Howard Nemerov 1920–1991
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.
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.
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 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."