Howard Nemerov

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Nemerov, Howard (Vol. 2)

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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...

(This entire section contains 3474 words.)

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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, 1968, pp. 35-41.

What can one say about Howard Nemerov's new book, The Blue Swallows? In a quiet, unfreakish way he has long ago established himself as a very sure poetic voice. His poetry is a delicate blending of the ironical, even the self-mocking, and the ultimately serious. Sometimes, in its quiet lyricism and sensitivity to nature, it suggests Robert Frost, but a Frost less consciously displaying a common touch.

Say simply that The Blue Swallows is the best yet by a poet who from the beginning has had a quiet and stubborn integrity. Nemerov resists the lures of current poetic bandwagons and continues on his way, becoming steadily and more certainly what he has always been: a civilized, often melancholy, frequently wry observer of himself and all things about him. His subdued words, as in "Creation of Anguish," can summon up worlds within worlds:

Chad Walsh, "Poetry is Alive and Well in 1967 A.D.," in Book World (© The Washington Post), December 24, 1967, p. 6.

Nemerov's novels are light, well-plotted comedies, full of pell-mell wit. They are brilliant, epigrammatic satires upon contemporary American life. His fiction shows him as a man of reason who knows very well how to reveal his moral passion beneath a mask of comic satire. His poetry is another matter—but not wholly other. It is easy to sense in the poems the value of his novelists's experience; one recalls Pound's crafty advice that poets try to write verse as good as good prose. The man is far more thoroughly committed in his verse; but in drawing upon the deeper levels of his imagination for his poems, Nemerov does not refuse his wit fair room for play. He composes epigrams and satires as well as serious lyrics, and the instance has arisen when the reviewer has trouble telling one from the other. In his more fully realized work the wit becomes, like miner's dynamite, an energetic and disciplined tool. The verse of the last few years—the verse of New and Selected Poems—amply demonstrates his capacity for integrating complex materials by means of a mature and powerful technical equipment of diction, imagery, and rhythm.

Robert D. Harvey, "A Prophet Armed: An Introduction to the Poetry of Howard Nemerov," in Poets in Progress, edited by Edward Hungerford, Northwestern University Press, 2nd edition, 1967, pp. 116-33.

Nemerov in his poetry shows himself to be clear-headed, unillusioned and affectionate; wry, critical, often funny, and just as often deeply moving. Which is to say that he presents us with a highly intelligent and flexible viewpoint which is busily inspecting what is constantly passing for "civilization" right before our eyes. And there is not much that escapes notice. There is scarcely another poet who can show us so well how futile and ridiculous we are.

Anthony Hecht, "Writers' Rights and Readers' Rights," in Hudson Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 208-17.

Nemerov's relationship to his poem is consistently one of distance, doubt, distrust. In an age committed to commitment he is unable, apparently, to write a committed line. Yet at the same time his ironic detachment fails to attain for him what it is traditionally supposed to attain, the superiority of uncommitted moral purity, because in our age no such thing exists, as Nemerov himself says again and again.

No one would deny that famous and marvelous poems have been written in the manner of poetic irony. Nemerov, too, in his early work turned out several notable anthology pieces which are justly popular. But today this manner is an exceedingly tired manner, betraying an exceedingly tired poetic attitude. Without aspersion, one states this nevertheless bluntly, as an unavoidable judgment. And Nemerov's tired attitude is revealed in tired poetry: spent meters, predictable rhymes, and metaphors haggard with use. Consequently, even though Nemerov is … far-ranging and out-looking …, even though his work is broadly circumspective of our bourgeois world, institutions, people and landscapes—one might call it the poetry of the sub-urbane—he fails to give us even … moderate vigor….

Hayden Carruth, "In Their Former Modes," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1968.

Thoroughly achieved, compact and subtle, the poems of Howard Nemerov make you croon with pleasure…. Even the weakest poems in this present selection [The Winter Lightening] provide the immense satisfaction of hearing well-rhymed or flexibly vocal intelligence, and at his best, Nemerov achieves a kind of strolling music of rhythm, a thorough mastery of the long verse paragraph, which is reminiscent of Wordsworth….

One of his own poems provides the phrase which most succinctly describes the major quality of his verse—it is 'peaceably tense with life'. To read his poetry gives the kind of pleasure you can get from seeing a master rider manage a lively horse, with minute care utilizing for speed and direction those forces which, unchecked, veer towards violence and dissipation of energy. And the supple mastery and control that Nemerov displays are valuable because you feel they are dearly achieved. He knows that control comes rarely, that, in the main, not even the artist will be able to give shape and syntax to existence….

The theme of thought struggling continuously to master world is a dominant one in his work….

Nemerov's urbanity, his control, his elegance are all important, because the only alternative is chaos and insanity. They are not gracenotes to civilized living, but part of the vital structure. It is no wonder that many of his poems touch upon the function of the artist and the usefulness of his work.

Brian Jones, in London Magazine, May, 1968, pp. 75-7.

Howard Nemerov has been praised as a comic poet, and he is assuredly the best one we have…. A man so able to delight in extended comic metaphor is a wise man and desires and easily makes the transition to a more encompassing expression. Over the years, Nemerov has managed to merge his self-satire and satire of the world through the maturation of a special tone—disarmingly colloquial and casual—and sustained irony. The tone, entirely his, allows him to write simply or complicatedly, sarcastically or casuistically. The ironic method, also entirely his, eschews the usual tricky and "incongruous" lines whereby we normally decide that a poem is ironic; Nemerov's better poems are ironic line-for-line. They build; they do not destroy themselves for their effect.

David Galler, "Excellence and Victimization," in Carleton Miscellany, Summer, 1968, pp. 110-14.

Howard Nemerov, not an undergraduate hero, is one of the makers who has managed, during the last twenty years, to "alphabet the void" with a steady flow of poems, critical essays, plays, and novels. Implicit in all of his work has been the assumption that art is vision, not dogma, and that the poet, in re-deriving the possibilities of meaning from matter, has as his principal goal the task of rendering the highest kind of justice to the visible world. An urbane, witty, elegant poet of considerable technical control, he is neither a thinker nor a spokesman for philosophers. In fact, when he does, on occasion, strive for Abstract Significance, the poem tends to become brittle and thin, generally lacking the naturalness and robust geniality that give the best of his more typical work its appeal….

Mr. Nemerov (like Frost) is conservative technically. Theoretically he is often on the side of the ruffians, as his critical essays show, but in practice he usually falls back on conventional modes, suggesting that he prefers to defend new growth with a pruning hook. The Blue Swallows contains a variety of technical approaches, including heroic couplets, short lined free verse, sonnets (rhymed and un-), modified ottava rima, abab or abba stanzas, and others. It became obvious several books ago, however, that his native language is blank verse, and happily he never stays away from it for long. His line is supple, controlled, and solid, a wonderful instrument for his low keyed, conversational narratives and lyrics.

Joel Conarroe, in Shenandoah, Summer, 1968, pp. 78-81.

Howard Nemerov has perfected the poem as an instrument for exercising brilliance of wit. Searching, discursive, clear-sighted, he has learned to make the poem serve his relaxed manner and humane insights so expertly, I can only admire the clean purposefulness of his statements, his thoughtful care, the measure and grace of his lines….

At times, Nemerov frets about what must seem to himself to be an obsessive sanity of vision, obsessive balance of forms, in his art. Perhaps something of the spirit of adventure has gone out of his work, since he has come to know his limits so well. Or perhaps he feels somehow victimized by a talent for plain statement that was clearly his most dependable gift from the start of his career, a talent which, in my view, he has consistently refined with honest fidelity.

Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1968, pp. 137-49.

[The] "opposed elements" in Howard Nemerov's character are reflected in his life and work: in the tensions between his romantic and realistic visions, his belief and unbelief, his heart and mind; and in his alternating production of poetry and prose…. Journal of the Fictive Life documents, by analyzing his own dreams, the deeply divided personality already evident to readers of his poetry and fiction…. [I contend] that this inner division, under the constant pressure of Nemerov's poetic discipline and intelligence, accounts for the power of this writer who has become, more than any other contemporary poet, the spokesman for the existential, science-oriented (or science-displaced), liberal mind of the twentieth century.

The quality that sets Nemerov's writings apart from other modern writers is its consistent intelligence, a breadth of wit in the eighteenth-century sense of the word expanded to cover a very modern awareness of contemporary man's alienation and fragmentation. (pp. 5-6)

The Blue Swallows (1967), published exactly twenty years after Nemerov's first book, [represents] 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 divided view of man as both hopeless and indomitable better expressed than in the conclusion of "Beyond the Pleasure Principle"…. In The Blue Swallows the polarities of Nemerov's thought are typically symbolized by physics and theology (e.g., "This, That & the Other"), reality and imagination ("The Companions"), pain and significance ("Creation of Anguish")…. (pp. 8-9)

[Death], war and the city are Nemerov's main subjects [in the early poems, and two] … other major aspects of this early work should be mentioned because they carry over to his later poetry: religion and wit. Poetry and religion both attempt to carve meaning out of chaos—poetry by form, religion by faith. (p. 10)

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 directness, not toward the "country" simplicity of Robert Frost but toward the simplicity of a highly educated man trying to convey the substance of his meditations clearly. (p. 12)

In The Salt Garden, Nemerov's fascination with the workings of the human mind first becomes clear (his poetry is filled with images of reflections, mirrors, cameras, dreams in dreams, etc.), a fascination that is still stronger in the Journal and The Blue Swallows…. Poem after poem fastens on man's mind, its loneliness, its limitations, its appeal: the joys of meditation which, alas, turn in on themselves and make nothing happen. (p. 18)

Mirrors & Windows … continues with the elements already noted, plus a new one: Nemerov's quiet confidence in himself as a poet, a feeling that he can control internal despair with external craftsmanship…. The trend toward nature begun in The Salt Garden continues in Mirrors & Windows, the difference being that in the later book he is consciously aware that he is a poet looking at nature, trying to capture it in his poems…. Art and beauty (e.g., the birds in "The Town Dump") are what make life bearable, but nothing makes life understandable, nothing makes death meaningful. In Mirrors & Windows, Nemerov's philosophy of minimal affirmation can be clearly seen. (pp. 20-1)

Nemerov's fiction is in some danger of slipping undeservedly into oblivion…. One reason for this neglect is that his stories are uncompromising in their intellectual and moral implications, and unromantic in their presentation. In fact, one of his major themes is the disaster incurred when romantic people ("melodramatists") clash with reality. Reality, to Nemerov, is infinitely complex; the simplest act (speeding in a car, taking a bath) can, to a subtle mind, have enormous and far-reaching consequences. These books do not duck these complexities, and thus, despite much high humor, would have to be lucky to capture the popular imagination.

Like his poems, they are basically pessimistic. The condition of man is not an enviable one: we act foolishly and understand imperfectly. Nemerov's dark viewpoint, which in his poetry is redeemed by beauty (e.g., the wild birds in "The Town Dump"), in his fiction is redeemed by humor. There is in Nemerov much of the attitude of the "absurd" playwrights: life may be meaningless, but at least we can laugh at it, and with laughter comes acceptance…. There has been some development in Nemerov's prose, though not so striking as in his poetry, but even in his first novel his salient qualities are apparent: humor, intellectual precision, fantasy, and a smooth, "classical" prose style. (pp. 31-2)

Without basically changing his dark philosophy, or losing his satirical edge, Nemerov has progressed steadily in his poetry to a broader, more tolerant view, less bitter and more sad. 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."… 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"). (pp. 42-3)

One reason why Nemerov speaks effectively to this age is that his poetry attempts to come to terms with science: not just psychology, as in the Journal, 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. (p. 44)

Peter Meinke, in his Howard Nemerov (American Writers Pamphlet No. 70; © 1968, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1968.

Nemerov … does not seek to impose a vision upon the world so much as to listen to what it says. He works in closer relationship with literal meaning than is presently fashionable; consequently his worst fault (he says so himself) is sententiousness, but his corresponding virtue is a clarity whose object is not to diminish the mystery of the world but to allow it to appear without the interposition of a peculiar individuality, or of fancy-work or arabesque. He is, as much as any modern can be, a romantic poet; he is a religious poet without religion; a prophet, especially in the polemical and ironic mode, without portfolio. When he writes about history, as Stanley Hyman has said, his theme is "history from the point of view of the losers." Thus when he wants to write about Moses, he does so from the point of view of Pharaoh after the Red Sea debacle; and instead of writing about Perseus, he presents the nitwitted predecessors of that hero, who approached Medusa without a mirror and were turned to stone. To judge by his later poems, being turned to stone is the least agreeable and most probable fate for human beings and their institutions together….

It seems to me that Nemerov's "progress" consists in a solution to the predicament of his imagery. Bugs, birds, trees, and running water have been there from the start; death, war, and the city are there still, but they are less disturbing for being more acutely seen, distanced, separated out. Movement and light permeate The Blue Swallows, as the title indicates. And it is far and away the most significant and least recognized volume of poems of the sixties. Via deep doubts, deep self-questionings, painful recognitions, and sere embracings Nemerov emerges on the shore between two worlds whose relation is the subject of his most serious and most moving poetry. He joins there a ghost whose composite face reminds us now of Shelley, now of Coleridge, now of Jeremiah, now of Arnold or Roethke.

Julia Randall, "Genius of the Shore: The Poetry of Howard Nemerov," in Hollins Critic, June, 1969, pp. 1-12.


Nemerov, Howard (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Nemerov, Howard (Vol. 6)