Nemerov, Howard (Vol. 2)
Nemerov, Howard 1920–
Nemerov is an American poet, novelist, short story writer, and critic. His work is intellectual and ironic, but shows lyric power as well. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Howard Nemerov is a fine poet in the process, here [in The Salt Garden], of becoming a finer one. His is a tough-minded, learned, subtle, and ironic lyricism, determined at all times not to let the world bring in anything poetic form can't handle. There is not a really bad poem in his book. What you do miss, though, is a sense of the poems speaking themselves out, or ever thinking that they ought to speak themselves out, beyond the poet's assured and confident and somewhat predictable idiom into their own uniqueness and necessity. In these tight, nervously offhand stanzas, the means are too obviously well satisfied at being "adequate"; there is not enough evidence of the exploratory, the big-thing-just-missed, or got-hold-of-in-part, that we feel we can legitimately expect of a talent as promising as his.
You are inclined to think of Nemerov as a "resourceful" poet, and he is, very. The resources are those you might imagine: Auden, Eliot, and, more pronouncedly, Yeats, but more especially yet, those of a kind of climate of "modern poetry" that these earlier figures have distilled. This weather of custom makes it possible for one to pick his structures and even his attitudes from the air, and it is doubly nice, considering the ease with which this may be done, to be told that one is "in the tradition": that one is "consolidating" (or even "improving") what one's predecessors have but indicated. But the "tradition," considered in this sense, makes a very real danger of "adequacy," or idiomatic acceptability: makes it, in fact, a species of shallow and expectant deathbed of originality, of the personal and individuating reaction to things which in large part determines the value of the poet's work. I don't mean to offer Nemerov as a sacrifice to this (perhaps dubious) conjectural machinery, for he is too gifted a poet to be a perfect or even a particularly good example of the tendency I describe. Nevertheless, it seems to me that he would do well to watch himself closely, or abandon himself less shrewdly, perhaps, for the next few years, when he writes….
Nemerov is a very easy poet to read; you like him immediately. He always gives you "something to think about," even in the lighter poems, the New Yorkerish ones, and you are inclined to waive the feeling that you have thought about it before, with more vital connections between you and the world, in the work of Yeats and Auden….
The operation of … an essentially poetic intelligence can be seen in the work of Howard Nemerov, and in great and heartening abundance. Nemerov is one of the few poets I have ever encountered who can turn the sometimes rather grim business of reading through the poems of a book into a profoundly enjoyable experience without sacrificing a jot of intensity. He is one of the wittiest and funniest poets we have, and there are whole sections of his book which might easily be passed over as clever light verse by clever, light readers. And it is true, too, that in his most serious poems there is an element of mocking, or self-mocking. But the enveloping emotion that arises from his writing is helplessness: the helplessness we all feel in the face of the events of our time, and of life itself: the helplessness one feels as one's legitimate but chronically unfair portion in all the things that can't be assuaged or explained. And beneath even this feeling is a sort of hopelessly involved acceptance and resignation which has in it far more of the truly tragic than most poetry which deliberately sets out in quest of tragedy.
James Dickey, "Howard Nemerov" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus,...
(The entire section is 3,474 words.)