself." The smooth run-on blank verse lines match rhythm and content:

Consider how the seed lost by a bird
Will harbor in its branches most remote
Descendants of the bird; while everywhere
And unobserved, the soft green stalks and tubes
Of water are hardening into wood, whose hide,
Gnarled, knotted, flowing, and its hidden grain,
Remember how the water is streaming still.
Now does the seed asleep, as in a dream
Where time is compacted under pressures of
Another order, crack open like stone
From whose division pours a stream, between
The raindrop and the sea, running in one
Direction, down, and gathering in its course
That bitter salt which spices us the food
We sweat for, and the blood and tears we shed.

The water streaming in the seed streams through our world, our bodies, holding everything together in its always-changing permanence. The subtle rhythms support the imagery in a fusion of form and content; run-ons, alliteration, repetition, all playing important roles in the structure. The "s" sound in "soft green stalks and tubes," the "d" sound in "hardening into wood, whose hide, / Gnarled, knotted" reinforce the meaning; the rhythm, stopped by "whose hide, / Gnarled, knotted," flows forward again with "Flowing, and its hidden grain." The end of the first sentence holds the paradox of permanent impermanence in the ambiguous "streaming still." The onomatopoeic "crack" splits the second sentence, whose alliteration and longer phrases ("gathering in its course / That bigger salt which spices us the food / We sweat for") underline the stanza's conclusion.

Nemerov's sixth book of poems, The Next Room of the Dream (1962), continues his trend toward a more simple and clear verse, emphasizing natural description: "Now I can see certain simplicities / In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time, / And say over the certain simplicities, / The running water and the standing stone … " And yet, as he writes in another poem, "Nothing will yield": art smashes on the rocks of reality. Often attacked for being too "cold" or "cerebral," Nemerov's poetry is actually quite the opposite: a passion disciplined, but passionate and humanitarian nevertheless, with cries of anguish constantly breaking through: "—Nothing can stand it!" Poems like "Lion & Honeycomb" and "Vermeer" express his ars poetica, his striving for rhythms "Perfected and casual as to a child's eye / Soap bubbles are, and skipping stones"; poems like "The Iron Characters" and "Somewhere" express his humanitarianism; poems like "To Clio, Muse of History" and "The Dial Tone" are metaphysical expressions of his belief in the unreality of reality, the reality of the void.

The Blue Swallows is a worthy successor to these books. Divided into four sections, it has the variety, wit, and technical skill we have come to expect; it is also full of wisdom and gentleness:

… even the water
Flowing away beneath those birds
Will fail to reflect their flying forms,
And the eyes that see become as stones
Whence never tears shall fall again.

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind's eye lit the sun.

While the themes and images are often specifically contemporary (Auschwitz, burning monks, a Negro cemetery, cybernetics), Nemerov is mainly concerned with finding timeless metaphors for the human condition, "relation's spindrift web." In poem after poem we are likened (without his saying so explicitly) to cherries picked off trees, snowflakes falling in black water, lobsters waiting in a tank, days falling into darkness, planted rows dwindling to wilderness, fields becoming shadow. These poems are used more or less contrapuntally with tremendously effective satire on The Great Society ("Money," "On the Platform," "To the Governor & Legislature of Massachusetts"). A typical example (not best, but chosen for brevity) is "Keeping Informed in D.C.":

Nature, still treated unromantically, permeates these poems; in "The Companions," which is a sort of modern "Immortality Ode," Nemerov describes the pull towards nature that, for example, Frost writes about in "Directive." But Nemerov refuses to see "messages" there: "That's but interpretation, the deep folly of man / To think that things can squeak at him more than things can." A fascination with light, "Firelight in sunlight, silver pale," also plays over these pages, and indeed these poems can be thought of as the "small flames" which conclude the book's final poem:

So warm, so clear at the line of corded velvet
The marvelous flesh, its faster rise and fall,
Sigh in the throat, the mouth fallen open,
The knees fallen open, the heavy flag of the skirt
Urgently gathered together, quick, so quick,
Black lacquer, bronze, blue velvet, gleam
Of pewter in a tarnishing light, the book
Of the body lying open at the last leaf,
Where the spirit and the bride say, Come,
As from deep mirrors on the hinted wall
Beyond these shadows, a small flame sprouts.

One reason that Nemerov speaks to this age is that his poetry attempts to come to terms with science: not just psychology (in which Nemerov is well versed, vide his Journal of the Fictive Life), but "hard" science. Light years and nebulae, the speed of light, electrodes, a heterodyne hum, physicists and particles, are typical subjects for him. His general position seems to be that science is "true," but never quite accounts for our lives (though it tries): science lacks "blood" and "mystery;" it misses the essential:

For "nothing in the universe can travel at the speed
Of light," they say, forgetful of the shadow's speed.

While Nemerov's typical form is the loose blank verse line, in The Blue Swallows he uses more short-lined poems, trimeter and dimeter, than in his earlier work, keeping with his trend toward simplicity. In this form, too, his rhythms are varied and subtle, as in the first stanza of "Celestial Globe":

This is the world
Without the world.
I hold it in my hand
A hollow sphere
Of childlike blue
With magnitudes of stars.
There in its utter dark
The singing planets go,
And the sun, great source,
Is blazing forth his fires
Over the many-oceaned
And river-shining earth
Whereon I stand
Balancing the ball
Upon my hand.

To sum up. The Blue Swallows is the work of a poet who is a master of his craft; rhythm, image, sound fuse in poem after poem. And the poetry speaks to us, as poems should. There is no certainty, much agony, our minds bow down "Among the shadows / Of shadowy things, / Itself a shadow / Less sure than they." Nemerov's general intelligence and craftsmanship perhaps seem old-fashioned today, when blood-and-guts, a confessional softness, and a sort of sloppiness are thought to be more "honest" or "spontaneous"; he is perhaps closer in spirit to, say, Pope, who is also out of favor (nevertheless the 18th century is called the Age of Pope). And underneath the darkness Nemerov continally strikes the existential spark, as in the conclusion of his poem describing an oil slick polluting a stream:

The curve and glitter of it as it goes
The maze of its pursuit, reflect the water
In agony under the alien, brilliant skin
It struggles to throw off and finally does
Throw off, on its frivolous purgatorial fall
Down to the sea and away, dancing and singing
Perpetual intercession for this filth—
Leaping and dancing and singing, forgiving everything.

Douglas H. Olsen (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7576

SOURCE: "Such Stuff as Dreams: The Poetry of Howard Nemerov," in Imagination and the Spirit: Essays in Literature and the Christian Faith Presented to Clyde S. Kilby, edited by Charles A. Huttar, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971, pp. 365-85.

[In the following essay, Olsen provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Nemerov's poetry, focusing on the unifying elements in his works.]

The serious and the funny are one. The purpose of Poetry is to persuade, fool, or compel God into speaking.

—Howard Nemerov, in a letter to Robert D. Harvey.

The poetry of Howard Nemerov is conventional and con versational; it has been called "academic" and even pro saic. His best poetry, however, is among the best American poetry written since World War II, partly because it is poetry that comes so close to being prose. Much postwar poetry, in reaction to the Eliot-Pound influence, attempts to communicate outside the classroom by using colloquial idioms and even slang, a conversational and even flippant tone, and contemporary subjects, such as Old Dutch Cleanser, television, Merritt Parkway, and J. Edgar Hoover. The danger in such poetry, of course, is that it may communicate to our time and our time only. It may be only Instant Poetry or Disposable Poetry (reflecting perhaps a fear that there will be no centuries to communicate to after ours). Howard Nemerov's best poetry, however, succeeds in being both contemporaneous and universal; it succeeds often in being both prosaic and poetic—prosaic on the surface for our prosaic times, yet intensely poetic beneath. Hayden Carruth in a review (The Nation, January 21, 1961) said that he was not tempted to reread Nemerov's poems because they had "strayed into prose." Though the statement may be true of some of the poems, such a wholesale dismissal is unwarranted; it is almost as unfair as dismissing Eliot's poetry because it strays into nonsense.

Nemerov, it is true, is quite at home with prose. He has published three novels (Melodramatists, Federigo, The Homecoming Game), a collection of delightful short stories (A Commodity of Dreams), an autobiographical journal-novel (A Journal of the Fictive Life), and a collection of essays and literary criticism (Poetry and Fiction). But he is at his best in his six volumes of poetry (of which the last two are best): The Image and the Law (1947), Guide to the Ruins (1950), The Salt Garden (1955), Mirrors and Windows (1958), New and Selected Poems (1960), and The Next Room of the Dream (1962). The last volume includes two biblical plays (modernized) in verse.

His poems comment on a great range of subjects—dande-lions, autumn, snowmen, TV cartoon shows, a dial tone, modern religious attitudes, war, a town dump, lovers, the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty"—with the calm, sometimes gently ironic voice of a leisurely observer out for a stroll. This quiet style, which is sometimes mistaken for prose, is achieved with much art. Consider, for example, one of Nemerov's best poems, "Storm Windows."

People are putting up storm windows now,
Or were, this morning, until the heavy rain
Drove them indoors. So, coming home at noon,
I saw storm windows lying on the ground,
Frame-full of rain; through the water and glass
I saw the crushed grass, how it seemed to stream
Away in lines like seaweed on the tide
Or blades of wheat leaning under the wind.
The ripple and splash of rain on the blurred glass
Seemed that it briefly said, as I walked by,
Something I should have liked to say to you,
Something … the dry grass bent under the pane
Brimful of bouncing water … something of
A swaying clarity which blindly echoes
This lonely afternoon of memories
And missed desires, while the wintry rain
(Unspeakable, the distance in the mind!)
Runs on the standing windows and away.

Despite the iambic pentameter—most of Nemerov's poetry is in blank verse—the entire poem has a looseness of sentence structure and rhythm associated more often with prose than with poetry. The first four lines especially seem like prose: there is no paradox, no metaphor, no original phrasing, no vivid imagery, no compression of thought. So far it is what you might notice about Frost's

Whose woods these are 1 think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

But Frost's lines have rhyme and a more definite meter, instantly identifying it as verse. In Nemerov's lines even the iambic pentameter does not distinguish it as verse, since iambic pentameter is so close to natural speech rhythm. There is, however, slant rhyme in these lines—now, rain, noon, ground—an arrangement that would not occur in prose. These slant rhymes further chime with other words—windows, indoors, windows. Also the sound or is in each of the lines—storm, morning, indoors, storm—and there are repetitions of m and long o. If it is prose, it is a pleasantly skillful prose.

In addition to these subtle rhythmic effects, there are two subtle tensions of thought in the four lines. The first is the qualification, "Or were, this morning, until the heavy rain / Drove them indoors." This qualification may cause the reader to suspect Nemerov of wordiness, for these four lines can easily be condensed to three:

People were putting up storm windows when
The heavy rain drove them indoors. At noon
I saw storm windows lying on the ground, …

Apparently the meaning has not been changed, but does the revision improve the lines? If it does, obviously the poem is flawed, and we can call Nemerov's original lines prose. In this case, however, one thing that the revision changes is the style. Nemerov's style is a relaxed style; the revised lines, on the other hand, seem to rush too fast—they are not as graceful, as natural, as the original. Also, something quite important to the meaning has been left out: the qualification has been removed. Still it might seem that the qualification was pointless in the first place, since it seems to contradict and even negate the idea of the first line, that "people are putting up storm windows now." The now is essential to the whole poem, however: the people are still in the process of putting up storm windows; when the rain stops, they will come out and finish the job. The qualification, therefore, only qualifies; it does not negate. The situation, therefore, as in many poems, is a frozen moment, an eternal now. Another of Nemerov's poems, "Moment," illuminates this idea.

Now, starflake frozen on the windowpane
All of a winter night, the open hearth
Blazing beyond Andromeda, the sea-
Anemone and the downwind seed, O moment
Hastening, halting in a clockwise dust,
The time in all the hospitals is now,
Under the arc-lights where the sentry walks
His lonely wall it never moves from now,

The crying in the cell is also now,
And now is quiet in the tomb as now
Explodes inside the sun, and it is now
In the saddle of space, where argosies of dust
Sail outward blazing, and the mind of God,
The flash across the gap of being, thinks
In the instant absence of forever: now.

The people are putting up storm windows now, the poet is writing the poem now, we are reading the poem now—art blends the time differences into a single now. Furthermore, putting up storm windows is as seasonal as the fall of leaves; in a sense, therefore, people are always putting up storm windows, as there always is an autumn.

The second tension of thought in the first four lines of "Storm Windows" is the irony that the people, while trying to protect their houses from storms, were driven indoors by a storm. Man's constant struggle against Nature and the ultimate futility of that struggle are thus symbolized at the poem's outset.

"Frame-full of rain" in line 5 is the first slightly unusual, more "poetic" (because compressed) phrasing in the poem. It comes as a mild surprise after the relaxed lines preceding it; moreover, the image is set at the beginning of the line and followed by a caesura. It is the central image of the poem, and Nemerov makes us see it. Then the image is described in four lines as though the frame contained a painting. The poet, however, paints the picture with similes. The observed fact of crushed grass is transformed into an underlying reality—the natural kinship of grass with wheat and seaweed. Likewise, the storm and glass become tide and wind as the imagination of the poet takes us from the original scene to the sea and country, and even into elemental Nature.

The similes make sharp pictures, but they are, nevertheless, only similes. The grass "seemed to stream." The grass is "crushed," the glass is "blurred," the clarity sways and "blindly echoes." In Nemerov's poetry windows and mirrors are used frequently as metaphors or symbols for the way we perceive the world: in a mirror reversed or distorted (as through a glass darkly) or through a window in which the glass is a tangible, though invisible, barrier between the observer and reality. So in this poem the image seen through the glass is not seen clearly, it seems in imagination to be what it is not in fact (though the imagination may be closer to Reality than the fact is). In the next six lines the image of rain on glass seems to be even more. It seems to say something very important, some truth perhaps. But what it says is not nearly so clear as the seaweed and wheat. It is only something. It is an intuition, a memory, a longing, a note of beauty or nostalgia perhaps, but unformed. How can one describe a sunset or love or rain on storm windows? "If only we had words," we often think. The poet is one whose job it is to have words, but here he can only record the fact itself and say it said "something." The situation, therefore, comes to stand for abstract truth itself. We sense a greater reality behind observable fact, but cannot ultimately define it, cannot know it forever into words. But it is there; it is something. "Unspeakable the distance in the mind!" Within itself the mind can travel infinitely far from the storm window starting place; but when it returns, it is like the man who saw heaven and was unable to tell about it. For Nemerov this "secret of life," which can be known intuitively but not empirically verified, is often symbolized by water, itself a mysterious source of life. For example, Section xv of "Runes":

To watch water, to watch running water
Is to know a secret, seeing the twisted rope
Of runnels on the hillside, the small freshets
Leaping and limping down the tilted field
In April's light, the green, grave and opaque
Swirl in the millpond where the current slides
To be combed and carded silver at the fall;
It is a secret, but to have it in your keeping,
A locked box, Bluebeard's room, the deathless thing
Which it is death to open. Knowing the secret,
Keeping the secret—herringbones of light
Ebbing on beaches, the huge artillery
Of tides—it is not knowing, it is not keeping,
But being the secret hidden from yourself.

Here this intuitive knowledge is transformed into being, which paradoxically is unknowable (it can only be experienced).

In "Storm Windows" the key phrase is "swaying clarity." That is, after all, what the rain on the glass seemed to say something of. The phrase is similar to "swaying form" in Nemerov's essay "The Swaying Form," which discusses the relationship of art and religion. The term, une forme maistresse, comes from a passage by Montaigne, as translated by Florio; Nemerov applies it to poetry and explains,

The form … is simultaneously ruling and very variable, or fickle; shifting and protean as the form of water in a stream, where it is difficult or impossible to divide what remains from what runs away.

The "swaying clarity," therefore, is first of all that which the combination of grass, window, and rain evokes in the observer—the memories, desires, feelings, mood—and, second, a term appropriate for the poem itself. The poem as an objective correlative creates the same clear yet vague feelings in the reader: the situation, the imagery, the sense of loneliness are clear; yet any message of truth, any "moral," runs away like seaweed on the tide or water on windows. According to Nemerov, this is often the nature of poetry. It is art working against itself to reveal and yet not reveal. The reason for this is that the "truth" in poetry is not a theology, not a systematic philosophy, not an outline of any doctrine, but a re-creation of a situation.

The poet's business … is to name as accurately as possible a situation, but a situation which he himself is in. The name he gives ought to be so close a fit with the actuality it summons into being that there remains no room between inside and outside; the thought must be "like a beast moving in its skin." (Dante)

[Poetry and Fiction]

The situation named in "Storm Windows" is "This lonely afternoon of memories / And missed desires." More specifically, the situation may be one of unrequited love or a broken love affair with the "you" of line 11. "The dry grass bent under the pane / Brimful of bouncing water" reflects the mood of the speaker, a protected (though bent) condition, a numbness perhaps—"After great pain a formal feeling comes," to quote Emily Dickinson. The temptation toward an outpouring of emotion bounces off and away. That the windows in the last line are not the ones lying on the ground, but are standing, suggests a resoluteness of the speaker, a squaring of the shoulders and walking on (undoubtedly under an umbrella). Even our deepest emotions affect us with a "swaying clarity." Grief is often mixed with relief.

Further "meaning" is suggested by the seasonal setting, the tide, the water running off the windows, the poet's passing by the scene. The "message" of the poem is that life goes on, thank goodness, whether we like it or not. This is the message of many great poems. By itself it is a rather banal message; in the great poems it is profound truth. That is why naming a situation is so important: the new name is fresh, and the situation is more than an abstract generalization—it becomes life itself. The poem attempts to give us life itself so clearly that if there is any meaning to life we can read that meaning from the poem. Actually, therefore, the entire poem is the named situation; the meanings of its words should evoke a response similar to that observed by the poet from the real situation. Poems ideally should mean no more than trees do, but

Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also—though there has never been
A critical tree—about the nature of things.

This didactic excerpt from "Trees" (New and Selected Poems), is—like MacLeish's "A poem should not mean / But be"—unfaithful to its own advice. "Storm Windows" more effectively names a situation.

It may still seem to some, however, that "Storm Windows" does not name the situation accurately, that the diction and sentence structure are still too prose-like. So many of the great poets of this century—Eliot, Cummings, Thomas, Roethke, Stevens, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell—pack so many implications into each word and line that a readily readable poet like Nemerov, especially in a period dominated by the New Criticism, seems to have the same fault of wordiness as some of the popular nineteenth-century poets, such as Bryant and Longfellow. Or his diction may seem too colloquial and commonplace for poetry. In some of his poems the diction does fail, but that is not a fault of the diction. "To be, or not to be: that is the question" is not intrinsically less poetic than "The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," despite the former's plain language. Since Wordsworth, at least, there has been a line of poets—such as Whitman, Frost, and even Eliot—who have sought to write in a common language. Nemerov is in this tradition; he uses ordinary words, avoiding both poetically contrived phrasing and, as a general rule, colloquialisms and slang. He uses a communicative and enduring language. His method is summed up in "Vermeer" (in The Next Room of the Dream):

Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures …

If I could say to you, and make it stick,
A girl in a red hat, a woman in blue
Reading a letter, a lady weighing gold …
If I could say this to you so you saw,
And knew, and agreed that this was how it was
In a lost city across the sea of years,
I think we should be for one moment happy.

That is exactly what "Storm Windows" does, and in reading it we are, despite the loneliness in the poem, "for one moment happy." It is an aesthetic happiness that comes from our being able to agree that that was exactly how it was; Nemerov has succeeded in naming the situation accurately.

Some of Nemerov's verse appears to be less than poetry because of a seeming lightheartedness, a tendency toward wit and satire. For example, "Absent-Minded Professor":

This lonely figure of not much fun
Strayed out of folklore fifteen years ago
Forever. Now on an autumn afternoon,
While the leaves drift past the office window,
His bright replacement, present-minded, stays
At the desk correcting papers, nor ever grieves
For the silly scholar of the bad old days,
Who'd burn the papers and correct the leaves.

Some of his poems satirize materialistic religious attitudes. "Boom!" is based on an actual statement by President Eisenhower's pastor that we are in a time of "unprecedented religious activity." After describing some of this activity, Nemerov sums it up:

Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.

Then he comments,

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
when Damien kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week's vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.

The long satiric prayers ends with a promise to

Another poem, "Santa Claus," attacks in a fresh way the commercialization of Christmas.

A few of Nemerov's poems gently poke at literary attitudes. For example, "On the Threshold of His Greatness, the Poet Comes Down with a Sore Throat" has, in parody of "The Waste Land," sixteen footnotes and a "Note on the Notes":

These notes have not the intention of offering a complete elucidation of the poem. Naturally, interpretations will differ from one reader to another, and even, perhaps, from one minute to the next. But because Modern Poetry is generally agreed to be a matter of the Intellect, and not the Feelings; because it is meant to be studied, and not merely read; and because it is valued, in the classroom, to the precise degree of its difficulty, poet and critic have agreed that these Notes will not merely adorn the Poem, but possibly supersede it altogether.

Carruth calls such poems "wisecracks," which he defines as poems of wit in which the two parts—a joke and a moral—"fail to cohere" (Poetry, September 1963). This very criticism shows a serious intention behind such poems, and Nemerov has stated, "In general, to succeed at joking or at poetry, you have to be serious." A poem in which the humorous and serious combine for effect is "Make Big Money at Home! Write Poems in Spare Time!"

Oliver wanted to write about reality.
He sat before a wooden table,
He poised his wooden pencil
Above his pad of wooden paper,
And attempted to think about agony
And history, and the meaning of history,
And all stuff like that there.

Suddenly this wooden thought got in his head:
A Tree. That's all, no more than that,
Just one tree, not even a note
As to whether it was deciduous
Or evergreen, or even where it stood.
Still, because it came unbidden,
It was inspiration, and had to be dealt with.

Oliver hoped that this particular tree
Would turn out to be fashionable,
The axle of the universe, maybe,
Or some other mythologically
Respectable tree-contraption
With dryads, or having to do
With the knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Fall.

"A Tree," he wrote down with his wooden pencil
Upon his pad of wooden paper
Supported by the wooden table.
And while he sat there waiting
For what would come next to come next,
The whole wooden house began to become
Silent, particularly silent, sinisterly so.

The title immediately gives away the humorous intent, and the colloquial phrase "all stuff like that there" establishes the speaker's mocking attitude toward Oliver. The poem appears to be light verse satirizing many would-be creative writers who find they have nothing to say. But it is not light verse; by the time the last line is reached, the tone has changed. As "Storm Windows" begins casually and ends profoundly, this poem begins lightly and ends chillingly. The mocking tone is aimed not only at Oliver, but at his high moral intentions in the third stanza (contrast Nemerov's attitude in the passage from "Trees" quoted above). Oliver, therefore, represents at the end any poet who tries to make meaning from the silent universe. It may be that there is nothing to say. Compare Ferlinghetti's "poet like an acrobat" who is "constantly risking absurdity / and death" in his attempt to catch Beauty.

This is the modern existentialist attitude: because God is dead, the artist creates in a vacuum of meaning, "the empty air of existence." This note occurs in other Nemerov poems; for example, his four-line "The Poet at Forty."

A light, a winged, & a holy thing,
Who if his God's not in him cannot sing.
Ah, Socrates, behold him here at last
Wingless and heavy, still enthusiast.

A recent poem, "Projection" (The Atlantic, May 1967), also pictures the existentialist attitude of making the best of the world despite the loss of God.

They were so amply beautiful, the maps,
With their blue rivers winding to the sea,
So calmly beautiful, who could have blamed
Us for believing, bowed to our drawing boards,
In a large and ultimate equivalence,
One map that challenged and replaced the world?

Our punishment? To stand here, on these ladders,
Dizzy with fear, not daring to look down,
Glue on our fingers, in our hair and eyes,
Piecing together the crackling, sticky sheets
We hope may paper yet the walls of space
With pictures any child can understand.

Note the underlying humor, the slight tongue-in-cheek tone that is in tension with the seriousness. The suggestion is that the effort to wallpaper space is futile, but the effort itself is called a punishment. Is Nemerov claiming universal absurdity and Divine Injustice—that the punishment is really not deserved? ("Who could have blamed / Us," he asks.) Is the punishment for having once believed in the maps, or is it for now rejecting them? In any case, the actions of "Us"—modern mankind—are ludicrous, absurd. They are only a new (and apparently inferior) version of the old attempts to find meaning. It is like Oliver's trying to make his imagined tree into the axle of the universe: it is going about things the wrong way. What Oliver failed to observe was the relationship between the wooden pencil, the wooden paper, the wooden table, and the wooden house—the essential "woodenness" of these things. Section xi of "Runes" illuminates this.

A holy man said to me, "Split the stick
And there is Jesus." When I split the stick
To the dark marrow and the splintery grain
I saw nothing that was not wood, nothing
That was not God, and I began to dream
How from the tree that stood between the rivers
Came Aaron's rod that crawled in front of Pharaoh,
And came the rod of Jesse flowering
In all the generations of the Kings,
And came the timbers of the second tree,
The sticks and yardarms of the holy three-
asted vessel whereon the Son of Man
Hung between thieves, and came the crown of thorns,
The lance and ladder, when was shed that blood
Streamed in the grain of Adam's tainted seed.

Nemerov's existentialism, therefore, seems to be mixed with a form of transcendentalism. God may be silent in that He does not speak to us personally, but He is not dead; God is the very process of life, the Life Force we might call Him. The clearest embodiment of this idea is perhaps "Mrs. Mandrill" (New and Selected Poems). The lady, busy with activities, believed not in God, until she died and became part of Nature. The poem ends,

It hasn't been easy," Mrs. Mandrill cried
to the crickets and other creatures who now silenced
their conversations at her heart, "for though
I knew the lead behind my looking-glass
better than some, I was the more deceived
by the way things looked. But for the love of God
all's one, I see that now, since I shall be
converted even against my will, and my will
converted with me, hearing this creature cry
before her wet heart spills and goes to seed."

In being converted to seed (the source of life) she is converted to belief in God. Rather, all that remains of her is that which is God. Her personality is lost, and it is not life after death as we usually dream of it. In fact, it seems ultimately to be a joke, for such a "meaning" is virtually a lack of meaning: such a "God" may as well not exist as far as any individual human soul's awareness is concerned. Such a God may be impersonal, but at least he is not the burned-out star that many of the existentialists seem to make him. And such paradoxical faith in God is not a giving up to absurdity, despair, negation; it is a positive commitment to life.

One of Nemerov's most frequent metaphors for life, however, is that of the dream. Life is a dream, or like a dream; God is the Great Dreamer; our little lives are rounded by a sleep. But men are also dreamers; we dream by imagining things and by wishing for things, but also by trying to interpret the Dream with science, philosophy, history. But "As with a dream interpreted by one still sleeping, / The interpretation is only the next room of the dream."

Poetry also is "the next room of the dream." In "Bottom's Dream: The Likeness of Poems and Jokes," an amusing essay, Nemerov quotes as a definition of poetry Bottom's line: "It shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom." The definition suggests the resonances of meaning a good poem can sound in interpreting the complexities of life.

Nemerov's poems are not dreamlike themselves in the sense that those of Poe, Edwin Muir, or Walter de la Mare are. That is, except for a few—such as "Fables of the Moscow Subway," "The Stare of the Man from the Provinces," and "Brainstorm"—they do not use fantastic and surrealistic imagery. If real life itself is considered a dream, if the stuff of life is dreamlike, then even a poem using realistic images can be considered dreamlike. As an example read Nemerov's "Death and the Maiden."

Once I saw a grown man fall from a tree
and die. That's years ago, I was a girl.
My father's house is sold into a home
for the feeble-minded gentlefolk who can't
any longer stand the world, but in those days
there was money to maintain the mile or so
of discipline that kept the hungry grass
parading to the lake, and once a year
bring men to prune the files of giant trees
whose order satisfied and stood for some

euclidean ancestor's dream about the truth:
elms, most of them, already dying of
their yellow blight, and blackened with witches' broom
in the highest branches—but they could die for years,
decades, so tall their silence, and tell you nothing.
Those men came in October every year,
and among the last leaves, the driven leaves,
would set their ladders for assault and swarm like
pirates into the shrouds, thrusting with hook
and long-handled bill against the withered members
of those great corporations, amputating
death away from the center. They were called
tree surgeons, on the ground they were surly-
olite and touched their caps, but in the air
they dared. I would watch one straddle a branch
on a day of rainy wind, his red shirt patched
on the elm's great fan of sky, his pruning-claw
breaking the finger-bones from the high hand
which held him, and I'd dream of voyages.
My father said: "It looks more dangerous
than really it is." But if your hand offend,
I thought, cut off the hand, and if your eye
offend, pluck out the eye. I looked at him
out of my window all one afternoon,
and I think he looked back once, a young man
proud and probably lecherous, while I—
was a maiden at a window. Only he died
that day. "Unlucky boy," my father said,
who then was dying himself without a word
to anyone, the crab's claw tightening
inside the bowel that year to the next
in a dead silence. I do not know if things
that happen can be said to come to pass,
or only happen, but when I remember
my father's house, I imagine sometimes
a dry, ruined spinster at my rainy window
trying to tally on dumb fingers a world's
incredible damage—nothing can stand it!—and
watching the red shirt patched against the sky,
so far and small in the webbed hand of the elm.

In one sense the whole poem is a dream in that it is a product of the imagination. In a kind of daydream the poet plays the role of a spinster. The man falling from the tree may or may not have been actually witnessed once by Nemerov; within the poem, however, the incident itself is "real," while the poem is imagined, or "dreamt." That it was dreamt differently from "Kubla Khan" makes it no less a dream.

The first reference to a dream—"euclidean ancestor's dream about the truth"—is apropos. The ordering of the trees is analogous to the poet's ordering of words; a poem is also a "dream about the truth." And does not the line imply that Euclid's theories were likewise dreams—intangible, impermanent products of imagination?

The other reference to a dream—"I'd dream of voyages"—is interesting because it comes immediately after the image of the red-shirted man in the tree. The tree has already reminded the speaker of a ship; now she dreams of voyages. Again we see the unspeakable distance in the mind. In the same moment she is safely in her house, up in the tree with the man, and far away from both. How like a dream! How like a poet to transform by means of metaphors one thing into another, trees into ships, tree surgeons into pirates, himself into a spinster.

Her dreaming of voyages, of course, has another meaning: she wishes to escape the reality of the man's death. But she cannot, for as her mind voyages, her body goes nowhere. This is significant because the poem is very much about the limitations of the human body. The trees, for example, are likened to the body collectively in "the withered members of those great corporations," and the one tree is likened to a hand. The disease of the trees is paralleled by the cancer killing the father. The metaphor for the cancer—"crab's claw"—connects it with the tree surgeon's "pruning claw / breaking the finger bones from the high hand which held him." The hand-claw similarity sug gests that blight is universal throughout Nature, affecting trees, crabs, human beings. The trees, the tree surgeon, the father, and the spinster "trying to tally on dumb fingers a world's incredible damage" are all caught in this slow grip of death. The allusion to the words of Christ suggests the wrath and judgment of God, especially since the tree surgeon's eye is "probably lecherous." Christ's original words were a warning against adultery.

You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

This reference to lust in the poem fits in with the rest of the references to the body; however, Nemerov's point here is not a traditional condemnation of the sinner to hell. The point is that everything dies, perhaps because of original sin, perhaps regardless of sin—the emphasis is on death, not sin. The allusion to Christ's words is, therefore, ironic. The disease cannot be cut out, the lecherous eye will not be plucked out for its lechery. The trees and the father will die anyway; the tree surgeon will die, not because he is "probably lecherous" (and only probably) but, if anything, because he is an "Unlucky boy." Chance is suggested, not Divine Purpose; and it is only suggested. It remains an open question, for the speaker says, "I do not know if things / that happen can be said to come to pass / or only happen." Interpretations, after all, are only "the next room of the dream."

What comes to pass or only happens is clear, however; in the poem everything disintegrates. "Among the last leaves" the geometric order of the estate has been given over to feeblemindedness, disease, and death. The speaker has gone from maiden to "dry, ruined spinster," an indication of the fruitlessness of things. As geometry and surgery could not save the trees or her father, she is left to imagine herself trying to tally up the damage—the Euclidean theorems are reduced to counting on the fingers, the surgeon's skill is reduced to "dumb fingers."

Notice that she only imagines—dreams. And again the observing is separated from reality by a window. It is a picture of human noninvolvement in tragedy; yet it is involved noninvolvement. She is like the poet who can record and try to make some order from a situation he is in but cannot completely comprehend, even if that order he creates is only a "swaying clarity." Or if she cannot make order from it, she can at least feel it—"nothing can stand it!" she thinks. Still, like the poet, she is only an observer, a recorder. It is interesting that "if your eye / offend, pluck out the eye" is followed immediately by "I looked at him." The implications are, (1) her eye offends her by the tragedy it sees; (2) she too, not only the proud and lecherous tree surgeon, will die (have her eye plucked out); (3) her eye offends because it can only see and not understand.

That which she sees at the end of the poem is the image that ties the poem together; it is, therefore, important to understand it. Nemerov may have meant to evoke Stephen Crane's "The red sun was pasted on the sky like a wafer" and the death of Jim Conklin that precedes it. In any case, the synecdoche "red shirt" disembodies the man, making him an effigy or merely a remembered image. "Patched" implies an attempt to repair the sky, as the daring tree surgeon by pruning trees was in effect trying to correct nature. The "webbed hand" may suggest an insect in a spider web, but it is more likely to mean an amphibious hand (like a claw of a crab). At this point in the poem we are in a rainy world, as we were in "Storm Windows." Whether the world is wet or dry (notice the spinster is called "dry"), this hand of blight and death is acclimated to it.

Another poem, "The View from an Attic Window," helps us interpret two of the symbols involved—the tree and the rain.

The rain in "Death and the Maiden" has associations similar to the snow and the seeds in the lines just quoted. Nemerov further clarifies the imagery in Poets on Poetry (edited by Nemerov, the book contains contemporary poets' answers to a questionnaire); he says that water images represent for him "an emblem for human life and the life of the imagination" as opposed to stone images, which he associates with monuments and statues "as representing the rigid domination of past over present." Rain, running streams, and snow are also all representative of the natural flux of life—they suggest the seasons, erosion, growth. The life of the imagination must partake of this natural flux; it cannot be rigid, conservative, tradition-bound. The life of the imagination must adapt to change, even to tragedy and death.

Trees, on the other hand, are immovable like stone; yet they are alive and growing. They seem to represent human endurance, which resists for a time the natural flux but finally succumbs to it. In "Learning By Doing" (The Kenyon Review, Vol. XXVI, Spring 1964) Nemerov describes the cutting down of a supposedly diseased tree, which when sectioned turns out to be healthy. The poem concludes:

There's some mean-spirited moral point in that
As well: you learn to bury your mistakes,
Though for a while at dusk the darkening air
Will be with many shadows interleaved,
And pierced with a bewilderment of birds.

It is a "mean-spirited moral" because the moral is, in effect, that we can do nothing about the seeming injustices of life except endure them; they are a natural and inevitable part of life. In the many interleaved shadows of life man is bewildered as the birds. He can try to tally the injustice on his fingers, he can put up storm windows, he can cry, he can write poems, but he cannot stop the flux of life. He will be driven indoors, he will die trying.

M. L. Rosenthal, in The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (New York, 1960), comments concerning "Storm Windows" that "the rain falling on the windows and grass crushed beneath them are seen in a momentary frame that gives the whole thing the illusion of having a point—though what is really being seen in the frame is essential chaos." This is true, but what must be emphasized is that the chaos for Nemerov is essential. Man may be caught in the web of death, and his attempts to prune out the death may be as futile as trying to patch the sky with red cloth; the "world's incredible damage" may seem like chaos as we perceive it through our windows; yet this chaos is not necessarily evil, is not even necessarily chaos. For Nemerov this chaos is the ongoing process of life; it is the working of God himself. Man is "far and small" compared to it, but like the daring tree surgeon in the elm he is caught up in it. He is himself caught and yet a vital part of the process. He might be considered—in a sense similar to that meant by Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—"divine." That is, man as a part of Nature is a part of God. Nemerov is not so optimistic as the transcendentalists—there is no indication that the process is constantly improving itself—yet neither is he so pessimistic as the naturalists and the existentialists.

The poet in this scheme of things could perhaps be thought of as a priest serving the God who is Being Itself (as the transcendentalists tended to think of the poet).

Poetry and institutionalized religion are in a sense the flowing and the static forms of the same substance, liquid and solid states of the same elemental energy….

So the work of art is religious in nature, not because it beautifies an ugly world or pretends that a naughty world is a nice one—for these things especially art does not do—but because it shows of its own nature that things drawn within the sacred circle of its forms are transfigured, illuminated by an inward radiance which amounts to goodness because it amounts to being itself.

The poet is, in a sense, a spokesman for God; his vocation is to capture, not in stone but in a living form, life itself.

Therefore, it is appropriate that Nemerov's poetry is so like prose, so like jokes, so like dreams. Distinctions between prose and poetry, comic and tragic, dream and reality, pass away. Life appears to us as prosaic, yet Nemerov reveals it full of poetry—of correspondences, metaphors, essential order; life appears to us as tragic, yet for Nemerov the tragedy is ultimately not so terribly serious—death is the inevitable and necessary order of things; life appears to us as fixed and tangible reality, yet Nemerov sees it as kaleidoscopic and evanescent as dreams—the only reality is flux, Being, Aliveness.

All this may perhaps seem to be making too much of the philosophy behind Nemerov's poems. It is, of course, not a systematic philosophy but rather a viewpoint, an attitude toward life; besides, Nemerov again and again shows the futility of drawing any final philosophic conclusions—that almost becomes his philosophy, in fact. Nevertheless, Nemerov's viewpoint unifies his poems; almost all of them show in different lights his way of looking at the world as though it were God. Furthermore, in each individual poem this "philosophy" is virtually another of his poetic devices: like metaphors, iambic pentameter, alliteration, it helps hold the poem together and give it form. It is not a moral tag applied at the end of each poem, but an integral part of the art of each poem. To misunderstand his outlook is to misread the poems. Many of them at first glance may appear to be saying the opposite—that is, have the opposite attitude toward the situation—from what they actually say. They seem to show universal loneliness, meaninglessness, alienation. But Nemorov treats these contemporary attitudes with a tone of irony and paradox and transcends them. The spinster's attitude in "Death and the Maiden"—her attitude of helpless hand-wringing anguish at the world's injustices—is not wholeheartedly Nemerov's. (That she is not really wringing her hands, but counting on them, is a clue to her insincere sincerity.) If anything, he is on the side of the tree surgeon daring death (and probably on the side of the absent-minded professor who would correct the leaves—does not the poet "correct" nature, too?). He may regret, he may dream, he may wish it were oth erwise, but he does not cry about it; he does not sit in sackcloth and ashes like so many modern Jobs who have not heard the Voice from the Whirlwind. Nemerov has apparently heard the Voice and seeks to comfort (or perhaps discomfort) our modern Jobs. As "The View from an Attic Window" (quoted above) suggests, it is even better to sleep than to cry. Or as the narrator of one of his short stories, "A Commodity of Dreams," says concerning the collection of dreams, over three thousand of them filed and cross-referenced in a museum, of Capt. Frank Lastwyn,

They would at the British Museum look at it all twice, and imperturbably file it away under Dreams … which was probably where everything, after all, belonged. We were all, 1 thought sleepily, going down in history, whether as Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, Beethoven, St. Francis or Nesselrode who invented the pudding. Or as Capt. Frank Lastwyn, R. A. (ret.), or as anonymous nobodies, such as myself. And ho-hum to it all.

But that, too, needs to be taken with a grain of irony. Nemerov's attitude is usually not so flippant.

Wallace Stevens' "Men Made Out of Words" comes very close to summing up Nemerov's poetry.

But for Nemerov defeats and dreams are one; he has thus overcome the fear. His propositions will seem eccentric to those of us whose center is different from his, yet within his poems the eccentricity—the apparent conflict between good and evil, dream and defeat—is at the center. There good and evil, dream and defeat, are paradoxically One.

Howard Nemerov with Robert Boyers (interview date 1975)

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SOURCE: An interview with Howard Nemerov, in Salmagundi, Nos. 31-32, Fall, 1975/Winter, 1976, pp. 109-19.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in March 1975, Nemerov discusses such topics as his composition process, the relationship between poetry and meaning, politics, and the influence of other writers on his works.]

[Robert Boyers] : In the past year or so, Howard, you 've written a great many poems, by any standards more than most poets expect to write in several years. Is there any way you can explain to yourself, or anyone else, how this came to be?

[Howard Nemerov]: Well, I'd settled down thinking to myself, listen, you're 54 years old; who the hell goes on in this business, year after year, waiting for something to happen? You're supposed to grow up, you might as well cease to expect. And I said to my old lady, the minute classes stop I am facing the inner emptiness. After settling down, though, or trying to, I began saying things to myself, and appreciating again that when I think to myself, it's usually in blank verse, sometimes in rhyme. I'm very old-fashioned in this respect, you know, wrote all my free verse when I was 26, so I didn't have to do any after that. But how the new poems came so fast I can't say. All I know is every night I would go to bed and think, well, that's the end: look, you had another poem today, it could never happen again—all the while holding onto the sneaky notion that maybe it might happen again. What I love about poetry is, you don't know what you're going to do until you do it. You don't have to plan everything the way you do when you write novels—it's terrifying to wake up every morning knowing what you have to do.

The new poems that I've had a chance to look at are as various as we'd expect from your previous work. Do you find yourself writing in verse forms that are new to you? Do you think about such things at all as you 're going about the business of writing new poems?

Well, a new poem seems to start for me with a line, not an idea: if I get an idea I'm pretty sure I can't write it. I thought once, what a wonderful thing, write a poem about a deep-sea diver: get out a few books about deep-sea diving, and everything will turn out to be a metaphor for deep-sea diving, you know, heaven, hell, the rest of it—I was full of ideas, but no poem. A poem, or a part of a poem, just speaks itself in me when I'm composing. It's really kind of uncanny, though mind you I'm not claiming heaven-sent inspiration, because you would feel just as wonderful if you were writing the worst poem in the world, as long as it was coming that way. In fact, I've met people who do feel that way even though what is produced isn't much. But it feels like some kind of privileged condition. Nearest analogy: coming over on a little commuter-flight airplane from Binghamton this morning, I got this strong religious sense of being in the hand of something. You know, I used to fly in the war, and here I was, sitting up front, looking at the instruments, and I said to myself, I could fly this damned airplane, though I wouldn't know how to handle communications incessantly pouring in from the great beyond. Anyhow, we are intrepidly trudging on through clouds so thick you can't see an inch beyond the nose of the airplane, and this little guy doesn't even wear a smart cap. I had to think—one of those great fantasies—if the guy had a stroke and little Howard the hero has to guide us in, how the hell would I do it? My impulse would be suddenly to dive the hell out of the clouds so I could see what I was doing, and wind us up against the mountain, somewhere, whereas he just stays there, serenely flying, all the other passengers commuting like this full time, not terrified like me. You know, usually it's the unknown that's terrifying, but here it was the unknown that sustained, with people talking the blind aircraft in; they say, do this, steer that, descend 5000, descend 4000, and finally when they say—you're still in the clouds, can't see a damned thing—'O.K. 5-5-0, you're on your own, keep descending, you'll see the runway, in front of you,' and you do, it's just, well, miraculous, though maybe a pretty humble miracle compared with some. But imagine the industry, the ingenuity, the skill, the countless people which go into such an operation, performed all the time, guiding one tiny little airplane safely to its destination. And, above all, I was thinking, imagine the utter obedience and trust that goes with all this: you don't do what you think is right, you do what the guy tells you to, and practically all the time it works, that's remarkable. Well, it's an analogy, maybe there are better ones, and I don't want to make this all religious-sounding, but writing poetry does feel, when you're in the midst, as if something knows what you're doing, much better than you do. Of course, this is not to deny that you're supposed to have a little skill at carpentering the stuff together, so you find the rhyme at the right time, the rhyme that maybe gives you an idea you wouldn't have had if you didn't have to find a rhyme. But you can't deny that wonderful, wonderful things happen some mornings.

I agree, and the analogy does work, I think, though for me there's a problem in trying to identify what the obedience you describe would correspond to in composing verse. Clearly it's related to the more familiar idea of discipline, and would seem to involve attention to the processes of a poem 's unfolding, the character of its dynamics. Do you want to say anything further about obedience in this sense?

Claude Levi-Strauss has a clue, I think, when he speaks of Bach as a composer of the code, so that everybody who's played Bach a little feels as if he just lets the language do it, you know, in the organ works, page after page, you feel you know every note and exactly where the next line will go. I like the idea of the composer of the code, of somebody who is not rebellious, who is just using the language because it says that is the way it is to be used. No doubt this is an illusion, like many others, except we've got to remember: the idea that we do things all by ourselves is equally unprovable and equally likely to be an illusion. The idea fixed in the human brain since, ah, somebody says William of Ockham, somebody says Roger Bacon, and so forth, since the 17th century maybe, that it's all done in the head and has nothing to do with out there seems to me to be very funny, tragic too, because some of its results are frightening. Is that really as clear as mud?


I've written satiric poems about it, of course. Sometimes I believe the business about codes, sometimes I'm not so sure. Now one of the writers who has expounded these ideas most clearly is your friend Erich Heller, who wrote, as from teacher to pupils, "be careful how you interpret the world—it is like that." That's nice, huh?

It's instructive, though in some ways hard to grasp. Your notion of the code seems to me very important if Heller's idea is to yield what it should. If the world "is like that," a fact we ignore only at great peril, then we can honor its actual presence only by having the proper words, the inevitable code-words, if you will. But doesn't this conflict with the rather more familiar contemporary notion of the poet as one who makes the language over, more or less in the image of his desire?

There is a conflict, I suppose, though when you come right down to it the real poets are doing pretty much the same thing with the language. I'm always surprised to discover, when I try to teach students to write poetry, that they rarely notice how omnipresent language is in our dealings with the world. I've often thought that poets don't have to know much about the outside world—they just have to know what things are called, the names even of strange things. It's alright to make up new ones, but that's rarer than has been supposed, I think. Karl Shapiro was being pretty silly when he proclaimed, rather arrogantly I thought, that words in a poem have nothing to do with their dictionary meanings. I felt like shaking him. You know, the words are there when you come into the world, like other institutions—they're waiting for you; you're not a lonely individual cast out on a barren shore. And if the words didn't have their dictionary definitions, nobody could use them. Of course, people didn't have to wait for dictionaries, but words must always have had a consensual, lexical human meaning, even granting that there are idioms in which no word has its dictionary meaning. And this isn't something we should be sorry about.

You've written lately on the relation between poetry and meaning. In what sense does the poem's commitment to the poet's private meaning betray the code?

Well, I'm very strongly in favor of literal meanings. I try to stress the difference between what the poem says, which should be as clear as you can make it, and what it means, which may be mysterious beyond belief, because the universe is mysterious and vast, and doesn't need to mean one thing. But the reader should get a more or less literal vision of what's being talked about. What I passionately respect in reading Dante lately—he's been such a revelation to me this time around—what I passionately respect about his writing is his painstaking endeavour to make it clear. You never question that he is talking about what he's seeing. I don't know how he saw it, but it's absolutely marvelous. He's always talking about seeing—the act itself of seeing—and sees almost everything he writes about: he never tries to show you in the grand Miltonic manner. Me and Milton don't get along so well—I respect the old bastard, but I'm never going to love him.

Are there other writers you especially value, from whom you take regular instruction or inspiration? Writers, say, at once committed to 'the code' and to the mystery of things?

I really value the writers that I think of as friends, because they are ever so full of grandeur that they don't tell you. I have four in special: Socrates, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Freud. Freud especially, because he tells you always the process of his thought and how he's getting there—says, oh, that won't do, we'll have to go back and try this other way. And Montaigne, because he is so generous about the world and so kindly in leading you throught it. And he makes no vast claim—he says, in that last great essay "On Experience," "I have no subject but ignorance and profess nothing but myself."

The element of the mysterious, the unaccountable, which you've alluded to only intermittently in all this, seems to me of central importance when one distinguishes among the different kinds of verse you've written. Thinking about this recently, I was brought to think of something that Saul Bellow said at Skidmore a year ago in accounting for the differences among his various novels. He talked about the different kinds of inspiration involved in the composition of different books. When he wrote Henderson The Rain King, he claimed, he had no feeling of polemical urgency in him, no axe to grind; he had no specific ideas that he wished to communicate, felt entirely at one with himself and with the world he was making. Thus he preferred Henderson to all his other books, feeling that somehow there was a relation between the success of a book and the feeling of the author at the time of its composition. Now my conviction is that the poems collected in parts 3 and 4 of The Blue Swallows are, in concentration at least, the most consummately beautiful poems that you've written. Could it be that there were special circumstances, spiritual or otherwise, which might account for the special merits of those poems?

Well, applying a comparison even more exalted than Saul, notice in Shakespeare each of the great tragedies has its own absolutely unmistakable atmosphere and tonality. You know it's Shakespeare with every line, but you also know which play it is; in fact, there's one exception that proves the rule, a place where Hamlet talks just like Macbeth, very melo-dramatic and ranting, so that I think, my god, he must have had this left over from Macbeth, tucked away. But there's never a question about the authenticity of the passage. As to the parts of The Blue Swallows you speak of, they were written over a period of maybe four years. Each poem has its own peculiar history. I remember that the "Bee-Keeper" poem came, I'm ashamed to say, from a newspaper article about a beekeeper who said, not in the words of my poem, a good many of the things that get said there. "The Mud Turtle" was written while I was writing the Journal Of The Fictive Life one summer, and poems like "Celestial Globe" in part three were practically all written one summer in '66 when I was trying something special and rather different for me—you note they're all little trimeter lines instead of blank verse, or rhymed iambics.

We mentioned the name of Auden in talking together earlier, and I would like to ask you about himnot only because he's died recently, but also because what most of us think about Auden is likely to say a great deal about the way we think about contemporary poetry in general. Lots of poets have become increasingly dissatisfied with Auden's verse, especially his late verse, and I suppose this feeling about Auden was most vividly expressed by Randall Jarrell many years ago, when he described much of the verse as "an invalid's diet, like milquetoast." Arguing that the dominant emotion in most of these poems was pity, he said that they tended to express an encompassing passivity. Do you feel this way about Auden? I know that at one time at least he meant a great deal to you.

Well, I guess I always admired Auden's poetry very much. Still, when asked to review his last book, or 1/2 book, collected and published by his friends, I got kind of stymied, and thought of a one-sentence review: "Dear reader, whatever you thought of Mr. Auden before this, you will continue thinking, and you won't change your mind on this account." I thought of his as a rather triumphal career in a way: here he had gone from a kind of boyish pseudofascism, through leftist pseudo-fascism, writing all kinds of nonsense, some of it terribly obscure, but learning at last to speak in a decent middle-range voice. He became a grown-up who could tell you lots of things, who had done more than any other poet to absorb the technological scientific sophistication of the time and make it go in his verses. At the same time, of course, as a declared devout Christian, he is also among the saved, and must be a happy man. If there is a great good place I hope he is in it, and I hope the cooking is good. All the same, this sort of thing makes me nervous, and I think—if that is all there is to being happy, I'm doomed, and maybe poetry as I know it is doomed too. And Auden doesn't improve the prospect much when he says, giving himself every freedom, that the poet qua poet is always a polytheist. Isn't that wonderful? When you're saved you can have it any way you like … Did you see the little remembrance by his friend Hannah Arendt in The New Yorker a few weeks back? The shocking revelation of loneliness and despair and not caring? I can conclude only that we human beings are a mass of contradictions, and anybody that tries to make sense of us must be a human being himself. In all, I wouldn't go quite as far as Randall Jarrell, but it is true that the later poems are mild-mannered, avuncular, full of crummy wisdom: if the word was still usable you could say that they were the poems of a godfather. He addressed one volume of them to his godson, you know, benign, witty, charming advice on how to get on through the world and how to put up with its contradictions and miseries. But I keep thinking, is that all? Maybe a great voice from on high wants to say, "yes, bub, that's all," to which I can reply only, "I have no rational argument, sir, to put up against that; if it's that way, so O.K." So Auden in his poetry and career raises some very poignant problems for anybody who is serious about writing. Whatever you feel about Auden, though, or about other writers, one thing at least can be said in favor of poetry: it doesn't kill you for not believing in it. Fair enough?

You bet. Still, it bothers me that work by writers a lot less famous than Auden, though very accomplished, is regularly overlooked, badly neglected, usually on behalf of another kind of verse which in our time has come to be known as naked poetry. I wonder whether we might talk a little bit about the obvious neglect of poetry decidedly more exacting, more reflective, than most of the poetry that my students tend to read. I'm thinking of poets like Ben Belitt and John Peck, whose work we both admire.

It's hard to talk about the situation in poetry; like all those large general things, as soon as you assert something about it you can instantly think of 3, 4, 8, a million exceptions. Still, what you suggest seems true enough. I like poets like Ben Belitt, very much as you do, and I like John Peck, who's much younger, and has only one volume to his credit so far—a very distinguished volume, I might add. But they are both extremely refined, elaborate, fastidious, and curious artists, whose effects you have to get familiar with for rather a long time. I don't think they yield themselves instantly at all, and of course, for I guess maybe two decades or so, people have been very much in favor of the immediate in poetry, what can be picked up like Kleenex—you use it and throw it away, the poem of strong opinion frequently. Naked poetry, the title of some silly anthology of several years ago, did suggest at least that if you want to go around naked you'd better be in a warm climate, and that it's best to be beautiful. When I looked at the book I had to say I'd rather write closed couplets. Again, old-fashioned.

There was a time when you wrote novels, but you seem to have given that up. Were there things that you felt you could express better in the poetry than in the medium of prose fiction?

Well, maybe I just gave in to natural laziness. Writing a novel is terrible hard labor, whereas in my new book [The Western Approaches] I have 4 or 5 poems about what a novelist thinks when he's writing a novel; you know, that's much easier, because you can do it in 14 lines. Maybe the decisive turning point came when I taught at Bennington over the way some years ago, and dear Stanley Edgar Hyman, now the late Stanley, was holding one of his typical benevolent despot department meetings. We were going to hire somebody, and Stanley said, we have to hire a novelist, and a voice from the back of the room, not mine, said, but Howard's a novelist, and Stanley said, Howard's a poet. So we hired Bernard Malamud instead. You know, it's trivial little things like that that mark where you have to go. I said to myself, now you know something your best friends wouldn't tell you; in fact, they've told you.

We're covering all of your various literary enterprises here, as you can see. You've written a great deal of criticism, published several volumes of it, in fact. Does writing criticism play any special function for you? Does it bear, say, a specific relation to the ups and downs of your verse writing? Do you make elaborate calculations to decide which medium you'll write in?

Hmm, I can remember when I began to think of all this in economic terms. When I was starting out, benign greyhaired publishers would explain to me how very proud they were that I was a poet, because that would be good training for when I went on to write the novels they wanted me to write. And, before I got out of commercial publishing and settled down with University presses, and other such unprofitable endeavours, the only way I could get my poems published in the main was by hooking a novel onto them. And you know, once I came through with a novel I could say, I will not sign a contract for this unless you promise to publish me a book of poetry. So that worked, twice I guess, or three times. Then a poet named Elder Olson at the University of Chicago said they were going to start publishing poetry and could they start with me? I said, oh dear, yes you could, and we've been friends ever since. It's a very gentlemanly relation, nobody makes any money or expects to, but they put out a handsome looking book, they keep it in print, it sells its respectable seven copies a year, and we seem to be reasonably happy that way. And so the same thing happened with Rutgers University Press and my essays: they published two books of those and sort of a novelist's creature called Journal of the Fictive Life. For me publishing seems to be largely a matter of going on record—I did this, see, here it is—and it doesn't much matter whether it's criticism or verse or fiction. It never occurred to me to write criticism as a conscious decision. When I was growing up criticism was a very serious industry, big time for such a little thing as literature. At 18 I thought the Kenyon Review was, well, eternity, and that John Crowe Ransom, who edited it, must have been there years and years and years. Only 20 years later, when John asked me if I wanted to succeed him as editor, I went back and looked at the files and found Kenyon Review had started only the year before I went to college, and had that imposing appearance of permanence and the imposing tone of authority, shared by the Partisan Review and the Sewanee Review, and one or two others in those days. Then one wrote because one felt that there was a literary community, life seemed to be a little smaller and more compact. I know I am talking like an elder, but I feel like an elder. About 1955 when Allen Ginsberg emerged from somebody's head, the whole thing exploded and it all got redefined, and among many of the effects of that period was that I generally stopped reading those magazines and even writing for them. Anyhow, you write criticism you make as many enemies as you need quite early in life, and I didn't think I needed to write any more: I had already done for myself. But I never gave up criticism, and have always alternated between poetry and prose, lately deciding to do only what can be accomplished in brief spans of time. Unlike our friend Ben Belitt I write very fast and concentratedly, and suffer with years of silence inbetween. People like Ben or Bernard Malamud seem to go to the desk every day; they know what they're working at and they steadily do a little something to bring it toward completion, whereas I have to do it all in a single day—if not a whole novel, then an entire episode or chapter at any rate.

You've written often about the public world in your verse, though your most memorable work seems to me meditative and personal, frequently even mystical, rather than ocasional. Would you say something about the poet and politics. It's a subject you've addressed once or twice in your essays, for example, "Poetry And The National Conscience."

I remember vividly the assassination of President Kennedy. It was, you know, a very terrible moment, and like a great many other poets I went right home and spent all day writing a poem of which I think it was The New Leader published only a part. When things had calmed down I recognized sadly that it was a terribly bad poem, and so I never reprinted it. When we poets believe that we are thinkers, moralists, or preachers, that we're going to give you the word—now this is wisdom, kid—we reveal more terribly than others how stupid we are. And so I mostly have stayed, I think, out of the preaching business. It's very hard to be sure because someone may think you're preaching when you didn't know you intended to at all. I like to think I've succeeded in writing poems that try to say what the world is, instead of what it ought to be, though I'm sure as I age I make my moralizing sententiae as nobly and with as grand a gesture as anybody else. But I don't think I've lately committed the sin on the scale I achieved in the Kennedy poem—that was awful slop. You can, of course, be moved by a political event and set out to write about your response, only to find that your poem isn't about the subject you were moved by at all. That's hard to tell without getting down to cases, and I just don't have any examples at hand to help me there. I do think I wrote a very good political poem, about the murder of William Remington, who nobody perhaps remembers now. In that great Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers scandal he was one of the not-innocent victims who went to prison, where he was beaten up by two thugs. He died there and I don't remember that I was terribly moved when I heard it, but I wrote a damned good poem, and managed not to moralize. At least there's no overt sermonizing about how the American people should behave better, or stuff like that.

You once wrote, I think it was years ago in Journal of the Fictive Life, that you hate intelligence and have nothing else. I've been curious about that.

That's one of those petulant things you say once in a while if you're writing a more or less confessional book. It doesn't mean that that is your settled habit of mind; after all, I wrote that book just at the beginning of those terrible middle years. Since then I've cheered up considerably. I now teach with a ruthless geniality, handing my misinformation out with the greatest good cheer.

That's good to hear, and something I'll try to remember when I reach my own terrible middle years. Speaking of terrors, though, I thought we might talk a little about the subject of anxiety (you've got to admire this transition).

I think I know where you're headed.

There's been much debate lately about what Harold Bloom calls The Anxiety of Influence. In your recent review of Bloom's book for Sewanee you sound some skeptical notes on the theory. Without addressing the book itself, perhaps you'd care to say something further about the relation between influence and style.

Well, Mr. Bloom may be correct, and there may well be an anxiety of influence for most people. If so, I guess I was just too stupid to be anxious, though I was influenced by everybody. I remember T.S. Eliot's first poetry recording, reading "Gerontion" on one side and "The Hollow Men" on the other—I got so I could imitate it even down to the scratch of the needle at the start of the record. My first girl-friend at college told me to cut out the parson-like tone of voice, that it didn't have to sound that way. I went on from there to make up my own talent school of virtuosity exercises—Tate, Auden, Stevens, Pound. 20 years later somebody gave the exercises back to me and I swear there is a Stevens imitation there that could go in his Collected Poems and even he wouldn't know he hadn't done it. It always seemed to me a lot of cant to talk about finding your own voice—I never went looking for it. My way of saying this in the review of Bloom's book was that, when you're 20 you write "the grass is green" and they say "ah, Wallace Stevens." 20 years later you write "the grass is green" and they say "ah, sounds just like you." It's a very mysterious business. Seems to me that to learn to write poetry includes learning maybe to sound like Yeats at his most arrogant, putting on an attitude you couldn't afford in your personal life because people would kick your teeth in. What's always marvelous is at the end how the poem can sound like all the others and still be itself. Style is the making visible of the soul, about which Proust had a good thing to say, when he wrote that the universe is the same for all of us and different for each. I like that.

William Mills (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "The Urban Landscape," in The Stillness in Moving Things: The World of Howard Nemerov, Memphis State University Press, 1975, pp. 119-42.

[In the following essay, Mills states that Nemerov's poetry of the urban landscape "concentrates on the most powerful institutions of society" and "is particularly concerned with the tyranny of the past over the present."]

Nemerov's poetry divides itself between contemplative poetry, which most often springs from his encounter with nature, and satiric poetry that finds its nourishment in disparities and paradoxes that reveal themselves in the urban scene. To say that the poetry is divided in subject matter and concern is not, however, to say that the poet is divided. These disparities and paradoxes are revealed by a vision that knows the difference in authentic and inauthentic existence, and knows the call of conscience. This vision knows that for someone to say there is a boom in religion because of increased affluence is to hear what Heidegger calls "idle talk."

And because this discoursing has lost its primary relationship-of-Being towards the entity talked about, or else has never achieved such a relationship, it does not communicate in such a way as to let this entity be appropriated in a primordial manner, but communicates rather by following the route of gossiping and passing the word along. What is said-in-the-talk as such, spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because one says so….

[Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 1962]

Language of idle talk, since it does not mirror a primary relationship to what is being talked about, mirrors nothing. It only seems to mirror something, and so "takes on an authoritative character." As this kind of talk becomes public and authoritative, the inauthentic self seems released from the task of genuine understanding. "Because of this, idle talk discourages any new inquiry and any disputation, and in a peculiar way suppresses them and holds them back," continues Heidegger, in Being and Time. This kind of talk corresponds to what Nemerov calls "verbal effi gies," of which we will hear more shortly.

The disparities and paradoxes that Nemerov reveals through his authentic vision often take the form of jokes—so say some of the critics, disparagingly, and so says Nemerov, but with an explanation.

It sometimes seems to me as though our relations with the Devil have reached that place, so near the end, where paradox appears immediately in all phenomena, so that, for example, the increase of life is the fated increase of mortal suffering, the multiplication of the means of communication is the multiplication of meaninglessness, and so on. At the obsequies for the late President of the United States the "eternal flame" was extinguished by holy water in the hands of children; in the material world that may have been an unfortunate accident, but in the poetic world, where one is compelled to listen to symbolic things, it appears as possibly a final warning, a witty and indeed diabolical underlining of the dire assassination itself.

So if paradox and accenting the hidden side of the paradoxical has always played such a part in my poetry, perhaps the seriousness of that view of life, its necessity even, may now begin to appear. The charge typically raised against my work by literary critics has been that my poems are jokes, even bad jokes. I incline to agree, insisting however that they are bad jokes, and even terrible jokes, emerging from the nature of things as well as from my propensity for coming at things a touch subversively and from the blind side, or the dark side, the side everyone concerned with "values" would just as soon forget.

[Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics]

Even though there appears to be a division in the body of the poet's work, he at least sees a unity.

Principally … I would like to take note of Nemerov's urban landscape: the parts that make him laugh, even if it means a subsequent kick in the stomach, and the parts that make him quietly rage. Often, as I have noted, the obser vations take the form of some kind of joke, though certainly this is not always so.

A number of the poems that embody jokes are grouped in a section of The Blue Swallows called "The Great Society." The second poem of the group illustrates a persistent ironic quality of this part of Nemerov's work.


He rested on the seventh day, and so
The chauffeur had the morning off, the maid
Slept late, and the cook went out to morning mass.
So by and large there was nothing to do
Among the ashtrays in the living room
But breathe the greyish air left over from
Last night, and go down on your knees to read
The horrible funnies flattened on the floor.

It's still a day to conjure with, if not
Against, the blessed seventh, when we get
A chance to feel whatever He must feel,
Looking us over, seeing that we are good.
The odds are six to one He's gone away;
It's why there's so much praying on this day.

The setting is familiar in modern poetry, a Sunday on which the character or characters are not taking part in the ritual of the culture. Eliot's "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service" and Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" are of course the most famous of such poems and much more elaborate than Nemerov's. In addition, Stevens' goes on to a kind of affirmation that is not evident in Nemerov's. In this one "the odds are six to one He's gone away." Perhaps, the speaker muses, we feel similar to God, since both of us are resting on the seventh day, but he suspects God is not in God's house as he is in his.

There are several senses in which this poet can be described as "religious," although not in a conventional way. If a deep concern for the world and even for metaphysics is religious, then truly Nemerov is. But it is also true that he persistently takes his shots at organized religion. For instance, consider "Debate with the Rabbi":

Although the idea behind the poem is a serious one, this may well be described as "light verse." If such verse were the sole achievement of the poet, it would not be enough to create the reputation that he has. With this said, it can be observed that such verse complements his lyric voice and makes a different kind of statement. The rabbi's opponent will not be persuaded by categorical imperatives that he does not feel. He cannot affirm a "communal solidarity" because he does not "feel so solid." This play on words offers a kind of revelation that Nemerov is quick to point out shares a commonality with the lyric. His essay "Bottom's Dream: The Likeness of Poems and Jokes" explores this commonality.

… one mechanism of economy in joking is the pun, either in the use of one word in two senses … or in the use of two words of similar sound which mean different things but still somehow establish a resemblance beyond that of the sound.

Concerning jokes he says:

A joke expresses tension, which it releases in laughter; it is a sort of permissible rebellion against things as they are—permissible, perhaps, because this rebellion is at the same time stoically resigned, it acknowledges that things are as they are, and that they will, after the moment of laughter, continue to be that way. That is why jokes concentrate on the most sensitive areas of human concern: sex, death, religion, and the most powerful institutions of society; and poems do the same.

Accordingly, the rabbi's opponent says he does not feel solid, either in his belief or in his hunch about himself and the world; thus, he is unable to affirm "communal solidarity." The rabbi attempts to entice by an appeal to tradition, but his opponent insists that history is over, which it obviously is; but less obviously, the opponent thinks, the past should not tyrannize the present, an omnipresent theme of Nemerov.

As Nemerov searches the modern terrain he insists that "bad jokes, even terrible jokes" emerge from the nature of things and the nature of the "Great Society." In a vein that sustains this criticism of the contemporary church, he has written a poem called "Boom!" which was inspired by the daily newspaper. The passage in the Associated Press release that struck Nemerov was the following.

Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP).—President Eisenhower's pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of "unprecedented religious activity" caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.

"These fruits of material progress," said the Rev. Edward L. R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, "have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached."

The idea of opulence leading to spiritual values—values that had their origin in austerity, pain, and suffering—jars the poet's sensibilities. The poem begins:

Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it's just one
religious activity after another; the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second, and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling-stations
are full, God's great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human and spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.

The effect of asserting that the "churches are full" is rapidly neutralized by noting that everything else is full. Besides beaches and filling-stations, all the modern conveniences are full, with the suggestion that a particular convenience that we fill daily is now running over—with much the same substance as the minister's observations. The poem, of some forty-five lines, continues to build up details of the affluent society, but midway through the poet notes tersely: "It was not thus when Job in Palestine / sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly." Nemerov would insist that if there are "jokes" in his poems, surely there is a horrible joke in the reality of the daily newspaper article.

Observations like those of the minister—repetitiously presented in the mass media—become increasingly dangerous, because their very repetition transforms them into dogma. This is the language of "idle talk," mirroring nothing but seeming to, and as such, taking on authoritative character. In addition, it keeps us from further inquiry. Nemerov explores this danger:

The thought of statues as representing a false, historical immortality seems clearly related to the scriptural prohibition against the making of graven images; and the category in which the statues finally come, which I generalized out as "effigies," may include also photographs, mythological figures such as Santa Claus, even mannequins in shop windows, or anything that tends to confirm the mind in a habitual way of regarding the world, which habitual way is, to be short with it, idolatry. There are many examples in my work, and I have chosen one which represents newspapers, by a slight extension of the thought, as a sort of verbal effigy, idolatrously confirming human beings day after day in the habit of a mean delusion and compelling them to regard this mean delusion as their sole reality. I say this halfway as a joke with the name of a newspaper, The Daily Globe.

The poem "The Daily Globe" elaborates his criticism:

Each day another installment of the old
Romance of Order brings to the breakfast table
The paper flowers of catastrophe.
One has this recurrent dream about the world.

Headlines declare the ambiguous oracles,
The comfortable old prophets mutter doom.
Man's greatest intellectual pleasure is
To repeat himself, yet somehow the daily globe

Rolls on, while the characters in comic strips
Prolong their slow, interminable lives
Beyond the segregated photographs
Of the girls that marry and the men that die.

Nemerov says that for the benefit of foreign audiences he would point out that obituary pages in this country are almost exclusively of men and the matrimonial pages exclusively of women. Nemerov thinks that such habitual ways of regarding the world, described in the poem, are on the increase. One of the functions of the poet then is to help man see the world freshly. One way that poets have always done this is by holding up a mirror so that man may see himself, his own nature and the nature that is outside him. Nemerov notes that "if my poetry does envision the appearance of a new human nature, it does so chiefly in sarcastic outrage, for that new human nature appears in the poetry merely as a totalitarian fixing of the old human nature, whose principal products have been anguish, war, and history." Nemerov's satiric mirror helps man to see himself as he is, and the mirror held up to nature puts him in touch with the currents of being.

Nemerov has noted that makers of jokes and smart remarks resemble poets in another way in that they would also be "excluded from Plato's Republic; for it is of the nature of Utopia and the Crystal Palace, as Dostoevsky said, that you can't stick your tongue out at it." Turning from the church to politics, I might select three or four short instances where the poet's tongue is showing.

No bars are set too close, no mesh too fine
To keep me from the eagle and the lion,
Whom keepers feed that I may freely dine.
This goes to show that if you have the wit
To be small, common, cute, and live on shit,
Though the cage fret kings, you may make free with it.

So much for the lower end of the political scene, with its hangers-on and opportunists.

Another poem, "The Iron Characters," in one way takes up the other end of the political spectrum, but part of its theme is a kind of commonality that is shared by the great and small.

The iron characters, keepers of the public confidence,
The sponsors, fund raisers, and members of the board,
Who naturally assume their seats among the governors,
Who place their names behind the issue of bonds
And are consulted in the formation of cabinets,
The catastrophes of war, depression, and natural disaster:
They represent us in responsibilities many and great.
It is no wonder, then, if in a moment of crisis,
Before the microphones, under the lights, on a great occasion,
One of them will break down in hysterical weeping
Or fall in an epileptic seizure, or if one day
We read in the papers of one's having been found
Naked and drunk in a basement with three high school boys,
Or one who jumped from the window of his hospital room.
For are they not as ourselves in these things also?
Let the orphan, the pauper, the thief, the derelict drunk
And all those of no fixed address, shed tears of rejoicing
For the broken minds of the strong, the torn flesh of the just.

There is a tension of sentiment in the poem that insists on our reflection here. The "iron characters" do represent us in responsibilities and because this is so, they are the "keepers of the public confidence." When Nemerov selects certain very pathetic and awful moments when the keepers of the confidence break, it is not with malice. In only one instance might the newspaper reader feel occasioned to laugh: at the figure found naked and drunk with high school boys, because our nervous attitude about sexual mystery quickly finds its outlet in some kind of laughter—sometimes. It may be the case of Profumo in England or of Senator Kennedy in the United States. But these are "horrible jokes" that are no jokes. Thus, there is an obvious sympathy in the selection of examples. On the other hand, there is an ironic pleasure or affirmation for "all those of no fixed address" when they discover that the mighty are made of flesh also. Surely it is ironic that the orphan and the pauper should shed "tears of rejoicing / For the broken minds of the strong, the torn flesh of the just." The "tears of rejoicing" are shed simply because of a commonality or brotherhood that becomes apparent when the characters cease being "iron" and appear as all too human.

"To the Governor & Legislature of Massachusetts" is turned out with a livelier hand than the preceding poem, and incidentally reflects a part of recent Americana—that following the McCarthy era and the great Communist scare. University professors, among many others, found themselves being forced to sign "security oaths" and to promise that they would not overthrow the government. Apparently this happened to Nemerov:

When I took a job teaching in Massachusetts
I didn't know and no one told me that I'd have to sign
An oath of loyalty to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Now that I'm hooked, though, with a house
And a mortgage on the house, the road ahead
Is clear: I sign. But I want you gentlemen to know
That till today it never once occurred to me
To overthrow the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
By violence or subversion, or by preaching either.
But now I'm not so sure. It makes a fellow think,
Can such things be? Can such things be in the very crib
Of our liberties, and East of the Hudson, at that?

So if the day come that I should shove the Berkshire Hills
Over the border and annex them to Vermont,
Or snap Cape Cod off at the elbow and scatter
Hyannis to Provincetown beyond the twelve-mile limit,
Proclaiming apocalypsopetls to my pupils
And with state troopers dripping from my fingertips
Squeaking "You promised, you broke your promise!"
You gentlemen just sit there with my signature
And keep on lawyer-talking like nothing had happened,
Lest I root out that wagon tongue on Bunker Hill
And fungo your Golden Dome right into Fenway Park
Like any red-celled American boy ought to done
Long ago in the first place, just to keep in practice.

Perhaps incidental to the poem, there is here an example of Nemerov as liberal, which he certainly is. Though he handles the theme with wild hyperbole, there is a reasonable degree of serious anger. This is another occasion of the bad jokes that he insists constantly emerge from the contemporary ruins.

In the early 1950s when the United States was much troubled by the fear of Communist infiltrators, an economist for the U.S. Commerce Department, William Remington, was sentenced to three years for perjury, for denying he had given secret data to a Russian spy ring. Scheduled for release in August 1955 he was beaten to death by two fellow inmates in late November 1954. There was speculation that he had been beaten because of anti-Communist sentiment within the inmate population of the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, prison. Nemerov reacts to the brutality of the killing (the murderers used a brick inside a sock) in "The Murder of William Remington," reflecting about the function of law and punishment, and that much punishment may be a grim joke the majority play on the few.

There is the terror too of each man's thought,
That knows not, but must quietly suspect
His neighbor, friend, or self of being taught
To take an attitude merely correct;
Being frightened of his own cold image in
The glass of government, and his own sin,

Frightened lest senate house and prison wall
Be quarried of one stone, lest righteous and high
Look faintly smiling down and seem to call
A crime the welcome chance of liberty,
And any man an outlaw who aggrieves
The patriotism of a pair of thieves.

"The Great Society, Mark X" picks up the phrase that was coined during the Johnson years, years that signaled to Americans that there may be rents in the fabric of their society. The affluence following World War II seemed to create as many problems as it solved, or it may have simply given Americans the leisure to reflect on them. Ralph Nader came along during the years of "The Great Society" with his expose of General Motors. It may also be that since the assembly line, with its association of Ford's Model T, helped to usher in the era of mass production that gives a foundation to the present affluent society, it is appropriate that Nemerov chooses an automobile which is falling apart to embody the erosion of the society.

The engine and transmission and the wheels
Are made of greed, fear, and invidiousness
Fueled by super-pep high octane money
And lubricated with hypocrisy,
Interior upholstery is all handsewn
Of the skins of children of the very poor,
Justice and mercy, charity and peace,
Are optional items at slight extra cost,
The steering gear is newspring powered by
Expediency but not connected with
The wheels, and finally there are no brakes.

However, the rear-view mirror and the horn
Are covered by our lifetime guarantee.

The criticism of the society in this poem has been heard with much greater frequency in the intervening years, as, some feel, the wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of the powerful few. This is the articulated voice of a liberal. "Interior upholstery is all handsewn / Of the skins of children of the very poor," is a bit melodramatic, but the last three lines are, I think, the most haunting. A contemporary American despair derives from the fear that there is no way of stopping the juggernaut, that "there are no brakes." It is yet to be seen whether the "automobile" can be steered by anything but expediency, or whether the machine will have to be destroyed and a new one built. Two things are guaranteed: there is a rear-view mirror through which we can see the wreckage-strewn past and see where we have been, and a frightening horn that can only blow, hoping everyone will get out of the way. All in all, this is a terrible, mad-cap machine.

The poet continues to examine the nature of greed, invidiousness, and injustice in "Money." The figure he examines is the "buffalo" nickel that is now out of circulation. As Nemerov recalls for us, there was a standing buffalo on one side and the face of an Indian on the other. As for the buffalo, "one side shows a hunchbacked bison / Bending his head and curling his tail to accommodate / The circular nature of money." The main effect of this is to accentuate the overpowering influence of money but it is another reminder of the way greed and unawareness "influenced" the buffalo almost right out of existence. By extension, modern industrial society has temporarily made the natural world "accommodate" itself to a very demanding will. Temporarily, because as we are now aware, it was with a price that we may not be able to pay back.

As to the figure of the Indian:

Wearing the number nineteen-thirty-six has the association of a prisoner, which of course the Indian was and to some extent continues to be; at the same time there is the association of "his days are numbered" or at least his numbers are scarce. Right before the Indian's eyes, the nature of money "bends" or perverts any real notion of liberty. In just one or two lines the poet reminds us of much of our American past that we are not proud of; and he helps to clarify what many have known about one kind of laissez faire—that it often means "Devil-take-the-hindmost."

This poem is also an example of the danger any poet runs, and that is over-writing, or once something has been said, to then take up the expansive process of prose and continue to explain. The passage I have just excerpted was quite enough, I think. But Nemerov goes on to explain,

The representative American Indian was destroyed
A hundred years or so ago, and his descendants'
Relations with liberty are maintained with reservations,
Or primitive concentration camps.

While not commenting specifically on this poem, Miller Williams has noted in a review of Blue Swallows ["Transactions with the Muse," in The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov], from which "Money" is taken, that "While the beginnings and resolutions of almost all Nemerov's poems are as tight as good craftsmanship can make them, a number have a curious way of going loose in rhythm and almost rambling in the middle, so that the reader has the feeling of crossing a suspension bridge. These are faults, if I read fairly; but they are moved over without serious stumbling, and sometimes are no more than the peculiar mark of the man." The passage from "Money" supports this contention.

My own hunch is that this sort of thing occurs more frequently in the satiric poetry about the contemporary urban scene than it does with the more meditative poetry. This may be because abstract ideologies (political or otherwise) are more difficult to turn into poetic images than the insights that Nature may provide.

In addition to areas of the church, the state, and war (which are amply treated in the early volumes), there are several poems that reflect his attitudes about race. The first, an example of the terrible jokes that present themselves to the poet and which he continues to joke about, in a serious way, is entitled "A Negro Cemetery Next to a White One."

I wouldn't much object, if I were black,
To being turned away at the iron gate
By the dark blonde angel holding up a plaque
That said White Only; who would mind the wait

For those facilities? And still it's odd,
Though a natural god-given civil right,
For men to throw it in the face of God
Some ghosts are black and some darknesses white.

But since they failed to integrate the earth,
It's white of them to give what tantamounts
To it, making us all, for what that's worth,
Separate but equal where it counts.

After musing on the anomaly of a Christian turning another human being away because of color, the poet turns the situation further on its head and with irony by inversion observes that the earth is integrated surely in the end as the elements mix themselves and where no one's elements are separate, though truly they are equal.

The poem "A Picture" engages the racial problem in another way and the revelation of this poem is I think of a profounder order. The scene, from a photo in a newspaper, is the image of a group of people running down a city street after something; the first part of the poem isolates several of the people with comment, one a man in a "fat white shirt" who is "dutifully / Running along with all the others," and then:

The running faces did not record
Hatred or anger or great enthusiasm
For what they were doing (hunting down
A Negro, according to the caption),
But seemed rather solemn, intent,
With the serious patience of animals
Driven through a gate by some
Urgency out of the camera's range,
On an occasion too serious
For private feeling. The breathless faces
Expressed a religion of running,
A form of ritual exaltation
Devoted to obedience, and
Obedient, it might be, to the Negro,
Who was not caught by the camera
When it took the people in the street
Among the cars, toward some object,
Seriously running.

So much of the powerful inherited legacy of Man the animal, Man the descendant of australopithecus africanus, is rendered in this very haunting scene. The ritual of running is acted out as a matter of great solemnity, in the way a pack of hounds follows its prey with single-mindedness, a community effort. In the way that hounds are "driven," although they seem to drive, the people are "Devoted to obedience, and / Obedient, it might be, to the Negro, / Who was not caught by the camera." The poet's intelligence roves the contemporary landscape, in this instance an urban one, discovering strange rents in the fabric of civilization, rents that often appear to resemble bad jokes.

Another poem concerning race (of course all these poems embody more than a racial theme) but which does not fall into the category of jokes is "The Sweeper of Ways." The poet himself has written about the poem in his last collection of essays. The occasion for the poem was one of his habitual meetings with a Negro man who swept the sidewalk of leaves at a school where they both worked. Part of the poem reflects a middle-class, liberal embarrassment that anyone has to work at menial jobs because of his background and not because of his potential. The speaker reflects:

Masters, we carry our white faces by
In silent prayer, Don't hate me, on a wave-
length which his broom's antennae perfectly
Pick up, we know ourselves so many thoughts
Considered by a careful, kindly mind
Which can do nothing, and is doing that.

Nemerov has commented [in Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics] that "This kindly old man exemplifies a wrong in society. I didn't do it, but I have to feel responsible. And I detest about society this constant enforcing upon its members feelings of responsibility which are also deeply hopeless and despairing, so that one guilt evokes another, without remedy or end. For even if you could correct the future, what about the past? Many thousands gone." And the poet is mightily impressed with the patience and apparent lack of bitterness.

Three other poems gradually pull back from specific areas of man's experience until the perspective is quite wide. The first of these, "Cybernetics," is directed to someone who is ready to build a human brain, but in substance the poem is much more about the nature of man and his history. There is only profound, respectful admiration for man's complexity and his capabilities. The poet notes that for a cybemeticist to make a human brain, he would have to start with an area as big as Central Park and it would cost a little more than the Nineteen Fifty-Nine Gross National Product. He continues to enumerate many other problems the cybemeticist will have as he goes about his project. He observes, not resisting the pun, that the brain "must, of course, be absolutely free, / That's been determined." In the midst of its freedom, it is threatened with "yesterday's disasters" and must at the same time "assure itself, by masterful / Administration of the unforeseen, / That everything works according to plan." Out of the tension may be achieved that which permits man to endure: "something between / The flood of power and the drouth of fear: / A mediocrity, or golden mean, / Maybe at best the stoic apatheia" Further, if one intends to build a brain, he must install a "limiting tradition, / Which may be simple and parochial / (A memory of Main Street in the sunlight)" and the tradition should be as unequivocal as '"God will punish me if I suck my thumb.'"

If the brain-maker wants something rather elaborate, he can have it, but he must understand that this could be expensive.

It runs you into much more money for
Circuits of paradox and contradiction.
Your vessels of antinomian wrath alone
Run into millions; and you can't stop there,
You've got to add at every junction point
Auxiliary systems that will handle doubt,
Switches of agony that are On and Off
At the same time, and limited-access
Blind alleys full of inefficient gods
And marvelous devils.

And in the closing section of the poem, the speaker addresses the budding cybemeticist with irony that may be appropriate to someone who is now taking on the powers of Creator.

O helmsman! in your hands how equal now
Weigh opportunity and obligation.
A chance to mate those monsters of the Book,
The lion and serpent hidden from our sight
Through centuries of shadowed speculation.
What if the Will's a baffled, mangy lion,
Or Thought's no adder but a strong constrictor?
It is their offspring that we care about,
That marvelous mirror where our modest wit
Shall show gigantic. Will he uproot cities,
Or sit indoors on a rainy day and mope?
Will he decide against us, or want love?

How shall we see him, or endure his stride
Into our future bellowing Nil Mirari
While all his circuits click, propounding new
Solutions to the riddle of the Sphinx?

Some reviewers have commented on Nemerov's negativism, or in Meinke's words his "minimal affirmation." But over and over again Nemerov emphatically affirms man, and to use his own words [in Poetry and Fiction: Essays], he is a poet who has "got so far as to believe in the existence of the world." This is not the same thing as saying that he sentimentalizes the goodness of man and neglects man the beast. But who would believe a poet, or take him seriously, if he did offer such a sweeping, uncritical "affirmation"? "Cybernetics" is just such a poem that admits man's fantastic complexity and yet tacitly admires the courage he does show in the face of what he must confront. The poet chides the budding scientist for not being aware of just what he may be embarking on, and in so doing Nemerov affirms man. Nemerov affirms man in all his possibilities, authentic and inauthentic. It is man, and only man, who has the possibility of a relationship to being, who in his freedom can care, who can hear the call of conscience (Heidegger's Dasein). Just in what way the full ramifications of all of this can be labeled "minimal affirmation" is difficult to see.

"A Primer of the Daily Round" does not require any explication, it makes its statement clearly enough, but it is a delightful short poem and ends, to use a word that one has to use often with Nemerov, hauntingly.

The last two lines reinforce Miller Williams' comment that the "resolutions of almost all Nemerov's poems are as tight as good craftsmanship can make them" This poem, along with the next, is often selected for public readings; both lend themselves to a first hearing.

"Life Cycle of Common Man" is specifically about the "average consumer of the middle class." Nemerov estimates some of the consumables, ("Just under half a million cigarettes, / Four thousand fifths of gin and about / A quarter as much vermouth"), and the cost of putting him through life, his parents' investment and "how many beasts / Died to provide him with meat, belt and shoes / Cannot be certainly said." He pictures the man leaving a long trail of waste behind him. What did he do?

There were countless greetings and good-byes, gratitudes, and "statements beginning 'It seems to me' or 'As I always say.'" The poem closes with a lonely figure, strangely modern.

Consider the courage in all that, and behold the man
Walking into deep silence, with the ectoplastic
Cartoon's balloon of speech proceeding
Steadily out of the front of his face, the words
Borne along on the breath which is his spirit
Telling the numberless tale of his untold Word
Which makes the world his apple, and forces him to eat.

This is the kind of affirmation that Nemerov makes, affirming the kind of courage that modern man must have in order to face a world that "forces him to eat."

One final poem, a very delicate and poignant poem, evokes the poet's stance and describes the kind of courage that a sensitive mind must possess to face the often dark, terrifying world.

     "To D——, Dead by Her Own Hand"

My dear, I wonder if before the end
You ever thought about a children's game—
I'm sure you must have played it too—in which
You ran along a narrow garden wall
Pretending it to be a mountain ledge
So steep a snowy darkness fell away
On either side to deeps invisible;
And when you felt your balance being lost
You jumped because you feared to fall, and thought
For only an instant: That was when I died.

That was a life ago. And now you've gone,
Who would no longer play the grown-ups' game
Where, balanced on the ledge above the dark,
You go on running and you don't look down,
Nor ever jump because you fear to fall.

The courage is perhaps an act of faith, or else a result of having nothing else to do or lose. One walks along the edge of what separates the known (or what we think we know) and what we know we do not know, the edge of order and chaos, of hope and despair. But, "you go on running."

In this survey of the poems about man and his city-socities there emerges a liberal mind, in this case a particularly civilized and witty mind, which responds to what it sees. What Nemerov chooses to single out for comment and what is manifestly part of his uniqueness, comes from his talent for recognizing the paradoxes and bad jokes inherent in the most sensitive areas of human concern. The poetry that reflects the urban landscape concentrates on the most powerful institutions of society. Nemerov is particularly concerned with the tyranny of the past over the present—a tyranny which is manifest in the way it compels habitual action and habitual ways of looking at the world, whether it is the equation of greater numbers in church with a spiritual awakening, the customary selection of males for the obituary page and females for the matrimonial page, or the ritual force of our racial prejudices. As is true of all satire, there is affirmation, some assertion of value, and this is certainly true of Nemerov's. The poet helps us see the world freshly and, in so doing, reminds, us of our manly qualities and our strengths.

Julia Randall (review date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975

SOURCE: "Saying the Life of Things," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, January/February, 1976, pp. 46-7.

[In the positive review of The Western Approaches below, Randall compares Nemerov to English poet William Wordsworth.]

If you really want to see something, look at something else. If you want to say what something is, inspect something that it isn't. It might go further, and worse, than that: if you want to see the invisible world, look at the visible one.

—[Howard Nemerov], "On Metaphor," Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics

If you really want to see Howard Nemerov, look at practically anybody else writing today. But I pick a non-controversial foil, Wordsworth, because the comparison is fun and, for me, illuminating. It clarifies both what Nemerov's poetry is, and what it is not.

Wordsworth and Nemerov share the plain style and the same grand epistemological theme. Both write many disarmingly simple poems that help the reader grasp the occasional intricate star. Both avoid the marketplace, lead quiet lives, and would like to see Elysium a simple produce of the common day. Wordsworth tries to convince us that he succeeds. Nemerov, who takes a more realistic view of human nature and does not go in for the Egotistical Sublime, assumes that the attempt is useless. As he wittily quotes a student boner: "Man is descended from the maneating ape." Wordsworth is witless. He is given to trance, whereas Nemerov always keeps both eyes open, even, we feel, in his dreams. Wordsworth came to Nature early, Nemerov late. Wordsworth is a moon and mountain man, Nemerov a sun and seed man. For both poets, the central problem is how the individual Mind is fitted to the external World. For Wordsworth the fitting is exquisite. Nemerov is fond of quoting Blake: "You shall not bring me down to believe such fitting and fitted. I know better, and please your Lordship." Both the druidical Anglican and the sceptical Jew are mental travellers on the same track, and I like to see them there together, for they have precious little company today.

Nemerov's ninth volume of verse, The Western Approaches, is a substantial achievement—71 entries including two splendid translations (Rilke's "Kindheit" and a canzone from Dante's "Convivo") and two prose pieces, "The Measure of Poetry," and "The Thought of Trees." It divides into three sections: The Way, poems, largely ironic, about our gadgets and current preoccupations, e.g. "Watching Football on TV"; The Ground, poems mostly about Nature; The Mind, poems mostly about art and thought. It is quieter, more relaxed, more colloquial than its predecessor, Gnomes and Occasions (1973). It seems to me slacker—but to cast even mild aspersions on Nemerov's work makes me feel a bit like Francis Jeffrey, The Edinburgh Review's prize ass, who could write in 1814 "The case of Mr. Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless, and we give him up as altogether incurable and beyond the power of criticism." Jeffrey writ better than he wot, for WW was indeed incurable and beyond any criticism the ER could offer.

Nemerov can do what he likes with language, from the pun to the villanelle, and it is to his credit that he has (I imagine) curbed his aural gift, as Thomas and Auden, for instance, in their very different ways, did not always do. I like best his rough blank verse, for example Rune X from New and Selected Poems (1960).

White water, white water, feather of a form
Between the stones, is the race run to stay
Or pass away? Your utterance is riddled,
Rainbowed and clear and cold, tasting of stone,
Its brilliance blinds me. But still I have seen,
White water, at the breaking of the ice,
When the high places render up the new
Children of water and their tumbling light
Laughter runs down the hills, and the small fist
Of the seed unclenches in the day's dazzle,
How happiness is helpless before your fall,
White water, and history is no more than
The shadows thrown by clouds on mountainsides,
A distant chill, when all is brought to pass
By rain and birth and rising of the dead.

Here the verse flows as naturally as the water that is its subject. It is our dialect, but purified. Not so these lines from "The Metaphysical Automobile" in the current volume:

The idea of a car either has a dent
In its left front fender or it downright don't.

This is both metaphysically and linguistically cute. I do not see the necessity of splitting off the apostrophe in these lines about a football that wants to wobble:

At the opposite extreme I object to the wordiness of

which seems to mean "could not have beguiled a simple child." And then, Miltonics:

Spreading in secret through the fabric vast
Of heaven and earth.

Some lines are reminiscent of earlier and stronger ones, e.g. "as in the brilliant stillness of the sun" compared to "in the great room of the sun." Thematically, too, some of the poems in The Western Approaches seem to be overflows from poems in Gnomes and Occasions. Thus "Learning the Trees" (Approaches) is a paler version of "Beginner's Guide" (Gnomes), and "Conversing with Paradise" (Approaches) a footnote to the very fine "Painter Dreaming in the Poet's House" (Gnomes).

Despite such qualifications, The Western Approaches helps us to delimit Nemerov's world, and we are grateful that he has a world and an intellectual life instead of a platform and an autobiography. His Archimedean point is where seeing and saying meet. At least that is the point that moves the human world and produces our quadrivium—the arts, the humanities, the natural and the social sciences—through the creative agency of language. Neither Nemerov nor Susanne Langer, lacking the confidence of St. John, knows where language began. Both know that language made thought, and that thought made time, space, and human history.

Great pain was in the world before we came.
The shriek had learned to answer to the claw
Before we came; the gasp, the sigh, the groan,
Did not need our invention. But all these
Immediacies refused to signify
Till in the morning of the mental sun
One moment shuddered under stress and broke
Irreparably into before and after,
Inventing patience, panic, doubt, despair,
And with a single thrust producing thought
Beyond the possible, building the vaults
Of debt and the high citadels of guilt,
The segregating walls of obligation,
All that imposing masonry of time
Secretly rooted at the earth's cracked hearth,
In the Vishnu schist and the Bright Angel shale,
But up aspiring past the visible sky.

—from "The Creation of Anguish" (The Blue Swallows)

The great western question—Plato's, Kant's, Wordsworth's, Cézanne's, Stevens'—is a question about the premises of perception: can Mind see/say anything that is not defined and limited by its own powers? It may well aspire past the visible sky, but can it get anywhere on rods and cones, consonants and vowels?

Nemerov excludes the materialist's and the mystic's answers, but he is of several minds about the remaining possibilities. Language (hence thought, hence history) may after all be an insignificant game, as in the significantly titled "Playing the Inventions" (Bach's):

And only being uninformative
Will be the highest reach of wisdom known
In the perfect courtesy of music, where
The question answers only to itself
And the completed round excludes the world.

Personal destiny, too, may be a weary plot (author anon.); freedom and creativity jokes or illusions. A life

I may bring in here as evidence what I suppose to be a common experience of poets (and if poets aren't freely creative, who is?). You can sweat for hours or days getting a certain line perfect; you know it's out there and you've got everything but the words. Finally you get them—good job. Until some months later the editor points out that line 12 is by Yeats. Or the opposite case: I've read lines in other people's poems that are by me, when I know perfectly well that the author has never heard of me. Nemerov at times likens the world to a Great Writing in which we merely "play" the lines invented for us. The new volume contains several poems about novelists and their characters, "people who are not and whose non-being / Always depends on the next syllable."

Nemerov's first book was called The Image and the Law, and when he's not backing the Laws of thermo- and psychodynamics, he backs the Prophets. That is, he can imagine a future of which the human voice is shaper as well as sufferer. I think he would go at least as far as Wordsworth, and be still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
—"Tintern Abbey"

Poetry in the hands of the great masters, writes Nemerov, makes statements

about invisible mysteries by means of things visible; and poems, far from resting in nature as their end, use nature as a point from which they extrapolate darkly the nature of all things not visible or mediately knowable by the reason—the soul, society, the gods or god, the mind—to which visible nature is equivocally the reflexion and the mask. Such poetry is magical, then, because it treats the world as signature, in which all things intimate to us by their sensible properties what and in what way we are.

—"On Metaphor," Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics

In The Approaches he quotes Blake: "Poetry, Painting, & Music, the three Powers in Man of conversing with Paradise, which the flood did not Sweep away." But if we can converse with Paradise we have—to make a bad pun—made it. And lo! it is a produce of the common day, of that great room of the sun where thought and thing mate fruitfully to bring forth the knowledge that lies sleeping in them as long as they lie alone. The act of imagination, a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation—exactly so. Even if the finite mind requires Nature (or whatever is not-mind) as a partner, it is no mere stenographer. How much still lies sleeping in the world the true scientist knows as surely as the true artist, and both are ever ready for the protean encounter.

These are pretty high-flown words—HN's where they are not WW's or STC's—and I will deflate them by a simple example. In the course of writing this review I have found the poems come alive, shift shape, and start generating in me perceptions which were not there before and may not be in the poems either.

How arbitrary it must be, the sound
That breaks the silence; yet its valency,
Though hidden still, is great for other sounds
Drawn after it into the little dance
Prefigured in its possibilities.
—"Playing the Inventions"

Poetry talks back. That is why it is our best model of the mind. History records finished mental acts; poetry retrieves them because it catches them in verb, because we have to engage with it, being and becoming all at once.

My belief about poetry says that you write a poem not to say what you think, nor even to find out what you think—though that is closer-but to find out what it thinks.

—"The Sweeper of Ways," Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics

Doubtless some thoughts lie forever too deep for words. Meanwhile it would be well for us if more poets listened to what poems think.

Richard Howard (review date 1976)

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SOURCE: A review of The Western Approaches: Poems 1973-75, in The Yale Review, March, 1976, pp. 425-42.

[In the excerpt below, Howard praises The Western Approaches, calling it Nemerov's "wisest" book.]

Three years ago, when [Nemerov] published Gnomes and Occasions, even the vivid and lovable poems in that book were spiked and spooked by so many sour epigrams and put-downs of Others that it seemed Howard Nemerov must have forgotten Marianne Moore's hard truth: there never was a war that was not inward. Were all the enemies out there, one wondered, could none of the problems be played closer to the chest, even the medicine chest, than so much snarling seemed to suggest? Of course there were, as I say, vivid and lovable poems in the book—Nemerov is the master of his generation (he is fifty-seven), and since Auden's death he is the only poet of that generation in America who has found it possible to continue serving wisdom without forsaking intelligence or even knowledge; as long ago as 1961, James Dickey in a beautiful review of Nemerov's New and Selected Poems said the necessary things about this poet, the things necessary to make you go on reading him from beginning to

the definite announcement of an end
where one thing ceases and another starts.

But by 1973, one gasped at what Nemerov must endure at his own hands, from his own mirror, if he could speak so easily (it seemed), so icily about the rest of us and our defections from sanity and grace. This new book [The Western Approaches] is the assuaging answer to my fiction: the poet "unbelieving looked behind the glass / on razor, styptic, mouthwash and Band-aid" and came up, or out, with one of his enhancing formulations:

… it has been my life's ambition since
To elucidate the mirror by its medicines.

That is the program for this new and I may say sudden book, a much more generous and engaging affair than the last, a book of helpless pains and privileged affections where "on every front at once we reach the edge." It is organized into three parts—"the way," the way we live now, twenty-eight poems as mordant and skeptical as ever but including the poet in the bite, the doubt; "the ground," fifteen poems about the rhythms and figures of earth; and "the mind," twenty-six poems about the correspondences between those rhythms and figures and a language (poet ry, painting, music) which "competes with / experience while cooperating with / experience." Thus the mirror is disciplined, and by a dose of its own medicines; and Nemerov (who else so much suggests Lucretius as this poet for whom "the motion of the many made the one / shape constant and kept it so"? Only Ammons) is enabled, is obliged by his most compassionate talents, to write his finest book among many very fine, and I am convinced his wisest.

The wisdom convinces me because it is intricate only after it is obvious; because it is subtle only once it appears simple. Nemerov is not, now, the kind of poet who makes you exclaim: I never would or could have thought of that! He is the kind of poet who makes you—or me, ever and again—exclaim: Of course I thought of that, but I never understood what my thinking meant, what it could make me feel! Poems about "First Snow," about "A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed," about "Flower Arrangements" are not so much about these subjects as they are within them: such poems make the subjects happen in the mind, and so they become events, dramas, even tragedies. It is the elements, and elemental things (weather, darkness, decay; growth, change, form), which the wise poet broods on, and they speak to him, and he to us, in a chastised language whereby nothing solemn gets through without its test of observation and the wit which observation yields. Privileged is the new word in Nemerov's lexicon—over and over he acknowledges his debts to his condition ("you feel / upon your heart a signal to attend / the definite announcement") and declares himself privileged so to suffer, so to observe:

This language of Nemerov's which I call chastised (compared to Auden's, say, when both poets deal with such mortal ventures as taking a walk in the fall) is not thereby in a condition of privation, as the analyst says who may not touch his patient. Rather it is rich with its own constraints—as Nemerov says of the seeds displayed, "kept from act for reverence's sake"; the direct stanzas and the diligent iambics are in keeping, they hold onto the movement of the mind, and by such government the poems become "eternal return of the excluded middle," that kind of devotion to truth I have called wisdom because it leaves information and even knowledge behind in the privilege, just so, of wonder, of mystery, of myth:

These correspondences are what remain
Of the great age …

Such poems as "Boy with Book of Knowledge" and "The Backward Look," "Playing the Inventions," and "The Weather of the World" are only instances of what is here so rifely extant, poems which do elucidate the mirror—by reflecting the world.

Robert Richman (review date 1988)

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SOURCE: "Death and the Poet," in The New Criterion, Vol. 6, No. 5, January, 1988, pp. 72-7.

[In the following review of War Stories, Richman discusses existential themes in Nemerov's poetry as a whole.]

"They say the war is over," writes Howard Nemerov in "Redeployment," one of his most memorable early poems. "But water still / Comes bloody from the taps." Today, thirty-seven years after writing these lines, Nemerov's whole outlook on life is still haunted by the memory of war. This is the impression one has from Nemerov's new book, War Stories: Poems about Long Ago and Now. Nearly a third of the poems in this volume have their source in the poet's experiences, between 1942 and 1944, as a flying officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and as a first lieutenant, during the final two years of the conflict, in the U.S. Army Air Force. In the RAF, Nemerov's missions included the bombing of German shipping boats on the North Sea. A few poems are based directly on this experience, and others treat of the more banal aspects of war, such as Nemerov's dealings with his colleagues in the air force and his training as a flyer.

Nemerov's poetic response to war is not unusual. The dispassionate, ironic voice of the poems in War Stories has also been employed to good effect in the war poems of Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro. All the same, it is a fitting response to the particular absurdity Nemerov witnessed—what he calls the bloodless "clean war, the war in the air." Here is a poem entitled "The Faith":

And here is "Night Operations, Coastal Command RAF":

Remembering that war, I'd near believe
We didn't need the enemy, with whom
Our dark encounters were confused and few
And quickly done, so many of our lot
Did for themselves in folly and misfortune.

Some hit our own barrage balloons, and some
Tripped over power lines, coming in low;
Some swung on takeoff, others overshot,
And two or three forgot to lower the wheels.

There were those that flew the bearing for the course
And flew away forever; and the happy few
That homed on Venus sinking beyond the sea
In fading certitude. For all the skill,
For all the time of training, you might take
The hundred steps in darkness, not the next.

The truth is, another kind of war has always been in the forefront of Nemerov's consciousness. This is the war between man and the world that Nemerov considers to be the essential fact of the human condition. Indeed, the term "war stories" could be applied not just to Nemerov's many poems that deal with the Second World War but to most of the poems he has written. One has the sense that the poet turns so often to "real" war as a subject in his verse because he regards war as the most extreme example of the struggle between man and the spiritual void he occupies.

Nemerov has been called an existential poet, and for good reason. He believes that modern man must attempt an absurd task: to contrive meaning in a meaningless world. A poem that vividly reflects this existential stance is "Quaerendo Invenietis" (from Gnomes and Occasions, published in 1973). In this poem, Nemerov declares that "[w]ithout my meaning nothing, nothing means." An early war poem entitled "September Shooting" (from Nemerov's first book, The Image and the Law, published in 1947) also betrays something of existential philosophy. In it, the poet describes how an "anonymous bullet flies out of / An irrelevant necessity, and knows no evil."

Nemerov is commonly grouped with the other formalist poets of his generation—Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Donald Hall, and Peter Davison. Yet despite possessing a sense of language and form equal to any of these poets, he has often been viewed as the black sheep of the group. No doubt this has to do with Nemerov's unalloyed pessimism. It is true, though, that where his contemporaries will focus on, say, a beautiful woman emerging from a town-house door, Nemerov fastens his eye on a hapless soul who was tossed into a river, his feet cemented into a bucket. Where his contemporaries are on the lookout for spiritual presences in the world—presences that may enrich their lives—Nemerov insists that we must "sweat it [i.e., life] out." Nemerov bridles at the idea of transcendence: "darkness invades our day," he says in "Deep Woods," from The Salt Garden (1955); "[n]o meaning in it, but indifference." And he wonders sardonically, in "Lines & Circularities" (from Gnomes & Occasions), "How many silly miracles there are / That will not save us." When Nemerov does happen on a rainbow, he sees it in a polluted stream:

Oil is spilling down the little stream
Below the bridge. Heavy and slow as blood,
Or with an idiot's driveling contempt:
The spectral film unfolding, spreading forth
Prismatically in a breaking of rainbows….
("The Breaking of the Rainbows")

The eclipse—like the rainbow, admired by many poets as an example of the miraculousness of nature—is also unmasked as a fraud by Nemerov. In "During a Solar Eclipse," from the 1980 volume Sentences (the title itself is a diminishment of the book's contents), the poet concedes the eclipse's power to transform the day, but it cannot alter the speaker:

The darkening disk of the moon before the sun
All morning moves, turning our common day
A deep and iris blue, daylight of dream
In which we stand bemused and looking on
Backward at shadow and reflected light,

While the two great wanderers among the worlds
Enter their transit with our third, a thing
So rare that in his time upon the earth
A man may see, as I have done, but four,
In childhood two, a third in youth, and this

In likelihood my last. We stand bemused
While grass and rock darken, and stillness grows,
Until the sun and moon slide out of phase
And light returns us to the common life
That is so long to do and so soon done.

The speaker is "bemused"—the word is used twice in three stanzas—preoccupied, dreamy, abstracted; but not in the least bit transfigured by the experience.

Inevitably, death is—with war—one of Nemerov's favorite subjects. Everything reminds Nemerov of death because everything leads to it. As he writes in "In the Glass of Fashion," from The Image and the Law.

I am asked why I do not
Stop writing about death
And do something worth while.
To write about what would be
Not to write about death?

And in "The Goose Fish," from The Salt Garden, the "moony grin" of the dead fish's head mocks the lovers:

While in "De Anima"—from The Next Room of the Dream (1962)—Nemerov argues that "what lovers bring / Into the world is death."

Nemerov's poetry is not completely devoid of any acknowledgement of beauty. But on the rare occasion when he does refer to the beautiful, what is usually honored is the poet's ability to generate that beauty. What is "affirmed" in these poems is the inherent worthlessness of nature. In the title poem of The Blue Swallows (1967), Nemerov writes:

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind's eye lit the sun.

An analogous message is voiced in "The Makers" (from Sentences). Here, the "idiot world" is sung not only into beauty but into being by the poet:

Who can remember back to the first poets,
The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus?
No one has remembered that far back
Or now considers, among the artifacts
And bones and cantilevered inference
The past is made of, those first and greatest poets,
So lofty and disdainful of renown
They left us not a name to know them by.

They were the ones that in whatever tongue
Worded the world, that were the first to say
Star, water, stone, that said the visible
And made it bring invisibles to view
In wind and time and change, and in the mind
Itself that minded the hitherto idiot world
Spoke the speechless world and sang the towers
Of the city into the astonished sky.

They were the first great listeners, attuned
To interval, relationship, and scale,
The first to say above, beneath, beyond,
Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine,
Who having uttered vanished from the world
Leaving no memory but the marvelous
Magical elements, the breathing shapes
And stops of breath we build our Babels of.

This is Nemerov in his most confident mood. Even here, though, the poet's despair comes through. In his wish to get to "the truth of the matter" (the title of one of his earliest poems), Nemerov disdains certain poetical tools he judges will obscure the lucid expression of the "war" between man and universe. One such device is the sensuous image. Shifting clouds and misty mountains are rare in the Nemerovian oeuvre because imagery, in Nemerov's estimation, dilutes the dramatic contest at the heart of the poem. So does ornate language. Nemerov writes in bare, unadorned language because in his view it dispatches the "truth of the matter" best. The conclusion of "The Biographer's Mandate," from War Stories, is iambic pentameter at its most demotic—and, alas, most mediocre: "For we don't give a shit about his work. / These are the things we give a shit about."

In War Stories, Nemerov's wish to unearth "the truth of the matter" continues unabated. In "Economic Man," the poet contends that it is futile to look to nature for something to "profit by." Similarly, in "A Christmas Card of Halley's Comet," the poet remarks sarcastically how "[w]ords fail us" when faced with the enormity of the comet's meaninglessness. And in "On the Occasion of National Mourning"—written in the wake of the Challenger disaster—Nemerov comments that "the silvery platitudes / Were waiting in their silos for just such / An emergent occasion…."

In the book's war poems, Nemerov seeks to rid us of our illusions about military life. Since none of us any longer harbors illusions about military life, however, a few of the poems fall flat. In "IFF," for example, the poet confesses that while in the air force he spared Hitler "hardly a thought," but loathed instead "Corporal Irmin," "Wing Commander Briggs," "station C. O. Group Captain Ormery," and "my navigator Bert," who "shyly explained to me that the Jews / Were ruining England." (A similar sentiment is expressed in Edward Thomas's 1915 poem, "This is no case of petty right or wrong.") In "Double Negative," meanwhile, what is "exposed" is the "wisdom" of a senior pilot Nemerov had received instruction from. The old pilot assured Nemerov that it was a cinch to stop firing when—"as it's almost bound to happen"—"one of your chaps / Crosses his aircraft over in front of yours…."

Though these poems may not be the last word in originality, they are harmless enough. But what are we to make of Nemerov's truth-seeking and plain speaking in the second half of the poem entitled "Crotchets"?

At Breakfast this Morning

She tells me out of the paper about this guy
He's got leukemia and into the bargain AIDS,
They give him maybe two more weeks to live
When the oxygen tank outside the room explodes
And he winds up in emergency and then
Intensive care all over third-degree burns.
But they saved his life, they brought him back.

So don't try to, she says, tell me there is no God.

Nemerov is attracted to disaster like a moth to light, and it was perhaps inevitable that he would write a poem on AIDS. But why use it as the occasion for mirth? "Crotchets" may be too much, even for Nemerov's most sympathetic readers.

Actually, Nemerov has always had a penchant for jokes in his poetry. The poem alluded to above, for example, "The Truth of the Matter," revolves around a rather dark joke. In this poem, Nemerov writes of the "divine justice" of the death by diabetes of the head of a "great sugar refinery." The first two lines of "Ultima Ratio Reagan," from War Stories, constitute another, considerably lighter, attempt at humor: "The reason we do not learn from history is / Because we are not the people who learned last time."

Many commentators have criticized Nemerov for his taste for the sarcastic quip. In his 1966 essay "Attentiveness and Obedience," the poet tried to respond to these charges. He wrote, in part: "The charge typically raised … has been that my poems are jokes, even bad jokes. I incline to agree, insisting however that they are bad jokes, and even terrible jokes…."

One way to view these jokes is as a purely defensive reaction—the reaction of a mind so overwhelmed by the world's despair that it has no other response available to it but humor and sarcasm. In this view, gags are the response of a mind at the end of its tether. If one perceives Nemerov's jokes this way, it is easy to construe them as positive signs that the mind is still functioning in the face of the onrushing void.

But this is not a very satisfactory explanation of the impulse behind all of Nemerov's jokes, particularly the offensive ones, as in "Crotchets." For a possible clue to the impulse behind this dark humor, one must turn to Nemerov's 1965 prose volume Journal of the Fictive Life. In this book, Nemerov made a revealing statement. He wrote, "I hate intelligence, and it is all I have."

The joke at the end of "Crotchets," and the joke about the sugar man's death, are jokes at their most vulgar and unappealing. Could these attempts at humor actually be the poet's desire to punish his intelligence for denying him a bigger poetic response to the world, by showing that intelligence in the worst possible light? Could it be that Nemerov wishes to exact revenge on his hated intelligence for forcing him to write verse devoid of standard poetic effects and limited in subject matter to "war stories"? A strange thought, but not implausible.

Fortunately, this punitive aspect of Nemerov's sensibility rears its ugly head fairly infrequently. In Nemerov's oeuvre there are many poems which not only remain free of this self-destructive joking, but, remarkably, transcend the poet's general aesthetic strictures as well. "Redeployment," "The Goose Fish," and "The Makers" are just a few examples.

"Models," from War Stories, is another. In this poem, the juxtaposition of the model airplane-building boy and the soldier the boy becomes underscores marvelously the gulf between the reality of war and the young boy's romantic dream of a dogfight:

The boy of twelve, shaping a fuselage
Of balsa wood so easy to be sliced
Along the grain but likely to get crushed
Under the razor when it was cut across;

Sanding the parts, glueing and lacquering
And pasting on the crosses and the rings
The brave identities of Fokker and Spad
That fought, only a little before his birth,

That primitive, original war in the air
He made in miniature and flew by hand
In clumsy combat, simulated buzz:
A decade away from being there himself….

"The War in the Air," also from War Stories, succeeds despite Nemerov's poetic restrictions. Here, the poet shows how the mourning of the war dead need not be done with false eulogies, but through the unlikely combination of dispassion and stoicism:

For a saving grace, we didn't see our dead,
Who rarely bothered coming home to die
But simply stayed away out there
In the clean war, the war in the air.

Seldom the ghosts came back bearing their tales
Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,
But stayed up there in the relative wind,
Shades fading in the mind,

Who had no graves but only epitaphs
Where never so many spoke for never so few:
Per ardua, say the partisans of Mars,
Per aspera, to the stars.

That was the good war, the war we won
As if there were no death, for goodness' sake,
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, the empty air.

Poems like these are not all that rare in the poet's body of work. It is on the basis of them that Howard Nemerov should be regarded as one of our finest poets.

Ejner J. Jensen (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "Howard Nemerov and the Tyranny of Shakespeare," in Centennial Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 130-49.

[In the essay below, Jensen examines the influence of William Shakespeare on Nemerov's verse, stating that Shakespeare is "the guide and genius of [Nemerov's] poetic achievement. "]

John Lehmann, writing in his autobiography, claimed for Shakespeare the greatest intellectual and creative sovereignty over the minds and feelings of both the writers who followed him and all those whose literary inheritance derives from the English tradition. Shakespeare, he declared,

was the key to the whole of English literature, the mastermind that determined its course and depth and vitality so fundamentally that we can scarcely conceive what our imaginative life—perhaps even our moral values—would be like without him.

His assertion, in its nature more of a celebratory declaration than a critical argument, was picked up and expanded upon by T. J. B. Spencer in his British Academy Lecture, "The Tyranny of Shakespeare." Spencer argued that "The history of Shakespeare criticism …. has connexions with the production of poetry; and it is likely to be an unreal thing if we attempt to write it abstracted from the moulding influence of Shakespeare's writings upon subsequent literature." In this, Spencer was not merely agreeing with Lehmann but with a host of nineteenth-century writers including, notably, Ruskin, who claimed that "the intellectual measure of every man since born, in the domains of creative thought, may be assigned to him, according to the degree in which he has been taught by Shakespeare."

But the tyranny of Shakespeare, at once so widespread and so various in its manifestations, is difficult to measure. In Spencer's words, "Influences that become too pervasive lose their bright particularity, and defy the ordinary methods of describing literary causation." Harold Bloom's more recent theoretical formulation of the problem Spencer described focuses less on the details of textual influence than on questions of the psychology of creation growing out of one author's awareness of another's presence in his literary-intellectual background and in his works. The consciousness, as Bloom puts it, of a strong poet, makes the tyranny of Shakespeare something that the modern author must confront directly, recognizing his indebtedness and coping in some fashion with the "anxiety of influence."

Among contemporary poets, Howard Nemerov offers a striking instance of a writer whose indebtedness to Shakespeare is both considerable and self-conscious. Nemerov is so aware of Shakespeare's presence in his work, so given to clinching his critical arguments with quotations from Shakespeare, so supple and inventive in his employment of Shakespearean allusions in his poetry that he may be said to have transformed the tyranny of Shakespeare into a benevolent timocracy in which he can claim a legitimate share.

One measure of Nemerov's debt to Shakespeare appears quite simply in the titles of several poems. "In the Glass of Fashion," "The Second-Best Bed," "A Lean and Hungry Look," "Holding the Mirror up to Nature" all depend for their understanding at least in part on a reader's sense of the allusion and the context that it summons up. Other poems, such as "In the Market-Place" or "The Town Dump," use Shakespearean quotations as epigraphs. In the former instance, an exchange between Polonius and Hamlet—

Do you know me, my lord?
Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.—

introduces a poem packed with contradictions whose theme suggests the deep potential for evil in all of life. In this market-place "The armored salmon jewel the ice with blood"; and though it is noon and "soft August" still the speaker feels the power of the day to stir "a chill cloud" and raise "a silver flood To savage in the marrow of my weir." In the second case, Nemerov takes an epigraph from King Lear

The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious—

and quotes from the passage once more in the final section of the poem:

Among the flies, the purefying [sic] fires,
The hunters by night, acquainted with the art
Of our necessities, and the new deposits
That each day wastes with treasure, you may say
There should be ratios.

"Necessities" in the design of the poem become not required things but rather perceptions imposed upon individuals by certain habits of thought. Thus "dealers in antiques / … prowl this place by night" in the hope of some discovery,

Thus too those who need to find ratios, says the speaker, "may sum up / The results, if you want results." But over against that summing up,

In place of "necessities" of thought, we have an alternative possibility. The mathematical "results" are not allowed to stand as a final solution; instead, the poet "will add" to them, and what he adds brings to the poem a final ambiguity reminiscent of that summoned by the pigeons at the close of Stevens' "Sunday Morning" sinking "downward to darkness, on extended wings."

Rosalie Colie once wrote of the shaping power of paradox in King Lear, remarking how the play turns so insistently to parodoxical figures as a means of arriving at its final truth. It is this aspect of King Lear that Nemerov seizes on in "The Town Dump": this final depository where "nothing finishes," a sty that may become "Someone's heaven," "Being" which "ends up / Becoming some more" and—on another level, where paradox approaches oxymoron—"dreamy midden." All of these figures, along with more fully developed images—"the lobster," who "lifts / An empty claw in his most minatory / Of gestures"; "banana peels / No one will skid on, apple cores that caused / Neither the fall of man nor a theory / Of gravitation"—bring "The Town Dump" into a rewarding series of thematic connections with King Lear. Like the play, Nemerov's poem develops around a few related central themes that unite questions of perception and judgment, appearance and value, dissolution and redemption from loss. If the poem finally provides no clear answers, it does—like tragedy generally and like Lear in particular—force us to look at the most troubling questions. And like Lear, like all great tragedies, it invites us to contemplate the mystery of beauty sprung from waste, of wisdom not wholly accessible but undeniably present even in the midst of suffering and defeat. Thus Nemerov uses Lear not merely as a point of reference, not merely allusively, but as a means of enlarging his own poem's range of meaning and bringing its themes more strikingly into our field of awareness.

Critics have commented extensively on Nemerov's recurrent attention to the relationship between perception and reality, his continuing exploration of the question of "how thought ever emerged (if it ever did) out of a world of things." Julia Bartholomay has demonstrated how productive these concerns have been of images and symbols that abound in Nemerov's poetry; and Nemerov himself has written of a whole class of figures he describes as effigies, "including by analogy with the form and function of statues such metaphorical extensions as photographs, Santa Claus, mannequins in shop windows, snowmen, famous and influential people, and even the unsuccessful heroes turned to stone by the Gorgon's head."

Another figure of nearly comparable importance is that of the stage as a place of created or feigned reality. Often Nemerov will simply echo Jacques' famous speech as a shorthand means of bringing this figure into play. In an early poem, "Portrait of Three Conspirators," one of the three figures of the title is a man "who no longer believes the world a stage." The line returns three more times during the course of the poem. In the fifth stanza,

It is night, and it is the season of winter.
It is time, and time passes, and
The world is not a stage.

In the seventh stanza, the speaker reports a kind of dialogue he has with his imperturable "assassins,":

I say to them, I must die, because the world
Is not a stage.

But they remain unmoved:

Nothing can change them. They sit there as if
Immortal, and mutter, like actors on a stage,
Of art and wisdom, and a change of life.

This final comment on the inefficacy of poetic creation suggests (even requires) a contrast with Yeats's golden bird, who sings "of what is past, or passing, or to come." Where the Irish poet speaks of escaping the limitations imposed by "any natural thing," Nemerov denies the power of art, whose "words … break against / Implacable existence."

In "The Loon's Cry," from Mirrors and Windows (1958), Nemerov turns to the same problem, though here he provides it with a historical context. Set in a landscape that symbolizes the intrusion of modern life into the world of nature—"down where the railroad bridge / Divides the river from the estuary"—the poem presents a speaker "fallen from the symboled world" who envies "those past ages … / When … the energy in things / Shone through their shapes." That past, he believes, was far more readable than the present. Orderly and well-balanced, it was characterized by a satisfying economy of design and function:

That past was, above all, purposive; "The world a stage," its inhabitants were actors in a drama of divine shaping, "maskers all / In actions largely framed to imitate / God and his Lucifer's long debate."

But the energy and meaning of art hold more promise here than in "The Three Conspirators." Midway through the poem the bird's "savage cry" causes the speaker to imagine himself as "Adam … / Hearing the first loon cry in paradise." Its final stanza brings the poem's two chief symbols together:

The loon again? Or else a whistling train,
Whose far thunders began to shake the bridge.
And it came on, a loud bulk under smoke,
Changing the signals on the bridge, the bright
Rubies and emeralds, rubies and emeralds
Signing the cold night as I turned for home,
Hearing the train cry once more, like a loon.

Thus "The Loon's Cry" goes farther than most of Nemerov's poems in uniting the world of created reality (the world shaped and ordered by mankind) and the world of nature. The world is not a stage, but neither does it stand exclusively as a mockery of the artist's effort to understand its meaning.

The relation of the poet's vision to the world—specifically the world of nature—is again Nemerov's subject in "Elegy for a Nature Poet." Here too the poem turns in part on an allusion to As You Like It. Of the dead poet, the poet asserts that there was

Nothing too great, nothing too trivial
For him; from mountain range or humble vermin
He could extract the humble parable—
If need be, crack the stone to get the sermon.

Duke Senior's praise of rustic life and "the uses of adversity" celebrates an existence that

Finds tongue in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything

As is often the case with Nemerov, the poetic working-out of an intellectual or philosophical problem offers as well a field for play. "Elegy for a Nature Poet" illustrates this habit in a variety of ways: in its sly joking with the terms of its basic oppositions, in its surprising shifts of tone, and in its deft management of the conventions of its genre.

The death of the nature poet comes, ironically, from too intimate a contact with nature. On his last walk, he ventured unprotected into her domain:

Through the witty playfulness of the poem, Nemerov sets the poet's fictions over against nature's truth. The dead poet was, above all else, pleased with his role.

His gift was daily his delight, he peeled
The landscape back to show it was a story;
Any old bird or burning bush revealed
At his hands just another allegory.

But the final judgment on him (and on his work) is the ironic sentence that nature always imposes on those foolish enough to try shaping her to their desires.

And now, poor man, he's gone. Without his name
The field reverts to wilderness again,
The rocks are silent, woods don't seem the same;
Demoralized small birds will fly insane.

Rude nature, whom he loved to idealize
And would have wed, pretends she never heard
His voice at all, as, taken by surprise
At last, he goes to her without a word.

The small birds are "demoralized" as they fulfill conventional elegiac expectations; but more importantly they are "de-moralized" as they are free from the impositions of one who would see a pattern in their randomness.

Thus Nemerov challenges Duke Senior's sentimental pastoralism, bringing nature itself to witness against and rebuke those who would read in its mysteries easy truths. As You Like It does not come fully into view in the brief compass of "Elegy for a Nature Poet," but one does see there a complex of attitudes arising from the major pastoral-romantic themes of the play. Nemerov confronts those attitudes with a skepticism that operates by means of comic deflation. The questions are the familiar and serious ones of reality and perception, of art as reflection or source of meaning. As in "Small Moment" one discovers death; whatever is invented cannot last: "Without his name / The field reverts to wilderness again."

The "Seven Ages of Man" speech of Jacques in As You Like It, apart from providing a set piece for generations of high school elocution students, serves in the play as a counter-poise to its romantic and pastoral idealism. Nemerov, writing on "The Four Ages" turns to another of Shakespeare's plays to aid his analysis, which proceeds in terms drawn from the art of music. It is, he says, "de rigueur for myths to have four ages," though "Nobody quite knows why." In any event,

The first age of the world was counterpoint,
Music immediate to the senses

Not yet exclusive in their separate realms,
Wordlessly weaving the tapestried cosmos
Reflected mosaic in the wakening mind.

Though he offers no explanation for the change, Nemerov reports the end and the broken remnants of that first stretch of time:

That world was lost, though echoes of it stray
On every breeze and breath, fragmented and
Heard but in snatches, henceforth understood
Only by listeners like Pythagoras,
Who held the music of the spheres was silence
Because we had been hearing it from birth,
And Shakespeare, who made his Caliban recite
Its praises in the temporary isle.

In The Tempest, Caliban attempts to comfort Stephano and Trinculo, who have been frightened by Ariel's music.

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about my ears; and sometimes voices
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again.

In "The Four Ages" the poet's myth traces a breakdown. Moving from "Music immediate to the senses," in the second age "words / Entered the dancing-space and made it song." The third age left only words and poetry,

Finally, the fourth age completes a movement from magical apprehension of pure sound to rational explanation. "Illusion at last is over" and one is left with "common prose," which is "Delighted to explain, but not to praise." It may be, though the poem's speaker seems not to think it a major issue, that myths require four ages so that they may match

Four seasons and four elements and four
Voices of music and four gospels and four
Cardinal points on the compass rose and four
Whatever elses happen to come in four.

What matters most is that

These correspondences are what remain
Of the great age when all was counterpoint
And no one minded that nothing mattered or meant.

Nemerov is careful in the poem to attribute to Shakespeare (not his creature Caliban) the power to detect echoes of the first age of the world. As argument, then, his poem exempts Shakespeare from the conflict that opposes the world's reality to the artist's perception. Instead, he is viewed as one who has access to the wondrous immediacy of the first age—"the tapestried cosmos / Reflected mosaic in the wakening mind."

This is the ground of Nemerov's wish, expressed with such telling poignancy in Journal of a Fictive Life:

The predicaments of my most characteristic and intimate imagery strangely belong to Shakespeare too, who resolved them by magical poetry in his Last Plays. May it happen to me also one day that the statue shall move and speak, and the drowned child be found, and the unearthly music sing to me.

The resolution of such "predicaments" is most likely to take place in poems that work at some remove from the actual details of Shakespearean language and plot detail. Again and again, Nemerov's "characteristic and intimate imagery" illuminates his dilemma as poet and thinker. Ross Labrie describes that dilemma most economically: "The insatiable hunger for meaning co-exists with the awareness that the meaning sought by the mind will invariably turn out to be the meaning imposed by the mind." For the most part, the poems which come closest to the magical resolution Shakespeare achieved in his last plays are less analytical and self-reflexive than the poems about Shakespeare. Yet the poems that develop out of an allusion to Shakespeare or take some Shakespearean character or play as their subject exemplify a central aspect of Nemerov's thinking about poetry. They do so, moreover, by making full use of a public awareness of Shakespeare; the poet can count, to an extraordinary degree, on his audience's adding something of their own commitment to Shakespeare to the field of interest created by the poem. This seems especially true of two poems that grow out of the materials of Hamlet, "Polonius Passing Through a Stage" and "Orphic Scenario," with its subtitle, "for a movie of Hamlet."

The first of these, "Polonius Passing Through a Stage," belongs to a long tradition of poems that isolate single characters from the plays, subjecting them to analysis or allowing them to speak for (and try to explain or justify), themselves and their actions. Walter De La Mare wrote a series of such poems, including one on Polonius in which he imagines the fictional character recognizing Sir Frances Bacon as his court fellow in corruption. The Czech poet Miroslav Holub describes a Polonius whose wily usefulness is an available commodity—"a pound of jellied / flunkey."

Nemerov's Polonius is a genuinely puzzled figure laboring to explain himself and his fate. In his attempt, he seems both pitiable and vaguely comic; in some ways, his efforts at self-justification recall the Herod of Auden's "For the Time Being." But where Auden's character degenerates into rant and banality ("I've tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born."), Nemerov's becomes more complex, seeing himself as both an individual and as a dramatic figure, a mere counter in the theatrical patterns arranged by the playwright Shakespeare. Thus too the "stage" of the poem's title is both a stage in the speaker's development and the stage on which he acts out his appointed Shakespearean role.

In both cases, as he reviews his life now with the wisdom of retrospection, he believes he followed that injunction received as a child and delivered years later to his son: "Try to be yourself." Yet he can only judge that in the effort to do so he has failed; and his defense is the familiar, helpless one of all whose failure perplexes and defeats them: "I tried." The poem, in three six-line stanzas rhyming ababcc, treats past, present, and more recent past. The first stage tells of the speaker's childhood and early maturity, the third of his age, while the second seems to be a perpetual present in which the plays of Shakespeare are forever being performed. Surprisingly, they are presented by "The company in my Globe theater," apparently the mind or imagination of Polonius rather than Shakespeare's Globe.

Both in life and art, Polonius' efforts to be himself meet with frustration. "The blue annuities of silence some called / Wisdom," stored up over his youthful years, cannot shut out the reality of "sunstorms and exploding stars, / The legions screaming in the German wood." For most men, "Ten heavenly don'ts / Botch up a selfhood,"—i.e. a life defined by the commandments, though it be ruined, is nevertheless given some sort of shape. But Shakespeare as creator provides even less than the negative guidance of the decalogue: "where there's a Will / He's away." The result for Polonius as a Shakespearean character is that he finds himself, in language drawn from the play's chief line of imagery, "Rotting at ease, a ghostly doll"; he is troubled and perplexed by his own sense of unease: "What is that scratching on my heart's wall?" Finally, he reaches a condition like that of Lear in his madness, a connection borne out by an allusion to King Lear: "The silence grew / Till I could hear the tiniest Mongol horde / Scuffle the Gobi, a pony's felted shoe." Lear, in his wild ranting, imagines that

It were a delicate strategem to shoe
A troop of horse with felt. I'll put't in proof,
And when I have stol'n upon these son-in-laws,
Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

Here is the issue of those "blue annuities of silence": a more profound and inescapable sense of evil, and finally death at the hand of Hamlet. It seems hard to say precisely what meanings are comprehended in "from the fiery pit that self-born bird / Arose"; but the immediate context suggests that the reference is primarily to Hamlet and that the phoenix, though certainly a plausible intention, fits less well. Hamlet is "self-born" as the images of "Among School Children" are ("both nuns and mothers worship images"), and he emerges from unearthly contact with his dead father to claim revenge on those responsible for the late king's death. The poem's closing lines once again merge the speaker of the poem and the Shakespearean character: "A rat! The unseen good old—/ That sort of thing always brings the house down." Hamlet's exclamation and Gertrude's report make up the first line, while the second is the character's resigned evaluation of his theatrical fate. Even here, though, Polonius' double role is captured in a kind of pun. His death is invariable a coup de theatre, but it also marks the imminent destruction of his family line.

"Polonius Passing Through a Stage" is not, like many of the poems about Shakespeare's plays or the characters who inhabit them, particularly self-reflexive in its operation. It does not turn us back to the play with any sense that we have access to the heart of its mystery. Rather, it moves out of the play to make a more generalized point about how one shapes identity and about the essentially solitary nature of that task. Yet if one sees the poem as an answer to the question, "How would Polonius explain himself?" it does provide an interpretation of his character and grounds for understanding his behavior throughout the play. What "they told the child" remains for the aging court counsellor a first principle of behavior. He wants to please, and his eagerness to do so emerges as mindless obsequiousness joined to self-celebrating garrulity. In this poem, Nemerov strikes an effective balance between source and invention, using as givens the character of Polonius and some elements of Shakespeare's own language but supplying from his own poetic resources the central thematic concern and the intellectual playfulness that create the work's striking tone and undeniable power.

What Nemerov achieves with "Polonius Passing Through a Stage" he attempts on a much larger scale in "Orphic Scenario," a poem from a section in Mirrors and Windows (1958) that includes "The Loon's Cry," "Lightning Storm on Fuji (Hokusai)," "Home for the Holidays," "Sunderland," "Moses," and "Ahasuerus." While this seems not to be a rigorous grouping, there are sufficient likenesses among the poems to suggest possible reasons for their placement. "The Loon's Cry," discussed earlier, treats the issue of art's relation to the world it proposes to imitate. This theme also shapes the poem on Hokusai's painting. "Moses" and "Home for the Holidays" explore the familiar Nemerov theme of contrasting (even opposed) perspectives. "Sunderland,"—which includes an allusion to Romeo and Juliet—and "Ahasuerus" are both self-consciously literary. In "Orphic Scenario" one sees the "predicaments of [Nemerov's] most characteristic and intimate imagery" expressed in a difficult and complex poem. The work's range—of allusion, of feeling—is enormous; in addition, it displays the poet's almost habitual disregard of consistency of tone. Thus a poem which takes up the grandest and most important of themes (time, the self, ways of knowing, orders of existence) contains as well gratuitous and ineffective puns (the egghead's Rorschach in the Holy Wood, "Meatier and more meet"). Perhaps it was her impatience with such unreconciled diversity that prompted Carolyn Kizer to say that in this poem "no amount of forcing can mobilize the dead-tired ideas."

The notion of "forcing," though, which implies a pattern or design into which the poet tries to fit pieces of his argument, seems foreign to the strategy of this poem, which works rather through the "predicaments" of imagery. Birth and death, egg and bleeding bull, constitute the encompassing extremities of this imagery. Light—as reflection, as stage device, as source of a version of reality (Plato's myth of the cave)—makes up its center. On this field of imagery, Nemerov develops his poem. "Orphic Scenario," with its descriptive subtitle, "for a movie of Hamlet," is circular in design. It moves from a description of the close of the play—

Bear Hamlet, like a soldier to the stage
(The world's a stage). And bid the soldiers shoot.
Loud music, drums and guns, the lights go up.


and from "Cheap? Yes, of course it's cheap." to "Cheaper, and yet more golden than before." Within this movement, the central theme of the poem is the relation of art and reality, the "tricks" of the stage or the camera set over against "the things we think we see and know."

The concerns of "Orphic Scenario" appear repeatedly in the other poems of Mirrors and Windows and in "The Swaying Form: A Problem in Poetry," first published in 1959. The knottiness of the poem—its circularity and reflexivity, the ambiguity of its reference—demonstrates the need to read it with certain words and ideas in mind, words and ideas that seem to dominate Nemerov's thought and writing during the period of the 'fifties and early 'sixties. These would include such words as "mirror," "window," "light," "lens," "screen," and objects or phenomena associated with them, such as reflection, illumination, shadowing, and many others. Thus it is true and not merely fashionable to say that "Orphic Scenario" is a poem about the creative process, about the writing of poetry; for the poem's design, or its struggle to achieve a design, illustrates perfectly Nemerov's definition of the writer's job of work:

Writing means trying to find out what the nature of things has to say about what you think you have to say. And the process is reflective or cyclical, a matter of feedback between oneself and "it," an "it" which can gain its identity only in the course of being brought into being, come into being only in the course of finding its identity.

Thus the question of theatrical tricks—Is the close of Hamlet cheap?—grows into other questions which have the effect of joining this theatrical illusion to illusions of other sorts. The stage image alters into that of a camera and perhaps also of a card game, even an unfair one—"This dark malodorous box of taken tricks"—but with the purpose of asserting that "reality's much the same"; and the speaker of the poem, anticipating a charge of begging the question, simplifies his responses:

Reality's where the hurled light beams and breaks,
Against the solemn wall, a spattered egg,
The seed and food of being.

Julia Bartholomay, arguing that Nemerov's key theme is "reflexivity of thought," identifies its expression in "Runes," where it also appears through the imagery of seed and egg. In "Runes," she says, "The secret of the seed, extracted by knowledge, is death (IV), though it is also life (XVI)."

Paradox, a multiplicity of illusions, difficulty even in locating a starting point—these are the experiences of a reader of "Orphic Scenario" just as they are the subjects of the poem itself. Here one may see in Nemerov's own work an example of a major problem he identifies in modern poetry citing Troilus and Cressida to illustrate his point:

This development [poetry that treats of the act of composition], where the mind curves back upon itself, may always be a limit, not only for poetry but for every kind of thought, for that "speculation" which Shakespeare says "Turns not to itself / Till it hath travell'd and is mirror'd there / Where it may see itself adding that, "This is not strange at all."

But if such a limit imposes itself, one's only recourse is to accept it and, in that acceptance, work toward the best possible understanding. Reality, then, as "hurled light" or "spattered egg" is at least a beginning; and from that point, Nemerov goes on to posit other developments, all of them offered tentatively and in the subjunctive mood—"if," "should." Once the illusion is projected, "splayed as a blaze / On the blank of limit," it becomes a potential source of knowledge, able to "entrance / The vacant stare, fix it with visions of, / However dripping and impure, an order." And if this can be achieved, "That is enough, or the abstract of enough." But the speaker of the poem, never content to accept a single vision of reality, pressing always for still another logical possibility in this investigation of the limits of knowledge, goes one step further:

And should the seed and food of order also
Resemble the things we see and know,
Lips, noses, eyes, the grimaces thereof
Compounded, playing in the fetal night,
That too is enough, if not too much.

"Human kind," says Eliot, "cannot bear very much reality"; and the reality of "lips, noses, eyes," recalling the torment of Othello, provides an instance of that truth even as it reminds us that the Moor's madness grows out of an illusion created by Iago.

The continuing movement in search of a ground for observation—which is both the poem's method and its meaning—culminates finally in a defense of art which may be described as Sidneyan:

This is an assertion, though admittedly an oblique and understated one. Any paraphrase of such a subtle argument runs the risk of Polonian specificity; but it is clear, I think, that Nemerov bases his defense of art on its moving power, on its ability to use a golden world—here a world of grand figures and actions with mythic resonance—to enhance and transform our vision of the world we experience. The instruments of that transformation are "effigies," of the sort described by Julia Bartholomay—in this poem primarily the cinema and images drawn from film technique and personalities but also the rich and violent world of mythology. In "Orphic Scenario," however, the effigies do not confirm a mistaken notion of reality; instead, they force an observer to question the grounds of his belief about reality and to become aware of the terrifying mysteries that great art is capable of communicating. This, finally, is the poem's testimony to the power of Shakespeare's drama. The death of Hamlet shows us

How all the buildings rise in a golden sky
Cheaper, and yet more golden, than before,
More high and solemn, borne on a great stage
In a failing light.

For Nemerov, then Hamlet offers a paradigm of the function of great art. In its majesty (and even in its theatrical "cheapness") it confronts us with the need to test our vision of reality. Its very grandeur is a source of its moving power, and though that grandness be at times specious, a publicist's excess—"The new Veronica, the stiffened face / Light of the world, cast on a hanging cloth"—it is capable nevertheless of driving us to other and deeper awarenesses.

Nemerov's response to the tyranny of Shakespeare appears finally in a variety of strategies, all of them based on the modern poet's recognition that Shakespeare is a vital presence both for himself and for his contemporary audience. In his poetry, Nemerov introduces and uses Shakespeare in a wide variety of ways ranging from casual, apparently flippant allusions to instances in which the original Shakespearean materials are deployed extensively to create whole poems. This habitual returning has its basis in two beliefs that Nemerov has set out in a quite explicit fashion—the first related to his understanding of poetry, the second to his sense of Shakespeare's thought. The struggle to come to terms with what is, the poet's continuing effort to define the relation between mind and things, observer and observed world, is the key to his description of poetry:

Poetry, I would say, is, in its highest ranges, no mere playing with the counters of meaning, but a perpetual rederiving of the possibility of meaning from matter, of the intelligible world from the brute recalcitrance of things.

It was Shakespeare's glory, "a sublime and terrible treasure which afterwards was lost," to have created his matchless dramas on the assumption that "there exist several distinct realms of being, which for all their apparent distinctness respond immediately and decisively to one another." In his continuing struggle as a poet, Nemerov has kept the example of Shakespeare before him, seizing upon occasional stray echoes of "The first age of the world" but recognizing his own less favored place in history. In "The Four Ages" the last age is described in a metaphor that recalls the poet's frequent denial that "All the world's a stage." Here the stage itself is dissolving and the show has come to an end:

The sentences break ranks, the orchestra
Has left the pit, the curtain has come down
Upon the smiling actors, and the crowd
Is moving toward the exits through the aisles.
Illusion at last is over.

This is a world Shakespeare never knew, a world of prose fit to explain but not to celebrate. In such an age, the tyranny of Shakespeare might seem especially inescapable and potent. But for Nemerov it becomes instead a spur to greater effort in the craft of writing, in the attempt "to find out what the nature of things has to say about what you think you have to say." In "the nature of things" Nemerov discovers that Hopkins knew: "there lives the dearest freshness." Shakespeare, as unattainable model, forces him to this discovery; and thus the tyrant Shakespeare becomes the guide and genius of his poetic achievement.

Miriam Marty Clark (review date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5673

SOURCE: '"Between the Wave and the Particle': Figuring Science in Howard Nemerov's Poems," in Mosaic, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 37-50.

[In the review below, Clark examines Nemerov's incorporation of science and technology into his works.]

As reader, namer, knower, skeptic, Howard Nemerov has had a long and productive engagement with the material world and with the sciences which explore its laws, its oddities. His work alludes often to scientific and semi-scientific writing from Euclid to Einstein; his many, diverse sources include Goethe, Godei, Eddington, Sherrington, Freud, Whitehead, Russell; Herbert Muller, Scott Buchanan, Owen Barfield and Lewis Thomas.

Such engagement, though generally acknowledged, has curiously been given little detailed attention by critics of Nemerov's work. Peter Meinke, for example, notes broadly [in his Howard Nemerov, 1968] that Nemerov has become a "spokesman for the existential, science-oriented (or science-displaced), liberal mind of the twentieth century," and Julia Bartholomay argues simply that the poet is one of the few to "incorporate science into his work" [in her The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov, 1972]. Undoubtedly, partly responsible for failure to pursue the issue further is the way Nemerov himself has seemed not to encourage it. Thus early in his career, in Journal of the Fictive Life (1965), he observed: "Like many poets, I read a good deal of science, and like most of the poets who do, I do not read it for the sake of science but rather for the sake of metaphor." Later, in a 1979 interview with Ross Labrie [in Southern Review, Vol. 15, 1979], he added, "I've sort of despaired of ever knowing anything…. I can hunt around snapping up unconsidered metaphors where I can. But that oughtn't to be confused with the knowledge of physics and biology."

Disclaimers like these are not especially troublesome, however, for it can easily be demonstrated that, "unconsidered" as they may seem, Nemerov's metaphors are not divorced from their scientific contexts and are related in vital ways, not merely passing ones, to the questions the poet asks, the puzzles and paradoxes of the world he describes. More problematic, and therefore probably the real deterrent to a discussion of the centrality of science in Nemerov's poetry, is the question—alluded to by Meinke—of whether his interest should be viewed as "orientation" or "displacement." A poet of shifting moods, Nemerov swings, often within a single volume, between deep engagement and ironic detachment, between an empowering romanticization of science and a lingering distrust of it.

Furthermore, Nemerov's attitude toward science and technology, which he often treats—tellingly—as a single venture, has evolved over the years. Some of his early poems ("The Bacterial War," "Fragment from Correspondence") and essays ("A Dream of Reason") address science as an alien enterprise and one threatening both to poetry and to civilization. In this he is like many other poets of his generation, responding to World War II and to the rise of New Criticism (Nemerov's first volume of poems was published in 1947, the same year as Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn), which Gerald Graff has described [in The American Scholar, Vol. 49, 1980] as "a socially committed movement, dedicated to the romantic project of saving the world from the demoralization inflicted by science."

Increasingly, however, Nemerov has come to see science as a discourse among discourses, in many ways adjacent to poetry and open, if not to genealogy in a poststructuralist sense (his guide in the matter being Whitehead, not Foucault), then to critique and to exploration. Ultimately, Nemerov is concerned not only with the figurative possibilities of science—its usefulness as a source of metaphors—but also with its figurative nature and its mythic properties.

This concern arises first and most enduringly, I believe, from a sense of the adjacency of scientific and literary discourses and an understanding of the aims and the limitations they share. In an important essay on his friend and teacher Kenneth Burke [in Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics], Nemerov points out that while Burke is often at odds with scientistic philosophies and with science itself, he is "adventured on somewhat the same quest as that of physics: he would bring the world of human action, as it would the world of physical motion, under the dominion of few, simple and elegant laws."

Like Burke, Nemerov has a strong impulse to find in and bring to the world those "few, simple, and elegant laws." At the same time, however, he also has a powerful sense of the world as chaotic, in flux, fundamentally unruly. The problem of reconciling abstraction with particularity, form with chaos, is originally expressed in philosophical and poetic terms. Explaining the title of his first book, The Image and the Law, Nemerov observed to Labrie: "On one side the imagist sort of thing, the sharp, individualized perception which related to nothing but itself. And on the other side, the side of Platonism and the sort of scholastic philosophers before people like Abelard, Scotus and Ockham came along, the side which emphasized the governing similarity to other experiences and abstractions, the law." In his early volumes, Nemerov tries various strategies and tropes—aphorism, dialectic, metaphor—to reconcile the image and the law. Most prove inadequate even to the metaphysical complications the poems themselves set forth and certainly to the rich, diverse world Nemerov knows. Finally language itself fails to order and reveal the world fully.

Throughout the Collected Poems there is considerable tension between the belief that language is powerful to comprehend and order and the conviction that there are limits to its power. "It is as though the world / were a great writing," he says in one poem, but adds: "Having said so much, let us allow there is more to the world / than writing: continental faults are not / bare convoluted fissures in the brain." Here the metaphor—the world as writing—both does and does not succeed. Language does describe and circumscribe the world, but imperfectly. This realization leads to more sustained speculation, in poems and essays alike, on the power and the limits of language. In the course of that speculation, Nemerov turns again to science.

If nature, in its flux and particularity, resists the philosopher and the poet it also resists the scientist, and never more profoundly than in our own time. Physicist Stephen Hawking, describing the inconsistencies and uncertainties which have occupied his colleagues for most of our century [in his A Brief History of Time, 1988], notes simply that "It turns out to be very difficult to devise a theory to describe the universe all in one go." He goes on to elaborate the fundamental incompatibility between the "two basic partial theories" by which contemporary scientists describe the world—the general theory of relativity, which reckons with the large-scale structure of the universe, and quantum mechanics, which "deals with phenomena on extremely small scales."

For a variety of reasons, and in ways I will deal with more fully later, it is the terms of quantum mechanics which prove most tempting to Nemerov. Rather than resolve the old dilemma of the image and the law, they extend it radically and offer a whole new set of metaphors: waves, particles, uncertainties becoming principles. In "This, That, and the Other," a verse dialogue, the poet seizes on those scientific terms playfully, if unscientifically, having his character "That" advance a theory of his own:

The physicists are vexed between the wave
And particle—would it not somehow save
The appearances to think about snow
As particles becoming waves below,
Exchanging not their natures but their shapes?

Though the ease of such appearance-saving is deceptive (and though "That" later admits, sheepishly, "This isn't physics, but theology"), the lines are important ones, both exploiting the figurative possibilities of scientific discourse and suggesting again the figurative nature of it.

By the middle volumes of The Collected Poems, those published between 1955 and 1973, the problem of principle and diversity, of the image and the law, becomes the focus of virtually all of Nemerov's thinking about science and much of his thinking about the world. These middle poems are characterized by their keen attentiveness to the objects and arrangements of the physical world. While many take up the accoutrements of modern life—the telephone, the television, sun glasses, storm windows—others consider the natural world. In them Nemerov's point of view, language and metaphors are often broadly scientific. He writes about the taxonomy of trees and birds, the chemistry of the mysterious gingko, the geometric patterns of shells and leaves. He attends to singularities and variations in nature as well as to governing shapes and similarities. Sometimes he discovers truth in the relations between things; at other times he dismisses metaphysics and notions about truth.

Influenced by mathematician Scott Buchanan's books Poetry and Mathematics and The Doctrine of Signatures, Nemerov sometimes turns in these volumes to arithmetic as metaphor and as a way of reckoning the relations between things. In his poem "Vermeer," it is "a holy mathematic" which can relate those daily things—moments, colors, gestures—for which the Dutch Master cares so unassumingly, so unspeculatively, to each other and to the larger forces of history, time and truth. A decade later, in "Figures of Thought," truth is similarly reckoned in mathematical terms:

To lay the logarithmic spiral on
Sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,
To watch the same idea work itself out
In the fighter pilot's steepening, tightening turn

Onto his target, setting up the kill,
And in the flight of certain wall-eyed bugs.

The repeated pattern, the shell-shaped spiral, becomes principle enciphered. "How secret that is," he continues, "and how privileged / One feels to find the same necessity / Ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise / Without kinship." In the end, Nemerov treats these hieroglyphs and the truth they encode less seriously than he does in "Vermeer." "It may diminish some our dry delight," he concludes, "To wonder if everything we are and do / Lies subject to some little law like that; / Hidden in nature but not deeply so."

His attitude here, like his topic, echoes a much earlier poem, "Shells." There the form of the shell along the shore is "only cryptically / Instructive, if at all"; quite unlike the shell of Holmes's chambered nautilus, it is subject to a variety of readings. "It is a stairway going nowhere," Nemerov proposes, "Our precious emblem of the steep ascent." But then he suspends belief: "Perhaps, beginning at a point / And opening to infinity, / Or the other way, if you want it the other way." Eventually the shell's spirals are erased "with dust, then with water." The spiral continues to be a governing shape for Nemerov, however, and in other poems other figures serve as ciphers and emblems for relation. Maxwell Goldberg, for example, has identified the reticulum or network as an important configuration in some of Nemerov's poems; equally he employs alphabets, hieroglyphs and ideograms to encode the world.

Wry as his talk about relation and interpretation may be, Nemerov treats them elsewhere, as in "Vermeer," seriously and with deep, even religious, feeling. In such moments his debts to Buchanan and to English writer and historian of consciousness Owen Barfield are evident. Already in his poem "The Loon's Cry," published in the late 1950s, he considers in yearning ways the failure and recovery of the mind's power to construct relations between object and truth or meaning. What begins as a walk on a cool, late-summer evening soon becomes a meditation on the disappearance of meaning from the physical world. "This is a natural beauty," he writes of the setting sun, the rising moon, "it is not / Theology,"

The dissociation is a double one—of the natural world from meaning and mystery, and of phenomena (sun and moon, river and sea) from each other. The poet's use of metaphor in the final line of the stanza is both ironic and hopeful, because such a figure depends on, even as it tes tifies to, the relations between image and meaning, image and image.

"I envied those past ages of the world," he writes, envisioning an ideal relation between the physical world and universal truth,

When, as I thought, the energy in things
Shone through their shapes, when sun and moon no less
Than tree or stone or star or human face
Were seen but as fantastic Japanese
Lanterns are seen, sullen or gay colors
And lines revealing the light that they conceal.

Allowing that his argument simplifies the history of consciousness, he then describes the present. "We'd traded all those mysteries in for things," he observes, "For essences in things, not understood—/ Reality in things! and now we saw / Reality exhausted all their truth." If what Nemerov is describing in these lines sounds like imagism, it also sounds like the scientific materialism he rejects resoundingly in his poems and essays. Hyatt Waggoner's characterization of imagism as a "defensive-imitative poetic response" to the mechanism and materialism of early twentieth-century scientific philosophy [in his American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, 1984] is revealing here. Like positivism, Waggoner says, imagism revered the concrete, the verifiable, the economical; like positivism it saw experience and sensation rather than "truth" as the proper domain of poetry. Such a view, Nemerov argues in poems like "The Loon's Cry," renders poetry and the things of the world meaningless.

In that poem, the speaker's sense of meaninglessness culminates in a moment of desolation and emptiness which serves also as a turning point. He becomes Adam, hearing the first loon's cry in paradise, and understands "what that cry meant":

That its contempt was for the forms of things,
Their doctrines, which decayed—the nouns of stone
And adjectives of glass—not for the verb
Which surged in power properly eternal

Against the seawall of the solid world
Battering and undermining what it built.

Elsewhere Nemerov puns on his own name—making himself a "namer-of"—but here he sees himself not as a nounspeaker but as a verb-utterer. To say the verb is to replenish nature and language; it is "the poet's act, only and always, in whatever time." Such an act becomes possible in the rediscovery of meaning. Thus, alluding both to Scott Buchanan and Jacob Boehme, he writes: "For signatures / In all things are, which leave us not alone / Even in the thought of death, and may by arts / Contemplative be found and named again." In noun and adjective, stone and glass, moon and stars, the contemplative mind finds the constant, the thing which abides through decay and dissociation, the force which informs and makes meaningful the phenomena of the physical world and which holds those disparate phenomena together.

Almost a decade later, in "The Blue Swallows," Nemerov returns (though not for the first time) to the themes of the image and the law, relation and consciousness. Grammar and geometry again figure significantly. The shapes—seven blue swallows above the millstream—are "invisible and evanescent, / Kaleidoscopic." Watching them from the bridge, the speaker strives in vain to connect, to "Weave up relation's spindrift web." The mood of the poem, until its final stanza, is one of despair. Metaphor fails—swallows tails are not "nibs / Dipped in invisible ink." Neither mind, nor memory, nor abstraction ("history is where tensions were," "Form is the diagram of forces") nor theology holds sway over the fleeting and changing shapes below the bridge. In the world since William of Ockham, relation is unreal, a dream, a false grammar the mind imposes. Fully realized, such nominalism denies one of the most basic kinds of relation—reflection. "Even the water / Flowing away beneath those birds," Nemerov laments, "Will fail to reflect their flying forms."

Like "The Loon's Cry," "The Blue Swallows" asserts in the end the redemptive power of the mind. The relation which is discovered and named by "arts contemplative" in the earlier poem is here created and illuminated by the imagination. "O swallows, swallows, poems are not / The point," the speaker says,

Such a conception of mind is Romantic, much like (though more benign than) the view Nemerov attributes to Blake; it is also much like Goethe's and, more recently, like Owen Barfield's. Nemerov's affinity for the Romantics is evident both in his essays (particularly in "Two Ways of the Imagination") and in his poems. At the end of his introduction to Barfield's Poetic Diction, explaining the importance of poetic diction to the Romantic poets, he writes,

Out of their efforts to reform this highly specialized diction and reach back instead to "nature" arose the deeper question of the extent of the imagination's role as creator of the visible and sensible world. For Blake that extent was total: Imagination is the Savior. For Wordsworth the relation was a more tentative and balancing one…. For both, and for their great contemporaries, the primacy of imagination was a point of considerable anxiety, too, because the view opposed, the view of a universe of independently and fatally moving things, the view named by Alfred North Whitehead as "scientific materialism," was so evidently triumphant in imposing its claims upon the general mind of Europe and America.

In Goethe, in Barfield, in others, Romanticism makes its own scientific claims and establishes its own approaches to scientific problems.

For Nemerov, the relevance of the Romantic vision to a discussion of science is twofold. On one hand, in poems like "The Blue Swallows" and the profoundly Romantic poem "The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House," it is a luminous resolution of the old scientific and philosophical problem of the image and the law. For Nemerov, as for Stevens, imagination becomes both the source of and the informing, governing truth for the image, novelty, diversity. Meaning dwells in the mind; the verb surges from within, not from beyond the mind and nature.

On the other hand, such a view provides him with a significant point of connection to modern physics. In his essay "Goethe's Science in the Twentieth Century," Frederick Amrine suggests that the work of Werner Heisenberg and his colleagues has made an important place in modern science for Goethe's subjective, Romantic conception of the world. "A realm is uncovered," Amrine contends, "in which the contribution of the subject cannot be excised from any act of cognition. Quantum mechanics reveals that the observer influences the events that he observes; Heisenberg writes that 'the object of research is no longer nature itself but man's investigation of nature.'" Elsewhere [Physics and Philosophy, 1958] Heisenberg himself puts it this way: "The term 'happens' is restricted to the observation. Now this is a very strange result, since it seems to indicate that observation plays a decisive role in the event and that the reality varies, depending on whether we observe it or not. We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our questioning." And Herbert Muller, whose Science and Criticism is a book that Nemerov praises, describes the dawning period in science as one in which "knowledge is a transaction between the observer and the observed."

These principles and descriptions apply, as scientists are quick to point out, chiefly to the fundamental particles of the universe. "The equations describe the behavior of very small objects," physicist John Gribbin cautions [in In search of Schrödinger's Cat, 1984], "generally speaking, the size of atoms or smaller—and they provide the only understanding of the world of the very small." Yet like relativity, quantum physics finds its way, often in a very generalized or modified form, into poetry. For Nemerov, quantum physics, broadly interpreted, provides for his Romantic conception of mind and nature an appealing set of metaphors and paradigms. From physics he also derives a set of more tolerant or expansive principles to hold up to diverse and chaotic reality. The terms and hypotheses of quantum physics appear occasionally in the early and middle volumes but become increasingly important in the last two volumes of The Collected Poems.

In the middle volumes and on into the later ones, however, Nemerov's attitude toward science and scientists continues to be mixed and often sardonic. In "Cosmic Comics," for example, he ponders the Freudian aspects of the "apocalyptic dream" of the black hole, "Through which, say our astronomers, / The whole damn thing, the universe, / Must one day fall," and concludes: "Where Moses saw the seat of God / Science has seen what's just as odd, / The asshole of the universe." About technology he is often even more wry. In "Cybernetics," for example, he imagines a brain-building kit, complete with instructions. A more elaborate brain than the simple one in the package is "perfectly possible," these directions admit, but,

It runs you into much more money for
Circuits of paradox and contradiction.
Your vessels of antinomian wrath alone
Run into millions; and you can't stop there,
You've got to add at every junction point
Auxiliary systems that will handle doubt,
Switches of agony that are On and Off
At the same time, and limited-access
Blind alleys full of inefficient gods
And marvelous devils.

On much the same grounds he rejects computer-made poetry in a couple of essays written in the same period as "Cybernetics." "The computer can never do more than imitate from the outside certain imitable characteristics of art," he argues. "Poetry tells us stories deep and rich with experience, with thought, with language. The technological—I would not say the scientific—pretension is that all this is artificially imitable; and technologically that might one day turn out to be true. And then?"

His opinion of technology is seldom much more favorable than this. In "The Backward Look" he compares Dante in heaven to the "sterile satellite" in its bored orbit through the "heaven of technology." In another poem, "Druidic Rimes," he describes with regret astronomy's venture—via satellite—beyond the visible. He writes first of the mind going forth "with naked eye / To take a turn about the sky" and then of the deeply Romantic experience of seeing the sky through a telescope. "When the telescope was trained / Where only darkness reigned," he writes,

Or seemed to, lights broke into being
As if to marry the eye's seeing
In the flowering of a cosmic spring
That grew like anything.

Telescopes, however, give way to electronic methods of scanning the heavens; the Romantic experience gives way to scientific certainty. "Now mind went forth without the eye," he says ruefully,

On waves beyond the visible sky:
Impulses from what scarce was matter
Bounced off a shallow platter

Into the realm of number pure,
The only measure made so sure
That mind was guaranteed to mind it
And always stand behind it.

As much as he rejects the satellite and the disembodied information it collects, then, so much does he embrace the telescope as a bit of technology which makes possible a wonderful engagement of mind and world. In "Lines & Circularities" it is the record player he praises:

I watch the circling stillness of the disc,
The tracking inward of the tone-arm, enact
A mystery wherein the music shares:
How time, that comes and goes and vanishes
Never to come again, can come again.

Most recently, in "Playing the Machine," he writes with grumpy satisfaction of opposing a computer at chess. "You can always, turn it off," he notes, "Declare a victory and leave it there, / Somewhat the way you leave a telling dream, / Taking its faithless memory away." It would seem, therefore, that it is to tools like the telescope and the phonograph that Nemerov refers in his essay "On Metaphor" when he argues that the physical sciences "have a relation to magic with respect to the material world, so that men can on their account do many things that before could only be thought or dreamed."

Such miracles of telescope and tone arm, however, do little to mitigate Nemerov's disapproval of technology in its higher varieties, for the science-assisted imagination is also the science-afflicted, even the science-endangered imagination. Accordingly, in the end, the threat posed by technology converges with the threat posed by scientific materialism. In an essay called "Poetry, Prophecy, Prediction," Nemerov recalls with feeling Blake's vision of the future. Blake's is a Newtonian universe, of course, but the world which he imagines is one that even a twentieth-century poet engaged by the terms and equations of quantum physics finds chilling. Thus to Nemerov, "The invention of machines in its turn produces the image of a giant machine as a metaphor for the universe, but also, inevitably, as a metaphor for the mind, whose servile ambition henceforth will be the progressively perfected imitation of relentless and mechanic order without other purpose than the maintenance of its sterile circularities, from which soul, spirit, mind itself at last, will be progressively excluded."

Yet, even as Nemerov's remarks address the frightening specter of science and technology, they make the case that metaphor is powerful and that language is what finally gives shape to consciousness. At the end of the same essay he calls scientific language "the language in which we tell each other myths about the motions and the purposes of mind disguised as world, as time, as truth." Later, in his poem "Einstein, Freud & Jack," he makes a similar assertion when he depicts Einstein writing to Freud to ask what he thinks science might do for world peace. "Not much," Freud responds, adding that "science too begins and ends in myth." To call the language of science mythic is, in one sense, to devalue it in a world where fact and myth are antonymous. Nemerov adds to this effect by concluding slyly, "It scarce needs saying, that myth believed is never called a myth." In Nemerov's own lexicon, however, as in Blake's and in Freud's, myth is a way of telling the truth about the world and the mind.

For Nemerov, particularly in his four or five most recent volumes, the language, the laws, the metaphors of science do become deeply appealing ways of comprehending and revealing the world. Some of his metaphors are biological. In one poem, for example, he describes novelists talking, "In allegories of themselves that go down on paper like dividing cells." And in "The Weather of the World" a TV map is described as "a great sensorium, / The vast enfolding cortex of the globe, / Containing contradictions, tempers, moods."

More often both the metaphors and the principles come from physics. In particular, he works and reworks the second law of thermodynamics (which holds that the disorder or entropy of a closed system always increases), trying to find a way of resolving the old paradox of the image and the law. In "Two Pair" he compares the Old Law and the New of the Bible to the first and second laws of thermodynamics. "The first pair tells us we may be redeemed," he writes, "But in a world, the other says, that's doomed." "What boots it to be told both sets are true," he inquires a few lines later, "Or that disorder in the universe is perfectly legal, and always getting worse?" In "Drawing Lessons" he considers some exceptions to the entropy principle. "Water," he notes,

Allowing the usefulness of the second law in predicting things like the gradual going to dust of the drawing student's pencil and of the body, he nevertheless looks on it as "The invention of a parsimonious people / Accustomed to view creation on a budget / Cut to economy more than to delight." To this assessment he adds smugly, "The sea's a little more mysterious than that." In the way of mind, not body, water defies the laws which would govern the novel, unruly world.

In his 1973 essay, [in Salmaguadi] James M. Kiehl notes—with respect to Nemerov's concern with the inadequacies of scientific thinking—"One response by the sciences to such limitations is to come back upon themselves, to devote attention to their own modes of expression and perception. They are at least noticing that their own modes are analogic and metaphoric and consequently they are learning the same sort of diffidence poets acquire as 'negative capability." Kiehl acknowledges that this turn toward the reflexive, particularly on the part of physicists, is important to Nemerov's thinking about science and his use of scientific images. Such thinking is most clearly worked out in the late poems where Nemerov turns to ways of seeing, of reckoning subatomic truths in daily life. "There," for example, describes the workings of the Romantic imagination in terms of physics. "Sacred is secret," he writes,

In "Seeing Things" he writes about metaphor-making: nature making metaphors for quantum physics, physics making them for sight and thought. "Close as I ever came to seeing things / The way physicists say things really are," he begins,

Was out on Sudbury Marsh one summer eve
When a silhouetted tree against the sun
Seemed at my sudden glance to be afire:
A black and boiling smoke made all its shape.
Binoculars resolved the enciphered sight
To make it clear the smoke was a cloud of gnats,
Their millions doing such a steady dance
As by the motion of the many made the one
Shape constant and kept it so in both the forms
I'd thought to see, the fire and the tree.

This scene in the marsh calls to mind first and most compellingly the Big Bang and those original particles which, as Gribbin puts it, "first jostled in close proximity in the cosmic fireball." It also recalls the "logarithmic spiral" which governs in "Figures of Thought." Yet this strange sight and the physics it alludes to provide something the spiral does not—a way of reconciling principle and chaos. The gnats make up and sustain the constant; and they summon, like the photons of "There," the powers of imagination to give them shape and meaning.

In the long poems of The Western Approaches (1975), Nemerov uses the metaphors of wave and particle to describe the world (suggesting again that the models of science are themselves metaphoric). In "Drawing Lessons" particles and waves are the shapes that define the world. "Today we shall explore the mystery," he writes, "Of points and lines moving over the void— / We call it paper—to imitate the world." Breaking on the shore, wave becomes particles; later, particles and waves become consonants and vowels, matter and anti-matter. "Nature," he notes, "plays / Far ranging variations on the kinds, / Doodling inventions endlessly, as the pencil does." Though not so glib as the appearance-saving argument advanced in "This, That & the Other," Nemerov's way of thinking about waves and particles here has something in common with That's logic. In both, a single nature or Nature is manifested in a variety of forms. In "Drawing Lessons," however, the forms—themselves metaphors—generate other, fuller metaphors. Out of such generation, the world arises.

In "The Measure of Poetry" the wave (chiefly, this time, the sea wave) is the form in which the image and the law are reconciled. "The idea one gets from these waves," Nemerov writes, envisioning a shoreline, "whether the sea is / rough or calm, is the idea of a great consistency coupled with / A great freakishness, absolute law consisting with absolute rage." Like the wave, the measures of poetry begin "far from the particular / conformation of the poem, far out in the sea of tradition and the mind / even in the physiological deeps," and like the wave they are met by the hard particularity of the shoreline: "the objects which are to appear in the poem" or (in a different analogy which makes vowels the tidal impulse) the consonants which "are rock and reed and sand, and the steep or / shallow slope." Most like the wave, however, this measure is governed by laws, "simple and large, so that in the / scope of their generality room may remain for moments of / freedom, moments of chaos."

Implicit in this metaphoric working out of the image and the law is an equally metaphoric working out of wave-particle duality, the concept in quantum mechanics which holds, as Hawking puts it, "that there is no distinction between waves and particles; particles may sometimes behave like waves, and waves like particles." Treated as metaphors, wave and particle need not be mutually exclusive but can be enlarged and elaborated into ways of understanding the forms and forces of the world, of language. As ways of being and, more important, as ways of seeing, particle and wave are central to "The Measure of Poetry" and "Drawing Lessons." As paradox they are evident at every point in Nemerov's long career.

In the end, Nemerov seems to argue, metaphor is more powerful than law in any of its varieties—scientific, poetic, moral—to tell the truth about nature, the imagination, the universe. Science, understood as metaphor, becomes a potent way of imagining and ordering the world. At the same time, however, even in Nemerov's late volumes, set against this powerful romanticization of science is a keen distrust. In his essay "To Speak or Else to Sing," Paul Ramsey ventures an explanation of Nemerov's rejection of scientific positivism. "The fear of the damages scientific physicalism does to the poetic enterprise is real," he argues, "the fear of existential absurdity, unintelligibility, is real; the regret for the loss of the ontology of plainsong is very real."

It may be so; certainly the fear is there, with a measure of regret, in the early volumes. Yet elsewhere and later, Nemerov's inquiries, doubts, and even outright rejections of science seem based on a premise like Whitehead's in Science and the Modern World, a book he cites often. "If science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses," Whitehead writes, "it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundation." At the heart of Nemerov's interest in science—its aims, its data, its metaphors—is just such a philosophical examination of its presuppositions; beneath the irony and the inquiry of the science poems, there is just such a critique of its foundation, whereby—its metaphoric nature revealed, its paradoxes and mysteries acknowledged—science does not "degenerate" but becomes richly generative.

Further Reading

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Potts, Donna L. "Howard Nemerov: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Sources." Bulletin of Bibliography 50, No. 4 (December 1993): 263-67.

Comprehensive bibliography about Nemerov's works.

Wyllie, Diane E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1983, 196 p.

Contains an annotated list of works by and about Nemerov.


Labrie, Ross. Howard Nemerov. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 159 p.

Biographical and critical study of Nemerov that includes chapters on his poetry, novels, and criticism.


Boyers, Robert. "Howard Nemerov's True Voice of Feeling." In Excursions: Selected Literary Essays, pp. 217-41. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977.

States that "contrary to what so many have said of Nemerov, his characteristic idiom is not the language of unruffled calm or serenity. Always he has written with a sharp sense of troubled waters threatening beneath placid surfaces."

Burke, Kenneth. "Comments on Eighteen Poems by Howard Nemerov." The Sewanee Review LX, No. 1 (Winter 1952): 117-31.

Stylistic and thematic analysis of eighteen poems by Nemerov, including "Around the City Where I Live," "In the Last Hour of the Dream," and "When Black Water Breaks the Ice." Burke's comments were meant to be published with the poems.

Carruth, Hayden. "In Their Former Modes." New York Times Book Review (April 28, 1968): 7.

Negative review of The Blue Swallows in which Carruth comments on Nemerov's "tired" poetic irony and his predictable rhymes and metaphors.

Clark, Miriam Marty. "The Evolution of Consciousness in Howard Nemerov's 'The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House.'" University of Dayton Review 21, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 161-67.

Discusses Nemerov's struggles with post-modernist concerns and the influence of English philosopher and philologist Owen Barfield on the poet's works.

Costello, Bonnie. "Sympathy and Wit." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 1981): 169-83.

Compartive review of Nemerov's Sentences and William Meredith's The Cheer. Costello concludes that Meredith's work is sympathetic, emotional, and optimistic and Nemerov's is witty, "hard-edged and piercing."

Goldstein, Laurence. "The Wings of War." Michigan Quarterly Review 29, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 472.

Mixed review of War Stories in which Goldstein discusses Nemerov's irreverent tone and demythology of war.

Johnson, Tom. "Ideas and Order." The Sewanee Review LXXXVI, No. 3 (Summer 1978): 445-53.

Refutes two common misconceptions about Nemerov: that he was primarily an academic poet and that he focused mainly on middle-class concerns.

Kiehl, James M. "The Poems of Howard Nemerov: Where Loveliness Adorns Intelligible Things." Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23 (Spring/Summer 1973): 234-57.

Provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Nemerov's works, focusing on how his poems challenge the reader's perception of reality.

Kinzie, Mary. "The Judge Is Rue." Poetry CXXXVIII, No. 6 (September 1981): 344-50.

Mixed review of Sentences in which Kinzie concludes "Sentences is a disappointing and self-indulgent volume on the whole, but has some landmark poems."

——. "The Signatures of Things: On Howard Nemerov." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 6, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1977): 1-57.

Overview of Nemerov's poetry and nonfiction. Kinzie comments on Nemerov's place in and influence on contemporary poetry.

Pritchard, William H. Review of Gnomes and Occasions, by Howard Nemerov. The Hudson Review XXVI, No. 3 (Autumn 1973): 579-97.

Positive assessment of Gnomes and Occasions.

Prunty, Wyatt. "Howard Nemerov: Mimicry and Other Tropes." In "Fallen from the Symboled World": Precedents for the New Formalism, pp. 143-92. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Examination of Nemerov's use of figurative language in which Prunty argues that Nemerov rebelled against modernism to pursue "a more independent course."

Randall, Julia. "Genius of the Shore: The Poetry of Howard Nemerov." In The Sounder Few: Essays from the Hollins Critic, edited by R. H. W. Dillard, George Garrett, and John Rees Moore, pp. 345-57. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971.

Examines metaphysical aspects of Nemerov's poetry.

Senn, Werner. "Speaking the Silence: Contemporary Poems on Paintings." Word & Image 5, No. 2 (April-June 1989): 181-97.

Discusses Nemerov's poems on paintings, including "Nature Morte," "The World as Brueghel Imagined It," and "Vermeer."

Shaw, Robert B. "Making Some Mind of What Was Only Sense." The Nation 226, No. 7 (February 25, 1978): 213-15.

Mixed review of Collected Poems in which Shaw calls the volume repetitive and predictable but praises Nemerov's humor and intelligence.

Spiegelman, Willard. "Alphabeting the Void: Poetic Diction and Poetic Classicism." Salmagundi 42 (1978): 132-45.

Compartive review of the verse of Nemerov, A. R. Ammons, and Allen Tate.

Young, Gloria L. "Finding Again the Word." Concerning Poetry 20 (1987): 75-85.

States that Nemerov's poems often deal with "the philosophical problem of how—or if?—poetry unites mind and world (self and Other)."

——. "'The Fountainhead of All Forms': Poetry and the Unconscious in Emerson and Howard Nemerov." In Artful Thunder: Versions of the Romantic Tradition in American Literature in Honor of Howard P. Vincent, edited by Robert J. DeMott and Sanford E. Marovitz, pp. 241-67. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1975.

Discusses how American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideas of the unconscious anticipate the psychological, linguistic, and aesthetic theories of Nemerov and psychologist Carl Jung.


Bowers, Neal, and Charles L. P. Silet. "An Interview with Howard Nemerov." The Massachusetts Review XXII, No. 1 (Spring 1981): 43-57.

Interview in which Nemerov discusses such subjects as his writing technique, the relationship between his fiction and poetry, the pessimistic tone of his verse, and the influence of critics on his work.

Additional coverage of Nemerov's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4 (rev. ed.), 134; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 27, 53; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 6, 9, 36; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 6; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1983; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; and Major 20th-century Writers.

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Nemerov, Howard (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)