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Howard Nemerov 1920-1991

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(Full name Howard Stanley Nemerov) American poet, novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, essayist, and literary critic.

For further information on Nemerov's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 6, 9, and 36.

Primarily known as a poet, Nemerov also produced novels and nonfiction during his long and distinguished career. He has been praised for his wide-ranging literary scope and his mastery of formal style. Nemerov was recognized as an astute observer of modern life who could communicate well to both an academic and a lay audience.

Biographical Information

Nemerov was born into a Jewish family March 1, 1920, in New York City, where his father was the head of a large clothing concern. Nemerov's sister was the well-known photographer Diane Arbus. After graduating from Harvard in 1941, Nemerov served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1944 he married Margaret Russell, with whom he had three sons. Nemerov taught in the English departments at Hamilton College, Bennington College, the University of Minnesota, and Brandeis University. Concurrently, Nemerov wrote several books of poetry, fiction, and essays. He was also writer-in-residence at Hollins College in Virginia and in 1969 joined the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, becoming the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor of English in 1976. He remained there until 1990, pursuing a full career of teaching, lecturing, and writing. Among the many honors Nemerov received were a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, both in 1978. Nemerov was Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress from 1963 to 1964 and was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States from 1988 to 1990. He died of cancer July 5, 1991, in University City near St. Louis.

Major Works

Nemerov published his first collection of poems, The Image and the Law, in 1947. From that time until his death he wrote prodigiously in several genres. Among his many volumes of poetry were The Salt Garden (1955), Mirrors and Windows (1958), The Blue Swallows (1967), Gnomes and Occasions (1973), and The Western Approaches (1975). In 1978 he won the National Book Award for The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977) and later published more books of poetry, among them Sentences (1980), Inside the Onion (1984), and War Stories (1987). His fictional works, written during the 1950s and 1960s, were mostly satirical and included Federigo, or the Power of Love (1954), a critique of the advertising industry; The Homecoming Game (1957), a story of campus life; and A Commodity of Dreams and Other Stories (1959), a collection of stories about middle-class Americans. In addition, Nemerov produced a fictional autobiography, Journal of the Fictive Life (1965), and wrote or edited a number of works of literary criticism. The publication of A Howard Nemerov Reader (1991) and Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 (1991) in the year of his death helped to solidify his considerable literary reputation.

Critical Reception

In general, Nemerov criticism is as diverse in its approaches as Nemerov was in his literary production. Nemerov wrote so prolifically and in so many different genres and styles that critics often had a difficult time classifying him. Although he produced much serious critical and fictional work, he remains best known as a poet who refused to be identified with a particular school of poetry and distrusted fashionable trends in scholarship. Some critics felt he was overly academic, somewhat lifeless, and even dull in his poetic offerings. In general, however, he was well-respected by most critics for his consistently high level of craftsmanship, his erudition, his sense of irony, his ability to be both serious and witty, and his effective use of poetic idiom. Most often compared with poets such as W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and Robert Frost, Nemerov used traditional poetic forms and was interested in the ways a poet uses imagination to get to certain truths. Early critics of Nemerov praised his stylistic skills while often using words like “detached” to describe his work. After the first monograph-length study of Nemerov was published in 1968, and a book dealing extensively with his use of language, imagery, and imagination appeared in 1972, Nemerov criticism became more evident. The publication of several volumes of poetry in the 1970s and especially his Collected Poems in 1977 precipitated a flurry of Nemerov criticism, most of it favorable. A book about Nemerov's philosophical beliefs in 1975 and a comprehensive critical study by Twayne Publishers in 1980 further solidified Nemerov's reputation. The next wave of criticism, including reevaluations of Nemerov's work, occurred after his death in 1991 and the publication of A Howard Nemerov Reader and the posthumous Trying Conclusions. Interest in Nemerov was piqued again in 1994 with the publication of a book about the sophisticated philosophical underpinnings of his work.

Principal Works

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The Image and the Law (poetry) 1947

The Melodramatists (novel) 1949

Guide to the Ruins (poetry) 1950

Federigo, or the Power of Love (novel) 1954

The Salt Garden (poetry) 1955

The Homecoming Game (novel) 1957

Mirrors and Windows (poetry) 1958

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

New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1960

Endor: Drama in One Act (verse drama) 1961

The Next Room of the Dream: Poems and Two Plays (poetry and drama) 1962

Poetry and Fiction: Essays (literary criticism) 1963

Journal of the Fictive Life (autobiography) 1965

Poets on Poetry [editor and contributor] (literary criticism) 1965

The Blue Swallows (poetry) 1967

A Sequence of Seven with a Drawing by Ron Slaughter (poetry) 1967

The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems (poetry) 1968

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

Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics (literary criticism) 1972

Gnomes and Occasions (poetry) 1973

The Western Approaches: Poems, 1973-75 (poetry) 1975

The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (poetry) 1977

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

Sentences (poetry) 1980

Inside the Onion (poetry) 1984

New and Selected Essays (essays) 1985

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

War Stories: Poems about Long Ago and Now (poetry) 1987

A Howard Nemerov Reader (miscellany) 1991

Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 (poetry) 1991

Richard Eberhart (review date winter 1952)

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SOURCE: Eberhart, Richard. “Five Poets.” Kenyon Review 14, no. 1 (winter 1952): 174-75.

[In the following excerpt from a review of several new books of poetry, including Nemerov's Guide to the Ruins, Eberhart comments on Nemerov's ability to be detached while at the same time communicating emotion.]

From Howard Nemerov's second book of poems [Guide to the Ruins] I receive the impression of a poet thoroughly immersed in a deep knowledge, capable of sarcasm, never removed or far from irony, yet he has not the Lowellian rage nor the Jarrellian fantasy; nor the Gregorian chant.

He is conscious of universal suffering, and of particular suffering as essential to many war situations. But he is not overwhelmed on the one hand, nor a didact on the other. He watches. He is able to maintain the artist's poise and detachment in every poem and thus not to become sentimental nor to preach. There is a good deal of satisfaction in this; his poems do not set the blood surging, for they have no astounding music, nor do they invite recoil and objection, for they have the merit of sincerity and command a large area of sense. One gets plenty of hard sense in Nemerov. “And money talks and things make sense.”

He is intellectual rather than sensuous, but something of both. He has the agenbite of inwit; a sense of the sinister, and a rich satirical twist. For a lovely lyric there is “Carol”; for irony, “The Ecstasies of Dialectic” or “Peace in Our Time.” His classical interests show in “Antigone”; his Hebraic in “A Song of Degrees,” “Nicodemus” and “To the Babylonians.” The last two stanzas from “Fables of a Moscow Subway” will show a characteristic style of his:

He read in the Timaeus once again
That the good old days were gone beneath the sea.
He seemed to understand, coughed once, and slept.
And then it was revealed to him in dream:
That Martin Luther shrieked aloud, Thou Pope!
And fled to England, and created the Boy Scouts,
Who were encamped above Lake Titicaca
And might invade the Rhineland if they wished.

Ray B. West Jr. (review date spring 1955)

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SOURCE: West, Ray B., Jr. “The Unities of Modern Fiction.” Kenyon Review 17, no. 2 (spring 1955): 326-29.

[In the following excerpted review of several new novels, West says that Nemerov's Federigo, or the Power of Love has a good deal of wit but is too heavy-handed and surrealistic.]

Howard Nemerov's Federigo, or the Power of Love, contains more skill of execution than David Wagoner's novel [The Man in the Middle], and it is unmistakably comic. Given a modern setting, it is nevertheless, as its old-fashioned title suggests, consciously based on the medieval fabliau. Essentially, it is the story of Julian Ghent's attempt to provide a situation where he, approaching middle-age, may be untrue to his wife, Sylvia. This he does by writing letters to himself implying his wife's unfaithfulness and signing them Federigo, the name of a little-known acquaintance. He is moved to this act, not by the attraction of any particular woman, but, we gather, out of boredom and in the romantic belief that life is passing him by.

The letters work in an amusing fashion, opening the way for Julian's attempts at unfaithfulness, but disclosing him, in fact, incapable of it. They also convince Sylvia that, since she has acquired the reputation for infidelity, she might as well enjoy its pleasures; but her experience turns out to be the opposite of Julian's: the young man with whom she has had a casual relationship becomes frightened by her aroused aggressiveness. Thus, neither is successful in consummating an affair, but they are, by the intrigue of their unmarried partners, led back to each other in a riotous scene of mistaken identity, where they find themselves in bed together, the disclosure made by detectives Julian had hired to spy on Sylvia.

So far, so good. The situation is impossible, but disguised by that air of probability which can make such farce-comedy highly effective. The difficulty is that this slight and amusing tale is extended to the size of a full-length novel with both Faustian and Freudian overtones. Julian and Sylvia are led through scenes at cocktail parties, weddings, psychiatrists' offices, and amorous rendezvous, too often with a heavy-handedness that weakens the essential “fabulous” nature of the tale. Not that the novel might not have carried such overtones, but it should have done so in a different manner, for the comic note demands a quick, light touch, while here one comes to feel, finally, that Julien and Sylvia are being bludgeoned back into each other's arms.

Mr. Nemerov seems somewhat aware of his heaviness when he writes at the end of his novel: “This is a very old story, and when it used to be told in what may have been in some respects a simpler age, it would have ended, perhaps, like this: ‘… and the married couple, when they perceived how astoundingly and justly they had been diddled’—or ‘saved,’ depending on the sort of person narrating the tale—‘resolved ever after to be true to one another.’” For my own part, I should have preferred such an ending (and, in a sense, got it, as I think Mr. Nemerov actually intended that I should). But the concept of “a simplified age” is a trap, for even the complexities of an age (if one age is more complex than another, as we like to think our own is today) may be displayed in a simple form, as André Gide has demonstrated in such a novel as Lafcadio's Adventures. Actually, too, of course, Mr. Nemerov's married couple returns to fidelity with a comic relief, as surely and as humorously as any ancient or medieval couple ever did.

The ubiquitous Federigo, who enters the novel, not only as the alleged author of Julien's notes, but also as Mephistopheles to Julien's Faustus and as Julien's alter ego, might have remained as sufficient excuse for the novel's modern setting. What cluttered the action and blunted the point of the story was, I think, the attempt to gain complexity by spelling out in too much detail the various relationships of Sylvia and Julien in terms of modern religion, science, business, and the social life of the New York middle-class. In short, what the novel lacked was “simplicity and unity.” “The excellence and charm of arrangement,” Horace once wrote, “… consists in this,—to say at each and every time just what should at that time be said, and to defer a very great part of what might be said, and for the nonce omit it.”

Both Mr. Wagoner and Mr. Nemerov are young American novelists. They reflect what has become a tendency in recent American fiction to avoid social realism and to adopt a kind of surrealistic formalism as a means of expressing modern life. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, and I do not wholly share Malcolm Cowley's fears that such a method reflects a basic insecurity in the present generation. Neither do I believe, as Stanley Edgar Hyman seems to do, that fable and allegory are the masks through which the contemporary novelist may say what would otherwise be denied him. Such forms are new in the American tradition and they demand a degree of skill (a precise unity) heretofore seldom achieved by American novelists. In opposition to Mr. Cowley, I should say that such attempts as have been made by David Wagoner and Howard Nemerov display courage, not timidity, and that their failures result from attempting that which they are not yet capable of achieving.

Lewis D. Rubin Jr. (essay date spring 1964)

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SOURCE: Rubin, Lewis D. Jr. “Well Worth the Saying.” Kenyon Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1964): 411-14.

[In the following essay, Rubin says that Nemerov's book of critical essays Poetry and Fiction is a valuable, non-ideological, detached approach to criticism.]

When Howard Nemerov's most recent book of poems, The Next Room of the Dream, was published last year, one reviewer quoted some lines from the book, compared them with some of Nemerov's earliest published work, and concluded that as a poet Nemerov had come a long way. So he has. The better poems in the recent book differ sharply from the verse that he was publishing back in the middle and late 1940s.

I mention this because in the preface to this collection of critical essays [Poetry and Fiction], his first such, Nemerov begins by saying something that is markedly different from the usual line that is handed out by poets and novelists on such occasions. “Poetry and criticism,” he declares, “are as a double star, and if we wish to go on in poetry beyond the first ecstatic stirrings of the imagination … we shall do well to learn all we can of what poetry is, and try to see by means of many examples how the art is constantly redefining itself. Studying one's contemporaries, one gets an idea of what is possible, as well as many ideas of what is not.” Reading through these prose pieces, one realizes that this is precisely what Nemerov has been doing, and that in part, at least, this is what accounts for the fact that, unlike many another poet whose work began to be talked about in the immediate postwar years, Nemerov's technique has been steadily developing and changing. With each new volume of verse he has expanded his range and clarified his style.

This unabashed willingness to write criticism, and to assert categorically that to do so is not only worth-while but even highly important, goes along with an attitude that one finds expressed throughout Nemerov's criticism. This is, that poetry is a highly important kind of knowledge, “no mere playing with the counters of meaning, but a perpetual re-deriving of the possibility of meaning from matter, of the intelligible world from the brute recalcitrance of things.” Now, when one has this attitude, and can believe in the depths of his being that poetry is unique and essential, one will not fear to write or read criticism. Those poets, and there are many of them, who are constantly complaining about the tyranny of the critics, and who view criticism as a menace to the integrity and the writing of poetry, only reveal thereby their underlying doubt of the importance of poetry. In actuality, criticism is always subordinate to poetry, and exists only in order to understand and to confirm the poetry. When Karl Shapiro, for example, writes that “changes in taste are brought about by critics,” he is talking entire nonsense. It was not Eliot's critical essays that “created” modern poetry, or Pound's, either; it was “Prufrock” and The Waste Land that did it. The preface to the Lyrical Ballads did not end neoclassicism in English verse; the Lyrical Ballads themselves did so. Good poetry has repeatedly shown its ability to outlast hostile criticism, to force criticism to accommodate itself to the dimensions of new poetry. While the dominant criticism of any day has customarily shown itself hostile to really important changes in poetry, in the long run the poetry has always won out.

It is the realization that this is so, that the poem is so much more influential and more seminal than its criticism, that makes Nemerov unafraid to write criticism. He does not, in short, fear to think long and hard about poetry; he is sufficiently confident of the value of poetry not to believe that thinking about it might interfere with writing it.

The taste reflected in these essays is quite catholic; he can deal with poets as diverse as Robert Graves and W. H. Auden, as Theodore Roethke and Karl Shapiro, and find something to admire in each of them. Not iconoclastic by principle, he is nevertheless no respecter of reputations. A case in point, which many will remember, is his excellent review essay, first published in The Sewanee Review in 1959, of Wallace Fowlie's translation of St.-John Perse's Seamarks. In this essay he came out and said what many had felt, but nobody had been willing to say, which was that when one got past the highly attractive printing and binding of the Bollingen editions of Perse, and the blurbs by distinguished men of letters, and one examined the poetry itself, there was relatively little there beyond a great deal of Byronic posturing and some competent naming of objects. As Nemerov said of one inflated passage, “the expressions themselves are some of them literal and some figurative; taking them singly, we might find some good and others bad, depending on the context, but their combined aim seems to be to bludgeon us into submission by the tasteless filling up of a monotonously repeated form. …”

Likewise Nemerov looked at Dylan Thomas, in an essay published in The Kenyon Review in 1953 when the Thomas boom was at its peak. He found, as many others have since concluded now that the force of Thomas' own personality reading the poems aloud no longer dominates the imagination, that in many of the poems, including some of the best-known ones, there is much rhapsodizing, a great deal of gesturing, but with so little control throughout that “the tension and sinuosity are lost, and the energetic impulsion which begins the line either cracks up or proceeds as shouting; nor does any intensification of assonance and so forth overcome this difficulty.” Thomas' vaunted talent for bold metaphor, he said, is gaudy, arbitrary, and ultimately self-defeating. Though Thomas wrote some fine poems, especially toward the last, the bulk of his work is characteristically empty and rhetorical. As Nemerov says, “the art of sinking in poetry is not dead; and there is the art of rising, too, like a paper bag in a high wind.”

More typically, Nemerov writes to praise excellence rather than to deflate reputations. He is at his best with Wallace Stevens; there are two pieces on Stevens, of which the second, “The Bread of Faithful Speech—Wallace Stevens and the Voices of Imagination,” is one of the best statements of just how a skillful poet addresses his subject that I have ever read. There are excellent essays on John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Graves, and Reed Whittemore. Weldon Kees's work receives an expert appreciation. There is even a good essay on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in which Nemerov demonstrates not only a good historical sense but the ability to recognize and appraise good verse when it is not at all like his own kind of poetry.

In the general essays, Nemerov's chief theme seems to be the defense of poetry against charges of its unimportance. Thus he takes pains to show the differences between the approaches of art and institutionalized religion, only to conclude that what art offers is just the kind of revelation of the world that religion offers, but “by vision and not by dogma.” At another point, in a most moving discussion of what poetry has been for himself and his fellow poets, he distinguishes between the impulse to write and the desire to be widely read: “When something comes to you to be dealt with according to such skill and energy as you may have to give it,” he declares, “you give it what you have; which may not be much, or nearly enough, but excludes for the time all thought of whether it will be acceptable to ‘the public’—an entity, I repeat, of which poets have very little opportunity of forming an image.” Granted, then, that the desire to write well has nothing to do with practical usefulness, he says, it remains true that “a new inflection of the voice may be the seed of new mind, new character, and many persons still to be born will enact in their lives the poet's word. Ours is a power the more immense for not being directed to a specific or immediate end other than the poem itself.” And he concludes, “we write, at last, because life is hopeless and beautiful.”

There are so many good and informative essays and essay-reviews in this collection that one can do little more than describe the contents. Though chiefly a poet, Nemerov has much to say about prose fiction—he has, after all, published two novels and a volume of short stories. His discussion of the form of the short novel sets forth the virtues of that genre most invitingly. He has a special fondness for Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Mann, and there are two excellent pieces on each of them. He reprints his diagnosis, for The Nation of November 2, 1957, of James Gould Cozzens' By Love Possessed, which many will recall as having been, along with Dwight MacDonald's review in Commentary, instrumental in restoring the literary world to sanity upon that occasion. And there is also a remarkable thematic analysis of Faulkner's Light in August. Turning to criticism, a review of Stanley Edgar Hyman's The Armed Vision presents that explosive critique of critics in all its flawed contentiousness. Two books on Shakespeare are properly classified and castigated. (Earlier in the book there is an ingenious defense of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which Nemerov almost, but not quite, convinces the reader, and himself, that the play is better than he knows it really is.)

Written over the course of fifteen years, these essays—to return, finally, to the business of poets and their writing of literary criticism—are not conceptual in form, which is to say that they demonstrate no particular mode of criticism, no elaborate theoretical structure upon which to arrange critiques of stories and poems as if they were test cases for a specific method. Rather they are generally informative in nature, the product of Nemerov's continuing poetic education, and they offer us the opportunity to watch a talented and intelligent poet as he deals with various kinds of literature. They are marked by good sense, an unswerving belief in the necessity for close reading, a conviction of the ultimate worth of imaginative literature, and the unity that comes from the internal consistency of a good mind. His book is the kind to which one can return again and again, always with the confidence that what is said will be said well, and be well worth the saying.

Richard Howard (review date March 1965)

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SOURCE: Howard, Richard. “Some Poets in Their Prose.” Poetry 105, no. 6 (March 1965): 400-03.

[In the following excerpted review of Poetry and Fiction, Howard praises Nemerov's evaluations of other poets.]

An admiring frequenter of Howard Nemerov's verse and of his fiction, I found the big set-pieces of his criticism, an art of opinion as he calls it, as much to my expectations as to my taste: manly, delicate, serious, funny, industrious, graceful. Essays on Longfellow and on Two Gentlemen of Verona show what this mind, at its stretch, can do with professionally “unpromising” material. The piece on “Composition and Fate in the Short Novel”, one of the most illuminating studies of a genre I know, the adscititious essays on Thomas Mann which I suppose to be part of Mr. Nemerov's promised study, and best of all the discussions of Stevens, Tate, and Ransom are what we want from Mr. Nemerov and are not likely to get from anyone else: a serious excursion into what poets mean by what they say. Nemerov makes us feel that the literary criticism of other men is, like France, a despotism tempered by epigrams, while his own, for all of what Carlyle calls its “bisson conspectuities”, advances on the reader with a kind of pointed pepticity: avec cette sauce-là, on mangerait son père.

I should like to praise, beyond these expansive, well-rehearsed gestures, something more questionable, or at least something more often questioned, that Howard Nemerov has printed in this generous book [Poetry and Fiction], for I find with a frisson of self-suspicion that my particular pleasure is awakened by precisely the performance which, in the general chorus of respect that meets Mr. Nemerov's work these days and particularly in this book, is generally discounted (as by R. W. Flint, R. W. B. Lewis, R. M. Adams): I mean the many “occasional” reviews of minor and important poets, unknown and celebrated figures, often called into existence—the reviews, not the writers—by omnibus chronicles for the quarterlies. The raven, as we know, loves not ravens, and if one is distracted by diversity itself, it is galling to see a colleague “producing purpose from a collection of accidents, cryptically presented”. Yet that is Nemerov's achievement, an account of modern poetry “day by day”, in terms of the bubbles that burst on its surface, of the bubbles that do not burst, as well as of writers such as Whittemore and Kees who have not surfaced, and some student digs at translations by Ciardi, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Fowlie which have not left the ocean floor. A writer as self-critical as Mr. Nemerov, of course, has a reason for including all these pieces—they are occasional because they were occasioned by something important:

This ancient and continuing art, moralizing and even didactic without being, in its better works, in the least imperceptive of particulars, belongs to life, serves it, and is in the most devoted sense occasional, finding its subjects in the slightest as in the greatest events.

That is Nemerov on Yvor Winters, but also a description of what Nemerov has accomplished in his running commentary on contemporary verse—though surely a more intensive adjective of motion is required for the criticism which keeps crystallizing into these insights:

I have felt that poetry, for Spender, consists not so much in composition as in what is liberated (the sublime) from composition, and that accordingly, he is the least interested in technique, and the least accomplished, of these three poets [with Jarrell and Auden]. His subjects frequently are as screens, behind which he awaits the moment for breaking rhapsodically out, and this moment is not always opportune, so that the great phrase gets little or no authority from the poem, referring rather away from the poem and to “the world.”

So often, with Jarrell, the situation of the poem, and its action, if it has any, are set up and merely exploited for his identifiable pathos and irony, to such an extent that the development of the situation is careless and ill-written, and all the energies of the author concentrate on what can be said about it, usually very beautiful and very sad and very deep things that have, we often feel, a general relevance to “life” rather than a particular one to the poems in which they occur.

Alastair Reid's book can be taken as a compendium of style and even attitude for the beginner at specifically Modern Poetry. It is all here, the loneliness, the carelessly sauntering verse, wry humor, eccentric epithet, the grave and testamentary reverence about the treasures of the self as reflected, usually, in the sea. Guilt, love, childhood, the want of a tradition, are approached with a delicate and raffiné recklessness of speech and a clear innocence of eye which are, however, almost entirely literary in origin.

Finally, last of my free samples, I should like to instance this, on David Jones:

The poet, on this view, is the reciter of the ritual which keeps the world in being; but because the ritual these days has either fallen in disuse or is used for limited purposes (religion, ironically, having become a limited purpose), the poet must also be a rediscoverer, re-edifier who causes the purified and idealized history recited in the ritual to be freshly seen as penetrating and modifying our secular or supposed secular concerns, which is, after all, exactly what was proposed and achieved by Dante. Mr. Jones is aware of the immensity of the task, of difficulties which Dante faced and overcame, but also of many which, at this distance, it does not appear that Dante had to deal with. But it is a question, beyond that, whether the attempt in its nature may ever be unplanned or random, whether the assumption, to begin with, of ruins does not in a degree dishonor or make unavailing whatever fragments may be shored against them.

These are beads on a long, long string. Telling them, as Blake said of prayer, is the study of art.

M. S. Rosenthal (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: Rosenthal, M. S. “Epilogue: American Continuities and Crosscurrents.” In The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II, pp. 310-12. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

[In the following excerpt from his book on American and British poets, Rosenthal identifies Nemerov as an independent writer not attached to a particular school of poetry.]

The versatile American poet Howard Nemerov, has an extraordinarily varied body of excellent work to his credit. It ranges from light but telling satirical comment to the very serious, morbidly brilliant sequence ‘The Scales of the Eyes,’ and includes touching buffoonery such as ‘Lot Later’ (in which the biblical Lot tells his story in the language of a modern American-Jewish businessman) and the archaically elegant, eerie formality of ‘The Goose Fish.’ Sheer humane intelligence with a sharply ironic edge carries Nemerov a good distance, and ‘The Scales of the Eyes’ reveals a sensibility such as marks the best of the confessional poets—here turned away from the particular events that have scarred the poet's life to the symbolic dream-data of the inward life. Throughout the sequence, the speaker wrestles with the grossness of existence and with the inevitability of death and its omnipresence:

Around the city where I live
Dead men in their stone towns
Wait out the weather lying down. …

The terror of the poem seems in some degree a total retention of the first awareness and horror of death felt by children. Many of the specific memories the speaker calls upon in the course of the poem are of a comparable nature—unforgotten shocks and depressed responses of childhood. Thus, the opening of the fifth section, called ‘A Can of Dutch Cleanser’:

The blind maid shaking a stick,
Chasing dirt endlessly around
A yellow wall, was the very she
To violate my oldest nights;
I frighten of her still.

Birth-trauma, the ominousness of all things—snow, an empty house, the sea—viewed in certain moods: many of the notes of the poem are a reaching back toward childhood and even toward a pre-natal condition, as well as an opposing effort to grasp the actual feel and import of literal death. The acceptance of life in joy toward which the poem ultimately strives must wait upon the demanding discipline of these efforts and is well-earned when it comes through. In ‘The Scales of the Eyes’ and a few other poems, Nemerov holds his cleverness in check and discovers his deeper possibilities.

Nemerov is one of a number of poets whom we might call ‘independents,’ though the term would be something of a misnomer. It is easy enough to see their place in the whole modern picture; they are ‘independents’ in the sense that they have worked on their own, in the manner of many artists, without being closely involved with the momentary ‘centers’ of most intense poetic influence and perhaps without attracting much critical attention. …

Peter Davison (review date February 1968)

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SOURCE: Davison, Peter. “New Poetry: The Generation of the Twenties.” Atlantic 122 (February 1968): 143.

[In the following excerpted review of The Blue Swallows, Davison praises the clarity and philosophical sophistication of Nemerov's poems.]

The poems in Howard Nemerov's sixth collection, The Blue Swallows, seem to exhibit their grace under less pressure than is evident in the work of poets like Merwin and Dugan. If so, it may be a tribute to the poet for turning away the charge of events with a flick of the wrist, like a matador. These poems have a calm surface, whether they be witty glosses on the Great Society or somber riddles about man and nature and history. The surpassing virtue of Nemerov's poetry has always been clarity rather than passion. In this latest book he has begun to take on the apparently (but only apparently) easy movement that Robert Frost mastered, and to tackle philosophical problems as Frost did. Much of the most evocative of Nemerov's work has always taken place in the presence of water; for example, a poem which begins “I stand and watch for minutes by the pond / The snowflakes falling on the open water,” which moves on, in dialogue form, to speculate in expanding ripples about the Many and the One, in a manner not unlike Yeats's “Dialogue of Self and Soul.” These poems shine with wit, sing out with descriptive certainty (A mud turtle: “His lordly darkness decked in filth / Bearded with weed like a lady's favor …”), and explore the bewilderment of a mature and civilized man surveying the world without animus.

Thomas Lask (review date 30 March 1968)

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SOURCE: Lask, Thomas. “Where No Prospect Pleases.” New York Times (30 March 1968): 31.

[In the following excerpted review, Lask asserts that Nemerov's The Blue Swallows exhibits a despairing attitude.]

In Howard Nemerov's most recent volume [The Blue Swallows], the poet's earlier irony, hard-hitting satire and wit have been changed into feelings of loathing and contempt for man and his works. His primary target is the Great Society, but his bitterness infects all he sees.

Mr. Nemerov is quoted as having said, “It is the poet's job to look deep down things for that dearest freshness, life's essential oil and incarnate sweetness.” The essential oil in this book has become rancid and the incarnate sweetness has turned sour and tasteless. In his poetry “the shriek has learned to answer to the claw.” Sunday is a day in which “greyish air is left over from last night” and a time to read the “horrible funnies.” “A Way of Life” condemns the stuff of television but in a way that condemns the watcher, too, as captive and victim. The journeying travelers in an airplane “herd up toward the gate.” Nothing seems to escape his moral disgust: the desiccated scholar who published and perishes at the same time; Christmas morning that mixes tawdry commercialism and tawdry spirituality; science that encroaches on the human brain.

How black his despair is can be seen from his nature poems. Nature brings no solace or relief, not in the sense of a tepid romanticism, but not even in its impersonality, its inexorable cycles, its vastness that overshadows man. He hopes the sparrows “may yet survive our love.” A sound tree cut down in error leads only to the comment that “you learn to bury your mistakes.” In “The Mud Turtle,” a splendid poem, the animal comes out of the mud like some rough beast, its toes torn off, and disappears into the tall grass, taking his wound with him.

As usual Mr. Nemerov's poems are solidly constructed, weighted with thought (though “The Rope's End” shows what he can do with sustaining a conceit through 32 lines) and striking in treatment. He has made them warrants for his own despair.

Anthony Hecht (review date spring 1968)

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SOURCE: Hecht, Anthony. “Writers' Rights and Readers' Rights.” Hudson Review 21 (spring 1968): 213-15.

[In the following review of The Blue Swallows, Hecht declares Nemerov's poetry to be worthy of a major literary award.]



Death is serious,
or else all things are serious
except death. A player who dies
automatically disqualifies
for the finals. If there were no death
nothing could be taken seriously,
not truth, not beauty, but that is not
a situation which we need to face.
Men invented the gods, but they
discovered death; therefore, although
the skull is said to grin, the flesh
is serious, and frowns, for the world
is not a stage. And the gay spirit, gone
through wisdom to absurdity,
welcomes the light that shudders in the leaves
in all weathers and at any season
since love, the pure, unique, and useless virtue,
climbs in the stalk and concentrates this dust
until it takes the light and shines
with the fat blood of death. So men say
that flowers light the sun, and so also
when Theseus fought Antiope,
the battlefield became a marriage bed.
When you have known how this may be
you have already lived forever,
forsaken once in a small moment,
but gathered with great mercies after.

“Small Moment” is from Howard Nemerov's new book [The Blue Swallows]; there is no other living poet I can think of capable of conveying with the same ease the sad, majestic, Lucretian austerity of these lines, the utter lack of concession, the pure indifference to what might pass for consolation. And the final lines are a characteristic puzzle; they are borrowed from the Lord's promise to His people: “For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.” The poem, therefore, may constitute an ironic commentary on the biblical passage, but it may also be, without irony, an interpretation of it, saying, in effect, this is the way, and the only way, those lines are properly to be understood. The irony then becomes a dramatic irony—what has been promised is brought to pass, but not in the manner that was expected.

This poem is from Nemerov's seventh book of poems, and there is nothing on the dust jacket to indicate he has ever been awarded a major prize. If this is true, it is shocking, for he continues to be one of the very best poets writing in English. His poems are not normally marked by the extreme severity of the one above; but I chose it anyway because it seemed to me absolutely awesome. More commonly his poems are compassionate, witty, and immensely civilized. This last word is not now regarded as a kindly one to use about a poet. When a reviewer employs it, usually he is coming to a covert understanding and confederation with the reader by signifying that there is something perhaps effete or less than red-blooded about the poet; and throwing his arm casually about the reader's shoulder, in the manner of a friendly Herman Goering, he is hinting, with a sly wink, that when the word “civilized” comes up, he and his buddy will have their Lügers ready. I hasten to say that I mean nothing of this sort. I mean rather that 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. I trust that the proper, and somewhat negligent, Foundations and Prize Committees will take due notice of this important book.

Hayden Carruth (review date 28 July 1968)

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SOURCE: Carruth, Hayden. “In Their Former Modes.” New York Times Book Review (28 July 1968): 7.

[In the following excerpt from a review of The Blue Swallows and Josephine Miles's Kinds of Affection, Carruth, a prominent literary critic, writes that Nemerov's use of irony and poetic conventions makes the poetry seem “tired.”]

[Nemerov] belongs to the Eastern tradition, the tradition dominated first by Eliot and later by the poets associated with John Crowe Ransom. And their hallmark was “poetic irony.” One may search Nemerov's work up and down—his new book of poems [The Blue Swallows] being his sixth in 20 years—and find scarcely a statement that means what it says. Everything is wried away from literalness by the intrusion of the poet's ironic view. The ironic method is double-entendre; but when it is used too much, double-meaning slides over again into single-meaning; the literal meaning decays until it falls into meaninglessness, while the emphasis shifts entirely to the unspoken ironic meaning; and thus the poem is left at odds with itself.

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 more far-ranging and out-looking than [Josephine] Miles, 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 the moderate vigor we find in her more direct approach.

There is one exception to this, Nemerov's light verse. Here his irony, motivated by political disgust, rises into outright sarcasm, funny and to-the-point; directness is restored. We read it with pleasure, not to say relief. But unfortunately the light verse is meager in proportion to the whole, only two or three poems in his new book properly qualifying. One wishes there were more.

Peter Meinke (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: Meinke, Peter. Howard Nemerov, pp. 5-45. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968.

[In the following monograph about Nemerov's work from The Image and the Law to The Blue Swallows, Meinke emphasizes Nemerov's growth as an artist.]

There is an instructive passage in Journal of the Fictive Life in which Howard Nemerov speaks of the sources of poetic power: “I conceive this responsibility of [lyric] poetry to be to great primary human drama, which poets tend to lose sight of because of their privilege of taking close-ups of single moments on the rim of the wheel of the human story. The poet will improve his art who acknowledges the necessity of always returning to that source; he will fail who always writes another poem instead. Hence it has seemed to me that I must attempt to bring together the opposed elements of my character represented by poetry and fiction.”

These “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. It is somehow typical that this humanitarian who writes of war as madness (“Redeployment”) enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force when he graduated from Harvard in 1941. It is also typical that this “Jewish Puritan of the middle class” who “Grins at the consolations of religion as at a child's / Frightened pretensions” is a deeply religious poet who, in his central poems (e.g., “Runes”) looks into “the dark marrow and the splintery grain” and sees “nothing that was not wood, nothing / That was not God.”

Journal of the Fictive Life documents, by analyzing his own dreams, the deeply divided personality already evident to readers of his poetry and fiction. Despite his growing “success,” financial, familial, critical, and popular (his New & Selected Poems, for example, is in its fourth printing), Nemerov's dreams are “spectacularly pessimistic” (which he typically calls a “rude awakening”). My theme here is 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. One of the primary divisions of Nemerov's mind is apparent in his ability to remind his readers of both Pope and Dostoevski at the same time, a split symbolized by poems like “The Salt Garden,” where man is alternately proud of his “good house” and “garden green, / … Turnip and bean and violet / In a decent order set,” and torn by a desire to abandon civilized life for “the wild waters” where “his salt dream lies.”

Nemerov's own upbringing was an extremely civilized one, a privileged one, and this coupled with his awareness of the miseries of this world undoubtedly led to guilt feelings or at least a cynicism at life's capriciousness (he writes in the Journal, “I want the world to think me a nice fellow, while I know I am not”).

He was born on March 1, 1920, in New York City, and this city dominated the imagery of his poems until he moved to Vermont in 1948. His wealthy and culture-minded parents sent him to the exclusive Fieldston School where the young Nemerov was an outstanding student and a good athlete. Graduating in 1937, he then went to Harvard, receiving his A.B. just in time for World War II. Like many other modern poets (Jarrell, Ciardi, Dickey) he was romantically attracted to the air force, with the romance gradually turning to horror at the war's realities. Nemerov served first as a flying officer with the RAF Coastal Command, attacking German shipping over the North Sea, and then in 1944 switched to the Eighth United States Army Air Force, based in Lincolnshire. He married an English girl, to whom he's rather unfashionably still married, and in 1945 was discharged as a first lieutenant.

After the war, Nemerov and his wife lived in New York City for a year, during which he wrote The Image and the Law. Running short of money, in 1946 he accepted a position as instructor of English at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York; in 1948 he joined the faculty at Bennington College with which he was associated until 1966 when he moved to Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The Nemerovs have three sons, David, Alexander, and Jeremy, the period just before Alexander's birth being the subject of Nemerov's “meditations” in Journal of the Fictive Life.

In 1958-59 he was a visiting lecturer in English at the University of Minnesota, and in 1962-63 was writer-in-residence at Hollins College in Virginia. He also served as consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress in 1963-64, succeeding Louis Untermeyer and preceding his friend Reed Whittemore, with whom he worked for several years on the delightful and irreverent magazine Furioso (predecessor of today's Carleton Miscellany).

As he notes in the Journal, his writing has slowly been attracting a widening audience. In 1966 he delivered the Joseph Warren Beach Lecture at the University of Minnesota to an appreciative standing room only crowd (the lecture has been published in the American Scholar, summer 1967). He has received numerous awards, the latest being a Guggenheim in 1968. In 1965 he was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1966 a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Howard Nemerov, who never went to graduate school, finds teaching “a fairly agreeable way of making a dollar”: it “makes possible a more or less quiet life.” When asked to name the best contemporary American poet, he replied, “For me to do so would be not only immodest, but very possibly inaccurate as well.” But in the opinion of a growing number of readers and critics, Nemerov is a major American writer, and certainly one of the best poets writing today. Versatile and prolific, he has published to date three novels (The Melodramatists, Federigo, or, The Power of Love, The Homecoming Game), one collection of short stories (A Commodity of Dreams), two verse plays (Cain, Endor), seven books of poetry (The Image and the Law, Guide to the Ruins, The Salt Garden, Mirrors & Windows, New & Selected Poems, The Next Room of the Dream, The Blue Swallows), a large collection of essays and criticism (Poetry and Fiction: Essays), and the unclassifiable literary-psychoanalytical Journal of the Fictive Life. He also edited and introduced Longfellow's poems in the Laurel Poetry Series and is the editor of Poets on Poetry.

The twentieth century, perhaps every century, has been often derided as an unpoetic age, especially the second half of it: where is the successor to Frost, Eliot, Williams, Auden, Yeats? The fact is that there are plenty of successors, that excellent poetry is being written by many modern poets, and that no doubt a few of them will withstand “windy time / and the worm,” and emerge as that strange and amorphous creature, the Major Poet. Of the “war generation” poets, Nemerov and Lowell are the two who have held up best, and the development of Nemerov is the most striking.

The sixty-seven new poems contained in The Blue Swallows (1967), published exactly twenty years after Nemerov's first book, 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 divided view of man as both hopeless and indomitable better expressed than in the conclusion of “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 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”). He has come a long way from his first slim volume, The Image and the Law (1947), but there is continuity as well as development.

The title of his first book refers to the two ways man has of looking at things, realistically through the eye (image) and imaginatively through the mind (law), and what Nemerov looks at is, in a word, death. Poem after poem revolves around his war-given realization of the casual, callous, accidental, and inevitable fact of death:

You watch the night for images of death,
Which sleep in camera prints upon the eye.
Fires go out, and power fails, and breath
Goes coldly out: dawn is a time to die.


You try to fix your mind upon his death,
Which seemed it might, somehow, be relevant
To something you once thought, or did, or might
Imagine yourself thinking, doing. When?

Along with death, war and the city are Nemerov's main subjects, often in the same poem (e.g., “The Frozen City”). 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. But Nemerov's poetry is often specifically religious, by vocabulary, by reference, by subject. Saints and angels abound in his poetry; references to Christ, God, St. Augustine, Aquinas, and the like are also frequent. It is clear that the Old Testament, especially, is influential (as in his later plays, Cain and Endor). A representative poem in The Image and the Law is “Lot's Wife,” in which Nemerov uses the woman as a symbol for a world in tears, trapped between lust and faith, unwilling and unable to commit itself fully to either:

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.

The satirical turn of Nemerov's mind which dominates his novels is also evident in his poetry. His wit ranges from “Rump-Trumpet, the Critic / … Who would have to rise above himself / In order to talk through his hat,” to the more subtle debunking in “History of a Literary Movement.” Nemerov has said “the serious and the funny are one”; the same dark viewpoint underlies both his “witty” and his “serious” poems, and often these elements are fused (e.g., “The Truth of the Matter”). This is as true of The Blue Swallows as of The Image and the Law. These poems, with their ironic detachment, are not “cold” poems, but their voice “is that of a man thinking,” as Nemerov has said about Wallace Stevens.

In The Image and the Law and Guide to the Ruins (1950) Nemerov is “writing the war out of his system,” as they say; he is also, more important, writing Eliot, Yeats, and Stevens out of his system:

Descending and moving closer
I saw the sad patience of
The people awaiting death
(They crossed their bony legs,
Their eyes stared, hostile and
Bright as broken glass).
But I, except in bed,
Wore hair-cloth next the skin,
And nursed more than my child
That grudge against my side.
Now, spirit & flesh assoil'd,
I lace my pride in,
Crying out odd and even
          Alas! that ever I did sin,
          It is full merry in heaven.
What, Amicus, constitutes mastery?
The perdurable fire of a style?

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. Compare for example, these two descriptions of October, the first early, the second late (1962):

a) An old desperation of the flesh.
          Mortification and revivification
          Of the spirit. There are those
          Who work outdoors, and others
          Who pull down blinds against the sun.
b) 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,
          The yellow haze of the willow and the black
          Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light
          Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall,
          The sumac's candelabrum darkly flames.

In both poems the subject is the same, October being used as a metaphor for death, but the qualities Nemerov has gained are evident: a greater subtlety of rhythm, more visual imagery, a feeling of control that communicates itself as part of the “message.”

Guide to the Ruins, however, represents a considerable advance in Nemerov's growth as a poet, leading directly toward The Salt Garden where he reaches his poetic maturity. Such poems as “The Lives of Gulls and Children,” “Elegy of Last Resort,” and “Fables of the Moscow Subway” indicate that Nemerov has found his most characteristic voice: a quiet intelligent voice brooding lyrically on the strange beauty and tragic loneliness of life:

But they knew the Atlantic kind he was,
And for this moment saw him swaying
In the grey dark above the cold sea miles,
Wingtips ticking the spray of the slow waves,
Leaning on the unhavening air the dangerous
Sustaining of his own breastbone; they knew
The indifference of time dragging him down.
And when after silence they turned away,
“No one has ever been here before,”
They cried, “no one, no one, no one.”
Their mournful word went out, no one,
Along the shore, now that they turned for home
Bearing the lonely pride of those who die,
And paced by the sweet shrieking of the quick.

Guide to the Ruins is filled with a great variety of styles: epigrams, fragments, ballads, lyrics, fables, sonnets, elegies, madrigals, even a carol. Its greatest advance over The Image and the Law is a lessening of the Audenesque flatness of the first book: a line like “Swinging over the wash and rush of the sea” is an almost onomatopoeic example of the marriage of rhythm and image which marks Nemerov's later poetry—for example, these lines from The Blue Swallows:

See now, the ships depart through the dark harbor
And past the breakwater rocks where the first
White-riding wave hits at the hull and washes on.
Rhythm of voyages, going out and coming back,
Beat of the sea, procession of times and seasons,
Command of variables, calculus of fluxions
Cuius Nomen est Oriens …

Guide to the Ruins, though much broader in scope than The Image and the Law, is still very much concerned with war. The “ruins” (also “runes”) are the ruins of civilization after World War II, and the war is not really over, as seen in such poems as “Redeployment,” “A Fable of the War,” “The Bacterial War,” and “To a Friend.” Nemerov's double vision, his sense of being trapped between art-faith and science-reality is much in evidence, as in the raging lines “And when the Germans bled the babies white / Where was the skepsis of the sculptor's art? / The question is of science not to doubt / The point of faith is that you sweat it out.” Nemerov's religion, like Dostoevski's, is not one of easy acceptance; it involves constant doubting and agony of spirit. The doubting is, paradoxically, a positive value in Nemerov's poetry: it prevents him from preaching. His religious position, to judge from his writing, is that of a nonpracticing Jew engaged in a continual dialogue with Christianity, searching for its meaning, testing its relevance in the modern world. Unlike Bernard Malamud, his former colleague at Bennington, Nemerov does not write very often specifically about “Jewishness” (though in a letter he has said, “I was frightened by the Old Testament when a child, and have never got over it”). In the Journal he notes that at Harvard he was almost converted to Catholicism on “foolish” aesthetic grounds, but he has always drawn back to affirm his essential Jewishness. Perhaps his clearest statement on this theme is in “Debate with the Rabbi”; in the first three stanzas the Rabbi chides the protagonist for losing his religion. Then the poem concludes:

Stubborn and stiff-necked man! the Rabbi cried.
          The pain you give me, said I.
Instead of bowing down, said he,
You go on in your obstinacy.
          We Jews are that way, I replied.

The union in several poems of religion and war marks a development in Nemerov's pessimism that will become more noticeable in later writings: the celebration of life despite the horror of the surroundings, perhaps because of the horror: “I stretch myself on joy as on the rack, / And bear the hunch of glory on my back.” The book as a whole is undoubtedly too much under the influence of the later Yeats, but a certain Yeatsian toughness of spirit has stayed with Nemerov as he forged his own style. His use of gulls, for example, inevitably reminds one of Yeats's swans (or Stevens' pigeons, Keats's nightingales): they symbolize the grace and rather arrogant pride of nature, the “Atlantic” beauty which holds heaven and earth together. These birds appear in many of the best of Nemerov's later poems (“The Gulls,” “The Salt Garden,” “The Town Dump”), but even this early, in individual poems like “The Lives of Gulls and Children,” he has mastered the Yeats influence and speaks in his own manner.

There is, in the lines “They would have reached out hands to him / To comfort him in that human kind / They just were learning,” a slight hint of another influence, later to become stronger: the quiet conversational tone of Robert Frost (Frost would have written “They were just learning”). Nemerov is one of the few poets to learn something from Frost, to assimilate the Frostian narrative technique, as seen in Nemerov's story poem “The Pond” (from The Salt Garden and appended to Journal of the Fictive Life).

Guide to the Ruins was sensibly criticized as lacking “a center of gravity or of force, the sense of a strong controlling sensibility.” It is in The Salt Garden (1955) that Nemerov first unifies his talent. “The Goose Fish,” “The Scales of the Eyes,” “The Sanctuary,” “The Quarry,” “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee,” “The Salt Garden,” “The Pond,” “Deep Woods” are just a few which have already become much anthologized. This book, praised by virtually all critics, had the misfortune to run up against The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, which swept the literary awards of 1955.

The Salt Garden is unified by Nemerov's growing interest in nature. The typical adjective describing 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. The title poem, for example, begins with the speaker admiring his “good house,” and the garden and lawn “In a decent order set”; he is proud that he has reclaimed the land from what was once “the ocean floor.” But the “salt wind,” the memory of “the ocean's wrinkled green”—unlike his smooth green garden—and finally “the great gull,” which contemptuously surveys the speaker's “poor province,” humble him, as he imagines the “wild sea lanes he wandered by / And the wild waters where he slept / Still as a candle in the crypt.” Written in short-lined unevenly rhymed verse, this poem encompasses the main theme of the book: man's divided nature. A clear and “easy” poem of rational man rationally musing on his estate, “The Salt Garden” has as its counterpart the long and “difficult” “The Scales of the Eyes,” which is a nighttime fantasy, a Freudian dream sequence, on the same subject. One can detect in “Scales” the influence of Theodore Roethke's poetry (e.g., the surreal “The Shape of the Fire”), which, as Nemerov himself has noted, is also partly “a result of the Freudian discoveries”—as are many of Nemerov's analyses in Journal of the Fictive Life. This series of eighteen short “dream songs” (like Berryman's later ones) traces a man's inward journey from despair (winter) to hope (spring). It presents a stream-of-consciousness nightmare vision of New York as graveyard (“Dead men in their stone towns”) and offers a general vision of modern civilization as inferno (“From Coney Island to Phlegethon / Is no great way by ferris wheel”).

“The Scales of the Eyes” (a title with Joycean possibilities) not only holds together as a sequence, but many of the individual sections are effective lyrics by themselves, eerie scenes of some dreamland out of an Arthur Davies painting:

The low sky was mute and white
And the sun a white hole in the sky
That morning when it came on to snow;
The hushed flakes fell all day.
The hills were hidden in a white air
And every bearing went away,
Landmarks being but white and white
For anyone going anywhere.
All lines were lost, a noon bell
I heard sunk in a sullen pool
Miles off. And yet this patient snow,
When later I walked out in it,
Had lodged itself in tips of grass
And made its mantle bridging so
It lay upon the air and not the earth
So light it hardly bent a blade.

The poem which strikes one most strongly at first is “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee,” a tour de force describing the underlying agony of a superficially prosperous nineteenth-century woman. Nemerov takes the reader by degrees from a description of the lady to the “black flukes of agony.” First he compares the mirror, “the long inaccurate glass,” to “troubled water,” and the “immense” shadow to a “giant crab.” Having established the sea and giant motif, Nemerov goes on to describe her “strict” corsets and the “huge arrangements of her hair” as “no rig for dallying,” and finishes with a simile comparing the lady to “a great ship,” not unlike Milton's description of Dalilah in Samson Agonistes. Then Nemerov pushes the metaphor to the furthest step, and his packed conclusion refers back to the corsets, the sea, the mirror, and the light referred to earlier:

                                                                                I know
We need not draw this figure out.
But all that whalebone came from whales.
And all the whales lived in the sea,
In calm beneath the troubled glass,
Until the needle drew their blood.
I see her standing in the hall,
Where the mirror's lashed to blood and foam,
And the black flukes of agony
Beat at the air till the light blows out.

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; also, Nemerov has clearly been influenced by Owen Barfield's ideas on perception in Barfield's Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (for the second edition of which Nemerov wrote an Introduction). In the Journal Nemerov states: “I hate intelligence, and have nothing else.” 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. One of the central poems on this subject in The Salt Garden is “The Sanctuary,” written in a blank verse whose meditative rhythms and intelligent voice mark it as Nemerov's own:

Over a ground of slate and light gravel,
Clear water, so shallow that one can see
The numerous springs moving their mouths of sand;
And the dark trout are clearly to be seen,
Swimming this water which is color of air
So that the fish appear suspended nowhere and
In nothing. With a delicate bend and reflex
Of their tails the trout slowly glide
From the shadowy side into the light, so clear,
And back again into the shadows; slow
And so definite, like thoughts emerging
Into a clear place in the mind, then going back,
Exchanging shape for shade. Now and again
One fish slides into the center of the pool
And hangs between the surface and the slate
For several minutes without moving, like
A silence in a dream; and when I stand
At such a time, observing this, my life
Seems to have been suddenly moved a great
Distance away on every side, as though
The quietest thought of all stood in the pale
Watery light alone, and was no more
My own than the speckled trout I stare upon
All but unseeing. Even at such times
The mind goes on transposing and revising
The elements of its long allegory
In which the anagoge is always death;
And while this vision blurs with empty tears,
I visit, in the cold pool of the skull,
A sanctuary where the slender trout
Feed on my drowned eyes. … Until this trout
Pokes through the fabric of the surface to
Snap up a fly. As if a man's own eyes
Raised welts upon the mirror whence they stared,
I find this world again in focus, and
This fish, a shadow dammed in artifice,
Swims to the furthest shadows out of sight
Though not, in time's ruining stream, out of mind.

The anagoge is always death: but it is not war-death that Nemerov now addresses, but death as part of nature, “time's ruining stream.” Meditations all lead to the reality of death, the unreality of life, culminating in several poems in The Blue Swallows, like “In the Black Museum” which ends: “Or as two mirrors vacuum-locked together / Exclude, along with all the world, / A light to see it by. Reflect on that.”

The concluding poem of The Salt Garden is “Deep Woods,” in which Nemerov expresses his feeling about the hugeness and permanence of nature as against small impermanent man. Walking through these deep New England woods is like a “dream of being lost”—a dream Nemerov frequently has. Like Frost, Nemerov is a realist, and does not romanticize nature (which does not, after all, need it):

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 …

Insisting on the reality, Nemerov goes through the list of enchanted forests, the “Black Forest where the wizard lived,” the Chinese forest “with bridge, pagoda, fog,” the forests “invented by Watteau or Fragonard,” and, in modern times, by Disney. But the real “deep woods” is so primitive, so virginal, so untouched by man that it is like the Garden of Eden before the Fall:

                                                            Most probably
Nothing will happen. Even the Fall of Man
Is waiting, here, for someone to grow apples;
And the snake, speckled as sunlight on the rock
In the deep woods, still sleeps with a whole head
And has not begun to grow a manly smile.

Mirrors & Windows (1958) 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. A great many of these poems (e.g., “Holding the Mirror Up to Nature,” “Painting a Mountain Stream,” “Writing,” “To Lu Chi”) are about Nemerov writing poetry, a subject continued in later books: “Maestria” in New & Selected Poems; “Vermeer” and “Lion & Honeycomb” in The Next Room of the Dream; “The May Day Dancing,” “Projection,” and “Style” in The Blue Swallows. 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: “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.” The claims made for art—as for everything else—are minimal; he never claims for poetry powers not to be found in it. On the contrary, he is typically deprecating about his “modest art” which makes him—like Keats's poet—“appear a trifle colorless.” Nemerov's honesty leads him to admit that even art is not permanent:

Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing. 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.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

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.

“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 too honest to see things other than as they really are. In “A Day at the Big Branch” a group of, one would guess, college teachers have had an all-night poker party and, “still half drunk,” they drive “to a stream in the high hills” with a vaguely formed “purgatorial idea,” “the old standard appeal to the wilderness.” And the wilderness is beautiful, “a paradise / for ruined poker players, win or lose,” and they lie back on the rocks waiting for something to happen. “The silence … / grew pregnant; but nothing else did.” Nemerov's rocks are “hard as rocks.” Nevertheless, something is learned, something “concerning patience / and enduring what had to be endured … / weathering in whatever weather.” The men talk of the war and of life, and the majestic beauty of nature forces them into “poetry and truth,” which may be the same thing:

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.”

Then the men climb downstream again, noting how the stream (“time's ruining stream”) during a recent flood had smashed three bridges “practically back to nature,” drive home, and resume their card game. Written in Nemerov's flexible and disciplined blank verse, “A Day on the Big Branch” is a mature achievement: one senses that Nemerov's irony (rocks as “hard as rocks”) has been subdued to greater uses than in his earlier poetry.

The poems in this book are life-reflecting mirrors, and windows through which we see with the poet's “infinitely penetrant” eye. Consequently, the poems are extremely visual, and especially concerned with the movement of light: “… within the ledges / the water, fast and still, pouring its yellow light, / and green … falling in a foam / of crystal to a calm where the waterlight / dappled the ledges as they leaned / against the sun.” The last poem of the book, “Holding the Mirror Up to Nature,” is typical, and sums up Nemerov's dark view of the universe. His use of mirrors reminds one of Hart Crane's lines which Nemerov used as an epigraph to 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 in life, not to make life prettier, not to make it easier for us, not even to help us understand it. Poetry can, if it is truthful, show us some aspect of real life by stopping it in a frame (the poet's discipline) and one can simply say, “How beautiful. How terrible.” “Holding the Mirror” concludes:

                                                                                I know
a truth that cannot be told, although
I try to tell you, “We are alone,
we know nothing, nothing, we shall die
frightened in our freedom, the one
who survives will change his name
to evade the vengeance for love. …”
Meanwhile the clouds go on clowning
over our heads in the floodlight of
a moon who is known to be Artemis
and Cynthia but sails away anyhow
beyond the serious poets with their
crazy ladies and cloudy histories,
their heroes in whose idiot dreams
the buzzard circles like a clock.

Mirrors & Windows is the work of a confident poet. M. L. Rosenthal, in his review, said that in “a good poet a fine mind is one of God's greatest blessings.” Sense and sensibility are abundant in this book, and it should have made clear to the critics that Nemerov is not the “cold” writer he has often been accused of being. (His writing is more endangered by sentiment than cerebration.) Perhaps under the not-very-softening influence of nature, his feelings—always present—are more in evidence in these poems permeated by a humanitarian and stoic outlook.

New & Selected Poems (1960) contains fifty-eight poems, only fifteen of them new. Actually, the best part of this book is Section II, which includes thirty-five poems from The Salt Garden and Mirrors & Windows, a sustained performance hard to match anywhere. The new note in New & Selected Poems, suitable for the maturing poet, is an even more overriding concern with his “deare times waste.” Time and the loss of innocence, of friends, of hope, are the themes of the new poems: “I cried because life is hopeless and beautiful,” he writes, and the beauty teaches him to “endure and grow.” Nemerov's pessimism, dark as ever, is nevertheless not an empty nihilism: he affirms “the stillness in moving things” while attacking the emptiness of modern life.

The central poem here is “Runes,” Nemerov's longest poem, symmetrically consisting of fifteen fifteen-line stanzas. Like “The Scales of the Eyes,” “Runes” is a sort of dream fantasy, but it is more tightly organized, the fifteen stanzas being meditations clustered around the images of water and seed, “where time to come has tensed / Itself.” (In Engle and Langland's Poet's Choice, 1962, Nemerov chooses “Runes” as his favorite among his own poems.) The run-on blank verse lines consistently match rhythm and content: a “liquid sense trembles in his lines.”

The basic theme of “Runes” (ruins) is mutability, and the dominant tone is religious, sometimes pantheistically Wordsworthian or transcendentally Emersonian. By watching water, “Water of dirt, water of death, dark water,” the poet tries to find the secret of the universe, of life. Water is a “many-veined bloodstream,” an “echoing pulse,” “a mirror of / The taste of human blood.” Sometimes lyrically, sometimes satirically, Nemerov turns his theme over and over in the many-prismed glass of his verse. Typical of his impeccable style is stanza xii:

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 bitter salt which spices us the food / We sweat for”) underline the stanza's conclusion.

Satirically, still working with water, Nemerov speaks of our “dehydrated time”; one perhaps thinks of Eliot's Waste Land, but this is clearly Nemerov, not Eliot; he has by this time mastered his influences. Some of his satire is tough indeed: “The plastic and cosmetic arts / Unbreakably record the last word and / The least word, till sometimes even the Muse, / In her transparent raincoat, resembles a condom.” How to act in this kind of world, which sailor—the Homeric or the Dantean Ulysses—to emulate? Watching the water, symbol of eternal regeneration, Nemerov prepares us for death, “the pit where zero's eye is closed”; the secret, found in “small freshets / Leaping and limping down the tilted field / In April's light,” is—to keep the secret “hidden from yourself.” Working, like the metaphysical poets, with paradox, Nemerov implies that to prepare for life one should study nature, at the same time keeping the secret (nature is death) hidden from oneself.

Perhaps because of certain satirical poems (e.g., “Life Cycle of Common Man,” “Boom!”), some critics wondered that Nemerov could be, as one put it, “strangely light-hearted about the whole enterprise” (the harshness of life); surely this is a mistaken reading of Nemerov. There is sometimes the tough gaiety of Yeats and sometimes the serene acceptance of Wordsworth, but Nemerov is never really lighthearted. The typical tone is one of quiet anguish (often based on personal experience, such as his father's death):

                                        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.

Nothing can stand it, nothing will yield: there is no lightheartedness here.

“Mrs. Mandrill” (another Joycean title) is Nemerov's equivalent of Wallace Stevens' “Sunday Morning,” where the dying Mrs. Mandrill muses on God, death, and nature (of which she is about to become a part). Some of the lines are memorable for their surreal power: “I was a little thing, before my face / broke like a cheese”; “hearing this creature cry / before her wet heart spills and goes to seed.” Nature is really “unintelligible” to man, though we can learn from it by analogy (in “The Companions” in The Blue Swallows he says, “That's but interpretation, the deep folly of man / To think that things can squeak at him more than things can”). But when we die we become a part of nature, and the natural process—“they mean me now,” thinks Mrs. Mandrill. One thinks of Thomas Wolfe's “And the strange and buried man will come again, in flower and leaf the strange and buried man will come again …”

One last poem in New & Selected Poems that should be mentioned is “Maestria,” because it leads directly to Nemerov's two best poems on “poetics”—“Vermeer” and “Lion & Honeycomb” in The Next Room of the Dream. In “Maestria” Nemerov points out that it is not the meaning of a poem that is important: “you need not agree with its views / About money or the meaning of numbers” (e.g., Pound, Dante). It would no doubt “be better to be always right,” but a good poem outstrips the errors and “mortality of its maker, / Who has the skill of his art, and a trembling hand”:

          There remains
A singular lucidity and sweetness, a way
Of relating the light and the shade,
The light spilling from fountains, the shade
Shaken among the leaves.

In his Introduction to Barfield's Poetic Diction, Nemerov writes: “But when the poet is older, if he has continued to write, it is at least probable that he will reach a point, either a stopping point or a turning point, at which he finds it necessary to inquire into the sense of what he has been doing, and now the question of poetic diction becomes for him supremely important, nothing less than the question of primary perception, of imagination itself, of how thought ever emerged (if it did) out of a world of things. There is some evidence that poets reaching this point—I think for example of Yeats, Valéry, Stevens—may feel acutely their want of formal philosophical training, so that they either abandon poetry and turn to study for a time, or else direct their poetry itself toward this study.”

There is some evidence that Nemerov himself has reached this point in The Next Room of the Dream (1962): “The time came / He had to ask himself, what did he want? / What did he want when he began / That idiot fiddling with the sound of things.” The subject matter of this book indicates his decision to stay close to “great primary human drama.” Besides the two one-act verse plays, Cain (1959) and Endor (1961)—more successful as verse than as drama—poem after poem shows Nemerov's humanitarianism, notably “The Iron Characters,” where he pities (more precisely: Nemerov presents; we pity) important men, governors, executives, who have broken under their responsibilities; but he concludes, pushing sympathy to its furthest limit, “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.” It is, Nemerov implies, common helplessness that unites us.

In Next Room of the Dream the poems continue to simplify, emphasizing natural description and precise observation. In “Human Things,” describing the effects of a sunset on a barn: “even / Nail holes look deep enough to swallow / Whatever light has left to give.” Describing goldfish, he writes “The bearded goldfish move about the bowl / Waving disheveled rags of elegant fin / Languidly in the light.”

The poem which best summarizes the general philosophy of the book is one called “Nothing Will Yield.” Art smashes on the rocks of reality:

Nothing will yield. The pretty poems are dead,
And the mad poets in their periwigs,
Bemused upon a frontispiece before
The ruined Temple of Art, and supervised
By the Goddess of Reason leaning from a cloud,
In reality died insane. Alas, for the grave
And gaudy forms! Lord Hi and Lady Ho,
Those brazen effigies upon a plinth
Of pink granite, seem immutable,
But seem.

And yet there is still beauty, though beauty is always sad: “Lachrymae Christi is / A beautiful sound, a Neapolitan wine, / The Tears of Christ. And yet nothing will yield.” In spite of this, poets will always speak their “holy language,” in the teeth of despair. Nemerov concludes: “It takes great courage to go on the stage.”

Seemingly effortlessly, Nemerov writes in blank verse, quatrains, triplets, sonnets, and a great variety of complex rhyme schemes; one senses immediately a poet with complete control of the tools of his trade, a poet for whom discipline means inspiration rather than restriction. Consistently simple, clear, direct, he time and again cuts open our experience to the anguished bone. In “Somewhere,” Nemerov speaks of all the tragic events happening exactly now: “A girl this evening regrets her surrender with tears,” errant schoolboys, vicious fathers, gluttons waiting to vomit, unfaithful wives:

The stones of the city have been here for centuries,
The tides have been washing backwards and forwards
In sunlight, in starlight, since before the beginning.
Down in the swamp a red fox runs quietly, quietly
Under the owl's observation, those yellow eyes
That eat through the darkness. Hear the shrew cry!

The rocking rhythm of “In sunlight, in starlight,” the repetition of “quietly, quietly,” are precise meaningful technical devices, and the poem ends with the nice irony of people listening to stories somewhere, stories of lust and violence, enraptured by “the sweet seductions / Punishable by death, with the song's word: long ago.”

“Vermeer” expresses Nemerov's view on the relation between nature and poetry: “Taking what is, and seeing it as it is, / Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures, / Keeping it simple; being in love with light / And the marvelous things that light is able to do, / How beautiful!” The job of the poet is to present these things to the audience “and make it stick.” Like Wilbur's “Juggler” (“who has won for once over the world's weight”), Nemerov's artist can make people “for one moment happy / In the great reckoning of those little rooms / Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light.” But the capstone of The Next Room of the Dream is “Lion & Honeycomb,” the closest thing to Nemerov's ars poetica, which begins “He didn't want to do it with skill, / He'd had enough of skill,” and concludes:

So there he was, this forty-year-old teen-ager
Dreaming preposterous mergers and divisions
Of vowels like water, consonants like rock
(While everybody kept discussing values
And the need for values), for words that would
Enter the silence and be there as a light.
So much coffee and so many cigarettes
Gone down the drain, gone up in smoke,
Just for the sake of getting something right
Once in a while, something that could stand
On its own flat feet to keep out windy time
And the worm, something that might simply be,
Not as the monument in the smoky rain
Grimly endures, but that would be
Only a moment's inviolable presence,
The moment before disaster, before the storm,
In its peculiar silence, an integer
Fixed in the middle of the fall of things,
Perfected and casual as to a child's eye
Soap bubbles are, and skipping stones.

“Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Nemerov in this poem presents Samson's riddle as a parable of poetry. Poetry is the honey in the carcass of a lion; the poet manufactures this honey from the decaying grandeur surrounding him. In “Lion & Honeycomb” Nemerov both defines and exemplifies what he is trying to do. The rhythms of the poem are “Perfected and casual”: note, for example, the placement of “Grimly,” the balance of “So … so / Gone … gone.” Unpretentious and simple, like “Soap bubbles” and “skipping stones,” this poem shows Nemerov to be at a peak in his poetic powers.

But while The Next Room of the Dream seems to record a crisis and resolution in Nemerov's poetry, his next book, Journal of the Fictive Life (1965), records an unresolved crisis in Nemerov's fiction: an inability to complete another novel. This might be a good place to look back at Nemerov's novels, and see their relation to his poetry. Nemerov's fiction is in some danger of slipping undeservedly into oblivion: his novels and short stories are out of print, despite a generally good critical reception on their first appearance. 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. Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry makes our completely inexplicable lives acceptable; humor has this function in Nemerov's novels. It involves looking at life honestly and not giving in to the modish despair Nemerov satirizes in his poem “To the Bleeding Hearts Association of American Novelists.” For example, the death of Susan Boyne in The Melodramatists is tragic and unexpected, and yet ludicrous; it has a lot in common with the death of Jerry in Albee's Zoo Story. Both are semi-suicides which take the action out of the realm of dialectic: death, at least, is real. Unsentimental, without illusions, Nemerov's comic viewpoint presents man as hopelessly inept and at the same time unquenchably enduring.

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. The Melodramatists (1949) is a wild first novel. Stylistically it is an odd but appealing mixture: a Trollope bitten by a Heller, perhaps, or vice versa, combining a slow, old-fashioned elegance of prose with comic, almost surrealistic events. It switches from Socratic dialogue to drunken orgy, from dialectic to destruction, without missing a beat. The action takes place among an old Boston “Brahmin” family, and the tone is consistently satirical. Though compared by reviewers to Waugh and Huxley, Nemerov seems stylistically closer to more leisurely writers, Trollope, as mentioned above, or Henry James, in his elegance of phrasing and (like his poetry) precision of observation:

When her mother wept, as she did now, all the jewels on her fingers and at her throat winked in sparkling connivance as at a joke which, they seemed to say, you too might appreciate, were you as detached as a stone—cold as this sapphire, hard and cutting as this diamond. Mrs. Boyne's tears fell heedlessly where they might, into her coffee, over the bright little spoons and dessert knives, stained the damask cloth. …

A perhaps more profitable comparison can be made with a novelist greatly admired by Nemerov: Thomas Mann (Nemerov has two essays on Mann in Poetry and Fiction: Essays). If there is any real similarity between The Melodramatists and another novel, it would be with Mann's Magic Mountain. Just as Herren Settembrini and Naphta tirelessly engage in a religious, philosophical, and scientific debate for the soul of Hans Castorp, so in The Melodramatists Dr. Einman and Father Meretruce debate for the souls of Susan and Claire, debates which are never resolved, but culminate in disaster.

The action in The Melodramatists proceeds from sanity to madness, in several ways. The thin line between madness and sanity is one of Nemerov's chief themes—it shows up in Federigo, The Homecoming Game, and in several of his short stories (“A Secret Society,” “The Web of Life”), as well as in poems like “The Iron Characters” and “The Rope's End.” The plot here, as in most of his fiction, is a bizarre and often grotesque vehicle for his satire. The two main targets are psychiatry, in the person of Dr. Einman, and religion, in the persons of Father Meretruce and the Hungarian nuns. The religion Meretruce represents is a false one, and, indeed, religion as a panacea for society's ills turns out very badly in this book. The only real religious experience in it is incurred by Claire and described as a spiritual rape; and even prayer is described repulsively:

The Hungarian nuns were praying at an almost breathless speed. They were knelt down near to and facing a wall to which they addressed a continuous muttering. They rocked slightly back and forth, and swayed a little from side to side; the flow of their words was interrupted only occasionally for a brief instant in which one of them would gulp back from the corners of her mouth an excess of saliva, or swiftly wipe her lips at the wrist of her garment.

It is no wonder Claire eventually loses her faith.

The major theme in The Melodramatists is the inability of these characters to cope with reality. The only character who is not a romanticist is Mother Fosker, and this grotesque old madam caters to the romanticism of society in general by basing her “entertainments” on illusion—the illusion of love, of pursuit, of youth, of gaiety. And time after time Nemerov digresses in his learned and amusing way on the nature of romanticism:

It is easy to imagine the other worlds that might be. One, for example, of a delicious lubricity, indiscriminate and always pleasant copulation à la Thélème, and every nymphomaniac there remains sixteen for always and always but is an intelligent conversationalist, charmed by poetry and good music, who can repeat to you word for word the entire Book of the Courtier. There on Urbino's windy hill, where blows Castiglione's wise and sexual beard, the sun varies in color from a bloody incandescence in the morning to a dusk of lavender, heliotrope, pale rose, and a few ruins by Piranesi delicately accent the small cumulus clouds artistically piled at one corner of a sky which is not too large.

There are weaknesses in the book. It is longer than it need be—the part played by Roger, though often amusing, seems unnecessary. Some of the discussions seem too long; some scenes are a little like a bad play; some of the humor strains too hard to be clever (“we know where our breed is bettered”). But in general The Melodramatists is a highly successful first novel, a book by an erudite and witty young man who presents his criticism of society without writing the usual disguised autobiography. The Boyne mansion stands at the end of the book as an apt symbol of society: science and religion (Einman and Meretruce) are prisoners upstairs, while lust and lechery reign below. But, as in the final stanza of many of his poems, in the final passage of the book all is not hopeless. In a “minimal affirmation,” Claire reacts to this debacle not by breaking down, but by turning to music:

Claire got up, and, without looking at Hogan or John or the priest, went to the harpsichord. She sat down and began to play, inattentively at first but presently with more care, a little piece in fugue. The instrument was out of tune and not only that, but broken glass tinkled on some of the strings, but it seemed not to matter. The morning light seemed to clear the room as the voices in a minor key steadily moved to and from one another, showing an inexorable confidence in their not quite harmonious world.

The house (the world) is a catastrophe, but it endures, and begins again.

Nemerov's second novel, Federigo, or, The Power of Love (1954) is, among other things, a sex farce, a sort of rococo updating of a story from, perhaps, Boccaccio's Decameron. While Nemerov is not coy, and will use on occasion the suitable four-letter words, his handling of sexual scenes is basically psychological, not detailed or graphic. Concentrating on style, on good writing, rather than on titillation or easy shock, Nemerov bypasses contemporary vogues to write a novel that is consistently in good taste (in this way, and others, often reminding one of Vladimir Nabokov). Federigo is Nemerov's best novel, a tour de force whose intricate plot unravels with the inevitable logic of Chaucer's “Miller's Tale”; crammed with wit and wisdom, it begins with a lovely sentence:

Young men in our country are brought up to believe that they have a destiny, a guiding idea shaped like a star; most of them pass their lives in unawareness that this destiny is gradually becoming the sum of everything that has happened to them, and need not have been represented by a star in the first place, being perhaps more like the false beacon set up by smugglers to direct a vessel toward a convenient disaster. Disaster, dés, from, astre, a star.

The plot, really an elaborate joke, is the line on which Nemerov hangs his criticism of society and his psychological insights into existential man. But he compounds the “unreality” of this novel by introducing an element of high fantasy, an element very prominent in his short stories (e.g., “Yore,” “The Sorcerer's Eye”). Fantasy in Federigo centers around the character of Federigo himself. Actually, there are three Federigos: the invented Federigo (the one used by Julian and Marius in their letters); the real Federigo (Federigo Schwartz, a shadowy figure who looks like Julian and whom Elaine has met); and the apparition Federigo, who appears throughout the book to Julian, walking through walls, recalling scenes of Julian's childhood, predicting the future, disappearing and appearing at will. This Federigo, literarily speaking, has much in common with the devils which appear in Mann's Doctor Faustus and Dostoevski's The Brothers Karamazov: he is a taunting intellectual sort of fellow, and Julian is never quite clear whether he actually sees him or just imagines him. One reason Federigo is successful is that it seems to mirror the “opposed elements” already noted in Nemerov's poetry.

Federigo is used by Nemerov to develop Julian's character, and consequently we understand more about Julian than we did about any of the characters in The Melodramatists. Federigo is indeed the devil, but he is also Julian's second self—the devil in every man which is usually suppressed. Through Federigo we know the worst of Julian Ghent: a hint of homosexuality, a yearning for the death of his wife, an emptiness of spirit. “To make me leave you alone,” says Federigo, “you must be other than you are.” When Julian, at the end, discovers he is not cut out to be unfaithful, Federigo disappears.

The problem Federigo causes Julian is the problem of sanity. If Federigo “is the Devil,” Julian thinks, then “I am insane.” But Nemerov's point is that it is not Julian who is insane, but life in general:

But Julian considered that all these fine ladies and gentlemen gathered here, listening to the fine talk, kept in their hearts the secret of lust, that their inmost thoughts were concentrated on sex, that madness thinly veiled possessed them all, the madness which all the forces of society seemed designed at once to provoke and restrain but never to allay.

Julian (Jay) Ghent is—like Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby—a romanticist who bangs hard against reality, though, this being a comedy, he survives. The power of love (the ironic subtitle) is really not very powerful in a world where people are not sure whom they love, or in what way. Julian tries to become a great lover, and fails except by mistake with his wife. The animals in the zoo seem to Julian to be neater and more dignified than humans; and toward the end of the book when Marius and Elaine walk along the shore the huge head of a dead fish grins up at them (the same fish as in Nemerov's most anthologized poem, “The Goose Fish”). Human love, Nemerov realizes, has “pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement”; more than that, there are no lights in this mansion and one needs luck to stumble into someone's arms.

Federigo is as smoothly written as The Melodramatists, but sharper, more epigrammatic: “The future is in the lap of the gods, and they are standing up to see what is going to happen.” It is not only the epigrams, however, which strike the reader of Nemerov's prose. His sentences have a fine balance, an almost Baconian resonance, marked by impeccable grammar and a rising and falling rhythm: “Julian and Sylvia Ghent are still together, without being altogether certain why; though it is true that there was born to them a child, whose creation could have been dated to that night. This child was a boy, whom they named Peter.” This balance is often achieved by rhythmically matched clauses and phrases, frequently joined by the semicolon: “They had, she believed, a modern marriage; this was, however, the expression people typically used …” The colon, too, is frequently used by Nemerov to set up parallel lists and descriptions:

The furniture too rebuked them, entering into the spirit of the silence: the clean-lined, slender legs of the low, modern tables, the alert appearance of the couch with its square corners and straight back, the inquisitive curve of a lamp which bent its bell-head heavily from a corner; all these smart impersonal objects, as coldly reasonable here as they had been in the shops whence they came, all at once achieved the identity of unhappiness: if we thought you would be like this, they seemed to say, we would not have come here.

To sum up (as Nemerov typically says in his critical reviews), Federigo can be best explained in the words of Marius when Sylvia tells him about the letters. “How very funny,” he says. “Yet how very serious, too.” Of course, the same could be said about The Blue Swallows or The Next Room of the Dream.

The Homecoming Game (1957), a humorous takeoff on a sort of Rover Boy plot, is his last and least ambitious novel, its enthusiastic reception at least partly caused by Nemerov's growing reputation. Ironically, this book made Nemerov the most money, being turned into a vapid Broadway comedy by Lindsay and Crouse, and a ridiculous Hollywood movie starring Jane Fonda. “All one winter and spring,” writes Nemerov in Journal of the Fictive Life, “my shoulder ached from carting those checks to the bank.” This “capriciousness in the relation between work and pay” is one of the reasons he has not written another novel: “how easy it would be to become a writer who worked for the money.”

The Homecoming Game is set at a small old eastern coeducational college (physically reminding one of Hamilton); Charles Osman, the protagonist, is a history teacher who has just flunked the star quarterback. Nemerov turns this cliché into a tremendously complicated situation, a moral and philosophical tangle almost impossible to unravel. The second half of The Homecoming Game redeems what begins as a weak performance. Even Nemerov's style falters a bit in the beginning, occasionally approaching uncomfortably close to the old “Tom Swifties,” as on pages 30-31:

Charles laughed rather hopelessly. …
“Yes,” she said earnestly. …
“You speak delightfully of ‘us,’” Charles said glumly. …
“Where in all this is Blent?” Charles asked angrily. …

Also, the improbability of the given situation, before Nemerov ingeniously works it out, tends to keep the reader uninvolved. One can accept a student athlete being offered a bribe—that happens all the time—and one can gleefully accept wild events such as the student falling into the pep-rally bonfire and getting burned to death: a macabre symbol of a pagan ritual; but it is harder to accept the student council threatening the professor, the quarterback and the professor being in love with the beautiful daughter of trustee Herman Sayre, the quarterback being from the home town of Senator Stamp, Stamp and Sayre both being such primitive types, the president being such a servile and contemptible coward: these touches in toto do not succeed the way Federigo succeeds.

Nemerov uses football as a multivalent symbol of society, life, and death. Charles, like Nemerov, has a metaphysical turn of mind (also like Julian Ghent in Federigo, who compares at great length his bathroom to a church); football, to Charles, is like society because it consists of “orderly violence,” reminding him of all the products of civilization, from war to cities to symphonies. It is like death because it ends so abruptly; it seems so real, and then is gone. It is like life because of its ebb and flow, and because it is, somehow, deceptive:

Football is unreal, if you care to say so; but as you grow older many things become unreal, and football stands out somehow as an image. And there under the shadow of the stone, empty stadium, after the captains and the kings depart, after all the others too depart, in that last lonely and cold air, you may, if you care for games, experience something of what is meant by vanished glory. Symbolical—perhaps. But it is commonly allowed that you may more easily call the things of this world symbolical than say what they are symbolical of.

In no other book has football, that national phenomenon, been so subtly analyzed as in The Homecoming Game. Despite a lack of memorable characters, the madness that grips the students (which, Nemerov points out, has disturbing similarities to the madness of Nazi Germany), the ridiculous but real tension on the campus, the pressures on faculty members who have star athletes in their classes, the power plays of alumni and trustees, and even the beauty of the actual game itself (and even when the beautiful game is beautifully fixed), are all unforgettably presented in this novel.

Nemerov's three novels, plus his book of short stories (A Commodity of Dreams, 1959), are remarkable in their consistency of superior writing. Too intellectual, perhaps, for real popularity, they nevertheless should not be out of print. One charge that has been made against all four books (similar to one made against his poetry) is that Nemerov treats his characters coldly. The real problem is that readers do not know how to take Nemerov: Is he being funny, or what? Is he kidding us?

The point is that Nemerov, like the “Absurd” playwrights, is humorous and serious at the same time. One should not confuse seriousness with solemnity; Nemerov is never solemn but is always, even at his funniest, serious. When Julian and Sylvia sit up in bed and recognize each other, this is funny; but it also underlines Nemerov's thesis: we think we know what we are doing, but we do not; we think we are in control of the situation, but we are not. “Reality,” observes Mr. le Mesurier in “Yore,” “is always improbable,” and man's understanding of reality is always incomplete and distorted. Because Nemerov's major prose mode is satire and comedy (while his major poetic mode is lyric), this “coldness” is necessary; if a figure is to be comic, he must be fallible and weak (Falstaff, Pangloss, Don Quixote. Humbert Humbert). Because Nemerov looks on fate as inexorable, enigmatic, and accidental, and sees man as a victim of this fate, his writing must be either tragic or comic; it cannot be heroic or sentimental. Basically speaking, Nemerov's prose is comic; Nemerov's poetry is tragic: both come from the same fatalistic philosophy, representing the two ways that the “opposed elements” of his character show their responsibility to the human drama.

In Journal of the Fictive Life Nemerov attempts to fuse these elements by plunging into confession and self-analysis written in a cross between poetry and prose. Proceeding by epigram (“The novel is marriage. Poetry is infidelity”) and association, Nemerov analyzes his inability to write a fourth novel by analyzing his dreams, his relationship with his parents and wife, his taboos and prejudices, in a Dostoevskian manner:

As though to say: Yes, I am a loathsome fellow, but beautifully composed!

And all through these so intimate, so personal, observations runs the thought that I shall one day publish them, in a gesture of confessional defiance or proud self-contempt. For I am trying to tell the truth, and it is a trouble to me.

Anyone interested in the link between the subconscious mind and creativity will find riches in this book. There is much also that helps one understand particular poems, parts of the novels, and various influences such as Nabokov and Empson. The most surprising aspect of the book, however, is its sexual frankness, an area in which Nemerov has previously been reticent.

Journal of the Fictive Life is the record of a disturbed man who turns the rather awesome battery of his intelligence inward on his own mind, seeking the source of his disturbance. But the source is, simply, his humanness; here also is the source of reconciliation, as the Journal ends with the birth of Nemerov's son and a hopeful pointing toward the “magical poetry” of Shakespeare's Last Plays.

Nemerov's latest work, The Blue Swallows, is a worthy successor. 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.

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.” 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 to darkness, planted rows dwindling to wilderness, fields becoming shadows. 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.”:

Each morning when I break my buttered toast
Across the columns of the Morning Post,
I am astounded by the ways in which
Mankind has managed once again to bitch
Things up to a degree that yesterday
Had looked impossible. Not far away
From dreams of mine, I read this dream of theirs,
And think: It's true, we are the bankrupt heirs
Of all the ages, history is the bunk.
If you do not believe in all this junk,
If you're not glad things are not as they are,
          You can wipe your arse on the Evening Star.

Nature, still treated unromantically, permeates these poems; in “The Companions,” which is a sort of modern “Immortality Ode,” Nemerov describes the pull toward nature that, for example, Frost writes about in “Directive.” Nemerov refuses to see “messages” there, and yet “there came those voices up out of the ground / And got into my head, until articulate sound / Might speak them to themselves.” A fascination with light, “Firelight in sunlight, silver pale,” still plays over his pages, and indeed each of these poems can be thought of as a “small flame” like that which concludes 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 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:

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 still 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 this ball
Upon my hand.

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 this to, say, Pope, who is also out of favor (nevertheless the eighteenth century is called the Age of Pope). And underneath the darkness, fragmented and dying, Nemerov continually 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.

Julia Randall (essay date June 1969)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4225

SOURCE: Randall, Julia. “Genius of the Shore: The Poetry of Howard Nemerov.” Hollins Critic 6, no. 3 (June 1969): 1-12.

[In the following essay, Randall analyzes the ways in which Nemerov's “double vision” enables him to objectify the invisible world through the observable world.]

Once, writes Nemerov, villainous William of Occam exploded the dream that we could confidently assign the authorship of the Great Writing. And yet science, social science, and philosophy go on confidently assigning. “Nature,” they cry; “Man,” they cry; “God,” they cry—physics in one tongue, theology in another. What Occam in fact pointed out was that what a thing is in itself in no way depends on how we think of it. But it is by thought embodied in language, and by language embodied in institution, that we construct the civilization in which we live, the human world which so often appears to be simply the Self writ large. The poet's job, strangely enough, is to ‘unwrite’ by going back to the beginning; to make such speech as we have faithful to ‘things as they are’ rather than to our arrangements of them; to make language live by confronting things with the ‘innocent’ mind of an Adam, by naming them to themselves afresh through the powers of that mind which is somehow continuous with them. Nemerov is not alone in observing how many of our languages are dead. Since the medieval synthesis

It's taken that long for the mind
To waken, yawn, and stretch, to see
With opened eyes, emptied of speech
The real world where the spelling mind
Imposes with its grammar book
Unreal relations on the blue

Nemerov, then, 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.


Nemerov's experience of the Great Society is the common one, and his cry the same cry that has been ringing in our ears since at least Dover Beach. His poems begin in the personal pain of the 1940 war, and move through the shock of specifically modern history to the consideration of human history generally, backward to the Fall and forward again through its repetitions. “Succession” pictures history as a furnished room whose former tenant, a priest, has departed nobody knows where. The apartment does not record his stay. The present occupant has

                              no further wish to follow him
Where he has gone, for now the room awaits
The thud of your belongings and your name—
How easily it will encompass them!
Behind the door the sycophantic glass
Already will reflect you in a frame
That memorizes nothing but its place.

Indifference and rigidity characterize the room; complacency or confusion, the roomers. Any red-blooded American boy can buy a passport to the war, a subway ticket to suburbia, even an access to the Academy of Fine Ideas. He can make like Ike, Santa Claus, Don Juan, Professor Publish, or any number of free-trial examples (and if not satisfied in 20 years, double your hypocrisy back). The monuments of his aching intellect resemble the stark angularities of Steinberg, and the poet can only serve as wry guide to such ruins, which include, for instance, New York, the “frozen city”; the statues in the public gardens; the stacks of the university library; the pulpit; the motel; the segregated cemetery; the packaged meat in the supermarket; the loyalty oath; the Indian-head nickel, and so on. The dead goose-fish leers up at lovers on the beach, and the poet reviews his youth:

Accumulating all those years
The blue annuities of silence some called
Wisdom, I heard sunstorms and exploding stars,
The legions screaming in the German wood—
Old violence petrifying where it stood.

The recording artist of this happy scene is the camera, whose “incisive blade” takes “frozen sections”: “maybe a shot of Lenin tombed in glass.” For the camera “makes the constant claim that reality is visible,” whereas “language asserts it to be secret, invisible, a product of relations rather than things.” But if we look before, we see Lot's wife pillared on the plain, and if we look after we see—but like Saul at Endor we forget what we have seen, which was probably the ghost of Norbert Wiener.

Nevertheless, if there are no capital Heroes, there are, as there have always been, Hangers-On to the pain and the puzzle. “The point of faith,” reiterated in several poems, “is that you sweat it out,” you continue. In one metaphysical poem, the heart is a voracious vacuum cleaner:


The house is so quiet now
The vacuum cleaner sulks in the corner closet,
Its bag limp as a stopped lung, its mouth
Grinning into the floor, maybe at my
Slovenly life, my dog-dead youth.
I've lived this way long enough,
But when my old woman died her soul
Went into that vacuum cleaner, and I can't bear
To see the bag swell like a belly, eating the dust
And the woolen mice, and begin to howl
Because there is old filth everywhere
She used to crawl, in the corner and under the stair.
I know now how life is cheap as dirt,
And still the hungry, angry heart
Hangs on and howls, biting at air.

It hangs on and howls in stubborn contradiction to 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.

What all this amounts to, I suppose, is that salt blood still beats inside the frozen skull: salt blood we inherit, the freezer we inhabit. Or to put it another way, freezing is an illusion, a trick of the temporal camera, a phase of the land which claims us but not of the sea which makes prior claims. In a clarifying poem from Mirrors and Windows, the poet stands “where the railroad bridge / Divides the river from the estuary,” deciding that he has fallen from the “symboled world” into the great silence of “reality.” A loon's cry shatters that silence:

I thought I understood what that cry meant,
That its contempt was for the form 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,
And whose respeaking was the poet's act,
Only and always, in whatever time
Stripped by uncertainty, despair, and ruin,
Time readying to die, unable to die
But damned to life again, and the loon's cry.
And now the sun was sunken in the sea,
The full moon high, and stars began to shine.

The “verb's” properly eternal urge to creation and destruction seems to be echoed in the bleeding hero's confession: again. The loon's cry recalls the poet to his job of celebrating the single force. Perhaps, after all, there is a coherence in the voices of things.


It is tempting to mythologize the history of Howard Nemerov somewhat as follows. Hero tramps through rocky wastes, stout Cortez in reverse, having heard tell of mermaids singing (he improvises a song for them in the manner of his grandfather the Pioneer), of a lake isle Innisfree (a song in the manner of the indomitable peasantry), and of a colony at Key West where they have ideas of order (he practices orders). And indeed his songs are the magic which carry him, undaunted but not undinted, through the perennial dangers of pilgrimage.

In place of pain why should I see
The sunlight on the bleeding wound?
Or hear the wounded man's outcry
Bless the Creation with bright sound?
I stretch myself on joy as on a rack
And bear the hunch of glory on my back.

On first looking into Nemerov's hunch, we perceive among other things the family Bible, the collected works of St. Augustine, Shakespeare, and William Blake, plus what appears to be a Prelude in brown wraps. In 1948, arrived at a port called Bennington, Hero has his first view of the sea, recognizes his mission, and attended by winged tutelaries does not start building an ark or an empire. Instead he paces the beach, one ear landward and one ear seaward, and you will find him there to this day.

This would, of course, be a poem more true than history. At about the time he went to live in Vermont, Nemerov had outgrown his immediate influences and had found his own spare and flexible tongue. And his theory of poetry, later embodied in the Poetry and Fiction essays, was developing out of his own practice and his scrupulous and open-minded attention to literature past and present.

Peter Meinke, in his helpful monograph on the poet (University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, no. 70), sees Nemerov as, from the beginning, a deeply divided man, as evidenced 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.” I think this is true, and that it is as apparent in the later volumes as in the earlier—perhaps even more so, for the divisions between the serious and the funny (which Nemerov claims are one) come clearer. Two tones of voice, less distinct in the early work, become apparent. One is the ironic flourish: e. g., at the expense of Santa Claus, the “annual saviour of the economy,” who “speaks in the parables of the dollar sign: / Suffer the little children to come to Him.” The other is a quiet, insistent, but immensely versatile voice, one which can speak songs, sonnets, and sestinas, but perhaps speaks best the loose blank-verse well exemplified in two short plays, Endor and Cain (in The Next Room of the Dream), and in many quotations included in this essay.

Nemerov's fiction (with which I am not here concerned) is basically comic. The curious self-analytical volume, Journal of the Fictive Life, discusses his personal and professional tensions in Freudian terms, but the goose-chase gets nowhere (well, hardly anywhere): “The net of association, for a responsive intelligence, is endless and endlessly intricate; moreover it never will reach a fundamental or anogogical reading that might simplify and make sense of all the others.” But the upshot of the Journal is that if psychology cannot arrive at anagoge, poetry may. Poetry may somehow recognize the substance of things under the disguises of culture and personality: “the thought comes to me that the predicaments of my most characteristic and intimate imagery strangely belong to Shakespeare too, who resolved them by the magical poetry of his Last Plays. May it happen to me also one day that the statue shall move and speak, the drowned child be found, and the unearthly music sing to me.” Individuality is a form which we must suffer. But it contains a secret power to get beyond itself, to be purified (Joyce would say) out of personal existence. The mortal man continues, as in the conclusion to the Journal, in the birth of his son; the poet continues in the larger spirit of his poems.

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 60's. 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. It is a handsome face that literature fathers-forth. But literature is only the formal cause, as the well-to-do Jewish parents were the efficient one. The final cause is neither man's invention nor his own power:

The aim of the poet is to write poems. Poems are arrangements of language which illuminate a connection between the inside and outside of things. The durability of poems, as objects made out of language which will be around for some time because people experience this illumination and therefore like reading them, results from the clarity, force, and coherence with which this connection is made, and not from anything else however laudable, like the holding of strong opinions, or the feeling of strong emotions, or the naming of beautiful objects. Because of the oddly intimate relations obtaining between the inside and the outside of things, the poetic art is always with us, and does not decay with the decay of systems of philosophy and religion, or fall out of fashion with the sets of names habitually given, over more or less long periods of time, to the relations between the inside of things and the outside. With all the reverence poets have for tradition, poetry is always capable of reaching its beginning again. Its tradition, ideally, has to do with reaching the beginning, so that, of many young poets who begin with literature, a few old ones may end up with nature.


“Wo ist zu diesem Innen / ein Aussen?” cries Rilke like a blind man. And Coleridge:

In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists.

And Nemerov:

I look not so much at nature as I listen to what it says. This is a mystery, at least in the sense that I cannot explain it—why should a phrase come to you out of the ground and seem to be exactly right? But the mystery appears to me as the poet's proper relation with things, a relation in which language, that accumulated wisdom and folly in which the living and the dead speak simultaneously, is a full partner and not merely a stenographer.

It is odd that we have to learn a language in which to talk to our central selves, and that the artist should be our naive tutor; that the eyes turned into the skull are blind until thought illuminates the objects inside as the sun illuminates those outside. But it is by its likeness to natural or objective form that we recognize psychic or subjective form, through the medium of the living art-form.

The way a word does when
It senses on one side
A thing and on the other
A thought; like sunlight
On marble, or burnished wood,
That seems to be coming from
Within the surface and
To be one substance with it—
That is one way of doing
One's being in a world
Whose being is both thought
And thing, where neither thing
Nor thought will do alone
Till either answers other.

In Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain writes:

The poet does not know himself in the light of his own essence. Since man perceives himself only through a repercussion of his knowledge of the world of things, and remains empty to himself if he does not fill himself with the universe, the poet knows himself only on condition that things resound in him, and that in him, at a single wakening, they and he come forth together out of sleep. In other words, the primary requirement of poetry, which is the obscure knowing, by the poet, of his own subjectivity, is inseparable from, is one with another requirement—the grasping, by the poet, of the objective reality of the outer and inner world; not by means of concepts and conceptual knowledge, but by means of an obscure knowledge … through affective union.

That art is an objectification of invisible life in terms of the visible and sensible world, that it is the essential means to self-awareness not of individual life (I am Jane Doe of 1842 Williamson Road) but of common human life (I am Adam, I am Hamlet), and that such awareness of life “in widest commonalty spread” is the best agent of sympathy and hence of disinterested action—all this Romanticism made apparent. Nemerov, conscious of the potentiality of romantic or pseudoromantic attitudes for self-delusion, and wondering if he is not sometimes their dupe, is shy of claiming a moral role for poetry. Only occasionally, as in his lines to Lu Chi, does he glance openly at the effect of a purified dialect on the tribe:

                                                            Neither action nor thought,
Only the concentration of our speech
In fineness and in strength (your axe again),
Till it can carry, in those other minds,
A nobler action and a purer thought.

He does claim, however, poetry's power to bear new parts of a world up to consciousness out of an unmindful “sleep of causes.” One of his figures is the chess-board or tennis-court: the room of our dream defined by the traditional rules, the “nouns of stone and adjectives of glass.” “The existence of tennis courts is also a guarantee of the existence of undefined spaces that are not tennis courts, and where tennis playing is unthinkable. The object of exploration is to find what is unthinkable in those immensities.” The object of exploration, Eliot claims, is to arrive where we started. Nemerov too implies that the out-of-court immensities may be our being's heart and home; that the poet, if we attend him, may guide us there. But he is often in doubt. If we started in the neat Commercial Gardens, then

                                        it is right that we return
To exit where we started, nothing in our hands.

He is certain that wherever we started, it will not be knowledge we carry off in the end. The art-form which imitates not our appearance (the camera does that) but our living relations, is not a means to conceptual knowledge; it is a light which illuminates wider and wider areas of our obscure experience, the next and next room of the single dream.

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. Or it is not to know
The 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.

The secret which we are is the same as the secret in the seed, in the sea, in the word. Nothing belongs to the self alone, although thought belongs to the human mind alone. And thought, like its parent nature, is fiercely generative, both of what it sees as good and of what it sees as evil.

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.

Great pain was (and is) in the world; great loveliness, too. Happiness is “helpless” before the fall of the white waters (of time) which bear away “this filth” (of personal and communal history). Nemerov can watch the spring freshets and speak of the literal rising of the dead. He can break a stick and find “nothing that was not wood, nothing / That was not God.” The stick can figure equally well the tree of Eden or of Calvary, the forest tree brought down by the vine, the family tree or its sexual organ, Aaron's rod, Daphne's wrist, and so on in an endless string of ambiguities which keeps fraying out and away “since Adam's fall / Unraveled all.” The poet makes his knot and holds it up to our attention. But he can't knot water. He can only tell us

A new thing: 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.


Meanwhile, at least, the poet “by arts contemplative” finds and names reality again. Like Conrad's Marlow (“my favorite person in fiction”), he is enamoured of simple facts but finds the world unavoidably symbolic. Writing of Nabokov, Nemerov says

His subject is always the inner insanity and how it may oddly match or fail to match the outer absurdity, and this problem he sees as susceptible only of artistic solutions. He may well be the accountant of the universe … but he is not its moral accountant, and his double entries seek only the exact balance between inside and outside, self and world, in a realm to which morality stands but as a dubious, Euclidean convenience; that balance is what in the arts is conventionally called truth.

In his excellent book, The Lyrical Novel, Ralph Freedman writes: “Equating the subject and object of awareness with the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’, Virginia Woolf suggests that both are included in a single whole.” And Woolf herself writes of Conrad: “one must be possessed of the double vision; one must be at once inside and out. To praise … silence, one must possess a voice.” So, according to Nemerov,

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. In the life conferred by art, Iago and Desdemona, Edmund and Cordelia, the damned and the blessed, equally achieve immortality by their relation with the creating intelligence which sustains them. The art work is not responsible for saying that things in reality are so, but rather for revealing what this world says to candid vision. It is thus that we delight in tragedies whose actions in life would merely appall us. And it is thus that art, by its illusions, achieves a human analogy to the resolution of that famous question of theodicy—the relation of an Omnipotent Benevolence to evil—which the theologians, bound to the fixed forms of things, have for centuries struggled with, intemperately and in vain. And it is thus that art, by vision and not by dogma, patiently and repeatedly offers the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

These are high claims, and easily misread. But we cannot misread two necessary qualities of the poet: openness and the double vision, qualities which Howard Nemerov possesses to a high degree. Look inward, look outward, and speak of what you have seen. But finally, perhaps,

                                                  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.

New Republic (review date 24 June 1972)

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SOURCE: A review of Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics. New Republic 166 (24 June 1972): 33.

[In the following review of Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics, the critic notes that Nemerov is good at debunking what he considers ridiculous and at writing effectively in several styles of discourse.]

Nemerov likes to wait in the grass for somebody to be stupid, then jump on him. He has been jumping now for more than 30 years and through a dozen or more books, and in this latest volume [Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics], a collection of miscellaneous lectures and reviews, he has a number of worthy targets. He jumps, for example, on the “and” in the title of a poetry bash he attended, “Poetry and the National Conscience,” by pointing out that the “and” confers “existence on whatever things stand to either side of it,” so that poetry, which under other circumstances might be found impossible to define, and the national conscience, which under other circumstances might be found nonexistent, are suddenly admitted as solid citizens.

Other targets: computer poetry; an anthology of “naked poetry”; complaints about the difficulty of modern poetry; questionnaires (including one of his own); extravagant reviews of slim volumes of verse; and bits and pieces of political sagacity, such as President Eisenhower's “things are more like they are now than they've ever been before.”

The lengthiest pieces in the volume are not, however, essentially rejoinders but meditations, mostly upon the nature of imagination. Nemerov moves gracefully in and out of several worlds of discourse—esthetics, psychoanalysis, even physics—and thereby does honor to the English Department world he inhabits, where too often an assortment of narrow views of the life of poetry prevails, unquestioned.

Julia A. Bartholomay (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Bartholomay, Julia A. “A Doctrine of Signatures.” In The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov, pp. 10-38. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Bartholomay closely examines Nemerov's complex concepts of language, imagery, and the poetic imagination.]

In a recent poem, Howard Nemerov describes the artist as one who “sees / How things must be continuous with themselves / As with whole worlds that they themselves are not, / In order that they may be so transformed.”1 These words also transcribe the poetic intelligence and imagination which inform Nemerov's poems. His lens is prismatic, and his ear is attuned to fresh articulating possibilities in all areas of being. He sees paradox in all phenomena and how the most unlike things define each other and, in so doing, gain their identity. Therefore, his imagination, moving on many levels of experience, is paradoxical, reflexive, and generative. It mirrors the dynamic tensions and continuity between the one and the other which, in the course of their becoming, are transformed through language. For a moment in eternity, that which is spatial and temporal becomes actual in the poem. This capacity of the mind, limited though it is, to perceive, imagine, and articulate the invisible, is clarified best by the poet:

Language, then, is the marvelous mirror of the human condition, a mirror so miraculous that it can see what is invisible, that is, the relations between things. At the same time, the mirror is a limit, and as such, it is sorrowful; one wants to break it and look beyond. But unless we have the singular talent for mystical experience we do not really break the mirror, and even the mystic's experience is available to us only as reflected, inadequately, in the mirror. Most often man deals with reality by its reflection. That is the sense of Perseus' victory over the Gorgon by consenting to see her only in the mirror of his shield, and it is the sense of the saying in Corinthians that we see now as through a glass darkly—a phrase rendered by modern translators as “now we see as in a little mirror”

(“The Swaying Form,” in Poetry and Fiction: Essays [hereafter cited as PF] 11-12).

To discover Nemerov's vision, as it is articulated in the mirror of language, requires some understanding of his purpose and method, for poems, whatever their ultimate concern, are produced by human beings and are functional—not in a pejorative way but in the sense of Marianne Moore's adjective “useful.” As Nemerov and other thinkers have noted, much of modern poetry tends to have a single reflexive dimension pertaining to the process of composition itself. In fact, this development of the mind curving back upon itself may always be a limit for every kind of thought. Shakespeare observed, without considering it strange at all, that “speculation turns not to itself / Till it hath travell'd, and is mirror'd there / Where it may see itself.”2 But in the world today—“that palace of mirrors where, says Valery, the lonely lamp is multiplied”3—man feels estranged. As Nemerov suggests, the problem of identity may underlie the fact that so much reflexive poetry is being written and that so many poets have sought to analyze and define the creative process and the poem. Since the poet refers to himself, as well as to his contemporaries, the study of his work may properly begin with his concept of poetry and the creative process, his belief in imagination as the agent of reality, and his use of reflexive imagery to express, in the mirror of language, the invisible relation between mind and world.

With Nemerov, as with all true poets, the vision and its articulation are one in intention, inasmuch as poems define themselves through their own creation. As the poet writes in a letter, referring to Richards, Empson, and Burke, “These men see how in some sense, not invariably a visible sense, words always have to be about themselves, hence how poems, whatever they say they're about, are also talking about their own coming into being.”4 Recognizing the problem of definition, Nemerov has, nevertheless, meditated deeply on the question of “what is a poem”—in numerous essays, in Journal of the Fictive Life, and throughout his seven books of poetry. Characteristically, such inquiry has produced no pat answer nor aesthetic theory about art and life, but rather a series of reflections on a theme—a continuous redefinition of poetry as a way of being:

                    one way of doing
One's being in a world
Whose being is both thought
And thing, where neither thing
Nor thought will do alone
Till either answers other;
Two lovers in the night
Each sighing other's name
Whose alien syllables
Become synonymous
For all their mortal night
And their embodied day:
          Fire in the diamond,
          Diamond in the dark.

(“One Way,” in The Blue Swallows [hereafter cited as BS], 86)

Another way of saying this: “poems are arrangements of language which illuminate a connection between the inside and the outside of things.”5 This thought, like the mirror concept, points to the source of poetry, the “great primary human drama,” or, as Shakespeare says, echoing Dante, “all the story of the night told over.”6 Nemerov describes human drama as being all that mankind does and suffers in this world, the dark source to which the poet must always return: “Lyric poetry, just because of its great refinement, its subtlety, its power of immense implication in a confined space—a great reckoning in a little room—is perpetually in danger of preferring gesture to substance. It thins out, it goes through the motions, it shows no responsibility. I conceive this responsibility of poetry to be to great primary human drama, which poets tend to lose sight of because of their privilege of taking close-ups of single moments on the rim of the wheel of the human story” (Journal, 21).

The Muse, then, is chiefly concerned with life and death—with the self in all of the many worlds in which it lives and dies each day.7 A jealous Muse, she demands all of the poet's devotion, integrity, and dedication to his art. He must name a situation, as honestly and accurately as possible, but always a situation which he himself is in. The name he applies must be so close a fit with the actuality evoked that no room remains between “inside and outside”; as Dante said, the thought must be “like a beast moving in its skin.”8 This involves participation of the conscious/unconscious and of mind/body in reference to nature and the nature of things. The process is reflexive and cyclical—“a matter of feedback between oneself and ‘it,’ an ‘it’ which can gain identity only in the course of being brought into being, come into being only in the course of finding its identity.”9

The means of becoming related to the nature of things is the “swaying form,” suggested to the poet by Florio's translation of Montaigne: “There is no man (if he listen to himselfe) that doth not discover in himselfe a peculiar forme of his, a swaying forme, which wrestleth against the art and the institution, and against the tempest of passions, which are contrary to him.”10 Nemerov adds that this form is “simultaneously ruling and variable, or fickle; shifting and protean as the form of water in a stream,” and can be identified with the libido, or impulse to art. Because this form escapes definition, refusing ever to become fixed, it corresponds to the poet's vision, which likewise can be described only according to its characteristics. As the poet tells us, “‘this vision’ need not be thought of in religious terms, as a dramatic one-shot on the road to Damascus; its articulation may be slow indeed, and spread over many works; the early and late parts of it may elucidate one another, or encipher one another still more deeply.” Because “the vision is itself alone,” without verbal equivalent, it is untranslatable to the rational understanding. The poet adds that a “fine description is given by Antony, the vision being disguised as a crocodile:

It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just as high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it; and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates … & c., ending with the information that it is a strange serpent, and the tears of it are wet.”11

Vision is the life substance of a poem: “for poetry exists only by a continuing revelation in a world always incarnate of word and flesh indissolubly, a world simultaneously solid and transpicuous. … 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.”12 For this reason the poet and the prophet have always borne close association. Without meaning to (and perhaps without especially wanting to), poetry changes the mind of the world.13

The revelation (or “opening of the ways”) occurs wherever a poet illuminates our human consciousness, or our sense of what it means to be human.14 Communication is not effected by a universal truth or a moral value implied in the poem, but rather through the voice of the poet and his way of speaking. As he tells us again the story of the night, a transfiguration happens—in the poet's mind, in the mind of his audience, and, finally, in the minds of all who have ever retold the story. The tale thus “grows to something of great constancy” and harmony so that it “constitutes on its own a world of ordered relation, rhythm, and figure.”15 The poet, responding to primary human drama, brings forth numerous parables which his audience is responsible for interpreting. Such parables may contradict but they never exclude each other.

The difference, then, between poetry (or art) and life is a formal one. As Nemerov defines it, “Civilization, mirrored in language, is the garden where relations grow; outside the garden is the wild abyss. Poetry … is the art of contemplating this situation in the mirror of language.”16 The poet recalls that a philosopher of language once said that “see” and “say” derive from the same root, for “to say” is to make someone else “see” what you have seen.17 In this sense, to name a situation is to illuminate again what has been there since the beginning of time, or since the beginning of the Word. Said another way, the poetic art is an intimate relationship between the visible and invisible—a continuous dialogue between form and substance and between the light and the darkness. Poetry endures where systems of religion, philosophy, and law fail, because it perpetually redefines itself, always reaching its beginning again.18 “For the whole business of poetry is vision and the substance of this vision is the articulating possibilities still unknown, the concentrating what is diffuse, the bringing forth what is in darkness.”19

Poetry has its secret beginnings in the garden, before the first moment of recognition that we know “that we know” and, therefore, are naked, divided, doubtful, and afraid before the Mystery. Aware of the darkness beyond the paradoxical mirror image, Nemerov writes in the Journal: “perhaps it was looking at that likeness of myself, seeing myself as a stranger, a mystery, that represented the secret beginnings of art, that mystery which brings me now to search the self in a spirit of guilt and isolation and some secrecy. Or else there is some meaningful episode belonging to the portrait, which I am unable to bring back because it represents something I can't look at” (75).

From first awareness of self, which is primarily sexual and religious in its concern about life and death, the poet grows to awareness of the physical world, which is primarily philosophical in its everlasting WHY?. The vast and complex vision of nature and its processes is reflexive with the image of self; both are paradoxical, changing, and both involve the notion of living and dying, simultaneously, or of being and becoming. This generative relation between self and world is the creative process in art, described in the following excerpt from the Journal in which the poet recalls a “passage from Valery when he talks about Nature's always constructing her solid forms out of liquids,” and adds: “It seems as though I have been saying, in a confused and ‘historical’ way, that art is the secret (holy, forbidden) observation of this process and its reverse, having to do with metamorphosis and the relation, or identity, of the evanescent with the enduring; that the model for this process is sexual and generative, so that one approaches it always with equal fascination and fear, as Milton approached the Spirit that ‘from the first / Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss / And madst it pregnant …’ in a passage that began with Man's first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, & c.” (147). This fascination with the Mystery of Creation is fundamental to Nemerov's work, and the generative model is frequently ritualized in his poems as well as in the poetic process. The garden remains an infinite parable suggesting the articulating possibilities and limits of poetry as Nemerov imagines them; beyond the garden is the vast abyss. Out of this situation the poet's vision evolves, for, like all true poets, he is ultimately concerned with the mystery of being, that is, with creation and its reverse process—metamorphosis and the relation, or identity, of the evanescent with the enduring.

The substance of the vision, born out of darkness, is brought to light through the mind's eye, or imagination. In one sense, the imaginative process is limited, for what the mind invents, it also discovers. The less murky our glass becomes, the more we are stricken in the light of what we see—our own image bared in that of the Other. This dual aspect of envisioning is a constant theme in Joseph Conrad's work, to which Nemerov refers directly in “Runes,” XIII New and Selected Poems [hereafter cited as NSP]:

… The sailor leaned
To lick the mirror clean, the somber and
Immense mirror that Conrad saw, and saw
The other self, the sacred Cain of blood
Who would seed a commonwealth in the Land of Nod.

Here is the limit of mind imagining. In his own way, Nemerov affirms the meaning of T. S. Eliot's statement that “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Truth, as it is revealed to us, is necessarily reflected and limited by imagination which is not only a mirror but also a shield to protect us from the blinding light of reality and to cover our own nakedness and vulnerability. Without this shield, man is stricken when he comes face to face with the Gorgon, as Nemerov tells us, speaking in his own voice as “A Predecessor of Perseus”:

… But he rides his road
Passing the skinless elder skeletons
Who smile, and maybe he will keep on going
Until the grey unbearable she of the world
Shall raise her eyes and recognize, and grin
At her eternal amateur's approach,
All guts no glass, to meet her gaze head on
And be stricken in the likeness of himself
At least if not of Keats and Alexander.

(The Next Room of the Dream [hereafter cited as NRD], 16)

However, in another, more primordial sense, imagination is as unlimited as the sea in which infinite possibilities of expression exist in the rhythm and song of the tide. Poetry, after all, is an aural art which grew out of the song and dance of religious ritual, patterned after the natural cycle. In the last two lines of “Painting a Mountain Stream” (NSP, 58), the poet says: “Steady the wrist, steady the eye; / paint this rhythm, not this thing.” Poetry was born of the spoken, not the written, word—this Nemerov remembers. In discussing the marked changes that have gradually appeared in his work, he cites his growing consciousness of “nature as responsive to language or, to put it the other way, of imagination as the agent of reality.” He adds that this is a “magical idea and not very much heard of these days among poets—practically never among critics.”20 The same thought is expressed in Journal of the Fictive Life: “My imagination is dominantly aural, and poetry for me is not primarily ‘imagery’ but a sequence of sounds which with their meanings form the miraculous equivalent of something existing in nature” (84n).

This aural communication with reality remains a mystery to Nemerov, for “why should a phrase come to you out of the ground and seem to be exactly right?” Yet, he believes this mystery to be a poet's proper relation with the nature of things, “a relation in which language, that accumulated folly and wisdom in which the living and dead speak simultaneously, is a full partner and not merely a stenographer.”21 This mysterious relation, or dialogue, with nature is illustrated in the poem “A Spell before Winter,” which is about Vermont at the end of fall, “when the conventional glory of the leaves is over and the tourists have gone home, and the land not only reveals itself in its true colors but also, in the figure of the poem, speaks.”22 The last verse of the poem is quoted below:

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,
The yellow haze of the willow and the black
Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light
Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall,
The sumac's candelabrum darkly flames.
And I speak to you now with the land's voice,
It is the cold, wild land that says to you
A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things:
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

(NRD, 19)

This is a miniature tone poem in which mood and meaning are conveyed through sound and rhythm rather than through image, symbol, or metaphor. Visually, of course, these lines paint a landscape, an arrangement of contrasting colors and shapes, blended into a single impression. But thematic unity is created by aural rather than visual means—through the deft use of tone, stress, and cadence. The standard poetic musical devices (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, etc.) are used here with discretion, since the poet does not depend on them. Each syllable has the quantity and quality of a musical note; each phrase is a musical entity in relation to the whole tonal pattern. “A Spell before Winter” and “Painting a Mountain Stream,” more than any of Nemerov's poems, combine the imaginative concept and process, displaying the purity and power of the poet's sensitive but disciplined ear.

Despite the simplicity of statement and grace of style in these lyrics (and in others like them), Nemerov's concept of imagination and his multivalent imagery are too complex to be defined in strictly aural terms. Imagination is both limited (visually) and unlimited (aurally), as has been noted. Perhaps this basic perceptual dualism underlies the two different, though not necessarily antithetical, attitudes which appear consistently in the poet's work. On the one hand, he is very much the witty, sophisticated, and urbane man of his time, particularly when he writes in the satirical vein. Aware of man's dehumanization in an automated mass society where the split human condition is intensified, Nemerov often views life with a humorous but bitter irony. When he spoofs society, the visual impact is strong; witness “Blue Suburban,” “Mrs. Mandrill,” “Boom!,” “Keeping Informed in D.C.,” or “Life Cycle of Common Man”23—the last lines of which are quoted below:

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.

(NSP, 17)

On the other hand, the poet perceives the world ontologically. His experience may be philosophical, subjective, lyrical, or even mystical. In the poems where his vision moves outward or inward toward the Mystery, his imagination is dominantly aural. Poetry becomes a matter of listening to the landscape, and he envisions a world made intelligible through imagination, through language—spirit and word: “… I do not now, if I ever did, consent to the common modern view of language as a system of conventional signs for the passive reception of experience, but tend ever more to see language as making an unknowingly large part of a material world whose independent existence might be likened to that of the human unconscious, a sleep of causes, a chaos of the possible-impossible, responsive only to the wakening touch of desire and fear—that is, to spirit; that is, to the word.”24

The dual aspects of Nemerov, as a man and poet, are not unique in themselves, but what is original is the way in which his imagination reflects the vision that has evolved over the years through his poems. While there is no particular period when one or the other attitude dominates, a parallel does exist between the development of the man and that of the poet. His first three books, filled with wit, satire, irony, and ambiguity, are primarily the work of a young urban poet who writes of what he knows: the city, war, and the paradox between the ideal and actual—all fairly universal topics. The titles of these books read like a Baedecker of the postwar world: Guide to the Ruins, The Image and the Law, and The Salt Garden. However, even in these volumes, the identity of the poet is emerging in such poems as “Under the Bell Jar,” “Lot's Wife,” “Unscientific Postscript,” and “The Scales of the Eyes.”25 The following lines suggest the unique vision and concept of imagination to come:

There is the world, the dream, and the one law.
The wish, the wisdom, and things as they are.
Inside the cave the burning sunlight showed
A shade and forms between the light and shade,
Neither real nor false nor subject to belief:
If unfleshed, boneless also, not for life
Or death or clear idea. But as in life
Reflexive, multiple, with the brilliance of
The shining surface, and orchestral flare. …

(“Unscientific Postscript,” in The Image and the Law [hereafter cited as IL], 69)

While originality in image and style are not quite reached in the early books, their tone is distinct and they contain a number of excellent poems. Aware of his imperfections, the poet comments: “Stylistically, I began under the aegis of notions drawn, I suppose, chiefly from T. S. Eliot. Along with many other beginners, I learned to value irony, difficulty, erudition, and the Metaphysical style of composition after the example of John Donne. … I now regard simplicity and the appearance of ease in the measure as primary values, and the detachment of a single thought from its ambiguous surrounding as a worthier object than the deliberate cultivation of ambiguity.”26 He adds that, “brought up to a poetry of irony, paradox, and wit as primary means of imagination,” he cannot sharply divide the comic from the serious, or even from the sorrowful. However this penchant for humor has been honed over the years to a powerful talent, and it is in the tragicomic paradox that the two dominant strains of the poet's voice most frequently synchronize. As James Dickey writes, Nemerov is “one of the funniest, wittiest poets we have”: “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 … is helplessness; the helplessness we all feel in the face of the events of our time, and of life itself. … 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.”27

While irony, wit, and paradox, often expressed through punning, are still part of Nemerov's imaginative process, the years of apprenticeship were brief and, with the publication of The Salt Garden in 1955, it was apparent that the real poet had come into his own. In many of the poems in this volume, the city and the early guideposts recede, and the poet has found his sense of direction. Speaking to this point, Randall Jarrell remarks, “Behind the old poems there was a poet trying to write poetry; behind these new ones there is a man with interests and experiences of his own, that is, a poet who has learned to write poetry.”28

Without consciously seeking his voice, Nemerov has found it. There is no doubt that the aural quality of his imagination responded to the beauty and simplicity of life in the natural environment in which he has lived for most of the past twenty-three years. Nevertheless, he is not a “nature poet” in the limited sense of that term; nor is he, like Frost, a philosopher of nature, although he is often philosophical in the parables he draws from there. What he searches for is the reality that binds us to the natural world in spite of our dusty myopic lenses, lost instincts, and pretty thoughts about it. Frequently he perceives nature with a scientific eye, looking for answers in the branching relation of trees in a snowfall, in a dried-up pond from which a dragonfly emerges, or in a maimed turtle that “takes a secret wound out of the world.”29 Often the correspondence between internal and external situation is conveyed through powerfully descriptive elemental imagery as, for example, in “Runes,” “Brainstorm,” “A Day on the Big Branch,” and “The Quarry.” Sometimes the poet's response is fanciful, as in “Holding the Mirror up to Nature” and “Celestial Globe.” At other times nature is transfigured through the poet's private lens to express a particular mood, as in “The Sunglasses,” “The Icehouse in Summer,” and “The Sanctuary.”30 Always he respects nature's forms and substance and its mutability. What he seeks, as do all poets, is to find again that world of nature which Shakespeare imagined—a world that is at once sublime and terrible but is also a reality which no poet afterwards has regained.

The problem of imagination today is that of the post-Shakespearian world, or the modern age of poetry, and is a matter to which Nemerov has given considerable thought. To understand his imagery one must know the context of this problem. Currently, the imagination (once thought to be too real to argue about) is subject to a great deal of research in an attempt to “locate” and define “mind” in its spatial and temporal dimensions—another extension of man's search for identity. The relationship between mind and world (or even the possibility that such exists) is continually questioned, while man's self-image daily becomes more fragmented and absurd.

The mind's relation with the world is discussed by Nemerov in one of his most penetrating essays, “Two Ways of the Imagination.” His premise is that, during the modern age, poetry “has had increasingly to define itself in relation to the conventional worldly view” concerning the relationship between soul and body, mind and world—the traditional subject of poetry.31 The conventional view is what Alfred North Whitehead has termed “scientific materialism,”: a “fixed cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless.”32 What has resulted, Nemerov says, is the “so-called alienation of poetry from society,” as a “function of this self-definition,” and also “an observable tendency for poetry to become the subject of itself.”

Scientific abstractions, as Whitehead stated, have yielded matter on the one hand, “with its simple location in space and time,” and “on the other hand ‘mind,’ perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering.” Philosophy has been compelled to accept such abstractions as “the most concrete rendering of fact,” which has produced three theories about the mind: dualism (mind and matter accepted on an equal basis) and two types of monism, one placing mind inside matter and the other, matter inside mind.

In view of this historical development in science and philosophy, the growing tendency of poetry to become its own subject and alienated from society is an attempt to solve the problem of mind/world by means of the imagination—an attempt which proceeds from doubt. Nemerov's thesis is that poems, through analogy upon analogy, seek to imagine their own imagining, or coming into being. Wordsworth, in “The Prelude,” and Blake, in “Jerusalem,” were the first great poets to write self-reflective poems, and these illustrate two ways of the imagination. Both poets introduced something new into poetry, which is “doubt.” This “doubt” was what “led them to view their own vocations as problematic and subject to investigation.” Nemerov believes that the element of doubt in no way diminishes the claims of the imagination but rather that the reverse is true. “Imagination now becomes central to the universe and the most important thing to understand about the universe; but becomes this precisely because it has become problematic and doubtful.”33

These lines echo the inverse logic and paradoxical perspective of many modern philosophers and theologians who, likewise, see the impossibility of man ever perceiving the One except in terms of the Other. Here, also, is echoed the problem of language itself, particularly the language of poetry. Cleanth Brooks consistently makes the point that paradoxes spring from the nature of the poet's language: “it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations.”34 Brooks adds that if “the poet is to be true to his poetry he must call it neither two nor one: the paradox is his only solution. The difficulty has intensified since Shakespeare's day: the timid poet, when confronted with the problem of ‘Single Nature's double name,’ has too often funked it.”35

Far from being timid, Nemerov continually strives to solve the riddle of the Phoenix in his poems and in his reflections on the nature of language and the imaginative process. In the tradition of Richards, Empson, and Burke, he has even added a third dimension to the paradox in his poem “Phoenix,” namely, the idea that words, besides being denotative and connotative, are also reflexive, being about themselves:

The Phoenix comes of flame and dust
He bundles up his sire in myrrh
A solar and unholy lust
Makes a cradle of his bier
In the City of the Sun
He dies and rises all divine
There is never more than one
By incest, murder, suicide
Survives the sacred purple bird
Himself his father, son and bride
And his own Word.

(NSP, 116)

Comparison of the poem with Shakespeare's “The Phoenix and the Turtle” shows the direction of the poetic imagination since the Renaissance. From his vantage point in space and time, Nemerov's lens is necessarily more divided than Shakespeare's, yet, in many ways, their vision is the same. With a little serendipity the reader discovers that what Nemerov writes about Shakespeare's world correlates with something in his own world of imagination:

Shakespeare's tragedies seem to work on the belief, deep enough to require no justification, that there exist several distinct realms of being, which for all their apparent distinctiveness respond immediately and decisively to one another. … All these mutually reflect one another. You cannot disturb the balance of one mind, or of one king's court, without the seismic registration of that disturbance in the near and remotest regions of the cosmos: an error of judgment will strike flat the thick rotundity of the world; a wicked thought will tumble together the treasure of nature's germens even till destruction sicken. The result is a world of dreadful splendors, but every piece of it is rhythmically articulated with every piece; and the realms which have priority in initiating the great releases of energy are ambiguously psychological and supernatural at once, but unequivocally the realms of spirit, will, mind. All life, and all the scene of life, the not-living around and beneath and above, poise in a trembling balance which is complete, self-moving, extensive in detail through the four elements, from “Let Rome in Tiber melt” and “kingdoms are clay” to “I am fire and air” and “O eastern star!” This, then, is the sublime and terrible treasure which afterwards was lost. …36

Compare this vision of Shakespeare's with what Nemerov says in regard to the universe:

The painter Delacroix expressed it by saying that Nature is a dictionary. Everything is there, but not in the order one needs. The universe itself, so far as we relate ourselves to it by the mind, may be not so much a meaning as a rhythm, a continuous articulation of question and answer, a musical dialectic precipitating out moments of meaning which become distinct only as one wave does in a sea of waves.

(“The Swaying Form,” in PF, 11)

The two visions of the universe are able to correspond, despite the difference in the poets' lenses, because of the bifocal nature of imagination. Mind appropriates and concretizes human experience within a historical context, yet the substance of all imagery, in any age, is elemental and, therefore, atemporal—even aspatial—however we may describe or interpret it. As Nemerov reminds us, all poets at some time come into relation with the “initiatory ascent from earth through water and air to fire”37—an ascent which may be gradual or cyclical. Similarly, poetry continues to ritualize the natural pattern of birth, death, and regeneration, in both the poem and the poetic process. Because nature is the raw material of imagery in poetry, as in all art, and since the source of poetry is the primary human drama, the vision articulated through a particular work (or works) can transcend historical limitations as well as those of the art form itself. This happens in spite of, though also because of, the fact that imagination is dual. Through the substance of vision the unitive possibility exists for poets of widely different eras (and for artists working in different media)—a possibility which, paradoxically, can only exist because of the particular nature and function of imagination moving within and through the limits of the art form. This dual function of imagination is implied in Nemerov's description of the painter as one who “sees / How things must be continuous with themselves / As with whole worlds that they themselves are not, / In order that they may be so transformed.” The same implication can be found in the poet's statement about the poetic process being “a matter of feedback between oneself and ‘it,’ an ‘it’ which can gain identity only in the course of being brought into being, come into being only in the course of finding its identity.”

Specifically, the dual function of the poetic imagination is to listen attentively, then, to transform what is heard into a vision that is as organically sound and just as elusive to the rational understanding as Antony's crocodile. The means of transformation is art, which is not the least part of the lyric difficulty, as Nemerov asserts. A poem must illumine a connection between the visible and invisible. “The durability of poems, as objects made out of language which will be around for some time because people experience this illumination and therefore like reading them, results from the clarity, force, and coherence with which this connection is made, and not from anything else however laudable, like the holding of strong opinions, or the feeling of strong emotions, or the naming of beautiful objects.”38 As a means of transformation, art need not be true to life or love (though both are involved); art must be true only to the voice of imagination and to the rigid demands of the art form itself. This point is illustrated by an aphorism in the Journal: “It is according to the nature of life that Papageno should be helped on his way by a hideous old crone on condition that he will marry her. And it is according to the nature of love that when he agrees she will turn into a beautiful young girl. But it is according to the nature of art that both the hideous crone and the beautiful girl are played and sung by the same moderately pretty woman of a certain age, who has spent her youth learning music” (11).

Yet, the voice of imagination is not always clearly distinguishable from echo, which is a problem that Nemerov and all true poets have had to contend with since it was first exposed by Plato (Republic, X) and Aristotle (Poetics, I.2-XVIII) in their widely different theories of mimesis. In another chapter of the Journal, Nemerov seeks out his own method of delineating the creative and imitative aspects of imagination. His reflexions turn, dialectially, on the metaphorical notion that “seeing” is the mediator between “the pond” (the mysterious source of imagination) and the art work. This relationship, and the dichotomy it presents, are summarized by the poet:

  1. The pond as birthplace and deathplace, the liquid mother and mirror whence beautiful and terrible forms arise, and whereto they return.
  2. Artefacts and representations, for example, the portrait of my sister and myself, the Rodin statue and others, the poems I have written about.
  3. “Seeing,” as mediator between the pond and the art work. Seeing as forbidden and punishable, seeing as protested to be innocent. Photography as the antithesis (guilty) of writing (innocent), and the subsequent revelation that all I said about photography had to be applied word for word to writing as well.
  4. (Journal, 146-47)

Nemerov continues by viewing his basic antithesis (photography/writing) in other terms: science/art (“knowing”/“making”), and imagination/memory—an opposition made also by Stendhal and other writers, as Nemerov acknowledges. He, then, recalls his delight in finding the harmony of science and poetry in the writing of Sir Charles Sherrington, the eminent neurophysiologist (1857-1952). What particularly attracted Nemerov, because of its brilliance of thought and expression, was a passage from Sherrington's book Man on His Nature, which had been reprinted, in essay form, as a memorial in Scientific American. In this essay, the making of the eye is described by means of the eye-camera analogy. Aware that Sherrington's metaphors were intrinsic to the imagery of his own poetry, Nemerov records that he copied the following statements from the essay, adding a few thoughts of his own. Taken together, these notations suggest a symbolic equation of mimesis—an equation which brings into focus the poet's basic antithesis and its variants:

“The likeness (of the eye) to an optical camera is plain beyond seeking.” If a craftsman making a camera were “told to relinquish wood and metal and glass and to use instead some albumen, salt and water, he certainly would not proceed even to begin.” “Water is the great menstruum of ‘life.’ It makes life possible.” “The eye-ball is a little camera.” The adjustment of the lens to more or less light in a camera “is made by the observer working the instrument. In the eye this adjustment is automatic, worked by the image itself!”

Particularly striking to me: “all this making of the eye which will see in the light is carried out in the dark. It is a preparing in darkness for use in light.”

And: “This living glass-clear sheet is covered with a layer of tear-water constantly renewed. This tear-water has the special chemical power of killing germs which might inflame the eye. This glass-clear bit of skin has only one of the four-fold set of the skin-senses; its touch is always ‘pain,’ for it should not be touched. … And the whole structure, with its prescience and all its efficiency, is produced by and out of specks of granular slime arranging themselves as of their own accord in sheets and layers, and acting seemingly on an agreed plan.”


Between these lines, with their juxtaposition of metaphors, the reader can discern a symbolic equation which effects a unity between Nemerov's pairs of opposites: eye/camera = imagination/memory = innocence/guilt = poetry/science (“making”/“knowing”) = art/photography. Imagination is analogous to the eye: that which will see in the light is prepared in darkness out of specks of granular slime (out of “the pond,” or the unconscious), arranging themselves as if acting on an agreed plan. Imagination is spontaneous. (In the eye, the adjustment of the lens to more or less light is worked by the image itself.)39 On the other hand, memory is likened to the camera; memory proceeds from the conscious mind. (In the camera, the adjustment of the lens to more or less light is made by the observer working the instrument.) Art, as the creative aspect of vision, is innocent, finding its model (again) in the natural mystery of creation. Photography, as an extension of vision, is imitative and, like memory, records the knowledge of guilt; the camera is “a voyeur,” which sees without becoming transformed by the experience.

Nemerov concludes his deliberations by stating that “this scientifically accurate and imaginatively convincing story” affected him so powerfully that he “had to relate it at once to the pond, to seeing, to photography, and to art” (Journal, 150). He adds that this relation was expressed in the first six lines of “Runes,” XIV, which were written before his second reading of Sherrington, “though not certainly before the first.” All of “Runes,” XIV (which will be analyzed more thoroughly in Chapter 4), is included here as one of Nemerov's most profound poetic illustrations of the creative and imitative aspects of imagination:

There is a threshold, that meniscus where
The strider walks on drowning waters, or
That tensed, curved membrane of the camera's lens
Which darkness holds against the battering light
And the distracted drumming of the world's
Importunate plenty.—Now that threshold,
The water of the eye where the world walks
Delicately, is as a needle threaded
From the reel of a raveling stream, to stitch
Dissolving figures in a watered cloth,
A damask either-sided as the shroud
Of the lord of Ithaca, labored at in light,
Destroyed in darkness, while the spidery oars
Carry his keel across deep mysteries
To harbor in unfathomable mercies.

(NSP, 10)

“Runes,” XIV, is also interesting because it is constructed on a type of imagery, used frequently by Nemerov, which, for want of a more precise term, I have called “reflexive.” The first six lines above contain two parallel, but antithetical, images—i.e., the two thresholds—which bear an inverse, reflexive relationship to each other. In the last nine lines, the two preceding images have become a single, but paradoxical, image of mind imagining the world. This final image is also an inversion of the first two but succeeds in unifying them. In this poem, as in the entire sequence, a fusion occurs between thought and thing, between figure and meaning, which is accomplished largely through the “reflexive image.”

The adjective “reflexive” is used, intentionally, because it has a broader connotative value than its synonym “reflective.” Both words convey the “mirror” idea implicit in all imagery. But “reflexive” infers that something not only mirrors an object, or itself, but is also acted upon, or acts upon itself, thereby emitting a response which differs in kind from the stimulus (whether external or internal) and which generates a still different third response but one that retains continuity with all previous responses. The image so conceived is not a duplicate, or negative, or an inversion of an original thing, but is complex, serving connotatively as metaphor and symbol and, equally well, in its own right as the denotation of something. The initial seed and water images in “Runes” have a reflexive continuity through all of their configurations in the poem sequence. Such imagery is powerful because it is organic, multivalent, and capable of reaching human experience on many levels of being.

Reflexive imagery is born from the poet's prismatic lens and is particularly appropriate to the paradoxical complexity of contemporary life. However this type of image is not necessarily new. Certainly John Donne used it often, though it cannot be confined to a metaphysical mode of expression. More modern examples can be found in Yeats' “Among School Children” and “Sailing to Byzantium” and in Wallace Stevens' “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” But reflexive imagery is an intrinsic part of Nemerov's poetry and imaginative process, a means through which the vision and its articulation are one.

Generally, Nemerov's imagery works within a spatial-temporal context which is both circular and linear. As an aspect of vision, this dual dimension of space-time should not be thought of in fixed Euclidian terms but as an artistic extension of Einstein's theory of relativity. More importantly, this double focus on space-time, like the two attitudes voiced in the poems, extends the poet's dual concept of imagination. Human experience is perceived in two ways: ontologically, or substantively, in the circular context, and objectively, or formally, in the linear context. From this duality certain primary paradoxes emerge: darkness/light, eternity/time, the one/the many, substance/form, and actual/ideal, all of which evolve from the poet's fascination with creation and its reverse process, metamorphosis, and the relation, or identity, of the evanescent with the enduring. These basic antitheses are redefined in more immediate paradoxes: mirrors and windows/reality, and statues and effigies/life, both of which paradoxes are contingent upon the divisiveness, fragmentation, complexity, and absurdity of modern existence. Most often the basic antitheses underlie the philosophical, religious poems, whereas the secondary paradoxes find expression in satirical or tragicomic poems which, owing to the poet's sense of dramatic irony, are no less profound.

Paradox is not only the language of poetry but also its province. In his essay “Younger Poets: The Lyric Difficulty” Nemerov writes:

This difficulty is usually presented to us as a series of pairs of opposites—e.g., form and having something to say, grace and passion, control and urgency, etc. Thus equipped, any man may make his own battlefield, not to mention that his may also, and probably will, make his own side win. What such warriors of the abstract fail to take into account is that any poet, any at all, is aware that these opposites exist. He is further aware that writing poetry does not mean choosing one side against the other, but achieving the maximum intensity and the greatest harmony of both sides. And he is painfully aware, from the experience of writing, that his own temperament (which irremedially belongs to him, and cannot be subordinated to any ideal however fine) is constantly pushing him toward one side or the other. But poetry is one of those human activities in which it is not the object to identify oneself exclusively with the right or the left, though it is hoped that the result will look more like tightrope-walking than fence-sitting

(PF, 225).

Here again is the problem of the swaying form in its shifting and variable relation to nature and the nature of things and to the source of great primary human drama, life and death. That drama begins in the garden where relations grow; outside the garden is the vast abyss—the eternal mystery beyond the reach of prophecy or parable. In contemplating this situation in the mirror of language, Nemerov proceeds from the hypothesis that God exists, however doubtful man's relationship and communication with Him has become. The problem of relating and communicating is that of imagination itself—imagination which becomes central to the universe and the most important thing to understand about the universe precisely because it has become problematic and doubtful. In this respect, poetry is for Nemerov not only a way of being but an act of faith, a leap into the unknown.

The complexity of Nemerov's position, as a man and as a poet, is best articulated in an off-the-cuff statement he made in a letter to Robert D. Harvey, a statement which provides also a fitting summary of the poet's concept of poetry and its purpose. “Poetry is a kind of spiritual exercise, a (generally doomed but stoical) attempt to pray one's humanity back into the universe; and conversely an attempt to read, to derive anew, one's humanity from nature, nature considered as a book, a dictionary and bible at once. Poetry is a doctrine of signatures, or presupposes that the universe is such a doctrine whether well written or ill. … Poetry is an art of combination, or discovering the secret valencies which the most widely differing things have for one another. In the darkness of this search, patience and good humour are useful qualities. Also: the serious and funny are one. The purpose of poetry is to persuade, fool or compel God into speaking.”40

Reading Nemerov, one is reminded that the sublime and terrible treasure that was lost may yet exist in unfathomed seas where a poet of another time and place will find it transformed “into something rich and strange.” If Nemerov has not claimed it, he has at least sounded in those waters.


  1. The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House, p. 3.

  2. “The Swaying Form,” in PF, p. 9. Nemerov quotes Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 3.3.109-11. (Although “married,” not “mirror'd,” is now accepted by most modern editors; see Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, New Variorum Edition, p. 177.)

  3. Ibid.

  4. Personal letter, October 30, 1968.

  5. Nemerov, “Younger Poets: The Lyric Difficulty,” in PF, p. 224.

  6. Nemerov, “The Marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta,” in PF, p. 22 (Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.23).

  7. Nemerov, “The Muse's Interest,” in PF, p. 47.

  8. Nemerov, “The Swaying Form,” in PF, p. 13.

  9. Ibid., p. 14.

  10. Ibid., p. 6. (The phrase about “the art” is not included in all editions, according to Nemerov's footnote on page 6.)

  11. “The Muse's Interest,” in PF, p. 45.

  12. Nemerov, “The Swaying Form,” in PF, p. 13.

  13. Nemerov, “The Muse's Interest,” in PF, p. 46.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Nemerov, “The Marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta,” in PF, p. 23.

  16. “The Swaying Form,” in PF, p. 12.

  17. “Attentiveness and Obedience,” p. 242.

  18. Nemerov, “Younger Poets: The Lyric Difficulty,” in PF, p. 224.

  19. Nemerov, “The Muse's Interest,” in PF, p. 46.

  20. “Attentiveness and Obedience,” p. 241.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid.

  23. “Blue Suburban” is from NRD, p. 35; “Mrs. Mandrill” and “Boom!” are from NSP, pp. 20-21 and 18-19; and “Keeping Informed in D.C.” is from BS, p. 62.

  24. “Attentiveness and Obedience,” p. 241.

  25. The first three poems mentioned are in IL; “The Scales of the Eyes” is in SG.

  26. “Attentiveness and Obedience,” p. 240.

  27. Babel to Byzantium, p. 40.

  28. “Recent Poetry,” p. 126.

  29. “The View from an Attic Window” and “The Pond,” in NSP, pp. 22-23 and 42-46; and “The Mud Turtle,” in BS, pp. 97-98.

  30. “The Quarry,” “A Day on the Big Branch,” “Brainstorm,” “The Sanctuary” (all from earlier volumes), “Runes,” and “The Icehouse in Summer” can be found in NSP; “The Sunglasses” and “Holding the Mirror up to Nature” are in MW; “Celestial Globe” is in BS.

  31. “The Mind's Relation with the World,” p. 375.

  32. Ibid. Nemerov quotes Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, New York: Macmillan Co., 1925, p. 25. “Matter,” as Whitehead conceived of it, has been reduced, of course, so it can no longer be considered as “irreducible” in scientific terms. According to Whitehead, Einstein's theory that mass (or matter) and energy are equivalent to each other (E = mc2) made it possible to show the conversion of matter into energy, and vice versa; nevertheless, the problem of where to locate mind remains, as a result of “scientific materialism.”

  33. Ibid., p. 378.

  34. Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn, p. 8.

  35. Ibid., p. 20.

  36. “The Mind's Relation with the World,” pp. 376-77.

  37. Ibid., p. 384.

  38. Nemerov, “Younger Poets: The Lyric Difficulty,” in PF, p. 224.

  39. Described here (and indirectly referred to, earlier, by Sherrington) is “accommodation,” the eye's ability to focus on objects at varying distances—an ability peculiar to reptiles (except snakes), birds, and mammals. The eye is focused by an adjustment of the shape of the lens, brought about by contraction of the ciliary muscle—an involuntary reflex initiated by the light itself. Changes in the curvature of the lens—and, therefore, the extent to which the lens focuses light—are determined by the degree of contraction of the ciliary muscle. The lens flattens to focus on distant objects and becomes spherical for close objects. The undulating movement of the lens, as accommodation occurs, can rightly be compared to that of the tide—a comparison Nemerov makes in “Runes,” XIV. In all respects, the poet's extension of Sherrington's analogy remains a good one.

    Although in the light of current scientific research on both the eye and the camera, the eye-camera model is crude, it is still widely used in reputable sources to illustrate the likenesses and differences between the mechanism of the eye and that of the camera. This analogy, as presented by Sherrington and appropriated by Nemerov, remains a valid one, metaphorically speaking, although a scientist, today, might describe the physiology of the eye in more sophisticated terms.

  40. Robert D. Harvey, “A Prophet Armed pp. 125-26.

James M. Kiehl (essay date spring/summer 1973)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9753

SOURCE: Kiehl, James M. “The Poems of Howard Nemerov: Where Loveliness Adorns Intelligible Things.” Salmagundi 22/23 (spring/summer 1973): 234-57.

[In the following essay, Kiehl briefly analyzes numerous poems by Nemerov, suggesting that the poems excite the imagination and enhance the reader's understanding of the world.]

Despite my abstracting a phrase from “Blue Swallows” and for the moment seeming to return it to a banal notion that poems are merely ornamental, I believe that Nemerov's poems are often great imaginative instruments that lead us far out. They take us to the ground of being to watch the dragonfly become, transformed from brutal night below and ascending to the sun (“The Dragonfly”). They further lead us, as in “The Beekeeper Speaks … And Is Silent,” to listen to the stars beyond the sun. And despite the typical lucidity of Nemerov's poems and despite his usual achievement of splendid images, his poems are not always easily grasped. “Celestial Globe,” for example, “Turns all things inside out,” including the human head, until the poem virtually baffles thought. “Interiors,” presenting a medieval milieu, is only obscurely lit and dimly figured according to human sexual sensation.

Often Nemerov's poems lead us into thought, about ourselves and our circumstances, beyond our usual conceptual and perceptual categories. We are offered passages across boundaries as formidable as death itself if we can come to see that “flowers light the sun”: “When you have known how this may be / you have already lived forever …” (“Small Moment”). And before the poet of “Blue Swallows” himself falls into stoney-eyed silent rapture before the world he would take us to, he at last disclaims even his own medium as if most certainly to point the way one last time:

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.

The world referred to is clearly not our usual world of conventionally “Remarkable things” (“Sightseers”):

Click, the Vatican,
Click, the Sphinx,
Click, in the Badlands,
The enormous nostrils
Of the Fathers. …

Us usual sightseers, bearing “Tabernacle or pyx / Priestly with symbols / In silver and black,” come to worship only graven images.

Nemerov's poems would lead us instead to the wonderful, unaccounted for, and hitherto scarcely spoken of world of “everything that is.” They lead us to everything “In the world” beyond our usual categories of apprehension such as angel (spirit) at one hand and stone (substance) at the other (“Angel and Stone”). They take us to “the incommensurable” world scarcely imaginable beyond our motion picture thinking (“The First Day”), to the unclockable “now” (“Moment”), to the uncharted “somewhere” (“Somewhere”) beyond where “history is” (“Blue Swallows”) or “history was” (“Sightseers”). His poems would take us back to the miraculous otherworld all our philosophers derive us from. “Firelight in Sunlight” offers a splendid phenomenal paradigm of such returns, as it shows us how sunlight (the world's primary energy) returns to itself. If our mood is yet more flamboyant, our home with the gods, in “The First Point of Aries” or in “The Companions,” will make best sense to us. Or perhaps we will most plausibly get home to the undivided self through the dream-poems like “Sleeping Beauty” or through reveries, by smell, to the child's sense in “Burning the Leaves” or to the beloved vision of “Two Girls.”

Seldom are we much aware of our own perceptual conventions. The witty viewer, who speaks to us while watching T.V. in Nemerov's satire “A Way of Life,” is at least partly aware that he confuses several planes of illusion: television fiction, commercial advertisement, and ordinary consciousness. But we are usually quite unaware that we thoroughly order our worlds with our concepts and our language and, consequently, that we get locked into narrowly exclusive views. The pitiable plight of the man, much like ourselves, confined to “a view where every last thing / Is rimed with its own shadow / Exactly” (“The View”) shows us our own perceptual predicament. Usually we unwittingly run our hellish race to nowhere (“The Race”) and are at last “taken by the darkness in surprise” (“Blue Suburban”). Rarely do we noticeably cross boundaries of being so that, like the people in “Going Away,” we are touched “with a strange tonality” of what we have been and, implicitly, of who and where we are. Moreover, such boundary-crossings are risky. In “Brainstorm” we see a man that sees through some of the usual human conceptual categories. He sees himself related to his circumstance—his house assailed by the wind and outside his house, the crows—with unusual but marvelously creditable vision. He sees, for example, that “Houses are only trees stretched on the rack.” Thus he brilliantly intuits the total integrity of nature, but his consequent guilt at his usual ignorant human abstraction threatens to entirely overwhelm his ordinary sense of things. And so he sees his own opening awareness as a horrifying craniotomy.

Psychologists, semanticists, and other scientists and philosophers of all sorts have long warned us that the real world is not necessarily coincidental with our words referring to it, our ideas ordering it, or our compelling illusions about its forms and appearances. Nemerov's many dream-poems typically test our senses of reality. His difficult epistemological poem “One Way” describes how words wed thing (other) and thought (self) to bring the world into being for us or, perhaps, to bring ourselves into being, but it concomitantly discloses and warns that our words are not coextensive with the world. Like the ancient prophets and patriarchs that Nemerov thought of in composing “The View from Pisgah,” scientists warn us of the folly in mistaking our particular maps for the real territories they refer to and represent. “Projection,” about us fearfully coming to the end of our Renaissance self-assurance and certainty, beautifully expresses Korzybski's metaphor.

Our amazingly complex human cultures indicate that, apart from our more notorious conceptual disagreements (about economics or politics or religion), we have been incredibly successful at perceptual and verbal socialization. Highly prizing social order, we determinedly indoctrinate ourselves thoroughly into our languages. “To David, about His Education” describes, with amusing irony, the way we condition ourselves:

In order to become one of the grown ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn.

And the oldest wisdom poetry preserves for us intimates that the human experience of mind is essentially an achievement of imaginative fixation and conventionality. Referring to both Beowulf and Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” notices, for example, that “Our human thought arose at first in myth, / And going far enough became a myth once more.” In “The View from Pisgah” human mind is mirages and idolatries, with which to figure the void and by which we seem to escape the unbearable wilderness.

And so, we greatly value the way that language orders our experience for us and are like the absent-minded professor's bright replacement, who prefers the papers to the leaves (“Absent-Minded Professor”). We prefer to stay inside with the orderly and manageable illusions; we are fond of the sense they convey that we control our life and experience. Prizing the order, coherence, and closure—the definition, we say—that our languages furnish, we are disposed to ignore that they are also a “limiting tradition” (“Cybernetics”). Nemerov's Phi Beta Kappa poem on how “the dreams of the desert are digested in art” is fiercely angry that we benignly frame, tame, and pervert the savage otherworldly intuitions that might wake us from our solipsisms (“A Relation of Art and Life”). His Arabian Nights poem, “Somewhere,” warns at last that the accounts of life we listen to, the stories we tell ourselves, before we go to sleep betray us by turning life into soporific “sweet seductions / Punishable by death.” “The Companions,” on the sense of dying to the world's magic and marvel—“There used to be gods in everything, and now they've gone”—is perhaps a complement for “To David, about His Education.” More than poignant, the speaker's awareness of having turned away from the world and wonder is redeemingly tragic:

I must have done, I guess, to have grown so abstract
That all the lonely summer night's become but fact,
That when the cricket signals I no longer listen,
Nor read the glowworms' constellations when they glisten.

But ordinarily we have only grown abstract and only come to fact. We have unwittingly come to assume that our particular categories are indigenous to nature. Our ignorance is an insidious trap, and even intending to avoid it may not save us from it. Consider the gentle ironies in “Elegy for a Nature Poet” about how a man, more than usually sensitive to the world, died:

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.

Especially in our own time, however, the best thinkers, in the natural sciences and elsewhere, are more and more aware that they approach absolute limits in their capacities to describe and order the world. One of the characters in Nemerov's little drama, “This, That, & the Other,” observes: “The physicists are vexed between the wave / And particle.” The poet in “Angel and Stone” concedes “it is hard to imagine what life must be like.” “The First Day” begins:

Below the ten thousand billionth of a centimeter
Length ceases to exist. Beyond three billion light years
The nebulae would have to exceed the speed of light
In order to be, which is impossible: no universe.
The long and short of it seems to be that thought
Can make itself unthinkable, and that measurement
Of reach enough and scrupulosity will find its home
In the incommensurable.

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 last noticing that their own modes are analogic and metaphoric, and consequently they are learning the same sort of diffidence poets acquire as a “negative capability.”

It is especially this new scientific awareness, I think, that explains why Nemerov noticeably exploits “scientific” images and concepts. Particularly important to him is the idea that our mode of observation significantly determines what we see or, more broadly, that being is not a thing but a Gestalt. Correspondingly, so many of his finest poems are reflexive—that is, they present the topic of their own expressiveness—exactly because he recognizes that the limit of expression is such a universally important intellectual problem. In “Writing” the poet makes lovely analogies, such as skaters' marks scored in ice and looking like script in a foreign language, and seems to conclude: “It is as though the world / were a great writing.” But he sees further, and the poem continues:

                                                                      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.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

In “Blue Swallows” the poet urges us “to see / The real world where the spelling mind / Imposes with its grammar book / Unreal relations on the blue / Swallows.” And in “Holding the Mirror Up to Nature” the poet speaks as if frustrated and distraught:

Some shapes cannot be seen in a glass,
those are the ones the heart breaks at.
They will never become valentines
or crucifixes, never. Night clouds
go on insanely as themselves
though metaphors would be prettier;
and when I see them massed at the edge
of the globe, neither weasel nor whale,
as though this world were, after all,
non-representational, I know
a truth that cannot be told, although
I try to tell you. …

This sort of distress, perhaps traditionally suffered by “the serious poets with their / crazy ladies and cloudy histories” and mostly disdained by scientists we suppose, has now become the hardcore study of our sciences. Striving for ever more-precise descriptive accuracy, they have anxiously come at last to uncertainty principles and may yet lose themselves in Nemerov's Black Museum “When all analogies are broken” and “The scene grows strange again” (“The Black Museum”). And so, “The Human Condition” portrays the recently-familiar modern sensibility:

In this motel where I was told to wait,
The television screen is stood before
The picture window. Nothing could be more
Use to a man than knowing where he's at,
And I don't know, but pace the day in doubt
Between my looking in and looking out.

Or, from a radically different point of view, the poet, as if one long suffering, will vindictively and almost hysterically celebrate the breakdowns of the “iron characters,” of all the self-righteously certain “keepers of the public confidence” (“The Iron Characters”).

In some of Nemerov's poems, such as “The Daily Globe,” the poet is simply detached from and amused at the psychic bondage into which we have fallen and at the instruments by which our illusions are sustained. The newspaper comic strip recurs, we notice, as one of Nemerov's expressions of our simple-minded stupor. In “Life Cycle of the Common Man,” for example, we “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.

In “Sunday” we are reduced to supposing that our lives and sensibilities are “the horrible funnies flattened on the floor” that God may read on his day off. The movies-idea, which appears in “The First Day,” is perhaps Nemerov's most fully elaborated analogue for consciousness—for the conventionalized awareness—that may be mistaken for vital being. But if all these instances imply contempt for our condition, in other poems, like “Projection,” the poetic voice seems inclined to pity our plight as victims of our own illusions: “They were so amply beautiful, … who could have blamed / Us? …”

No matter what tone he takes, however, the poet's recurrent recognition that we are typically locked into particular modes of perception helps him to counteract his accustomed sense of things and to try to see, for a change, how flowers—perhaps Nemerov's metaphor for our sensory organs—may be said to light the sun (“Small Moment”). If the recognition is at first mostly intellectual it nevertheless prepares him and us to seize upon and treasure experiences of grace when they come. With a genius for selecting the objective correlative (and an eye to the antique tradition that souls travel on odors), the poet reports, for example, that while burning leaves “the smell of smoke takes memory by surprise” and marvelously transports him (“Burning the Leaves”). In a poem that amply prepares us for the visual realization, he fuses his view of his own children playing about the fire with an extravagant and poignant sense of himself as a child. In “The Companions” the poet remembers that he once saw the world wonderful. Thus he prepares us to look for the eyes in the stone, to listen for the voice from the elm branch, to discover the glowworms' constellations when they glisten, to be with the gods again.

Actually, Nemerov seldom exploits the vatic myths about poesy or comes on as a prophet. Occasionally, however, he satirizes such posturing. The poet in “On the Platform” scorns the modern poet's podium-persona and the audience that patronizes it. Taking the rostrum on a traditional prophetic occasion, the college commencement, the poet in “A Relation of Art and Life” savages false prophets. But more usual for Nemerov is the lament, with its gentle irony, for the poet as failed prophet in “Elegy for a Nature Poet.” Both “The View from Pisgah” and “The Poet at Forty” expose the poet's sense of inadequacy with regard to the tradition. About as close as Nemerov comes to sincerely taking the prophetic stance is in his offering, from high up in the head of the house, “The View from an Attic Window.”

But if he doesn't often or easily posture, Nemerov nevertheless insistently asserts the substance of the great tradition and reaffirms that the poet is a visionary. Here are some of his remarks in “The Muse's Interest,” his address to the National Poetry Festival at the Library of Congress in 1962 and printed in his book Poetry and Fiction: Essays:

The poet hopes to articulate a vision concerning human life; he hopes to articulate it truly. He may not be much of a poet, he may not be much of a human being, the vision is not so special either; but it is what he hopes to do.

This “vision” need not be thought of in religious terms, as a dramatic one-shot on the road to Damascus; its articulation may be slow indeed, and spread over many works; the early and late parts of it may elucidate one another, or encipher one another still more deeply.

For the substance of this vision the poet listens, he watches, and when he speaks in his character of poet it is his conviction, possibly his illusion, that something other speaks in him.

As special vision is the soul of poetic experience, the poet's art or craft is to remodel language so that it can embody and express the new reality he sees. The most usual way this is done is to make unusual comparisons of things or events so as to partly redefine them and alter their appearances to us. Such figuring is abundant in Nemerov's poems, and it is sometimes more witty than it is earnest and purposeful. Pleasant instances are the power lawn mower likened to a dinosaur (“Suburban Prophecy”), the corsetted lady as an antique whaling vessel or as the whale itself (“I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee”), or boarding an airliner and taking off as the rite of Eucharist (“At the Airport”). Others of his analogues are richly thoughtful and illuminating. In “Sanctuary,” a thought taking shape in the human mind is like a trout in a pool, coming up toward the surface where it can be seen. And some of his comparisons are deeply disturbing: an American poet in bed, cowering under his electric blanket is like a Vietnamese Buddhist priest who immolates himself in gasoline fire (“Christmas Morning”).

With respect to our language's usual appearances, operations, and uses, poetry is our language turned extravagant and used somewhat out of bounds. Good examples are Nemerov's many dream poems that upset the definitions of human waking and sleeping, perhaps by simply inverting them. “Sleeping Beauty” is a superb instance. Not only is it about dreaming as a traditional borderline experience for the human sensibility but it is additionally modeled on the child's fairy tale, another conventional borderline concept. Frequently then, as in “Sleeping Beauty” but as is especially apparent in “Winter Exercise,” the inversion of waking and sleeping is extended to a reversal of life and death and of our values for them. You will notice, of course, that I have chosen to characterize Nemerov's poetry generally with one of his own expressions that demands just such simple inversion. “Because the mind's eye lit the sun” not only are things finally lovely but they are even discernible as things in the first place.

Beyond the mental play of simple inversion, then, many more of Nemerov's poems broadly effect various boundary-crossings and enlarge upon our usual senses of the language. “At a Country Hotel” presents a dead man who watches from another state of wakeful being, not unlike a dream perhaps, as his widow supervises their children's play with toy boats on the pond. At last, as the children are asleep, their planes of being may, if they dream of their boats, meet with their father's dreams of sailing home to them. In another poem, darkness falls in the public park and longing statues tremble at the brink and nearly spring to life and love (“The Statues in the Public Gardens”). In “The Goose Fish,” too, lovers at the shore are haunted by the grinning dead fish, whose judgment of them they try to infer. And in “The Breaking of Rainbows” it is a polluted stream, not even a conventionally animate phenomenon, that is personified and vitalized.

Because poetry is, in various ways, language turned inside out or upside down it is more noticeably challenging to hearers and readers than is the language of ordinary usage. If it often more easily excites visual, aural, and kinesthetic responses, it also demands more active intellectual engagement. It often poses riddles. How, for example, are human limbs like flower-stalks (“Sunday at the End of Summer”)? How can flowers be said to light the sun, and how could battlefield be marriage bed (“Small Moment”)? What other way could the grinning corpse (“The Goose Fish”) tell lovers how to make a world their own than by their making love? And sometimes, as in “Celestial Globe,” the riddles about a globe “Whereon I stand / Balancing this ball / Upon my hand” are so acute and mind-baffling, so much “Turn all things inside out,” that we become frustrated with language. We may come to sympathize with Nemerov's 40-year old poet in “Lion & Honeycomb,” who had had enough of skill, of cleverly managing the verbal medium, and at last recognizes that he wants only “words that would / Enter the silence and be there as light” to establish “Only a moment's inviolable presence / … Perfected and casual as to a child's eye / Soap bubbles are, and skipping stones.”

And so it may be that the ultimate refinement of the poet's craft or art in behalf of his vision is to do the thing in words that is as near as possible to doing without words. For it is words and thinking that are in some senses destructive to fullest human life, as Nemerov suggests in his elegy “These Words Also,” on the suicide of a young woman. In opposition to the beautiful, vital flower garden outside, inside, letters and nighttime talk and telephone ringing haunted their victim till she died. Perhaps the poet best expresses his vision by the compelling understatement of simply drawing “A Picture”—“Of people running down the street / Among the cars, a good many people. / … (hunting down / A Negro, according to the caption)”:

A pretty girl tilted off-balance
And with her mouth in O amazed;
A man in a fat white shirt, his tie
Streaming behind him, as one flat foot
Went slap on the asphalt. …

By praising Flaubert's wish to write a novel about nothing—“It was to have no subject / And be sustained upon style alone”—and even more by his gratitude that Flaubert “never wrote that novel” thus leaving it “not deformed by style, / That fire that eats what it illuminates” (“Style”), Nemerov wittily expresses the poet's ambition to transcend his art that so often betrays his vision.

Possessing a brilliant objective correlative, Nemerov's justly celebrated “Vermeer” begins by the poet composedly remarking both on Vermeer's manner in his paintings and on what the poet hopes will be his own manner in celebrating Vermeer's manner: “Taking what is, and seeing it as it is, / Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures, / Keeping it simple.” But the poet is soon drawn into a paean on the “marvelous things that light is able to do” and, finding himself “At one for once with sunlight falling through / A leaded window,” verges on “the holy mathematic” that “Plays out the cat's cradle of relation / Endlessly” in the composition. Then, as if sensing that again in his art his medium will betray his vision, he changes tactics, self-consciously retreats from the subject, and surprisingly finds it:

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
In the great reckoning of those little rooms
Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light,
Or standing invisible on the shore opposed,
Watching the water in the foreground dream
Reflectively, taking a view of Delft
As it was, under a wide and darkening sky.

Nemerov appropriately names his poem Vermeer—instead of Light, for instance—to indicate that illumination comes to us exactly because it is framed.

No doubt, various artists are of differing visionary genius and of differing skill in expression, which partly accounts for the difficulties that poetry may impose on hearers and readers. In several poems Nemerov satirizes would-be poets of little genius. “A Modern Poet” presents a poet not crossing Brooklyn Ferry at sunset and rhapsodizing on the gloriously transfigured cityscape but instead riding a bandwagon “crossing at rush hour the Walt Whitman Bridge” and meanly calculating routes to fame. “Make Big Money at Home! Write Poems in Spare Time!” portrays the wooden-headed would-be poet trying unsuccessfully to write verses on a tree while holding his wooden pencil poised above his pad of wooden paper on his wooden table in his whole wooden house. In yet other poems Nemerov refers more generously to the plights of those who may possess worthy vision but whose skill falls short of expressing it. In “To H. M.: On Reading His Poems,” for example, Nemerov consolingly makes a pretty figure to suggest that even should the poet fail at his intention his verse may yet be inadvertently felicitous and worthy. And in “Trees” he touchingly redeems the much-ridiculed verses by Joyce Kilmer.

Furthermore the language of poetry may be regarded as variously challenging because, possibly apart from considerations of vision and expressive skill, poets may choose how much difficulty to impose upon hearers and readers. Poets make decisions, probably not always conscious ones, about how an accommodation should be made in the conflict between requirements of the vision that strains language conventions on the one hand and language recognition needs of the audience on the other hand. In several poems Nemerov portrays poets' awareness of the need to adjust the mode of expression to the audience. “On the Platform” presents a sarcastic poet contemptuous of both himself and his audience for having compromised his vision by his offering and their taking or mistaking a mode of expression he at last discovers to be infelicitous. “From the Desk of the Laureate: For Immediate Release” is about seeing little and, even worse, possessing only an outworn mode of expression not at all suited to an “audience” that is deaf to any music and only reads the news. The poem portrays a spent poet resigning from the front office of the grand old heroic style no longer in vogue (Great Pan, Helicon, the Birthday Ode, Astraea, etc.). With what little dignity remains he retires from that archaic reference and idiom in the early stanzas to anesthetized, antiquated privacy and wry self-deprecation in the tightly rhymed last stanza. Thus not only do various poets compose for different audiences but any poet may vary his sense of audience from one poem to another, as Nemerov appears to do.

Considering the whole spectrum of poetic subjects and styles, we can notice that at one side some poems are relatively private; they are composed only for the poet himself or for a coterie. Most of Nemerov's reflexive poems—that is, poems about poetry—are surely of this sort. In addition to those I've already cited—“Writing,” “Holding the Mirror Up to Nature,” “The Blue Swallows,” “Vermeer,” “Lion & Honeycomb,” and “In the Black Museum”—we should also notice: “Maestria,” “To Lu Chi,” and “Shells.” And perhaps commanding an even smaller audience are Nemerov's poems on mind and thought. Some of these, though rich and difficult, are relatively easier than others, however, because they develop a substantial coherent image. “The First Day” with its movies-metaphor for human thought and self-consciousness offers a good example:

It may be said that within limits the Creation is
A going concern, imaginable because the film supplies
An image, a thin but absolute membrane whose surfaces
Divide the darkness from the light while at the same time
Uniting light and darkness, and whose linear motion,
Divided into frames, or moments, is at the same time
Continuous with itself and may be made to pace itself
Indistinguishably from the pace of time; being also
Able to be repeated, speeded up, slowed down, stopped,
And even run backwards, its model represents to us
Memory, concentration, causal sequence, analysis,
Time's irreversibility together with our doubt of this,
And a host of notions that from time long out of mind
Belong to the mind.

Others, like “Truth” with its buzzing fly that presides over the sleeper's dream and “The Sanctuary” with its trout, are difficult despite elaborately sustaining an image. Perhaps responding to these as a group, including others such as “Thought” and “Idea” as well, is the surest way to fathom their depths.

At the other side of the poetic spectrum are Nemerov's more public compositions; these, by their subjects and modes are much more easily available to many of us who share the common language. And in “The Muse's Interest” (the National Poetry Festival address) Nemerov remarks, indeed, that he believes his own poems are readily accessible: “I do not think my own efforts in the art raise such barriers of intellect, learning, subtlety, as would defeat the well-intentioned effort of any ordinarily literate person to read what I produce.” Obvious examples are his topical poems on exceedingly commonplace things, events, and values. He discourses on the iconography of the U.S. nickel (“Money”). He remodels power-mowing our suburban lawns as a sort of primitive-beast fable (“Suburban Prophecy”). He reinterprets our photo-journalism history of the atomic bombing in “August, 1945.” And in “Santa Claus” he invites our indignation at the commercial travesty of our social and religious sentiments. We also get easy access to other poems—“The Distances They Keep” and “Learning by Doing,” for examples—because we are well-prepared with socially credited attitudes on fashionable topics of human experience such as depredations of the natural environment. Yet others among Nemerov's poems are broadly available because they employ vulgar idiom. “The Great Society, Mark X” speaks to us the language of the auto ads. “To the Governor and Legislature of Massachusetts” offers us juvenile education and adolescent sport. In “The Sparrow in the Zoo” we get homely literary kinds like fable and proverb. Witty and amusing as they often are, however, these are poems in which “loveliness adorns intelligible things” only in the most peripheral and feeble sense of Nemerov's essential meaning in “Blue Swallows,” with which we started.

Nemerov's success at composing in a public voice is nevertheless commendable, as it serves to counter obscurantist fashions that have polluted modern verse and its appreciation. “On Certain Wits: who amused themselves over the simplicity of Barnett Newman's paintings shown at Bennington College in May of 1958” renders unmistakable his contempt of poseurs. Or consider Nemerov's revulsion to verse of no vision tortuously expressed only to indulge pretensions. “On the Threshold of His Greatness, the Poet Comes Down with a Sore Throat” mercilessly lampoons Eliot's sort of anti-heroic poem that offers an excursion through an esoteric wasteland to presumed transcendence at last but that really only sinks at last into babbling idiocy and graceless self-exegesis.

Nemerov's most primitive and simple poems are related to the ancient riddling and proverb traditions in poetry. “Don Juan to the Statue” exploits vulgar euphemism and turns on several senses of “erection.” Similarly, “The Dream of Flying Comes of Age” wryly notices that the pilot's “joystick” has become a “control column.” Gnomishly Nemerov is tempted to transform “boys and girls” to “bars and grills” to resolve love-pangs (“Gnomes”). And he portrays the entire course of a human life, by ringing changes on a single word, “innocense”; a single phrase, “That was it.” “A Primer of the Daily Round” surveys the alphabet personified, as if cataloguing an entire society's interaction, and ends by remembering how it began by peeling an apple. “Drama,” staged in esoteric nomenclature, mock-heroically plays out molluscan love and death beneath the sea. Largely whimsical, these witty stunt-poems disclose Nemerov's foundness for verbal play. In some sense, of course, all poetry is play with the language for new expressive purposes. But these stunt-poems are made mostly for the sake of play itself rather than for any earnest intention to express vision or wisdom.

More purposeful and earnest play with the language occurs with Nemerov's management of elaborate verse forms such as the sestina that helps to measure the sun's descent in “Sarajevo”; the symmetry that facilitates our access to the center or bottom of things in the whole group of his “Runes”; or the several compositional symmetries in “The Human Condition,” symmetries that mimic the predicament of the poem's speaker who languishes in a limbo between the world and his view of it:

Once I saw world and thought exactly meet,
But only in a picture by Magritte,
A picture of a picture, by Magritte,
Wherein a landscape on an easel stands
Before a window opening on a landscape,
and the pair of them a perfect fit,
Silent and mad.

But we have already remarked (in “Lion & Honeycomb”) that ultimately the poet comes to repudiate his whole bag of tricks and to desire only “words that would / Enter the silence and be there as light.” This brings us, then, to “The Junction, on a Warm Afternoon,” an exquisite sensory poem where we stand at a rural railroad-crossing and watch a slow freight train rise into view around a bend. We watch it pass us, then, so that we can see and ponder its crew looking back at us and acknowledging us looking at them; then at last we watch the train disappear into the distance. The miracle of this poem is mimetic perfection. Out of an initial sketchy and tangled abstraction, corresponding to “The roadside scribble of wire and stick / Left over from last fall,” the imagery rises in slow motion to detailed substantiality as it describes the approaching slow freight and the appearance and manner of its crew. At the exact center of the poem and middle of the train's passage past us through the junction, we are led past the old men's meditative pipe-smoking and courteous but remote nods to us to emphatically cross into their feelings and their sense of warm sunlight. Then past the poem's center, we are returned back out to the rich imagery that restores our more-objective view of the slowly passing train. And we are also turned to thoughtfulness about the growing obsolescence of both the old men and their engines. At last the freight disappears “among small trees, / Leaving empty the long, shining rails / That curve, divide, vanish, and remain.” And correlatively, the rich imagery has diminished into the lean images that approach severe abstraction. Thus Nemerov's great poem is not only profoundly skillful, even though “He didn't want to do it with skill,” but it utterly depends on his skill.

Another sort of playful poem by Nemerov is founded on learning, that is, on somewhat special information. These poems correspond, in a way, to the ones we've already noticed playing with sounds and meanings of words. These learned poems play with public facts and traditional ideas. They are plentifully referential and elaborately allusive, sometimes only for the sake of the play itself and to offer us enjoyable recognitions if we are knowledgeable. Both “The Second-Best Bed” and “Polonius Passing through a Stage” tease Shakespearean lore and literature to something like interpretive variations on traditional themes, for our pleasure. And “Metamorphoses: according to Steinberg” is mostly a descriptive panegyric to the great cartoonist's extraordinary vision and his incisive style that is itself the principal substance of his vision. Others of Nemerov's learned poems are made more for thematic purposes beyond their play. Ulysses appears in the second and fourteenth “Runes” as a traditional intellectual marker that helps direct the entire sequence's passage by water to the still center of being. “To a Scholar in the Stacks” describes traditional bookish scholarships as the scholar's tragic self-incarceration in the depths of cerebral illusion. Appropriate to the scholar's imagination, the depths are rendered in figures from ancient legends about lost wanderings in the Cretan labyrinth:

Sometimes in darkness and in deep despair
You will remember, Theseus, that you were
The Minotaur, the Labyrinth and the thread
Yourself; even you were that ingener
That fled the maze and flew—so long ago—
Over the sunlit sea to Sicily.

Making involuted reference, not unlike that in Keats's “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,” Nemerov's “Celestial Globe” supposes children at the Museum watching “some amateur / Copying Rembrandt's painting / Of Aristotle contemplating / The skull of Homer, that / Dark fire fountaining forth / the twin poems of the war / And of the journey home” as if Homer's mind were either the Museum in which the children stand or the world on which they stand. Although the poem seems immensely playful as the poet imaginatively juggles and compares celestial (inside), terrestial (outside), and cranial (inside and outside) globes, it nevertheless earnestly expresses Nemerov's centrally important idea that the mind's eye lights the sun. All these learned poems, both playful and purposeful, are to varying degrees exclusive. They are, by their erudition, not altogether public and easily accessible. But what is usually not obscure about them, even to the ill-informed hearer or reader, is why or how these learned poems are challenging. Most of us easily enough appreciate that grasping this sort of poem turns mostly on recognizing what are obviously the proper names that occur in it.

Another sizeable group of Nemerov's poems, his satires, are also somewhat more complex and demanding than the poems of simple play. For though the satires do play to some extent, they are also visionary, often in the reactive sense that they show us the failures of vision. By Nemerov's dramatic irony, for example, we can patronize Oliver's failure to see the “reality” under his nose (“Make Big Money at Home! Write Poems in Spare Time!”). But the satire does more than merely ridicule an ignorant blockhead. Without accusing us exactly, it compels us to adjust what was likely also our supposition: that a tree as the subject of a poem ought to be “The axle of the universe, maybe, / Or some other mythologically / Respectable treecontraption / With dryads, or having to do / With the knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Fall.” And by further directing our attention so much to wood, the poem leads us to see what we otherwise wouldn't. Or look beneath the hood and notice that Nemerov's parody of the auto-ad hucksterism in “The Great Society, Mark X” does more than merely indict us for being too willing to “buy” a dangerous social machine, inimical to human welfare. A look at the poem's controlling image further shows us that it is literally our obsession with the things we consume, such as autos, or with being hell-bent on getting somewhere, as in “The Race,” that jeopardizes us.

The satirist's method, typically, is to draw us to his side in a contest he portrays between his views and values and some others. In “Boom!” he mimics the prophetic stance of his adversary the Eisenhower clergyman and pretends enthusiastic assent to the preacher's smug satisfaction with the affluent society. But the satirist's ranting panegyric and his bizarre catalogue of the affluent society's material and spiritual wonders soon imputes madness to the preacher and his values. In “One Forever Alien” the satirist speaks as if a long-suffering immigrant martyred at last to American chauvinism. As if a moldering corpse speaking from the grave, he bitterly describes his outsider's frustration and suffering in terms that ironically realize Whitmanesque vision and prophecy about the assimilation of aliens to the American experience:

When I become the land, when they will build
Blast furnaces over me, and lay black asphalt
For hundreds of miles across my ribs, and wheels
Begin to bounce interminably on the bone;
When I enter, at last, America, when I am
Part of her progress and a true patriot,
And the school children sing of my sacrifice,
Remembering the burial day of my birth—
.....When I shall come among you fleeced as the lamb
And in the diaper of the grave newly arrayed. …

Thus we are moved to empathy with the pitiable outsider's view and to scorn for the traditional American sentiment that might otherwise have been ours. But however he wins us exactly, however he establishes normative views, the satirist's intention to do so constrains him, after all, to make and keep his values clear to us, to express himself in a relatively public way.

As we examine “One Forever Alien” we should notice that, unlike the other satires, it does not invite ridicule of a speaker who sees things in ways that we find ridiculous or contemptible; it does not present a speaker with views and values inferior to our own. To the contrary, it presents a special point of view in which we can vicariously participate and so gives us a new view of things, and, perhaps, an altered sense of ourselves. Thus we come to Nemerov's dramatic poems. “Drama” is a delightful melodramatic play of love and death, between aloof Elysia and importunate Wentletrap. “Debate with the Rabbi” presents the witty play and definition of ethnic experience and wisdom. Richer in vision is the epistemological debate, between This (percept) and That (concept), on snowflakes and sunlight falling on the open water (“This, That & the Other”). The two characters harmoniously conclude (their colloquy ends as if it had been a litany) as if both apprehension and comprehension have failed:

The Other is deeply meddled in this world.
We see no more than that the fallen light
Is wrinkled in and with the wrinkling wave.

But if we heed their own Shakespearean proverb—“‘By indirections find directions out’”—we see that their culminating vision is a scintillating and dazzling image that figures for us no failure at all.

Only a few of Nemerov's poems, however, actually present several speakers engaged in dialogue and conflict. Instead, I designate as dramatic mostly those among his poems that are expressed not in the vaguely defined “poet's” voice of so many poems but in various voices of other better individuated personae. And I find that typically these dramatic poems function to portray the personae speaking as much as to express their particular views. Or as is so clear in the special drama of the satire, there are in these poems several views—for example, both the persona's view of things and Nemerov's implicit view of the persona—which the hearer or reader must accommodate. Having already noticed “One Forever Alien,” let us go on to “Redeployment,” in which a survivor of warfare seems uncertain that the war is over: “They say the war is over. But water still / Comes bloody from the taps. …” He suffers what we rather easily infer are disordered views of his circumstance, and we suppose he is deranged. We come to a strange dilemma, however, as we notice that we depend on his expression for our views of him and that he is somewhat aware that all is not well with him:

The end of the war. I took it quietly
Enough. I tried to wash the dirt out of
My hair and from under my fingernails,
I dressed in clean white clothes and went to bed.

His barely expressed suspicion that warfare may not be over but that warring forces may be only displaced from the public world to be redeployed within himself poignantly portrays that he is not altogether mad. If we are at all sensitive, we begin to see, I think, that war, far more than its victim, is horribly insane. And we may be moved to adjust somewhat our own presumed healthy sensibilities and conventional sound judgments that certainly affirm the war is over and patronizingly pity the deranged victim. Or consider “History of a Literary Movement” as another dramatic poem that involves us in the interplay of several points of view. Here an anonymous speaker sadly chronicles for us the disintegration of a literary coterie. But the very manner of his expression discloses that his judgments about others are capricious and that he is an unreliable reporter. About his former comrade Brumbach he petulantly remarks: “He was a fat man / Fat men are seldom the best / Creative writers.” Finally he unwittingly discloses that he is undergoing treatment that, by both the manner and substance of his expression, we suspect is psychiatric:

Only Impli and I
Hung on, feeling as we did
That the last word had not
Finally been said. Sometimes
I feel, I might say, cheated.
Life here at Bad Grandstein
Is dull, is dull, what with
The eternal rocks and the river;
And Impli, though one of my
Dearest friends, can never,
I have decided, become great.

Thus we are reduced to little certainty at all about the reality of what happened apart from the patient's unreliable views, and we come to an unanticipated possibility in the poem's title. Perhaps the movement referred to is the development of conflict, uncertainty, and ambiguity in the very best expression of human vision; that is, in literature; certainly in this fine poem.

As a last instance of Nemerov's dramatic poem and its lesson for us about how extraordinary vision is successfully expressed, let us look at a paradise-lost poem, “Landscape with Figures,” in which an acutely self-conscious speaker tells us about his nearly seducing Mrs. Persepolis, who is in the garden with him. Only his awareness, he tells us, of her awareness of his lustful impulse (and hers too, perhaps: “her glittering eye”) prevents the moment and precludes their spontaneous falling into love-making. Whereupon the speaker turns from us, as he and she go into the chilling shade of the house, to reflectively address her about what nearly befell them:

                                                                      my dear
Mrs. Persepolis, beautiful
Exile from childhood, girl
In your rough and wrinkled
Sack suit, couldn't you cry
Over that funny moment when
We almost fell together
Into the green sleep of the
Landscape, the hooded hills
That dream us up & down?

Our first appraisal of the poem's imagery is likely to be that the fall of man has nearly recurred. But as we more carefully puzzle over the odd specifications about the characters' appearances and manners—his thinking that the hills are “Brooding some brutal thought / As it were about myself & / Mrs. Persepolis”; her venomous and hissing name; her “Wrinkling skin at the wrist / Patterned in sunburnt diamonds”; her “glittering eye” that takes his thought “exactly / as the toad's tongue takes a fly”; or their sudden cold-blooded chill as they leave the sunlight—we come to guess that the two of them are snakes. Then we may recall another of Nemerov's fables, “The Race,” in which he revalues the traditional outcome of the contest between tortoise and hare to suggest that the earnest, purposive participant is insane relative to the favorite in his idyllic recumbency. In “The Race” it is not our wholesome animal nature that fails us after all, but our purposeful abstracting minds that make us “The silent families / Mounted in glass / Facing the front” and “strictly passing / Away. …” Thus we are disposed to see that in “Landscape with Figures” Nemerov regards self-consciousness (knowing) as distancing us—inside our gardens and houses—from the containing landscape and as precluding the dream. Perspicaciously, he sees that our failing is not sensual experience so much as it is our taking thought so much.

Despite their extravagant vision, these dramatic poems presenting alien points of view are often gratifyingly public in manner because the human persona is a traditional intellectual mode for conceptual coherency. That is, we expect the various expressions of whatever phenomena have any presumption to human form to be sufficiently self-consistent to establish a recognizable type or variant. Further, Nemerov's poems such as “Learning by Doing,” “Sunday at the End of Summer,” “The Pond,” and “A Day on the Big Branch” are yet more public and comprehensible in presenting their visions because their manner is substantially narrative, which is undoubtedly our richest rhetorical mode. Even beyond the personal convention available in the dramatic poems, narrative is a framework that furnishes much circumstantial information toward our understanding. Both dramatic and narrative poems provide settings for percept and concept; we get not only views but sure ways of judging the views.

Many of Nemerov's poems are lyrical in mode, not dramatic or narrative. That is, they not only present a single point of view exclusively but they also appear as if they address virtually no audience. They are poems the poet makes for himself. Conscious address to any other audience would, of course, dramatize the speaker, alter his “voice,” and remove us from extremely close proximity to the poet's visionary experience. The very great advantage of the lyrical mode is that it offers us, through only an anonymous and mostly negligible personal lens, most direct possible access to human thoughts and feelings other than our own. Such poems are not necessarily lyrical in the primitive sense of being suitable for singing, although some of Nemerov's compositions, like his “Carol,” are to be sung. Others such as “Sarabande” and “The Breaking of Rainbows” at least refer to musical sensations, and some of the sonnets are, according to their convention, especially musical. “The Fall Again,” for example, is a Noah-poem that sounds according to the rainfall and water running in gutter and creek portrayed in it.

Because lyric invites the poet to “speak” as if he were not overtly expressing himself but only feeling and thinking to himself, we might suppose that the poet's vision would be less conventionally intelligible to us, despite our closer proximity to it. If we get to it with as little medium as is possible, we should nevertheless anticipate difficulty sharing its substance. We might expect that vision to be quite private, as if a human mind merely indulged itself in its own association of images and concepts, as if such poems dispensed with objective correlatives. And were we denied the exquisite and richly developed initial image of the trout poised in its pool, the experiences of thought and mind the poet reflects upon in “The Sanctuary” might indeed be indecipherable: “Pure thought, in principle, some way, is near / Madness” … (“Idea”). But, in fact, many of Nemerov's lyrics are among his clearest expressions and powerfully draw us into his vision. Some of these lyrical poems, like his sonnets for example, are accessible because their form or topic is either conventional or recognizably variant. But perhaps mostly his lyrics are typically accessible because they are often, at their beginnings, poems of vision in the most common, literal sense. For example, Nemerov, like many poets in the American tradition, is fond of homely images. Like his own fondly elegized Nature Poet, he especially enjoys drawing them from the Book of Nature. The dragonfly, with which he begins the last stanza in his elegy for Christopher, the drowned skater (“The Pond”), is a good example. Nemerov returns to it, we notice, in “The Dragonfly,” one of his Emblems in The Next Room of the Dream collection. Another easy instance occurs in “Dandelions” that develops the ephemeral plant as an emblem of human life's transiency. And perhaps I best cite “Runes,” III, which richly describes the mature heavy-seeded sunflower while also personifying it as a selfish imperialist merchant who is at last over-extended in self-aggrandizement. Altogether the poet sees the flower's fall as deserved, according to human moral principles, and concomitantly delights us by permitting us a growing realization that such principles of ours are rooted in the economy or integrity of our natural environment.

Nemerov's lyrics are often substantially descriptive. Here, for example, is the first stanza from the voluptuously rhymed and timed “Summer's Elegy”:

Day after day, day after still day,
The summer has begun to pass away.
Starlings at twilight fly clustered and call,
And branches bend, and leaves begin to fall.
The meadow and the orchard grass are mown,
And the meadowlark's house is cut down.

But perhaps “The Cherry Tree” yet more cogently develops and sustains a single image. The tree, flourishing between the earth and darkness beneath it and the light and sun above, is seen as the durable nucleus of a whole vital system, of “a minor universe.” Moreover, at first in the poem, the colorful tree is ripening its cherries “from white to pink, and to blood red.” It is regarded as lighting “its many suns,” as if the tree expressed sunlight and as if the tree nourished all life and were itself the source that gave being to the universe. But at last in the poem, the tree, having relinquished its fruit, casts its shadow on the earth to disclose that the “one sun” gives light to the tree yet more certainly than the tree gives light to the sun. Thus “The Cherry Tree” suggests that all being occurs in reciprocity between above and below, between light and dark. For indeed, the “bloody stones” and “rotting flesh” fallen to the ground may rise again as the tree renewed. In another poem—“Runes,” XII—the poet directs us to “Consider how the seed lost by a bird / Will harbor in its branches most remote / Descendants of the bird. …” “The Cherry Tree,” we can see, like “Blue Swallows” comes near to showing us that if things are lovely because intelligible, they are intelligible because lovely.

To a considerable extent, all this is delightful play with an image, but unlike the play for its own sake in the stunt-poems, this more advanced play carries us beyond the image and our usual common vision to see more deeply into our condition and circumstance. Consider how exquisite is “The End of Summer School.” Most of its stanzas describe delicate autumnal phenomena: a spider's web is silverly bedewed, leaves loosen and begin to fall, slowly ripened apples redden suddenly, seeds spin down, and baby spiders sail away on golden shining threads. But as these soft beauties are observed, their gradual cumulation inexorably becomes the immense hard fact of the cosmos:

And of the strength that slowly warps the stars
To strange harbors, the learned pupil knows
How adamant the anvil, fierce the hearth
Where imperceptible summer turns the rose.

Some of these poems by Nemerov look as if their sense or vision demanded expression in the particular image found or made. Such is “The Rope's End,” a jeremiad that compares the world to a great rope. The poet contends that we have never been sufficiently respectful about the integrity of all being. He indicts us for being vainly puzzled about the world's order—that is, nature—and for not regarding it as the creation that his paradoxically artificial image insists it is. He despairs that our examination itself unravels the rope we presume to examine, undoes the marvelous order we think to comprehend:

                                                  All this
In the last analysis
Is crazy man's work,
Admitted, who can leave
Nothing continuous
Since Adam's fall
Unraveled all.

In others of Nemerov's poems that sustain elaborate images, the poet plays with an engaging image and finds something in it. “Enthusiasm for Hats” is like this. Beginning with puzzled amusement at strangely showy Sunday headgear, the poet first supposes such bizarre costume mysteriously suitable somehow to occasion for worship, despite the apparent indecorum. But he finally suspects that the extravagant hats may unwittingly express, “As manifestations from the mind itself,” otherwise hidden sins and covert madness.

At last we appreciate that our query about whether the vision demands its image or whether an image comes to disclose truth is correlative to our earlier puzzle about whether things are lovely because intelligible, or intelligible because lovely. Do we see things because they are there in nature, or do things exist—that is, are they discernible as things—because we see them? In “Blue Swallows,” we recall, the poet, in reaction to our common sense, ambiguously insists on the latter proposition “Because the mind's eye lit the sun.” But in another mood—in “Projection”—he forgives our presumption:

They were so amply beautiful, the maps,
With their blue rivers winding to the sea,
So calmly beautiful, who could have blamed
Us? …

And we come to feel that both attitudes are the truth, that as Keats's urn says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” This is the truth, we see, in Nemerov's great meditative poems: some, like “Sanctuary” and “Blue Swallow,” leading us in amazement from wonder at our circumstances to wonder at ourselves; others, such as “The Beekeeper Speaks … And Is Silent,” principally leading us from the self to other; but all of them, after all, reciprocal. Finally we should notice that in “Shells,” his superb poem about poems among other things, Nemerov explicitly instructs us in this reciprocity. He observes this of the shell, of the poem:

Its form is only cryptically
Instructive, if at all: it winds
Like generality, from nothing to nothing
By means of nothing but itself.
It is a stairway going nowhere,
Our precious emblem of the steep ascent,
Perhaps, beginning at a point
And opening to infinity,
Or the other way, if you want it the other way.
Inside it, also, there is nothing
Except the obedient sound of waters
Beat by your Mediterranean, classic heart
In bloody tides as long as breath,
Bringing by turns the ebb and flood
Upon the ruining house of histories,
Whose whitening stones, in Africa,
Bake dry and blow away, in Athens,
In Rome. …

William Mills (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1970

SOURCE: Mills, William. “Introduction.” In The Stillness in Moving Things: The World of Howard Nemerov, pp. vii-xii. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1975.

[In the following introductory chapter to a book-length study of Nemerov, Mills notes that his purpose will be to align Nemerov's thinking with the philosophical trends of his age.]

Howard Nemerov once remarked “for good or ill nobody seems to have much to say about what I write. They either dislike it rather harshly, or say it's underrated and very fine … but that's about it.” Happily, this situation is changing, and one does not need long vision to see that, during the seventies, readings of Nemerov may well appear on the scene with a surge resembling that in Stevens criticism during the fifties and sixties.

When I first undertook this study, there was no extended investigation of Nemerov's poetry in sight. Since that time, however, Julia Bartholomay has published her fine book, The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov.1 Unaware of her work for some time, I continued my own, completing it with a consideration of the light shed by Nemerov's newest volume, Gnomes & Occasions. When I did come upon Ms. Bartholomay's work, I was naturally interested to see whether we had followed the same avenues of investigation. In the main, 1 concluded, we had not; she has considered the poet's vision through a study of his imagery. Although Ms. Bartholomay and I have pursued different lines of inquiry, and sometimes have reached different conclusions, her analyses of particular poems (especially the “Runes” sequence) are very fine and would be most helpful to any student of Nemerov.2

I have chosen to consider Nemerov's poetry in terms of certain subject matters, in the hope that these divisions might serve to interest new readers (since we are often initially drawn to a person's work for this very reason). And, more importantly, I was engaged by the unique way in which Nemerov approaches these subject matters. There is, of course, the danger of reducing the poems to the particular categories I have chosen, but any point of view has its attendant limitations. Violence will be done to the poems, but it is a real question whether this can ever be avoided in criticism. (And no one has written more eloquently on this question than Joseph Riddel in his study of William Carlos Williams, The Inverted Bell.3 It is my hope that these “violences” will offer a starting point for reflections.

There will no doubt be profitable studies in the future that will attend to placing Nemerov in relation to his contemporaries and to tradition. I have not undertaken such an investigation; indeed, I think it is likely too early for such work to be fruitful. But, as to twentieth-century movements, Nemerov is clearly a child of his age, specifically an age that includes Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Nemerov, while dialoguing with “the stillness in moving things,” is concurrently dialoguing with his fathers Stevens and Williams, to be sure, and because of his learning, with those of literary tradition in general. He is, too, in that direct line of descent from Donne and the Metaphysicals, with his penchant for metaphors found in the “new science,” his wit and love of punning and jokes.

There has been a fair amount of reaction to the poet (though not necessarily to the poems) in the literary quarterlies, and a summary of the reception of his books is readily available in Bowie Duncan's helpful volume The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov.4 Duncan observes in his introduction that there has been a contradictory critical response. Detractors claim the poetry is “academic” and “over-intellectualized,” while admirers think of it as “self-reflexive and multifaceted.” Both responses are no doubt grounded partially in taste. If one is looking for a response to the world in extravagantly sensuous terms, he will be disappointed with Nemerov's poetry—yet so many of his best poems respond to “deep sayings” found in wild nature. That there might be a mixed response in the romantic sixties could have been expected. Nemerov is not promising apocalypse, or millennium; and he is no darling of the television talk shows.

Julia Bartholomay has observed that “representing no poetic school or movement, Nemerov stands apart in his generation—a giant, if a lonely one, who continues to shun identification with literary fads and bandwagons. Although Louise Bogan cited his work as ‘an example of the well-written intelligently ordered poetry that has been termed “academic” by the experimentalists’ (and called ‘mandarin’ by Kenneth Rexroth), Nemerov has not engaged in the cold war between the ‘New England Poets’ (academicians) and the ‘Black Mountain/Beat Group,’ representing the short-lived San Francisco Renaissance and the confessional poetry of the fifties and sixties.”5 And for others to describe Nemerov, or any poet, as academic is almost meaningless (unless one decides to use the term as entirely pejorative) when one considers those attached to academies and the spectrum they reveal: from Theodore Roethke, James Dickey, Charles Olson, to Robert Creeley, John Berryman, William Stafford, Richard Wilbur, J. V. Cunningham, and so on.

As I have maintained throughout much of this study, one of Howard Nemerov's importances to us as twentieth-century readers is that his vision has been shaped by a way of seeing, listening, and saying that reflects in turn his own listening to other thinkers' thinking. There are real poets in our time who have been much less aware of certain modern dilemmas and crises, but it is this added dimension of Nemerov's poetry that greatly expands his vision (and which, perhaps, excludes some of his audience: how can they respond if they are only vaguely aware of such problems as the challenges of scientism and some forms of positivism).

Early in Nemerov's work it was clear that he shared with some of his contemporaries a concern for the problem of how we know what we know. After his third volume of poetry, The Salt Garden, this concern was omnipresent. As his way of looking at the world evolved it seems to have come more and more to resemble that of phenomenologists, specifically Husserl and his student Heidegger. It is not an accident that a poet should share some of the same concerns of these two philosophers. A poet might well feel threatened and of little value, for example, if the Cartesian view that mind through reason could apprehend objective reality was unassailable. Hume hardly helped matters by saying that the mind knew nothing at all. Kant, of course, met the problem, and to some extent, Husserl and Heidegger moved from his work to positions that are crucially different. Initially I turned to Husserl and his interpreters to confirm this approach to Nemerov, and after reading Riddel's Inverted Bell, my attention was directed to certain works of Heidegger (particularly On the Way to Language6). What struck me were the similarities in Nemerov's and Heidegger's vision, and sometimes language. Such similarities will hopefully be apparent enough that the recognition will prompt further investigation by others.

The importance of phenomenology and Heidegger for poets is that such a thing as lyric poetry would not be shunned as some kind of mere expressive meaning, or pseudostatement, but would in fact be regarded as authentic statement. Scientific knowledge is not considered the only kind of statement with real value. The poet becomes very important, especially for a time which Heidegger would call the “midnight of the world.” Poetry is respectful of things in a way that scientism is not. Thus, in a very important way, Nemerov speaks to us and reminds us, as he writes in “The Blue Swallows,” that “Finding again the world, / That is the point, where loveliness / Adorns intelligible things. …”

I have not included any biographical summary, for both Duncan and Bartholomay have such summaries. Presently Nemerov is teaching at Washington University in St. Louis. One of the most important biographical events, as far as Nemerov's audience is concerned, was his move in 1948 to Vermont, where he taught at Bennington College until 1966. From this landscape have come many of his finest poems. It seems to have been here that Nemerov began to “listen” so attentively to nature, “to find again the world.” What I would like to argue is that “listening” for Nemerov (what he calls his “aural imagination”) is clearly similar to the “listening” Heidegger urges. Nemerov does not mean, I contend, “aural” in the sense of hearing the sound of a car or a bird; if he did one might expect a preponderance of honking and chirping in the poems. Rather, he means an imagination that has opened itself up to being, has stopped and listened to being. In this way the imagination is the agent of reality. The rhythm that he speaks of hearing is the rhythm of being.

There is another side to the poetry, one that appears when the poet senses and/or becomes enraged at inauthentic behavior or “idle” talk. This might be a minister seeing a boom in religion as a result of increased affluence, as related in the poem “Boom!”—or groundless talk, hearsay, and gossip becoming the false basis for foolish, and destructive, action. I have discussed the poetry that engages such inauthentic activity in the chapter entitled “The Urban Landscape.” Though there are those readers who see Nemerov's work as deeply divided, the poet himself feels that at bottom there is a unity. And it may be that such a unity exists as two sides of a coin: language mirroring authentic experience; or language mirroring nothing at all, and as such meaningless.

It is perhaps to be expected that a poet who writes such a self-reflexive poetry would write about poetry itself, that he would be intensely concerned with language and metaphor. The problem involving language's relation to person (or poet) and thing is being vigorously pursued today and has been vigorously pursued in the past. Nemerov participates in this saying about Saying, and as I have attempted to show, sometimes takes over the language of language philosophy and, in particular, Heideggerian analysis. He echoes Heidegger's observation that “Poetry and thinking are modes of saying. The nearness that brings poetry and thinking together into neighborhood we call Saying. Here, we assume, is the essential nature of language. ‘To say,’ related to the Old Norse ‘sage,’ means to show: to make appear, set free, that is, to offer and extend what we call World, lighting and concealing it. This lighting and hiding proffer of the world is the essential being of Saying.”7

If Heidegger is correct in his notion that poetry is in touch with the ground of being, that language, and especially the language of poetry, gives authentic being to things, and if it is also true that Nemerov is responding in such a way to being, to “the stillness in moving things,” then perhaps Nemerov may be considered much more than the “poet of minimal affirmation” he has been labeled.8


  1. Julia Bartholomay, The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972).

  2. Within the presentation of my own argument I will refer the reader to Bartholomay's discussions when they seem appropriate.

  3. Joseph N. Riddel, The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counterpoetics of William Carlos Williams (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974).

  4. Bowie Duncan (ed.), The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov: A Selection of Essays and a Bibliography (Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1971). This book is a valuable reference tool; its bibliography is succinctly annotated, and the essays include both overview responses to Nemerov and particular responses to individual volumes.

  5. Bartholomay, Shield of Perseus, 4-5.

  6. Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).

  7. Ibid., 93.

  8. Duncan (ed.), The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov, 29.

William Mills (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8276

SOURCE: Mills, William. “Because the Mind's Eye Lit the Sun.” In The Stillness in Moving Things, pp. 1-30. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Mills dwells on the ways in which Nemerov's poetry reflects the tenets of phenomenology as outlined by Edmund Husserl and William Luijpen.]

One element in the poetry of Howard Nemerov that urges his relevance to contemporary audiences is his awareness of the main currents of thought during his own time. He does not write as if he lived in a pre-Cartesian world or as if the Einsteinian world picture had not come along. As poet and thinker he has taken the problems of his day seriously, engaged them, and this engagement is an intrinsic part of his value.

Nowhere is this awareness of the ideas of the times more apparent in Nemerov's work than in the area of epistemology. By “awareness” I do not mean that Nemerov has any systematic epistemological position. He may have, but his poetry would not be the likely place to present it. What one does find is an intelligence that is perfectly content to doubt itself in much the way that philosophy has had to do. There is a sufficient number of poems in the collected poetry to indicate that epistemology is a major concern and, in addition, a concern that has been a source of considerable interest and even anxiety for him.

“Solipsism & Solecism” (Gnomes and Occasions [hereafter cited as G & O]) dramatizes this particular species of anxiety in a particularly witty way.

Strange about shadows, but the sun
Has never seen a single one.
Should night be mentioned by the moon
He'd be appalled at what he's done.

“Turning on the light” of human perception may create as many problems as it solves. The poem emphasizes, too, the prison of the point of view. As soon as one moves about an object, he ceases to see the other side. The prison of solipsism quite naturally leads to anxiety and despair. The very etymology of solipsism associates itself with the modern preoccupation with “aloneness.” Punning on solecism, the sun has not seen “a single one,” the solecism itself. The sun would be “appalled,” or would “pale,” if he knew.

Nemerov's well-known poem “The Blue Swallows” is an example of poetry about the mind thinking. The speaker in the poem is on a bridge looking across a millstream and below him he sees seven blue swallows flying. Invisible paths of flight stick for a moment in the mind, then dissolve. The speaker considers how often the mind creates relationships that are no more the “fact” than the non-existent “designs” that have been created by the seven blue swallows.

Thus helplessly the mind in its brain
Weaves up relation's spindrift web,
Seeing the swallows' tails as nibs
Dipped in invisible ink, writing …

The speaker then goes on to enumerate some of the various kinds of “spindrift web” that man has woven.

Poor mind, what would you have them write?
Some cabalistic history
Whose authorship you might ascribe
To God? to Nature? Ah, poor ghost
You've capitalized your Self enough.

So much then for theology, and for Nature as God's “handiwork.” He goes on to remind us that William of Occam “took care of” this problem a long time ago. This habit of the mind, of “weaving up relation's spindrift web,” or of conjuring general concepts or universals, has no substance, in one sense of the word, and thinking that it does leads one astray:

That villainous William of Occam
Cut out the feet from under that dream
Some seven centuries ago.
It's taken that long for the mind
To waken, yawn and stretch, to see
With opened eyes emptied of speech
The real world where the spelling mind
Imposes with its grammar book
Unreal relations on the blue

Here the speaker might with Bertrand Russell say, “Gradually Occam's razor gave me a more clean-shaven picture of reality.” What follows in the poem is very suggestive of the poet's idea of the relationship the mind might have with that which is outside itself and, further, is an example of the affirmation the poet can make.

                              Perhaps when you will have
Fully awakened, I shall show you
A new thing: 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.

Just as we have learned that our general concepts and myths are constructs of our own doing and bear no relation necessarily to the “world of things,” likewise we may learn to “see,” with increasing precision, “things as they are.” I think Nemerov would care to stress in such a statement the word “increasing.” This is to say, a dynamic process that perhaps by necessity does not reach an end. Our experience would lead us to form this conclusion. Gradually we may learn to see better through the efforts of the poet, the scientist, and the philosopher.1

Elsewhere Nemerov has written on similar matters, and it is to the point to introduce his remarks here. His essay, “The Poetry of Wallace Stevens,” is very helpful in illuminating that poet's attitude toward the relation between mind and reality and is, incidentally, useful in describing Nemerov's own poetry. While he is suggesting an explanation for Stevens' choice of metaphor and its seemingly arbitrary character, he says that he ran upon a description of “the school of existential thought known as phenomenology” in Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, and it struck him as relevant to Stevens' way of approaching reality, or at least to his theory that the choice of metaphor for describing reality is arbitrary. There may be a common ground in Nemerov's own poetry. The passage from Camus concerns Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology:

Originally Husserl's method negates the classic procedure of the reason. … Thinking is not unifying or making the appearance familiar under the guise of a great principle. Thinking is learning all over again how to see, directing one's consciousness, making of every image a privileged place. In other words, phenomenology declines to explain the world, it wants to be merely a description of actual experience. It confirms absurd thought in its initial assertion that there is no truth, but merely truths. … Consciousness does not form the object of its understanding, it merely focuses, it is the act of attention, and, to borrow a Bergsonian image, it resembles the projector that suddenly focuses on an image. The difference is that there is no scenario, but a successive and incoherent illustration.2

To begin with, the idea that “thinking is not unifying or making the appearance familiar under the guise of a great principle,” that it is “learning all over again how to see, directing one's consciousness, making of every image a privileged place,” is very similar to the theme of “The Blue Swallows.” Further, this posture has been a fairly consistent one with Nemerov.

“To find again the world” is used here in a special sense. How exactly is this “finding” different from other ways already known? Nemerov has, in the first place, ruled out understanding particulars in terms of “a great principle,” or some “cabalistic history.” But what about finding the world by simply looking at “actual experience” in the way that scientists are doing every day? Surely physical science pretends to study experience without imposing “relation's spindrift web.” How is this to be understood as any different from the phenomenologist's contention that he is “really” doing it?

I have turned to a contemporary exponent of phenomenology, William Luijpen, for some definitions and distinctions that help to clarify the questions, for a description of the phenomenologist's position concerning scientism, and in turn the alternative way of looking at things advanced by Husserl. I have done this instead of looking at Husserl's basic writings in the interest of clarity and brevity.3 On the matter of scientific knowledge Luijpen writes that scientists think their science at least gives us “genuine and reliable knowledge.”

Such an attitude, however, contains a philosophy which is in principle “complete.” One who simply identifies physical science with genuine and reliable knowledge decrees that knowledge, tout court, is the kind of knowledge offered by physical science. But it is obviously beyond the competency of physical science to define what knowledge, tout court, is; that is the task of the philosopher. Moreover, one who proposes a “complete” theory of knowledge cannot avoid proposing also a “complete” theory of reality. For, no matter how he wishes to define knowledge, he cannot escape from admitting that knowledge, unlike dreaming, is a disclosure of reality. Thus, by absolutizing physical science, he proposes as a “complete” theory of reality that whatever cannot be disclosed by science is simply not real. Again, however, it is not the task of the physicist to define what reality, tout court, is; that task belongs to the philosopher.

Scientism is the name given to the absolutism of science, understood in the narrow sense of physical science, for until recently all positive sciences were defined as “still imperfect forms of physical science.” But scientism is an internal contradiction. By claiming that meaningful statements are statements of physical science, it implies that other kinds of statements are nonsense. Now, this claim itself obviously is not a statement of physical science and therefore must be classified as a nonsense statement. Those who make the claim, however, imply that it is a meaningful statement; hence the contradiction.4

Of course such a distinction between “scientific” knowledge and “another” kind of knowledge about particular things does not yet explain how Nemerov means “Finding again the world / … where loveliness / Adorns intelligible things,” but it is a necessary starting point.

Existential phenomenologists claim that they have overcome the divorce, apparent since Descartes, between the knowing subject and the world outside him. Luijpen notes, “Since Descartes philosophers accepted without question that knowledge was a mirroring of brute reality and that physical science was the system of objective mirror images.”5 Once the divorce between subject and world was introduced, there was the choice of emphasizing consciousness or the world—idealism or realism. This divorce does not exist, claims the phenomenologist. A brief summary of the phenomenological position as related by Luijpen may prove useful here.

If one wishes to speak about a blooming tree in a meadow, physical science can say something about the tree and the perception of it, e.g., physical and physiological processes. “But what sense does it make to wish to speak only in this way about the perception of a blooming tree in the meadow.”6 The blooming tree can be fragmented, or “atomized,” but this information is not more “objective,” when it comes to perceiving a tree. The tree is not a series of processes for us, but a blooming tree in a meadow and physics or some other science is not competent to explain it to us as it is. It is not that what a science may say about the cerebral processes is untrue, but when scientists speak of such things, “they do not speak of anything at all” unless ultimately they are trying to speak of the perception of the blooming tree in the meadow.”7 When Husserl says “Back to the things themselves” he means for us to go back to such an “original” experience—an integral way of knowing something as it occurs.

Knowledge is not a matter of “strong cognitive images” in the subject's interiority, but the immediate presence of the subject as a kind of “light” to a present reality. Knowledge is a mode of man's being-involved-in-the-world. The subject, then, is not “first” and in himself a kind of “psychical thing” which “subsequently” enters into relationship with physical things through cognitive images. Knowledge is not a relationship between two different realities, but is the subject himself involved in the world.8

Whatever violence has been done by summarizing Luijpen's analysis of this position, I think the general outlines remain intact.

The closing lines of “The Blue Swallows,” “Finding again the world / … where loveliness / Adorns intelligible things / Because the mind's eye lit the sun” (italics mine) may help to suggest Nemerov's general concept of how man knows. It may even be necessary to find the world again because science has atomized experience. Luijpen's example of a blooming tree in a meadow demonstrates that physical science does not speak about a “blooming tree in a meadow”; likewise physical science does not speak about “loveliness.” It must be said that Nemerov does not single out physical science in his poem, but physical science is included by implication.

And how does the mind's eye light the sun? From the phenomenologist's position, knowledge is the immediate presence of the subject as a kind of “light” to a present reality. Perhaps this is the way the world can be “found” again, a world where “loveliness” is still a meaningful reality. This is so only because the mind's eye lights the sun.

In a similar vein I think the poem “Celestial Globe” (The Blue Swallows [hereafter abbreviated as BS]) reflects this human knowledge as “intentionality” (as the phenomenologist likes to name this “immediate presence of the subject as a kind of ‘light’ to a present reality”). In a characteristic Hamlet-like stance of meditating on skull-surrogates of some kind, the Nemerovian speaker holds a celestial globe in his hand and pursues the associations. At one point in the action the speaker takes the hollow sphere and wears it on his head:

As a candle wears a pumpkin
At Halloween, when children
Rise as the dead; only
It has no human features,
No access to its depths
Whatever, where it keeps
In the utter dark
The candle of the sun,
The candle of the mind,
Twin fires that together
Turn all things inside out.

One of the données of the Nemerovian world is of course a universe that “keeps / In the utter dark” the inquiring mind. The speaker in the poem, like Nemerov himself, never has to worry, though, about running out of a sense of mystery, a fear many may have had from various demythologizing efforts of man. It is a world that does not seem to have any “access to its depths / Whatever.” Yet somehow the poem does not seem to end on a note of complete negation. There remain the powers of the “candles” of the sun and the mind. These powers have the ability to “turn all things inside out.” There are many rich possibilities to this last line. The sun was described as a “great source” which “Is blazing forth his fires.” In a very literal way the sun's insides, the source, are turned from inward, outward. The sun, too, is the power that turns the inward seed outward to life. In the second section of the poem, the mind is “turning things inside out.” Homer is the “dark fire fountaining forth / The twin poems of the war / And of the journey home—.”

It is apparent that this poem was not written with a “diagram” of phenomenology by which the poet simply fleshed out the model with concrete examples for the reader's quicker retention. If there is a departure from the basic attitude, though, it is a drift inward, a drift that sometimes appears to return to psychologism. This seems to be the limit of the movement.

Another Blue Swallows poem, “The Rope's End,” also touches on the kind of knowledge that physical science arrives at because of its methods.

Unraveling a rope
You begin at an end.
Taking the finished work
You pick it to its bits,
Straightening out the crossed,
Deriving many from one,
Moving forward in time
And backward in idea …
Having attained the first
Condition, being dust,
No longer resembling rope
Or cord or thread or hair,
And following no line:
Incapable of knot or wave
Or tying things together
Or making anything secure,
Unable to bind, or whip
Or hang till dead. All this
In the last analysis
Is crazy man's work,
Admitted, who can leave
Nothing continuous
Since Adam's fall
Unraveled all.

The idea is clear enough. The basic sentiment has a romantic emphasis about it. The image works very effectively in describing a functional object that has meaning as long as it is whole (tying things together and making them secure), an object that becomes useless after its atomization (unable to serve as whip or hangman's noose).

Nemerov obviously understands that a scientist (or engineer) needs to take things apart in order to understand them or make them better. But the poem is about taking things apart, like “a blooming tree in a meadow,” things which do not have the same reality once they are disintegrated. The “last analysis” of line 27 is the very last analysis and is indeed “crazy man's work.”

The same theme can be found, if somewhat more internalized, in “Endegeeste,” a poem from Mirrors and Windows, which Nemerov published nine years earlier. The scene in this poem is a view of Endegeeste, formerly a residence of Descartes and now a state insane asylum. Reading, and reflecting on the scene outside the window, the speaker sees a resemblance between his own situation and that of Descartes':

I live in a great and terrifying time,
As Descartes did. For both of us the dream
Has turned like milk, and the straight,
          slender tree
Twisted at root and branch hysterically.
I keep my reasonable doubt as gay
As any—though on the lawn they seem to say
Those patient, nodding heads, “sum, ergo sum.”
The elms' long shadows fall cold in my room.

The notion of a disorientation or a disintegration of the psyche or mind is associated with disintegration of the subject-object relation in a fashion somewhat like the one in “The Rope's End.” Nemerov even speculates that the world exhibits enough absurdity and madness to have been created with a circular causality. The “steady state” cosmology of the chicken-and-the-egg puzzle is suggested in “Creation Myth on a Moebius Band” from his latest volume, Gnomes & Occasions:

This world's just mad enough to have been made
By the Being his beings into Being prayed.

“Idea” (The Next Room of the Dream [hereafter cited as NRD]) reflects the tension with which the poet considers the mind's abstract capabilities. The tension seems to result from an admiration of abstraction and a sense of its destructiveness:

Idea blazes in darkness, a lonely star.
The witching hour is not twelve, but one.
Pure thought, in principle, some say, is near
Madness, but the independent mind thinks on
Breathing and burning, abstract as the air.
Supposing all this were a game of chess.
One learned to do without the pieces first,
And then the board; and finally, I guess,
Without the game. The lightship gone adrift,
Endangering others with its own distress.
O holy light! All other stars are gone,
The shapeless constellations sag and fall
Till navigation fails, though ships go on
This merry, mad adventure as before
Their single-minded masters meant to drown.

In the first stanza there is again the association of madness with unbalanced modes of knowledge as in “Endegeeste” and “The Rope's End.” In the second stanza one line of consequence is compared to a chess game, whose rules and values are arbitrary to begin with. Finally these are “abstracted” out of existence, even the game itself. The “lightship” of idea which “blazes in darkness” goes adrift, endangering others. The third stanza examines another line of consequence of abstraction. With idea as “polestar,” and that only, the light of the other stars is not apparent. The old constellations in the form of mythological figures derived from imaginary lines are no longer to the point; modern astronomy considers them abstractly. Abstraction of the heavens is rendered through the symbolic language of mathematics. With only the “polestar” of idea to guide the navigators, these “single-minded masters” are meant to drown.

The poem “Thought” (BS) is about the mind as it turns to itself. It begins, “thought is seldom itself / And never itself alone. It is the mind turning / To images.” This says that thought is only thought when it is thinking about something. (This is precisely the assertion of phenomenological “intentionality.”) Much of the time this “something” takes the form of images. The second section of this poem offers a little drama of process and reveals an attitude about the mind's conclusion concerning reality.

Leaves shaken in the wind
Rattle the light till shadows
Elide, and yet the grass
Bends to the weight of the wind
And not the shadows' weight.
The minnow-waves can mingle
In shallows at the shore
As if they were no matter,
Until they peak and break,
Taking the sunlight up
In a shatter of spray.

Matter is therefore real. The last section, however, proves somewhat difficult.

And mind in some such way
Passing across the world
May make its differences
At last unselfishly
The casualties of cause:
          Its likeness changes.

The mind may make the differences, the “apparent” differences and discrepancies, the “casualties” of the process of cause and effect. After this, the mental event, “The likeness changes,” the image of the world for now is focused in the way Camus describes it in The Myth of Sisyphus.

No matter how often Nemerov may disparage a useless fragmentation of the analytical process, he is emphatic about not preferring “cabalistic histories” or an unjustified explanation of particular experience in terms of some General Principle. “The Loon's Cry” (Mirrors & Windows [hereafter abbreviated as MW]) is a case in point. As the speaker takes a walk in the cold evening, he is intensely aware of the natural world around him. But he is not permitted to be “Nature's priest” in the way Wordsworth or someone like him would be. As the setting sun's ball of fire is imaged in the sea, the moon is somehow balanced in the river on the other side of him. The balance is striking. However there is a significant difference in this poet's response to the moment.

But I could think only, Red sun, white moon,
This is a natural beauty, it is not
Theology. For I had fallen from
The symboled world, where I in earlier days
Found mysteries of meaning, form, and fate
Signed on the sky, and now stood but between
A swamp of fire and a reflecting rock.

What is left of interest when the “symboled world” has fallen? As the speaker continues to reflect (midway in the walk) he concludes that “We'd traded all those mysteries in for things, / For essences in things, not understood—.” But as the poet “listens to nature speak,” even this possibility is not permitted.

As answering my thought a loon cried out
Laughter of desolation on the river,
A savage cry, now that the moon went up
And the sun down—yet when I heard him cry
Again, his voice seemed emptied of that sense
Or any other, and Adam I became,
Hearing the first loon cry in paradise.

Not even the substantiality of a reality in things is allowed. The man thinks now he understands what that cry meant. The loon's laughter does not seem to ridicule the idea that there is a fundamental force behind a constantly changing reality, although it does seem to deride any notion of a static idea or a static reality. The poet is driven to celebrate this force. As he celebrates it, he considers the moon, which may have been a living and changing world like the one he lives on, and then he considers the stars:

                                                                      Chaos of beauty, void,
O burning cold, against which we define
Both wretchedness and love. 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.

These signatures are not derived from any immanence that rests in fixed things, no “symboled world,” but truths of a changing reality that are what they are because of their relationship with man, the poet. Finding and naming these signatures in things is like the theme in “The Blue Swallows” of “Finding again the world … where loveliness / Adorns intelligible things.” It is interesting to note Stephen Daedalus' thoughts about “signatures” in the beginning of the third chapter of Ulysses.

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.

Joyce's conception of “signatures” may not be the same as Nemerov's, but the resemblance is striking.

At this point in “The Loon's Cry” the speaker thinks he may hear the bird mocking this notion that truths may be found in the changing reality.

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.

How is the tension of ideas resolved in this last stanza? Or is it even resolved? The train shakes the very bridge that the speaker views and which acts as the dividing fulcrum of the initial experience of balance: red sun, white moon. The bridge is not only not static and certain, but the train changes the signals on the bridge. As Nemerov presents the signals, the effect is not to suggest a change from red to green, but rather changing, alternating stop and go, “signing the cold night.” And now that the signatures have been “found and named again,” what is the relation to man? Perhaps the signature is not ambivalent, but about ambivalence, and about the ambiguity and mystery that constitute the world. The last “cry” of the train, “like a loon,” is only a double entendre to an already haunting ambiguity.

“The Sanctuary,” in the 1950 volume The Salt Garden, is an early analog of the mind and its habits. This is, incidentally, the first volume to reflect the writer's move from the city to the countryside of Vermont. It seems that as he “listens” to Nature, he discovers appropriate correlatives for his mental events with much more frequency. In “The Sanctuary” trout suspended in the water of a clear mountain stream suggest thinking.

… like thoughts emerging
Into a clear place in the mind, then going back,
Exchanging shape for shade.

At such moments his past and his own body seem to dissolve; as he becomes mind, all motion and change seem to stop.

                                                            Even at such times
The mind goes on transposing and revising
The elements of its long allegory
In which the anagoge is always death;
And while this vision blurs with empty tears,
I visit, in the cold pool of the skull,
A sanctuary where the slender trout
Feed on my drowned eyes … Until this trout
Pokes through the fabric of the surface to
Snap up a fly. As if a man's own eyes
Raised welts upon the mirror whence they stared,
I find this world again in focus, and
This fish, a shadow dammed in artifice,
Swims to the furthest shadows out of sight
Though not, in time's ruining stream, out of mind.

The mind that participates in this “transcendental” experience does not fall away in thoughtlessness, but continues as if by reflex to consider itself. The trout seem to feed on his eyes. The speaker has achieved some kind of terrifying oneness with the world outside his mind, until, literally, the trout breaks through the water to catch a fly and fractures the smooth film of the surface of the water. Figuratively the world outside his mind, the quiddity of things, seems to invade his mind violently. Or, the persona reflects, did his mind raise “the welts upon the mirror”; did he create what reality there was to this moment? Then the “picture” or image is once again in “focus.” The perspective is righted. But the speaker does not forget what an awesome and mysterious sequence took place during this time when the mirror was distorted. In this surreal drama, this fish, “like thought,” swims back to the subterranean places in the mind, out of sight of consciousness; but the mind knows it was there and it is not out of mind. A poem like “The Sanctuary” is a good example of the modern sensibility in action. Nature poetry can never be quite the same because of this sensibility.

“This, That & the Other” (BS) is a dialogue between two attitudes concerning knowledge and reality, those of physics and theology. The subtitle is much to the point: “a dialogue in disregard.” The scene of the poem (or dialogue) is a pond. Two figures (THIS and THAT) watch the snowflakes fall on the water and as they watch them they comment on the meaning of the phenomenon. THIS apparently is speaking from the point of view of the physicist, although he could be any realist. Like the symboled world of “The Loon's Cry,” this world has fallen, or else never existed for this character. He comments in a commonsensical fashion. His quasi-courteous companion considers the same phenomenon, but “interprets” it in terms of hermetic doctrine.

Though I get cold, and though it tells me nothing
Or maybe just because it tells me nothing,
I have to stand and watch the infinite white
Particulate chaos of the falling snow.
The things below are as the things above.
A parable of universal love,
To see the water taking in the snow.

THIS says that his companion can thus interpret if he cares to, but in fact he thinks, “There's no more reason in it than in dreams.” The answer does not deter THAT for a moment:

Then I'll interpret you this dream of yours
And make some sense of it; rather, of course,
Some mind of it, for sense is what you make,
And your provision is for me to take.
First, I observe a pretty polarity
Of black and white, and I ask, could this be
A legend of the mingling of the races?

THAT continues as hermetic theologian throughout the little drama. THIS observes in the middle of the dialogue that “One of the things [the surface of the water] does / Is mirror, and there's a model for all thought.” This seems to describe the view of the “naive realist” that Luijpen attacked. Luijpen maintained that one really could not speak about the problem of knowledge from this position, but must become philosophical, something which THIS is avoiding. THAT “philosophizes” but THIS murmurs “sleeveless speculation” to such thinking.

What is ironic is the last speech of the dialogue which is uttered by “Both.”

The Other is deeply meddled in this world.
We see no more than that the fallen light
Is wrinkled in and with the wrinkling wave.

It seems clear that the naive realist and the hermetic theologian can make the same statement about “The Other” and not mean the same thing, and in fact “disregard” each other's approach to reality altogether. This is possible because “The Other is deeply meddled in this world.”

The difficulty or even impossibility of grasping the whole of life Nemerov dramatizes in “Angel and Stone” (New & Selected Poems [hereafter cited as NSP]). One of the habitual scenes for the reflecting “I” in Nemerov's brooding lyrics appears in this poem: a pool of water whose surface serves as a mirror of reality. In this instance, the figure who looks into the pool thinks that so much of the difficulty of understanding the nature of things results from the perceiver's inevitably self-centered position.

In the world are millions and millions of men,
          and each man,
With a few exceptions, believes himself to be
          at the center,
A small number of his more or less necessary
          planets careering
Around him in an orderly manner, some
          morning stars singing together,
More distant galaxies shining like dust in any
          stray sunbeam
Of his attention. Since this is true not of one
          man or of two,
But of ever so many, it is hard to imagine
          what life must be like.

One might derive an orderly system of some sort that could account for the whole of things and the order of such a system appears beautiful. The poet uses the example of a stone cast into the middle of a pool. The concentric circles that move out from it and that touch the limits of the pool only to return to the center of the order-creating stone are beautiful. This same situation obtains if two stones are cast, because the angularities of the intersecting lines are interesting and beautiful: this phenomenon is not yet too complex to be understood and rewarding.

But if you throw a handful of sand into the
          water, it is confusion,
Not because the same laws have ceased to
          obtain, but only because
The limits of your vision in time and number
          forbid you to discriminate
Such fine, quick, myriad events as the angels
          and archangels, thrones
And dominations, principalities and powers,
          are delegated to witness
And declare the glory of before the Lord of
          everything that is.
Of these great beings and mirrors of being,
          little at present is known.

The “limits of your vision in time and number forbid you to discriminate. …”

The speaker then enumerates various ways of accounting for “these great beings and mirrors of being,” but the voice persists that little is known about “the manner of their perceiving.” They may not be as we imagine them at all. Physics concentrates on the particulars of grains of sand and the eccentricities of snowflakes. The historical point of view “reckons and records the tides of time.” Biology “Reads in the chromatin its cryptic scripture as the cell divides,” and mathematics considers such matters as probability and chance in the order of things. All of this “counting without confusion” is going on while what else is occurring?

                                        … while the pyramids stand still
In the desert and the deermouse huddles in
          his hold and the rain falls
Piercing the skin of the pool with water in
          water and making a million
And a million designs to be pleasingly latticed
          and laced and interfused
And mirrored to the Lord of everything that
          is by one and one and one.

In a way this expression of man's perception of reality is similar to the Zen parable of the reflection of the moonlight on the waves of the water. Depending on one's perspective, the picture appears differently, but after all, it is the same moon. But with this Nemerovian parable, there is perhaps not the same confidence. Somehow the pyramid seems quite impervious, the deermouse huddles in his hole quite undetected, and the very stuff of reality continues to feed “into itself” (or maybe from a source outside itself) and changes the very “transactions / Of all the particles.”

What is the final effect of the poem? Certainly the “partialness” of vision is there, but perhaps the effect is not altogether one of despair. The poet began by saying “it is hard to imagine what life must be like,” but when the poem is finished the vision of the world has become more inclusive because it images the sense of change and process with humility, and this sense of humility permits the flow of the mind to mingle with the flow of being.

The short poem “Knowledge,” in Gnomes & Occasions, contains similar thematic ideas.

Not living for each other's sake,
Mind and the world will rarely rime;
The raindrops aiming at the lake
Are right on target every time.

The first two lines echo the idea in “Angel and Stone,” that there are great limits to knowing. The last two lines are close in idea and feeling to the last two of “Angel and Stone”: “And mirrored to the Lord of everything that is by one and one and one.” Somehow, too, the intuition contained in both endings goes beyond paraphrase to a stillness, and a stillness where the reader resides.

Humility is further apparent in the first poem of that admirable sequence, “Runes” (NSP). It is a significant example of one side of Nemerov's art and evidence of his relevance to modern readers.

This is about the stillness in moving things,
In running water, also in the sleep
Of winter seeds, where time to come has tensed
Itself, enciphering a script so fine
Only the hourglass can magnify it, only
The years unfold its sentence from the root.
I have considered such things often, but
I cannot say I have thought deeply of them:
That is my theme, of thought and the defeat
Of thought of something and the thought of thought,
A trader doubly burdened, commercing
Out of one stillness and into another.

With the many references to mirrors and reflected images, it might be expected that the camera should figure in the poetry. In the “Sightseers” (BS) tourists walk about photographing “Where history was.” One of the many “sights” recorded is the “Fathers” in the Badlands, and the speaker declares that “Sometimes they dream / Of looking alive,” of entering the world of the living. But the camera, does not permit this:

… reflexion
Has intervened, and
The dark will won
Again, in the box
That knows no now,
In the mind bowed down
Among the shadows
Of shadowy things,
Itself a shadow
Less sure than they.

The reflected and static image of the “Fathers” has “intervened” in the dark of the box camera, which only knows the “past” and registers this in the blacks and whites of shadows and is in a sense a shadow of the “real.” By analogy, the dream of looking alive was created by the power of the imagination, but reflection intervened and “The dark will won / Again.” There is a fruitful association, in addition, with the dark of the coffin in this box that knows no now. The mind that reflects on the past and death and on the death of the past has bowed its head among the shadows of shadowy things; as a consequence this mind is less sure of its own reality than the reality of things.

“In the Black Museum” (The Blue Swallows) is a dark poem thematically and structurally. The darkness comes from a locked-in system or structure when two mirrors face each other:

Or as two mirrors vacuum-locked together
Exclude, along with all the world,
A light to see it by. Reflect on that.

In the earlier Mirrors and Windows, the arrangement of the poems resembles in a larger way the structure of “In the Black Museum.” But the resemblance is only apparent. Mirrors and Windows opens with the poem “The Mirror” in which the persona asks “how should I understand / What happens here as in the other world … ?” What intervenes or stands between this question and the first mirror of the book's beginning and the last mirror of the book's end is the imagination and reflecting light of the poet, who is himself using the mirror of language. The closing poem, and another mirror, is one of the Nemerovian answers.


Some shapes cannot be seen in a glass
those are the ones the heart breaks at.
They will never become valentines
or crucifixes, never. Night clouds
go on insanely as themselves
though metaphors would be prettier;
and when I see them massed at the edge
of the globe, neither weasel nor whale,
as though this world were, after all,
non-representational, I know
a truth that cannot be told, although
I try to tell you, “We are alone,
we know nothing, nothing, we shall die
frightened in our freedom, the one
who survives will change his name
to evade the vengeance for love. …”
Meanwhile the clouds go on clowning
over our heads in the floodlight of
a moon who is known to be Artemis
and Cynthia but sails away anyhow
beyond the serious poets with their
crazy ladies and cloudy histories,
their heroes in whose idiot dreams
the buzzard circles like a clock.

There are some “hard sayings” in this poem. In the world the night clouds do not resemble weasels and whales, do not “symbolize” or represent any underlying reality but “go on insanely as themselves.” This is a “non-representational world.” The moon once was Artemis or Cynthia, but as in “The Loon's Cry,” it has fallen from the “symboled world.” The “shapes” that are part of the human reality cannot be seen in a mirror, but these are the ones that break our hearts. In mid-poem Nemerov sadly concludes that man is solitary and that he knows nothing, and all the while, time, death's instrument, runs on. Such a poem has no doubt led to Meinke's description of Nemerov as a poet of “minimal affirmation.” The poem also signifies that the important knowledge for the poet is human knowledge.

Two other poems allude to seminal myths in western thought and convey a poignant attitude toward the human problem of trying to see. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (BS) opens with a description of the beginnings of human thought in terms of the Beowulf story: just as Grendel and Grendel's mother may well mythicize or project man's early search for ways to handle fears of the unknown, or at least of terrifying forces, so does thought in general spring from such sources.

The second stanza continues this idea, alluding to various myth fragments, and especially to that one relating to the minotaur and the labyrinth.

Our human thought arose at first in myth,
And going far enough became a myth once more;
Its pretty productions in between, those splendid
Tarnhelms and winged sandals, mirroring shields
And swords unbreakable, of guaranteed
Fatality, those endlessly winding labyrinths
In which all minotaurs might find themselves at home,
Deceived us with false views of the end, leaving
Invisible the obstinate residuum, so cloudly, cold,
Archaic, that waits beyond both purpose and fulfillment.

Truly between theology and metaphysics alone, there are enough endless labyrinths for any and all minotaurs. But Nemerov observes that just as human thought was born in myth, so it returns, creating “pretty productions” that deceive us about the end.

But the sophisticated speaker admits something that yet remains a mystery for him, too. That even with the courage to ignore these “pretty productions” there remains “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.

A different kind of mystery is intrinsic to the opening poem of Gnomes & Occasions. The very title, “Quaerendo Invenietis,” conveys the state of chance that surrounds the attempt to learn about the world and the way out of our various labyrinths: in seeking to learn, you discover by chance.


I am the combination to a door
That fools and wise with equal ease undo.
Your unthought thoughts are changes still unread
In me, without whom nothing's to be said.


It is a spiral way that trues my arc
Toward central silence and my unreached mark.
Singing and saying till his time be done,
The traveler does nothing. But the road goes on.


Without my meaning nothing, nothing means.
I am the wave for which the worlds make way.
A term of time, and sometimes too of death,
I am the silence in the things you say.(9)

What one learns by chance is the crucial and pervasive nature of silence and nothing. That silence and nothing may be the mother of meaning, a twist to the well-known paradox that death is the mother of beauty: “Without my meaning nothing, nothing means.” And the poet urges the reader to listen to the silences. Truly Nemerov is a poet of the silences, in all their terrifying aspects.

The closing poem of Gnomes & Occasions is yet another comment about the human adventure of seeking and learning. It is called “Beginner's Guide” and reveals the bewilderment one encounters in trying to learn about the physical world—the flowers, the birds, and the stars. The character in the poem buys field books to flowers and “Every spring he'd tear / From their hiding-places, press and memorize / A dozen pale beginners of the year.” Summer comes, however, and inundates him with species. His study of birds is even more troubled, because flowers stand still at least. He concentrates on “sedentary birds” but they too are just as likely to leave.

The world would not, nor he could not, stand still.
The longest life might be too short a one
To get by heart, in all its fine detail,
Earth's billion changes swinging on the sun.

His study of the stars was overwhelming. Hoping he would get some help, he buys a telescope, but this only serves to increase the number of stars to learn. The poem does not stop on this note, however. It ends affirming the value of learning as a continuing adventure.

The world was always being wider
And deeper and wiser than his little wit,
But it felt good to know the hundred names
And say them, in the warm room, in the winter,
Drowsing and dozing over his trying times,
Still to this world its wondering beginner.

“To a Scholar in the Stacks” (BS) takes up again the labyrinth and the minotaur that was evident in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and is more distinctly affirmative about the pursuit of knowledge. It, incidentally, evidences a man of letters in his late forties who has spent his adult life with belles lettres. The poem opens by describing how the scholar began his long journey in search of wisdom, the past, and beauty. The “maze” of all the learning, its complexity, seemed not even to offer an entrance. “A heart less bold would have refused to start, / A mind less ignorant would have stayed home.” All the action had been completed: Pasiphaë had borne the Minotaur, Daedalus had designed the labyrinth, and Theseus had found his way in and out of it many times. “What was there that had not been always done?” But because the scholar began, the way to the maze did open, and the story did become known.

And now? You have gone down, you have gone in,
You have become incredibly rich and wise
From wandering underground. And yet you weary
And disbelieve, daring the Minotaur
Who answers in the echoes of your voice,
Holding the thread that has no other end,
Speaking her name whom you abandoned long ago.
Then out of this what revelation comes?
Sometimes in darkness and in deep despair
You will remember, Theseus, that you were
The Minotaur, the Labyrinth and the thread
Yourself; even you were that ingener
That fled the maze and flew—so long ago—
Over the sunlit sea to Sicily.

This is a moving testimony and statement of belief by a scholar and man of letters in a time not especially noted for either moving testimonies or belief. It may well be that man himself has created the mazes and minotaurs, the devils and most intricate guilts. But just as surely, Nemerov says, he has found his way out and flown “Over the sunlit sea to Sicily.”

The poems examined in this chapter demonstrate over and over that it is “human knowledge” that Nemerov engages. It is not his desire, or his error, to seek the “dehumanized” knowledge of naive realism or scientism. But Nemerov goes beyond merely letting the “things” speak for themselves (“To the things themselves”) as “pure” phenomenology might demand. “Interpreting” bare things is alien to “pure” phenomenology, but not to the way of the poet. Like students and philosophical descendants of Husserl, Nemerov does not dwell on the method of knowing (as Husserl did), but rather what the way of knowing might reveal. Nemerov as poet has done what someone like Heidegger, Husserl's student, has done as philosopher—to be primarily interested in revealing “the stillness in moving things.” It is to Heidegger that I shall often turn to put Nemerov's world in a context.


  1. A variant reading of lines 29-35 might be, of course, that in death these false conjurings or errors do not continue; thus tears do not fall where, assuredly, they do not. Such a vision might come only with the loss of what makes us human.

  2. Nemerov quotes Camus in Poetry and Fiction: Essays (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1963), 79-80.

  3. For an introduction to Husserl, see his Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, trans. with an introduction by Quentin Lauer (New York: Harper & Row, 1965). For a deeper investigation Cartesian Meditations, tr. Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1960), and Ideas, tr. W. R. Boyce-Gibson (New York: Macmillan, 1941). Quentin Lauer has also written a fine commentary on Husserl and phenomenology entitled Phenomenology: Its Genesis and Prospect (Harper & Row, New York, 1965).

  4. William A. Luijpen and Henry J. Koren, A First Introduction to Existential Phenomenology (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 9-10.

  5. Ibid., 55-56.

  6. Ibid., 59.

  7. Ibid., 60.

  8. Ibid., 61.

  9. Julia Bartholomay (in The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov) remarks that Nemerov has divulged the answers to these riddles in public lectures: I, the alphabet; II, the tone-arm moving across the record; III, a sentence.

Gloria L. Young (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9589

SOURCE: Young, Gloria L. “‘The Fountainhead of All Forms’: Poetry and the Unconscious in Emerson and Howard Nemerov.” In Artful Thunder: Versions of the Romantic Tradition in Honor of Howard P. Vincent, edited by Robert J. DeMott and Sanford E. Marovitz, pp. 241-67. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Young outlines the ways in which Nemerov's poetry was prefigured by both Ralph Waldo Emerson's and Carl Jung's ideas of the unconscious.]

For it is the inert effort of each thought … to solidify and hem in the life. … But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses it already tends outward with a vast force and to immense and innumerable expansions.1

It is a commonplace of contemporary poetry, as Northrop Frye has pointed out, that “the natural metaphorical direction of the inside world is downward, into the profounder depths of consciousness”; this, he says, is a “Romantic inheritance.”2 It is not, however, commonplace to refer to Emerson as an important source of this inheritance. Emerson's marked influence on twentieth century poetry has been much discussed;3 his aesthetic theory has been most clearly expounded by Vivian C. Hopkins.4 Yet, Emerson's intuition of the unconscious as a source of inspiration has not been thoroughly analyzed nor has his anticipation of contemporary theories of the unconscious in poetry been sufficiently recognized.

The purpose of this essay is to confirm that Emerson's ideas of the unconscious anticipate certain psychological, linguistic, and aesthetic theories of Carl Jung, depth psychologist, and Howard Nemerov, poet, critic, and theorist.5 In each division of this essay—(1) description of the unconscious; (2) access to it; and (3) confrontation and interaction with it (process and product)—Emerson's ideas will be compared with those of Jung and Nemerov, with statements of other contemporary poets occasionally noted to suggest their awareness of the role of the unconscious in recent American poetry.

It is significant that Emerson sensed and described this “blind wisdom … seminal brain … which seems to sheathe a certain omniscience; and which, in the despair of language, is commonly called Instinct” (XII, 65), and in so doing he delineated concepts which would later be included in a larger circle, complete with psychological vocabulary. Ralph Rusk has pointed out that for Emerson no truth was final, “a bigger circle would include the one just drawn.” If this made Emerson's theories unstable, it was of little concern to Emerson, says Rusk, since he was always confident that “a little later on, if not now, they would be justified by a wise interpretation of experience.”6 Emerson probably would view contemporary theories of the unconscious as only another circle, since life “spawns and scorns system and system-makers” (X, 352).

Professor Hopkins, in her scholarly treatment of Emerson's aesthetic theory, discusses his concept of inspiration as beginning with the inflow from the Deity to a mind passively and receptively awaiting it. The difficulty is

that the artist is prevented by reverence for the Deity from complaining when intuitions fail to flow into his mind. Aware of this problem, Emerson denotes the term instinct as the special source of power for the arts and literature. … The action of instinct, in Emerson's theory, is negative rather than positive; though not itself a light, it is the source of illumination for creative artists.

(Spires, pp. 21-22)

Summarizing the “core of Emerson's theory of imagination,” she defines it as the “power of the creative mind to refashion the objects of nature … into symbols of his own thought” (pp. 37-38), but she finds “the gap which exists between the intuition in the artist's mind and its transference to objective matter” is the “principal lack in Emerson's concept of form” (p. 137). It is the same “gap” that Carl Jung (as well as many contemporary poets) believes is bridged through language: the conscious mind submerges into the unconscious, brings up archetypal images (the raw material of the unconscious), and transforms them into symbols. Professor Hopkins admits that Emerson “has studied the sub-ego more carefully than any other contemporary critic, and that he has made definite use of it in relation to aesthetics,” but “without in any real sense anticipating Freud's concept of the subconscious” (p. 183). Twenty years later, however, she supports the view that Emerson's interpretation of dreams “anticipates some present-day psychological theories and methods.”7 It seems incredible that Emerson—operating in the dark, suspecting the presence of unconscious power, recognizing an unknown, non-self in his dreams, distrusting it as he distrusted anything unintelligible, struggling to name and describe this force—should have anticipated so much.


Constantly beset by the inability of language to describe his intuition of the unconscious, Emerson uses various and sometimes contradictory figures of speech, each suggesting some aspect of his “feeling” of the underlying psyche. Some personifications refer to the Over-Soul (real Being, Essence, God); others refer to a kind of Under-Soul (aboriginal Self, Earth Spirit, Primeval world); still others simply describe the qualities of the unconscious (aboriginal abyss, unknown country, alien energy, secret augury). The term “unconscious,” used by Emerson, is the correct term, according to Jung, since it should not be designated as “subconscious,” being not merely “below consciousness but also above it.”8

Emerson frequently used water to symbolize the unconscious:

Earth Spirit, living a black river like that swarthy stream which rushes through the human body is thy nature, demoniacal, warm, fruitful, sad, nocturnal.9

Under all this running sea of circumstance, whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance, lies the aboriginal abyss of real Being. Essence, or God, is not a relation or a part, but the whole.

(II, 120-121)

The waters of the great deep have ingress and egress to the soul. But if I speak, I define, I confine and am less.

(II, 342)

Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence. The most exact calculator has no prescience that somewhat incalculable may not balk the very next moment. … When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come.

(II, 268)

Sensing the unconscious sometimes as a higher power, sometimes as a lower, Emerson acknowledges: “We see at once that we have no language subtle enough for distinctions in that inaccessible region.” Realizing that there will be objections to representing “the Divine Being as an unconscious somewhat,” Emerson answers that the “unconsciousness we spake of was merely relative to us. … We predicate nothing of its consciousness or unconsciousness in relation to itself” (J., Apr. 27, 1840).

The term Emerson most frequently uses to name the unconscious “potential wit” is Instinct, described as a source of mental power

which pours all the others into its mould;—that unknown country in which all the rivers of our knowledge have their fountains, and which, by its qualities and structure, determines both the nature of the waters and the direction in which they flow.

(XII, 33-34)

Instinct is passive, potential, negative—“a shapeless giant in the cave, massive, without hands or fingers or articulating lips or teeth or tongue; Behemoth, disdaining speech, disdaining particulars, lurking, surly, invincible, disdaining thoughts, always whole, never distributed, aboriginal, old as Nature.” Beginning at this low point, “at the surface of the earth,” it works first for the necessities of man and then “ascends stop by stop to suggestions which are when expressed the intellectual and moral laws.” Instinct is “a taper, a spark in the great night. Yet a spark at which all the illuminations of human arts and sciences were kindled.” And “inspiration,” says Emerson, “is only this power excited, breaking its silence; the spark bursting into flame” (XII, 34-35). Inspiration, an “enlarged power,” accomplishes what is “great and lasting” by leaning on the “secret augury” (VIII, 271), providing the source of genius (II, 64).

Carl Jung, also, used the metaphor of water to describe the unconscious:

Therefore the way of the soul … leads to the water, to the dark mirror that reposes at its bottom. … This water is no figure of speech, but a living symbol of the psyche. … The dreamer descends into his own depths and the way leads him to the mysterious water. … But the breath of the spirit rushing over the dark water is uncanny, like everything whose cause we do not know—since it is not ourselves. It hints at an unseen presence, a numen to which neither human expectations nor the machinations of the will have given life. It lives of itself. … It is a spookish thing and primitive fear seizes the naive mind.

(A.C.U., p. 17)

In psychological terminology, Jung hypothesizes that

In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche, there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals … is inherited … consists of preexistent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.

(A.C.U., p. 43)

Jung differentiates between a “superficial layer of the unconscious,” wholly personal, containing the “feeling-toned complexes” (Freud's concept), and a deeper “collective” layer, containing primordial archetypes that make up a “common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature.” The archetypes, psychic contents not yet “submitted to conscious elaboration,” are, therefore, an “immediate datum of psychic experience” (A.C.U., pp. 3-4). Echoing Emerson's intuition of instinct's determining not only the nature of the waters but the direction in which they flow, Jung states that unconscious archetypes force man's “ways of perception and apprehension into specifically human patterns.”10 When man feels “menaced by alien powers” (A.C.U., p. 105), he is not inventing but experiencing them.

Paralleling Emerson's and Jung's descriptions of the unconscious, Howard Nemerov uses images of water and light throughout his poetry. The dark and wrinkled sea symbolizes the ground of being, the unconscious, the alien, the Other, as well as the great mother whose salt water flows in man's veins and in his tears. Life, like raindrops or snowflakes, is always merging and flowing, from stream to river to sea. Light images (Emerson's flame) symbolize inspiration, imagination, and mind. It is the imagination that sees, listens, transforms, and reconciles the “pond as birthplace and deathplace, the liquid mother and mirror whence beautiful and terrible forms arise, and whereto they return.”11 Discussing his poem, “Painting a Mountain Stream,” Nemerov describes an “unknowably large part of a material world whose independent existence might be likened to that of the human unconscious, a sleep of causes, a chaos of the possible-impossible, responsive only to the wakening touch of desire and fear—that is, to spirit; that is to the word.”12 “The image … most appropriate for this nation,” he adds, is the image of a “stream, a river, a waterfall, a fountain, or else of a still and deep reflecting pool.” One must bring to this world an attitude of “attentiveness and obedience,” recognizing, however, that it cannot be plumbed: “The visible way is always down / but there is no floor to the world” (Poets on Poetry [hereafter abbreviated as P.P.], pp. 248-249).13

In “The Sanctuary,”14 Nemerov envisions a trout sanctuary as the “pool of the skull” where images swim. On the floor of the pool, one sees “The numerous springs moving their mouths of sand,” and the trout, “With a delicate bend and reflex / Of their tails … glide”

From the shadowy side into the light, so clear,
And back again into the shadows; slow
And so definite, like thoughts emerging
Into a clear place in the mind, then going back,
Exchanging shape for shade.

The images appear in consciousness and then move back into unconsciousness, or hang “between the surface and the slate / For several minutes without moving, like / A silence in a dream.” As the poet observes the phenomena, his life “Seems to have been suddenly moved a great / Distance away on every side,” as though

The quietest thought of all stood in the pale
Watery light alone, and was no more
My own than the speckled trout I stare upon
All but unseeing. Even at such times
The mind goes on transposing and revising
The elements of its long allegory
In which the anagoge is always death;

While the poet meditates, a trout “pokes through the fabric of the surface to / Snap up a fly. As if a man's own eyes”

Raised welts upon the mirror whence they stared,
I find this world again in focus, and
This fish, a shadow dammed in artifice,
Swims to the furthest shadows out of sight
Though not, in time's ruining stream, out of mind.(15)

The archetypal images may be temporarily dammed through artifice, but being protected and holy, they revert back into unconscious content. Only the moment of flowing can be captured, not the essence; being imperishable, they are not “out of mind,” though “out of sight” in “Time's ruining stream.”16

In a long poem, “To Lu Chi,” Nemerov describes the unconscious as a “pure and hidden reach,”

Some still, reed-hidden and reflective stream
Where the heron fishes in his own image.

The poem is a reflective debate between a modern poet and Lu Chi (A.D. 302). In the modern world, the poet tells Lu Chi, “They say, the arts, / And poetry first … must wither away.” Even when “all civilisation / Quite visibly and audibly collapses,” they still will not “consult those who consult the source.” “What then? Nothing but this, old sir: Continue” Continue to

Look into the clear and mirroring stream
Where images remain although the water
Passes away.(17)

Similarly, for Emerson poetry is the constant attempt to “pass the brute body” and “to see that the object is always flowing away, whilst the spirit or necessity which causes it subsists” (VIII, 17).


The “unknown country in which all the rivers of our knowledge have their fountains” is there, but “How?” asks Emerson, is this source to be tapped? He answers that one must “invent means. … Power is the authentic mark of spirit” (XII, 73). One may sometimes reach it consciously, says Emerson: the “primeval world,—the Fore-World … I can dive to it in myself” (II, 23). The key is to release the will, “to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety” (II, 321-322). One must “subject to thought things seen without (voluntary) thought. … The feeling of all great poets has accorded with this. They found the verse, not made it” (VII, 49-50). New energy, “beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect,” is derived from “abandonment to the nature of things” (III, 26); “we sink to rise” (VIII, 42). The poet's effort is the “least part of his work of art” (VII, 43), his will “only the surrender of will” (I, 213). Thoughts enter and leave minds through “avenues … never voluntarily opened” (II, 286). Emerson mentions having written poems he does not remember composing nor correcting (J., Jan. 1852), elsewhere noting that the artist is often “as much surprised at the effect” as others (VII, 46). Although one can occasionally dive into the unconscious through conscious effort, more frequently such states are “coy and capricious,” not to be “too exactly” tasked and harnessed, having “a life of their own, independent of our wills” (XII, 77). At best, the experience is never consecutive—“A glimpse, a point of view … but no panorama” (VIII, 273).

Usually, access to the unconscious is gained through unconscious means: the dreams and fantasies of early childhood, mythology and fable, sleep, religious ecstasy, madness, the occult, and drugs. Emerson believes the dreams of childhood, myth and fable, and the dreams of sleep to be valid and genuine sources of inspiration, but he is suspicious of the others.

“A sleeping child” seems to Emerson “a traveller in a very far country” (J, Sept. 16, 1840). Mythology, stemming from the childhood of the race, “repeats itself in the experience of every child. He too is a demon or god thrown into a particular chaos, where he strives ever to lead things from disorder into order” (I, 206). Pan, an early and primitive intimation of the All, according to Emerson, is described by him in language echoing his description of Instinct: “refusing to speak, clinging to his behemoth way” (XII, 36). Fable, also, may have in it “somewhat divine” since it came “from thought above the will of the writer … that which flowed out of his constitution and not from his too active invention” (II, 108). If only, laments Emerson, “we could retain our early innocence, we might trust our feet uncommanded to take the right path. … But we have interfered too often” (XII, 37).

By acknowledging the powers of dreams, Emerson emphasizes the unconscious as a generative source of creativity: “In dreams we are true poets; we create the persons of the drama” and they “speak after their own characters, not ours” (VIII, 44-45). That in dreams he “must be the author of both parts of the dialogue … is ever wonderful” (J., Oct. 24, 1866) to Emerson. It is only “by repairing to the fountainhead of all forms” that the artist can be illuminated, “for as soon as we let our will go and let the unconscious states ensue, see what cunning draughtsmen we are” (II, 337). Participation in dreams frees the poet of conscious fetters and transcends “all limit and privacy”; consequently, man becomes “the conductor of the whole river of electricity” (III, 40)—the water and the spark united. Dreams serve to unite the active and passive selves and cause the viewer to see himself as an object—as with a double consciousness. The following passage from “Demonology” is incredibly sound in terms of ideas prevalent today:

Dreams have a poetic integrity and truth. … They seem to us to suggest an abundance and fluency of thought not familiar to the waking experience. They pique us by independence of us, yet we know ourselves in this mad crowd, and owe to dreams a kind of divination and wisdom. My dreams are not me; they are not Nature, or the Not-me: they are both. They have a double consciousness, at once sub- and ob-jective. … Wise and sometimes terrible hints shall in them be thrown to the man out of a quite unknown intelligence. … Once or twice the conscious fetters shall seem to be unlocked, and a freer utterance attained. A prophetic character in all ages has haunted them. They are the maturation often of opinions not consciously carried out to statements, but whereof we already possessed the elements.

(X, 7-8)

Through “miracles … enthusiasm … Animal Magnetism; prayer; eloquence; self-healing,” reason may lose its “momentary grasp of the sceptre” and find the “power which exists not in time or space, but an instantaneous in-streaming causing power” (I, 73). Trances, visions, convulsions, and illumination, also, may be “varying forms of that shudder of awe and delight” when the individual soul mingles with the universal soul (II, 281-282). There are dangers, however, attending the “opening of the religious sense in men” since there is a “certain tendency to insanity” in such men, as if they had been “blasted with excess of light” (II, 281-282). The experience called by the ancients, “ecstasy or absence,—a getting out of their bodies to think,” may come in “terror, and with shocks to the mind of the receiver” and may drive man mad (IV, 97). Genius, too, has its dangers. Emerson agrees with Aristotle that “no great genius was ever without some mixture of madness” and things grand and superior can be spoken only by the “agitated soul” (VIII, 279). Nevertheless, the result is worth the risk: “Men of large calibre, though with some eccentricity or madness … help us more than balanced mediocre minds” (IV, 98-99).

In addition, access to the unconscious may be gained through the occult: “omens, coincidences, luck, sortilege, magic and other experiences which shun rather than court inquiry.” Although Emerson views the occult with suspicion, he agrees that it may give “hints” to man and “shed light on our structure” (X, 3). Animal magnetism, for instance, sometimes viewed by Emerson as a religious phenomenon and sometimes as a “black art,” nevertheless, seems “to open again that door which was open to the imagination of childhood—of magicians and fairies” (X, 25). Denying the “impatience which cannot brook the supernatural … and the great presentiments which haunt us,” he “willingly” says, “Hail! to the unknown awful powers which transcend the ken of the understanding” (X, 27). Still, such things are not to his liking. “I set down these things as I find them, but however poetic these twilights of thought, I like daylight” (X, 19).18

The poet, then, in reaching the unconscious, works to an “end above his will, and by means, too, which are out of his will” (XII, 71). The experiencing of the unconscious may bring “terror” and “shock” or “awe and delight.” The “sublime” (II, 267) is felt when the emotion seems to come from above; but the “pain of an alien world,” a world “not yet subdued by thought,” is realized when it comes from below. Emerson asks if the “dire” may be the “act of the imagination when groping for its symbols in these parts or functions of nature which nature conceals because painful to the observer?”19

One “groping” explanation for man's occasional experience of an alien world may be that he is part of it at an unconscious, unremembered level. At the Jardin des Plantes, his feelings of “occult sympathies,” as if “looking at our bone and flesh through coloring and distorting glasses,” led him to speculate that men still have knowledge of the creatures they hunt (XII, 22). As early as Nature, Emerson felt an “occult relation between man and vegetable” (I, 10), and in “Powers and Laws of Thought,” man seems to Emerson to be a “higher plant” (XII, 24). Man can know nature, having just come out of it, from the “chemic lump” to the plant to the quadruped to the man. “He is not only representative, but participant” (IV, 11). Yet, Emerson believed that what was ugly or beastlike would eventually disappear (I, 76), since in the “secular melioration of the planet” the inharmonious in nature would “become unnecessary” and “die out” (VII, 276).

Like Emerson, Jung recognizes the power, energy, and danger which derives from the confrontation with the unconscious. The experience, Jung says, while “redeeming” and giving power, may also “unleash a dangerous enthusiasm” (S.D., p. 315). Like Emerson again, Jung believes that one may enter the unconscious through certain conscious techniques employed by the “active imagination” (A.C.U., p. 44):

One concentrates one's attention on some dream image, or on visual impression, and observes the changes taking place in it. It brings a mass of unconscious material to light. … The experiences which result differ from dream only by reason of their better form, which comes from the fact that the contents were perceived not by a dreaming but by a waking consciousness.

(A.C.U., p. 190)

Art, intuition, telepathic phenomena are the result of such “creative fantasy” in which “primordial images are made visible” through conscious “perception via the unconscious” (A.C.U., pp. 78, 282, 142).

The unconscious, containing “all the fantasy combinations” (S.D., p. 69), reveals itself in the “psychic phenomena” of dreams, religion, trance states, visions, early childhood fantasies, primitive tribal lore, myth and fairy tale, magic, and insanity (A.C.U., pp. 5, 7, 44). But the further away from immediate experience these archetypes of myth and religion become, the less meaningful they are to man. Emerson's sense of seeing one's self in a dream as an “object,” a “pensioner,” is described by Jung: “In the realm of consciousness we are our own masters; we seem to be the factors (makers) themselves. But if we step through the door of the shadow we discover with terror that we are the objects of unseen factors” (A.C.U., p. 23). When dealing with the unconscious, Jung comments that “we are more possessed than possessing” (A.C.U., p. 187).

Emerson's intuition of man's “occult relation” with the vegetable-animal world is paralleled by Jung who says that the unconscious contains “forgotten material” of the personal past plus inherited “behaviour traces” constituting the structure of the mind. The unconscious supplements the picture of the human personality with “living figures ranging from the animal to the divine, as the two extremes outside men, and rounds out the animal extreme, through the addition of vegetable” (A.C.U., pp. 69, 188). For Jung, beast images and other negative archetypes belong to the “family of figures which describe the dark, nocturnal, lower chthonic element,” sharing in the “daemonically superhuman” and the “bestially subhuman” (A.C.U., pp. 234, 230), but they are not likely to disappear as Emerson optimistically predicted.

For Howard Nemerov, the unconscious is simply an unknown “other,” which may, under certain conditions, enter consciousness. One cannot define it, since this requires a “talent for mystical experience” (Poetry and Fiction [hereafter abbreviated as P.F.], pp. 11-12), but one may gain access to it through “attentiveness and obedience.” He is drawn to Keats' idea of negative capability, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”: one looks, listens, and transforms (P.P., pp. 248-249). In the process of combining the materials of the “world-in-language,” Nemerov, like Emerson, finds that “once in a great while” the “poet surprises himself, or it surprises him, with thoughts beyond the reaches of his soul.” The self may be “suddenly invaded by the Other, the Outside,” offering the old dream of “divination and esoteric oracular utterance.” Nemerov calls this the “heartbreaking dream of poetry itself, to persuade an indifferent and mighty Nature to respond to the human,” a dream which cannot be accomplished by will alone.20 The poet for Nemerov, as for Emerson, is oracular, vatic, “not speaking so much as spoken through by something other than himself,” which may be thought of as “divinity, Muse, Goddess, Holy Spirit”; the poetic function of the Other is simply to be other, “hence to guarantee that the poet shall express not his silly little personal consciousness but the vast consciousness open to the Other” (S.E., pp. 400-401).21

Nemerov chose “Runes” for Poet's Choice, calling it a drama, with progression from “statement through dispute to resolution.”22 The “statement” is in poem I: “This is about the stillness in moving things, / In running water. … That is my theme, of thought and the defeat / of thought before its object.” Thought can only be caught in its flowing since “every tense / Is now.” Nevertheless, “out of this head … Are basilisks who write our sentences” (poem IV). The descent into the waters of the unconscious is described:

To go low, to be as nothing, to die,
To sleep in the dark water …
And through the tangle of the sleeping roots
… and past the buried hulls of things
To come, and humbly through the breathing dreams
Of all small creatures sleeping in the earth;
To fall with the weight of things down on the one
Still ebbing stream, to go on to the end …
Into the pit where zero's eye is closed.

(poem VIII)

As water in the “soft green stalks and tubes” hardens into wood and as the seed is “compacted under pressures” into stone, so are the images soldified into language. The “truth,” however, lies in the flowing quality of the symbol—in the memory of “how the water is streaming still” and of how the division of the seed “pours a stream, between / The raindrop and the sea, running in one / Direction, down, and gathering in its course / That bitter salt” (poem XII). Poem XIV describes the crossing of the threshold, “The water of the eye where the world walks,” and poem XV, the resolution:

To watch water, to watch running water
Is to know a secret. …
It is a secret. Or it is not to know
The secret, but to have it in your keeping,
… it is not knowing, it is not keeping,
But being the secret hidden from yourself.(23)

Nemerov describes the “voice of the eternally other” as a further voice of poetry, about which little can be said except that as certain times it is there, “the resonance that in our repetition of the poet's words seems to come from the outside, when the ‘shadow of an external world draws near’” (P.F., p. 92).24 “Poetry,” Nemerov adds, “is the art of contemplating this situation in the mirror of language” (Emerson calls the world the poet's “mirror and echo” [X, 191]). Through languge, “the marvelous mirror of the human condition,” Nemerov believes the poet can show “the relations between things.” However, “the mirror is a limit, and as such, it is sorrowful; one wants to break it and look beyond.” But outside the garden “where relations grow … is the wild abyss” (P.F., pp. 11-13).

In “The Salt Garden,” the persona of the poem has wrested a garden of relations from the ocean's floor with “much patience and some sweat.” Sitting in his green garden, “in a decent order set,” he watches the work that he has done “Bend in the salt wind.” Becoming aware of “The ocean's wrinkled green,” maneuvering in its sleep, he despises what he had planned—“For what can man keep?” In stanza 2, the gull, “like a high priest / Bird-masked, mantled in grey,” “like a merchant prince / Come to some poor province,” contemptuously surveys the garden. As it vanishes seaward, the gull utters a cry in a “strange tongue but the tone clear,” which seems to tell the poet that the gull has come

… brutal, mysterious,
To teach the tenant gardener,
Green fellow of this paradise
Where his salt dream lies.

(The Salt Garden [hereafter abbreviated as S.G.], pp. 41-43)

The poet realizes he is only a tenant, a “pensioner,” as Emerson says; the salt sea in his garden, his veins, and his tears, tells him he is “participant” only. The Other can invade man's rationally ordered world and menace his imagined unity. In Emerson's words, the “bitten world” (“the gnat grasping the world” [XII, 11]) may hold the “biter fast by his own teeth,” and although man perishes, “unconquered nature lives on” (IV, 77); the “abysmal Forces, untameable and immense” may crop out in man's “planted gardens” (J., Oct. 27, 1845).25

Art mirrors through the “magic of language. … It is also the magic of impersonation, and not without its sinister aspect, the being possessed by spirits, or by the spirit” (P.F., p. 90). In “A Predecessor of Perseus,” Nemerov reveals the need for art as shield against the chaos of the other. Perseus used the mirror of Athena's shield against the Gorgon, but the “predecessor” of Perseus had no mirror. “Stravaging through the Dark Wood,” he rides forth on his quest, “and maybe he will keep on going / Until the grey unbearable she of the world / Shall raise her eyes, and recognize, and grin / At her eternal amateur's approach.” The predecessor, “All guts no glass,” will be “stricken in the likeness of himself.”26

The limitation of the mirror of art is sorrowful. Like Emerson, who laments that “facts do not sit for their portrait … but lie in a web” (II, 334), Nemerov says, the “shapes” that “cannot be seen in a glass” are the ones “the heart breaks at” (“Holding the Mirror Up to Nature,” Mirrors and Windows [hereafter abbreviated as M.W.], p. 102):

They will never become valentines
or crucifixes, never. Night clouds
go on insanely as themselves
though metaphors would be prettier;
and when I see them massed at the edge
of the globe, neither weasel nor whale,
as though this world were, after all,
non-representational, I know
a truth that cannot be told, although
I try to tell you, “We are alone,
we know nothing, nothing, we shall die
frightened in our freedom.”

The world goes on being itself, and the moon, known by poets “to be Artemis,” sails away, beyond the serious poets with their “crazy ladies and cloudy histories.”

“The idea of the Other” is for Nemerov, as for Emerson and Jung, “a somewhat dangerous as well as tempting idea, magical, religious, superstitious, according to your point of view” (S.E., p. 401). In “The Scales of the Eyes,” eighteen poems which constitute the “variations” of the “text,” the quest to obtain the treasures of the unconscious becomes “a kind of spiritual exercise.” Through poetry, one attempts “to pray one's humanity back into the universe; and conversely … to read, to derive anew one's humanity from nature.”27 The “text” is stated in the first poem of the series:

To fleece the Fleece from golden sheep,
Or prey, or get—is it not lewd
That we be eaten by our food
And slept by sleepers in our sleep?(28)

The poet preys on (prays to) the unconscious and is consumed by what he consumes (the unconscious determines him). The mind fleeces (steals from, preys) the Fleece (treasure, poem, reality) and reacts upon itself, so that the act of fleecing becomes synonymous with the result (Fleece). In poem VI, the poet finds that the world, “Already old when I began,” is “not my oyster, nor / No slow socratic pearl grows here.” Instead, like Emerson's boa constrictor, the world may close in on him: “The blind valves are closing / On only one grain of sand.” Poem VIII brings recognition: “There is / No place I do not taste again / When I choke back the deeper sleep / Beneath the mined world I walk.” The world of “mind” is dangerously “mined” with archetypes of the unconscious, which must be “mined” to obtain the “Fleece from golden sheep.”


The act of “mining” the unconscious is part of the process of creative activity, resulting in the work of art, the product. Jung says:

The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.29

The process of the active imagination, acting on passive, unconscious material, brings to light symbols of transformation. The symbol is the middle way between conscious and unconscious perception, having the quality of an image and being thus representable, but also pointing beyond itself to a “meaning that is darkly divined yet still beyond our grasp and [which] cannot be adequately expressed in the familiar words of our language. … It expresses not only a conception of the world … but also the way in which one views the world” (S.D., pp. 331, 336). The symbol not only “conveys a visualization of the process” but also “brings a re-experiencing of it, of that twilight which we can learn to understand only through inoffensive empathy, but which too much clarity only dispels.”30 “Therefore,” Jung states, “this is a psychic world, which allows us to make only indirect and hypothetical inferences about the real nature of matter”; “Between the unknown essences of spirit and matter stands the reality of the psychic—psychic reality, the only reality we can experience immediately” (S.D., p. 384).

Similarly, Emerson frequently discusses the “inevitable dualism” which bisects nature (II, 97), saying that “only by taking a central position in the universe and living in its forms” (sinking to rise) can we know anything: “thoughts let us into realities” (VIII, 42, 272). Poets are the “standing transporters, whose employment consists of speaking to the Father and to matter” (VIII, 19); they are the “link” between “two craving parts of nature … the bridge over that yawning need, the mediator betwixt two else unmarriageable facts” (I, 207). The poet orders the world against chaos (X, 280); “the maker of a sentence … launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night” (J., Dec. 19, 1834). Although the marriage is always partial and sometimes contradictory, since “no sentence will hold the whole truth” (III, 245) and the world refuses “to be shut in a word” (J., Oct., 1841); nevertheless, a certain bi-polar unity is possible, with “fact” as “fulcrum” of spirit (XII, 59). By naming objects of nature, the “veil which hid all things” becomes “transparent” (XII, 89); thus, language is a “demi-god,” “material only on one side” (VII, 43).

Nemerov, too, notices a “growing consciousness of nature as responsive to language or, to put it the other way, of imagination as the agent of reality” (P.P., p. 241). The dilemma of the relation of self with non-self, through which “infinity becomes finite, essence becomes existence,” and spirit mingles with matter, is resolved by the “leap of likeness poetry shares with and derives from magic” (P.F., 102, 160). In “De Anima” Nemerov discusses the spirit's “ransacking through the earth / After its image, its being, its begetting.”

These pure divisions hurt us in some realm
Of parable beyond belief, beyond
The temporal mind. Why is it sorrowful?
Why do we want them together?

(The Next Room of the Dream [hereafter abbreviated as N.R.D.], p. 25)

The “link” that marries spirit and nature is vision culminating in language. The threshold (division, pain, limitation) of the eye is where the tapestry of art is woven:

There is a threshold, that meniscus where
The strider walks on drowning waters. …
                                                                                Now that threshold,
The water of the eye where the world walks
Delicately, is as a needle threaded
From the reel of a raveling stream, to stitch
Dissolving figures in a watered cloth,
A damask either-sided as the shroud
Of the lord of Ithaca, labored at in light,
Destroyed in darkness, while the spidery oars
Carry his keel across deep mysteries.

(New and Selected Poems [hereafter abbreviated as N.S.P.], “Runes,” p. 10)

Like Penelope, the poet weaves the fabric of art from the raveling stream of life. The damask's figures dissolve in a watered cloth, since, as Emerson has said, the “slippery Proteus is not so easily caught” (IV, 121). Meanwhile, the lord of Ithaca confronts the vast and brute sea with miniscule “spidery oars.”

In “The Master at a Mediterranean Port,” Nemerov calls the sea a “disputed field, it changes sides, / Is turbulent, is unreflecting, deep / And deep and deep.” Man constructs his “arcs / And angles,” but his curve remains fragmentary, for “yonder in white foam Poseidon rises.” The mirror of art is valuable, however, and not “altogether false,” but the “mastery” it establishes depends on “image,” “stance,” “way of seeing,” or, as Emerson says, the “angle of vision” (XII, 10). The poem ends with a plea that the “doubleness of these laws” be respected.31 Emerson, too, laments the “brute Fate” which may be “controlled by a law not adapted to man” (VIII, 407).

Both Emerson and Nemerov (like Jung) view poetry as uniting the me and the not-me through the psyche's participation in a creative process manifested by symbolic language. According to Emerson, the poet, “repairing to the fountain-head of all forms” (J., 1867; also II, 337), brings forth the “gift to men of new images and symbols … poetry which tastes the world and reports of it, upbuilding the world again in thought” (VIII, 64). The power is in the image, since it is through the image that the “world realizes mind,” and “better than images” is realized (VIII, 20). When the unconscious is tapped—“the whole art of man has been an art of excitation, to provoke, to extort speech from the drowsy genius” (XII, 69)—thought expands from a “barren thesis” and paints itself in symbols (XII, 71), symbols which are “fluxional … vehicular and transitive” (III, 34). The “incredible, inexplicable” poet, working to an “end above his will” by means which are “out of his will” (XII, 72), loses himself in his source (XII, 10). For Nemerov, symbolic language unites the me and the not-me in its mediation between thing and thought. He calls poetry a “species of askesis,” a devotion to the “energy passing between self and the world” (P.F., p. 131), and the energy is magically translated into language that can “act across distances and through an invisible medium.”32 The unconscious plays a large part in the process:

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. … And what is that it thinks? … The devil, the goddess, the unconscious, the language?. … Some such notion as this might account not only for the poetic belief in the other, the outside, but also for the wellknown recalcitrance of lyric poetry to paraphrase, its oracular acceptance of ambiguity as the condition of life, and … the sheer excess vitality and valency of the text over all its explications.

(Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics [hereafter abbreviated as R.P.P.], pp. 160-161)

Emerson's metaphor of inspiration as a quick “flash of light” followed by darkness, “as if life were a thunder-storm wherein you can see by a flash the horizon, and then cannot see your hand” (VIII, 272), is echoed in Nemerov's poem “Winter Lightning,” where “A sky torn to the bone / Shattered the ghostly world with light”:

As if the storming sea
Should sunder to its floor,
And all things hidden there
Gleam in the moment silently,
So does the meadow at the door
To split and sudden air
                                                  Show stone and tree.

(N.S.P., p. 22)

“So may the poem dispart / The mirror from the light / Where none can see a seam.”33 Language as mirror may reveal the world so that it seems seamless, but it is only a seeming; the world is an “as-if” world. Yet, the poet may “in the lightning second's sight, / Illuminate this dream / With a cold art” (N.S.P., pp. 72-73). “Lightning second's sight” suggests at least three qualities of the creative: instantaneousness, illumination, and magic.

Nemerov views the “poet as magician”

if we remember that magicians do not really solve the hero's problems, but only help him to confront these; as Merlin may be said to have helped Arthur, not so much by doing magic as by being for him a presence and a voice. … Our proper magic is the magic of language.

(P.F., p. 90)

Emerson's Merlin poems express his theory of the “mystic springs” of inspiration, where angels will say, “pass in, pass in [and] … mount to paradise / By the stairway of surprise!” But Merlin is a “master of the games,” not a problem solver. Through ritual, the “mighty line” will “reconcile” the “two married sides” of every mortal (IX, 120-124). In Emerson's terminology, the living, creating word produces “artful thunder”; in Nemerov's, it produces truth “triply wound,” the thing itself, the poet's perception, and language. In “The Book of Kells,” he writes: “Out of the living word / Come flower, serpent and bird.” “Kell,” a dialectal term for “caul,” the investing birth membrane, also means a net or web with which to capture or contain. Language is both creating word and capturing net. “In the river of the eye,” however, “speech is three-ply / And the truth triply wound” (S.G., pp. 81-83).

No thought can be conveyed but by symbols (J., 1867), writes Emerson, and the truth of the symbol is in its flowing, since “nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit” (II, 320). Since being is always becoming, the imagination must flow and not freeze (III, 35). Echoing Emerson, Nemerov begins the poem, “Painting a Mountain Stream,” with, “Running and standing still at once / is the whole truth,” and he ends it with, “Paint this rhythm, not this thing” (N.S.P., pp. 57-58). Emerson criticizes mystics who nail a “symbol to one sense” (III, 35), an idea repeated by Nemerov when he calls poetry and religion “the flowing and the static forms of the same substance” (P.F., pp. 12-13). Only the flowing has vitality and the symbol cannot be fully explicated. As Emerson says, a poem is more than “a vehicle to carry a sentence as a jewel is carried in its case”; it is “inseparable from its contents” (VIII, 54). Nemerov's metaphor for the impenetrability of the symbol is that its interpretation is only “the next room of the dream.” Ultimate, absolute truth is not measurable: Emerson states that “dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion” (III, 50), and Nemerov notes that the “connection” the poem makes may be merely a “solipsism from which we have no escape but by delusion into illusion” (S.E., pp. 400-401).

Emerson's poet puts the world “under the mind for verb and noun” (III, 20), whereas Nemerov's concentrates on the verb. In “The Loon's Cry,” the speaker of the poem, having fallen from “the symboled world, where I in earlier days / Found mysteries of meaning, form, and fate,” envies past ages when the world was ordered by Christian symbols. He sees that having “traded all those mysteries in” for reality in things, that reality has “exhausted all their truth.” As though answering his thought, a loon cries out, “Laughter of desolation on the river, / A savage cry,” and the poet feels naked and cold in his isolation until he realizes that to be otherwise is to be “in ignorance and emptiness” like Adam before the fall.

I thought I understood 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,
And whose respeaking was the poet's act.

For Nemerov, nouns are stone (Emerson's “rigid names” compared to the “wild fertility of Nature” [VII, 138]), and only verbs denoting process provide the material of the poet. Even though they undermine what they have built, still, it is only through them the poet can define

Both wretchedness and love. 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.

(M.W., pp. 29-31)

Emerson's poet, “the symbolizer,” “projects a scribe's hand and writes the adequate genesis” (VIII, 71), whereas Nemerov's recognizes that the universe is unique to the person viewing it: “The universe induces / a different tremor in every hand. …” “Miraculous. It is as though the world / were a great writing” (“Writing,” M.W., p. 96). “The eye altering alters all” (VIII, 319), says Emerson, and Nemerov entitles a poem “For the Eye Altered Alters All”: “Number, said the skull Pythagoras, / Their transfixed eyes design the world.” Mathematical conceptions, “Abstracts of night … would not know / God and Son and guarding Ghost / Out of the writings of cold saints” (The Image and the Law [hereafter cited as I.L.], p. 24). The angle of vision determines the view.

Both poets refer to Plato's cave, Emerson, optimistically: “We are like persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air. This is the effect on us of … poetic forms” (III, 30). The “spirit,” the absolute behind Nature, “is a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us” (I, 61). More paradoxically, Nemerov phrases the dilemma in “Unscientific Postscript.”

There is the world, the dream, and the one law.
The wish, the wisdom, and things as they are.
Inside the cave the burning sunlight showed
A shade and forms between the light and shade,

“Neither real nor false nor subject to belief,” but as in life, “Reflexive, multiple.” The resolution to the dilemma is “not to believe … but fully as orchestra to accept, / Making an answer, even if lament, / In measured dance, with the whole instrument” (J.L., p. 69) a resolution accepted by Emerson as well.

From Nemerov's writings, one can postulate a contemporary theory of poetry: “The rational, conscious mind works on or through the irrational, unconscious mind to create a statement about the world. The world itself, independent of man, is knowable only through the imagination which conceives it in its moment of flowing and presents it in image, symbol, myth, magic, invocation. The experience, immediate, exalting, inspiring, and terrifying, cannot be translated into non-symbolic language. The truth of the poem is paradoxical; the bridge of language is true but its co-respondent reality may not be.” Emerson dotted many of these points on the fragmentary curve of his aesthetic theory. For all of his insistence upon his own poetic “hoarseness,” he was, as Howard Vincent has said, the “Radiant Center. And I mean center for his own day, for our day, for modern man—even, going way out, for the Consciousness III dreamers.”34 The “early pulse” he contributed has expanded and radiated in spirals not only up and out but also in and down.


  1. “Circles,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904), II, 304. Subsequent references will be cited, volume and page, in the text.

  2. “The Drunken Boat: The Revolutionary Element in Romanticism,” Romanticism Reconsidered, ed. Northrop Frye (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), pp. 7-8.

  3. For instance, Harold Bloom has related Emerson to Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens; to A. R. Ammons; and to E. A. Robinson, Hart Crane, and Alvin Feinman in The Ringers in the Tower (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971) pp. 217-234; 257-322. The most extensive treatment of Emerson as “spokesman and as catalyst” in American poetry is Hyatt Waggoner's American Poets from the Puritans to the Present (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968).

  4. Spires of Form: A Study of Emerson's Aesthetic Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951). Subsequent references will be cited in the text as Spires.

  5. Howard Nemerov is a representative choice, having published (1947-1972) seven volumes of poetry, three novels, two collections of short stories, and two books of essays on poetry and fiction. He has edited and contributed to books on poetry. His bibliogrpahy of published works includes over 250 entires. He has taught at Hamilton, Bennington, and Brandeis colleges; he has been Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota, Poet in Residence at Hollins, and Hurst Professor of English at Washington University, St. Louis. He has also served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of of Congress. Nemerov states: “Poetry and criticism are as a double star, and … we shall do well to learn all we can of what poetry is, and try to see … how the art is constantly redefining itself. … And that includes doing not only criticism, but also theory” (Poetry and Fiction [New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1963], pp. vii-viii). Subsequent references to Poetry and Fiction will be cited in text as P.F.

  6. Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Scribner's, 1949), pp. 283, 237.

  7. “Emerson and the World of Dream,” Emerson's Relevance Today: A Symposium, ed. Eric Carlson, and J. L. Dameron (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1971), p. 66. Hopkins compares “Emerson's recognition of the suband ob-jective qualities of the phenomenon” to Freud's distinction between the id and the ego. She suggests, but does not develop, the idea that some of Emerson's dreams “illustrate Jung's theory of the ‘collective unconscious’” (p. 64). See also Gay Wilson Allen, “Emerson and the Unconscious,” American Transcendental Quarterly, 19 (Summer, 1973), 26-30.

  8. C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (New York: Pantheon, 1959), p. 243. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as A.C.U.

  9. Edward W. Emerson and Waldo E. Forbes, eds., The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909-1914), VI, 347 (Feb. 7, 1843). Subsequent references will be cited in the text as J.

  10. C. G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (New York: Pantheon, 1960), p. 133. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as S.D.

  11. Journal of the Fictive Life (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1963), pp. 146-147. Subsequent references cited in the text as J.F.L.

  12. “Attentiveness and Obedience,” Poets on Poetry, ed. Howard Nemerov (New York: Basic Books, 1966), p. 241. Subsequent references cited in the text as P.P.

  13. Robert Bly believes the poet must bring forward another reality from “inward experience,” “inward depth” (David Ossman, The Sullen Art [N.Y.: Citadel, 1963], p. 41). John Ciardi describes the “vital part of the poem” as being in the “unconscious mind” (Mid-Century American Poets [N.Y.: Twayne, 1950], p. xiv). John Wheellock calls the unconscious the “fourth Voice of Poetry,” speaking out of “some older, wiser Self in which all selves are included” (Poets of Today, II [N.Y.: Scribners, 1955], p. 3). Robert Duncan notes the “swell and ebb” of primal waters, “amoebic intelligences,” that “arouse in our awake minds a spell, so that we let our awareness go in the urgent wave of the verse.” See Poets on Poetry, p. 135.

  14. The Salt Garden (Boston: Little, Brown, 1955), pp. 44-45. Subsequent references cited in the text as S.G.

  15. In “Monadnoc” Emerson sees the “constant mountain” as a sanctuary which “imagest the stable good / For which we all our lifetime grope, / In shifting form the formless mind, / And though the substance us elude, / We in thee the shadow find” (IX, 74).

  16. Richard Eberhart's seals “that rise and peer from elemental water” resemble Nemerov's trout. In “Seals, Terns, Time,” the poet is drawn by primordial forces from within and also by the mind, symbolized by the terns, whose “aspirations dip in mine.” The poet is “pondering, and balanced on the sea, / A gauze and spindrift of the world.” The unconscious is “hid,” and the conscious is “thwarted.” He is “pulled back in the mammal water, / Enticed to the release of the sky” (15 Modern American Poets, ed. George P. Elliott [N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1965], p. 34).

  17. Mirrors and Windows (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 90-94. Subsequent references cited in the text as M.W.

  18. One means of access to the unconscious that Emerson finds invalid is drugs. He understands that “bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco” as means to add “extraordinary power to their normal powers,” but, he says, “Nature will not be tricked, and inspiration owed to narcotics is ‘counterfeit excitement’” (III, 27-28). See also “Circles” (II, 322), in which he adds to this list “wild passions, as in gaming and war, to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.”

  19. Hopkins, “Emerson and the World of Dreams,” p. 66. Professor Hopkins gives the source of this quote as the Ms. Lecture, “Demonology,” delivered February 21, 1839, at the Masonic Temple in Boston.

  20. “Speculative Equations: Poems, Poets, Computers,” American Scholar, 36 (Summer, 1967), 399. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as S.E.

  21. Cf. Peter Viereck who discusses three stages of spiritual truth: the lowest, that of the external world, has “nothing abiding”; the second, spiritual but willed, is “mere surface”; the third, “true inspiration,” cannot be kept by “imprisoning it or by mere daytime wisdom. It can be kept only by not trying to keep it, by not subjecting it to will” (Poet's Choice, ed. Paul Engle and Joseph Langland [New York: Dell, 1962], p. 156).

  22. Poet's Choice, pp. 179-187. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as P.C.

  23. Emerson's Sphinx says to man: “Thou art the unanswered question” (IX, 24).

  24. Like Nemerov, Theodore Roethke sees the unconscious as a source of power, the womb of nature in its creative essence: “I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. … Sometimes one gets the feeling that not even the animals have been there before; but the marsh, the mire, the Void, is always there, immediate and terrifying” (Mid-Century American Poets, pp. 69-71). Muriel Rukeyser says that the process of writing poetry has much “unconscious work in it. … My own experience is that the work on a poem ‘surfaces’ several times, with new submergence after each rising. … Another deep dive to its own depth of sleep and waiting and you may be ready to write” (Waterlily Fire [New York: Doubleday, 1963], p. 11). Sylvia Plath in “The Ghost's Leavetaking” speaks of the “chilly no-man's land” of early morning when she is half asleep and the “waking head rubbishes out the draggled lot / Of sulphurous dreamscapes and obscure lunar conundrums / Which seemed, when dreamed, to mean so profoundly much.” The unconscious speaks “in sign language of a lost otherworld, / A world we lose by merely waking up” (The Colossus [New York: Knopf, 1962], pp. 39-40).

  25. Theodore Holmes in “Idylls of Cape Ann” finds the exterior world as “what lies outside words.” Our descriptions are “just the shores on which it laps. … It is the loneliness we know because we live at the edge of it” (An Upland Pasture [Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1966], p. 12). Richard Eberhart, “The Horse Chestnut Tree,” finds that in the desire to steal a “shining amulet,” “we, outlaws on God's property, / Fling out imagination beyond the skies,” the death will “drive us from the scene / With the great flowering world unbroken yet” (15 Modern American Poets, pp. 33-34).

  26. Nemerov, The Next Room of the Dream (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 16. Subsequent references cited in the text as N.R.D.

  27. Poets in Progress, ed. Edward Hungerford (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1962), p. 125.

  28. New and Selected Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 117-131. Subsequent references cited in the text as N.S.P.

  29. C. G. Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature (New York: Pantheon, 1966), p. 82.

  30. C. G. Jung, Psychological Reflections, ed. by Jolande Jacobi (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 44.

  31. The Image and the Law (New York: Harper, 1947), p. 25. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as I.L.

  32. Howard Nemerov, Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972), p. 40. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as R.P.P.

  33. Emerson notes that usually the “world will be whole and refuses to be disparted” (VII, 103).

  34. Letter from Howard Vincent to Gloria Young, Ogunquit, Maine (June 27, 1973).

David Bromwich (review date winter 1976)

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SOURCE: Bromwich, David. A review of The Western Approaches. Georgia Review 30 (winter 1976): 1027-30.

[In the following excerpted review, Bromwich says that Nemerov's The Western Approaches exhibits influences from William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Robert Frost.]

Since his entrance in the late 1940s into the ranks of the then reigning Auden school, Howard Nemerov has been a poet of many voices, most of them effective and some of them his own. In a penetrating review of Mr. Nemerov's third volume, The Salt Garden, Jarrell remarked—only half-sorrowfully, because half-admiringly—“the specter which is haunting this particular book: middle and late Yeats; you find half of Yeats's pet words and rhythms, his rhetorical use of the word maybe, even. And whenever Mr. Nemerov sees a gull he starts to sound like ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’” The reviewer noticed what a queer fact it seemed “that the poet should need or wish to consent to this much help this late.” And he reserved for an overall summary of the book a high though highly ambivalent compliment: that the reader tends to think, in trying to account for Mr. Nemerov's fluent and familiar-seeming manner, “Yes, a lot of good English poetry feels like this.” But Mr. Nemerov's finest poems have always had a peculiar freshness, a buoyancy and a hush all their own: in “Runes,” a quiet meditative lyric that ought to survive any change of fashion, and in The Blue Swallows, his most elegantly sustained volume, Mr. Nemerov placed himself among the few poets of his generation identifiably blessed with a character. Yet it has to be allowed that his connection with poetic tradition is strongly visible and at times uneasily specific, from Auden to Yeats.

And now to Frost. Because the typical poem in The Western Approaches is a poem that takes its verbal energy, its motive and moral, from the air one first breathed in Frost, generally late Frost. Mr. Nemerov opens his book with these lines:

You see them vanish in their speeding cars,
The many people hastening through the world,
And wonder what they would have done before
This time of time speed distance, random streams
Of molecules hastened by what rising heat?
Was there never a world where people just sat still?

And if the feel of those lines, their whole atmosphere and accustomed weight, is not enough to prompt a smile of recognition, look at how Frost chose to begin “Pod of the Milkweed”:

Calling all butterflies of every race
From source unknown but from no special place
They ever will return to all their lives,
Because unlike the bees they have no hives,
The milkweed brings up to my very door
The theme of wanton waste in peace and war
As it has never been to me before.

The greed and speed of the destruction, with “mingled butterfly and flower dust” telling the tale, is Frost's theme, so that he permits himself only the consolation of a truthful reckoning that “waste was of the essence of the scheme.” And that is Mr. Nemerov's conclusion, as he looks, with the hard look of a naturalist, at the life before him on the highway, where people in their cars are “all facing to the front / Which is the future, which is destiny, / Which is desire and desire's end— / What are they doing but just sitting still?” The essence of the scheme is terrible, and not to be denied: “And still at speed they fly away, as still / As the road paid out beneath them as it flows / Moment by moment into the mirrored past.”

This is a small illustration. In fact, hardly a nature poem in the book—many of its best poems are about trees and seasons—can be read without some shake of the head: one is seeing double. “The Consent” has to do with the fall of leaves from ginkgo trees, suddenly, in a single night. “If this,” asks the poet, “Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt? / What use to learn the lessons taught by time, / If a star at any time may tell us: Now.” One trusts these lines, from the second and generalizing stanza, since the first has provided a cue with exquisite description. Nevertheless, the poem strikes one as a footnote to “Spring Pools”: as do many others in this volume.

But I realize that I have begun to sound grudging, and that is not what I meant at all. “Every idiom has its idiot,” a wise man observed. Few are lucky enough to have an employer as nimble as Mr. Nemerov. His dealings with his own latest idiom are sometimes, indeed, so intelligent that his poems become a second nature to Frost's. To learn something new in an old language is of course to learn something new. Here and there, it is true, Mr. Nemerov likes to play with words, to play the words like an instrument, to have his way with them; in his epigrams—which I do not especially care for—he only seems fierce; what drives him, as a rule, in his unhappiest moments, is a free-floating nervous energy, the need to behold a thriving creation of lines joking at each other or words joking within a line, to make a more impressive tension from what started as a tic. But, in any case, he errs on the side of plenitude. Over large stretches of The Western Approaches Mr. Nemerov resumes activity as the very serious and very American poet who emerged in The Blue Swallows—whatever he finds useful to keep himself going is useful to his readers—and we are simply grateful to have him among us.

I want to end by quoting a poem which, despite some Yeatsian touches, no one except this poet could have managed. Its title is “Hero with Girl and Gorgon”; its subject, the endless knowledge and responsibility that heroism incurs, whether in the clash of swords or of words:

Child of the sunlight in the tower room,
When you have carried away Medusa's head,
When you have slain the dragon in the sea
And brought the maiden breathing from the rock
To be the bride, consider, wingéd man,
The things that went before and what things else
Must follow, when in the land beyond the North
The grey hags sang to you, the three grey hags
Sharing an eye and a tooth, dim-glimmering in
White darkness, sang to you their songs of how
The things that were surpass the things that are …
As though the vision from that time reversed,
As in the glitter of the shield the sword
Cut backward in aversion from the cold
Brow's beauty and the wide unpitying gaze …
And now you must go onward through the world
With that great head swung by the serpents held
At lantern height before you, lighting your way
Past living images that mock or curse,
Till paralyzed to silence in the stone
They run unmoved on your undying doom.

Richmond Lattimore (review date spring 1976)

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SOURCE: Lattimore, Richmond. “Poetry Chronicle.” Hudson Review 19 (spring 1976): 113-14.

[In the following excerpted review, Hudson says that the poems in The Western Approaches continue to delight the reader.]

Howard Nemerov1 goes on and on and on writing good poems; almost always in iambics, occasionally rhymed quatrains or sonnets but mostly blank verse. As yet another book comes out or an entire number of Poetry is devoted to him, I keep expecting to find that he is (like some I could name) writing too much. Not so. He seldom fails, he constantly delights, and I have asked myself what his secret is. It is not in the prosody. The versification, like the tone of discourse, is low-keyed, and strict count is maintained to a degree that even suggests incomplete confidence. I wish he would rumple his lines a little more. But he has exceptional qualities of mind and he is an interesting poet, alike through choice of subject and through exploitation of his subject, which process is, unlike his versification, brilliant, original, and full of surprises. Nemerov, and this is one of the themes of our day, explores the ordinary. “Late Late Show,” “Watching Football on TV,” “Waiting Rooms,” “Pockets”: the poems which go with those titles are about exactly what the titles say they are about; but in this unpromising material surprises are uncovered and displayed, as in the one about watching football:

We watch all afternoon, we are enthralled
To what? some drama of the body and
The intellectual soul? of strategy
In its rare triumphs and frequent pratfalls?
The lucid playbook in the memory
Wound up in a spaghetti of arms and legs
Waving above a clump of trunks and rumps
That slowly sorts itself out into men?
That happens many times. But now and then
The runner breaks into the clear and goes,
The calm parabola of a pass completes
Itself like destiny, giving delight
Not only at skill but also at the sight
Of men who imitate necessity
By more than meeting its immense demands.

In “Fiction.” “The people in the elevator all / Face front, they all keep still, they all / Look up with the rapt and stupid look of saints / In paintings at the numbers that light up / By turn and turn to tell them where they are.” In addition to those subjects which may appear uninteresting in themselves and unpromising for poetry, there are those which by their very obvious promise, and frequent use, inhibit originality: the seasons, the ocean, the trees. “The Measure of Poetry” begins with an altogether striking study, in prose (an essay rather than a prose poem) of the waves of the sea; though the application by analogy to poetry itself seems less successful. “First Snow” leads Nemerov into a vision of the world's great cities forever snowed under after the sun (“Being after all a mediocre star”) burns out. “Meanwhile, / It only hisses through the whitening grass, / And rattles among the few remaining leaves.” I do not know that the sound of snow has ever been so caught. Furthermore, first snow is something most of us notice every winter, without having it motivate the gigantic fantasy you will find if you read this poem.


  1. The Western Approaches, by Howard Nemerov. University of Chicago, $7.95.

D. M. Thomas (review date 11 June 1976)

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SOURCE: Thomas, D. M. “The Agony and the Entropy.” Times Literary Supplement (11 June 1976): 697.

[In the following excerpted review of The Western Approaches, Thomas finds the poems somewhat world-weary and the metrical patterns repetitive.]

America's troubles and introspections shadow [some recent] books. In Howard Nemerov's case, they help to create a tone of sadness, irony and ennui.

The physical law of entropy and two images, sea and tree, are the polarities of Nemerov's The Western Approaches. Entropy does its work in wearing down America to a land of the middle-aged middle-class watching the “coloured shadows” of football games; wearing down the music of the spheres to pedestrian prose; the lead of the artist's pencil; the onset of autumn and age. Against this depressing and universal decline, the sea, which is “a little more mysterious than that”, and the tree, in the Yeatsian sense of great-rooted blossomer, provide consolation.

As one expects from Mr Nemerov, there is an abundance of speculative intelligence, wit and elegance. It is hard to resist the pleasure of such lines as these, from “Late Summer”:

So secretly next year secretes itself
Within this one, as far on forested
The trees continue quietly making
Enciphering in their potencies of
The matrix of much that hasn't
                                                            happened yet.

Nevertheless, two aspects of this collection make it equally hard to give full-hearted consent to it as a whole. The play of finely expressed ideas seems to mask a rather weary withdrawal from the play of life. There is a sense in which the poems would prefer not to be about anything external to the mind. It may be significant that a large part of the book consists of poems—good poems—about art: painting, poetry, translation, novel-writing and, especially, music. Is this another entropy—art turning from the world to study its own image?

In a highly polished style, flaws tend to stand out glaringly. Mr Nemerov's constant iambic pentameter sometimes becomes a straitjacket, imposing on content rather than expressing it. For example, in “Watching Football on TV”, his description of footballers moving the viewers to “Lost nostalgic visions of themselves / As in an earlier, other world where grim / Fate” is overcome, contains at least three stale and superfluous adjectives, imposed by the metre. Nor does his metre spring off the tongue with that “sound of sense” of Robert Frost's authentic speechrhythms, though it appears to be trying to do so. There are seventy poems in The Western Approaches, written between 1973 and 1975. Nemerov is a distinguished poet; his distinction is clear in this volume; but even Yeats and Frost usually waited much longer than two years for a collection to distil.

Helen Vendler (review date 7 December 1977)

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SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. A review of Collected Poems. New York Times Book Review (7 December 1977): 14.

[In the following review of Nemerov's Collected Poems, Vendler points to the poet's attempts to find meaning in an unsettling world.]

When Stevens wrote about his “Collected Poems” as “The Planet on the Table,” he meant that a life's poetry, like a terrestrial globe, reproduces (though in a reduced scale) the whole world. The world as Nemerov knows it is revealed, prophetically, in the title of his first (1947) volume, The Image and the Law. The world comes to us in images; the mind seeks a law in the heterogeneous information infiltrating the senses. A late poem shows Nemerov as a boy confronting “The Book of Knowledge,” “a luxury liner on [a] sea unfathomable of ignorance,” with poetry “as steady, still, and rare / As the lighthouses now unmanned and obsolete.” These three things—our already immeasurable knowledge of the world, our nonetheless profound ignorance of its ways, and our landmarks and beacons in the productions of consciousness—are Nemerov's constant subjects:

There is the world, the dream, and the one law,
The wish, the wisdom, and things as they are.

Nemerov is chiefly a poet of “the wisdom,” “the one law”: his mind plays with epigram, gnome, riddle, rune, advice, meditation, notes, dialectic, prophecy, reflection, views, knowledge, questions, speculation—all the forms of thought. His wishes go homing to origins and ends. Any natural fact—a tree, for instance—becomes instantly symbolic in his eye's gaze: its seed summons up “mysteries of generation and death,” its trunk and branches recall “the one and the many, cause and effect, generality and particulars,” its movement from roots to trunk to branches will serve as a metaphor for “historical process,” and so on—a method by which Yeats's great-rooted blossomer becomes distinctly more Emersonian and emblematic.

However, Nemerov has struggled increasingly, in the course of his life, with his philosophical instincts, urging his poetry into moods that will accommodate fact and dream as well as wisdom. There is a touching poem (“Beginner's Guide”) that recalls his persistent, if never entirely successful, pursuit of the proper names—through bird books, flower books, tree books, star books—of things as they are, “to make some mind of what was only sense.” Nemerov is not innately hospitable to fantasy and imaginative waywardness, though his wit is elusive, mischievous and teasing. His masters in youth—Stevens, Auden, Frost and Yeats—shared in different ways his discursive and philosophic stance. He is drawn to Breughel and Klee for their allegories of dark whimsy. Nemerov's complaint to Klee might be his own self-definition:

He is the painter of the human mind
Finding and faithfully reflecting the mindfulness
That is in things, and not the things themselves.

Nemerov's paradox—“the mindfulness that is in things”—takes on flesh in his many surprising lines that make us see the obvious-but-till-now-unsaid. We have all, in the newspapers, read the engagements and the obituaries, but it remained for Nemerov to see that the papers printed “segregated photographs / Of the girls that marry and the men that die.”

Nemerov revives old American themes, equaling his predecessors on their own ground, and rivaling Dickinson and Frost as a poet of the American autumn.

Something that turns upon a hidden hinge
Brings down the dead leaf and live seed together

The “cryptically instructive” chambered nautilus becomes for him the “divine and crippled norm,” in which “A twist along the spine begins the form / And hides itself inside a twisted house.” Like Lowell, he keeps a churchless Sabbath:

Among the ashtrays in the living room
[You] breathe the greyish air left over from
Last night, and go down on your knees to read
The horrible funnies flattened on the floor.

The morose humor that pervades the Collected Poems takes its rise from Nemerov's contemplation of various grim spectacles: the will's rebellion against necessity, history's repetitions, the pitfalls of the literary life and the perpetual discrepancy between hope and event. Sometimes Nemerov's irony can itself seem contrived, a too orderly dismissal of life. But on the whole, the irony is mixed with a rueful pleasure, as Nemerov is distracted from wisdom by some natural phenomenon. He fends off his tendency to solemn periods with a jaunty colloquiality; while yearning toward his alphas and omegas, he can take time for a brilliant sketch of football players on television:

Totemic scarabs, exoskeletal,
Nipped in at the thorax, bulky
                    above and below,
With turreted hard heads and
                    jutting masks
And emblems of the lightning
                    or the beast.

The world causes in Nemerov a mingled revulsion and love, and a hopeless hope is the most attractive quality in his poems, which slowly turn obverse to reverse, seeing the permanence of change, the vices of virtue, the evanescence of solidities and the errors of truth. Dreams lie with death and mathematics, forgeries invade art museums, a green and silent cherry tree shades “the bloody stones, the rotting flesh” of its fruit, and the “translucency of leaf” of the ginkgo filters “a urinary yellow light.” The sensibility mapped by such phrases is one permanently unsettled and bent on making a law out of its unease.

As, in this volume, the echoes of the grands maîtres fade, the poems get steadily better. The severity of attitude is itself chastened by a growing humanity, and the forms of the earth grow ever more distinct, as by small increments of reality Nemerov brightens his lonely algebraic world, beset by the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. In the fall, he now notices

Acorns in neat berets, horse
                    chestnuts huge
And shiny as shoes inside
                    their spiny husks,
Prickly planets among the
                    sweet gum's starry leaves.

These noticings thread veins of life through Nemerov's ruminations: his dandelions that puff and go to seed delicately ornament, like fanciful illuminations, his sterner text. If the ravens of unresting thought (as Yeats called them) swarm blackly through these pages, they find a series of living boughs on which to perch. The sadder poems about nature and life are, on the whole, the most memorable, but since one of the accidental services performed by any Collected Poems is to exert pressure on anthologies, anthologists of the future should not forget Nemerov's forceful, comic and bitter topical poems, ranging from World War II to Vietnam, and embracing even such unpoetical matters as loyalty oaths.

Robert B. Shaw ( date 25 February 1978)

SOURCE: Shaw, Robert B. “Making Some Mind of What Was Only Sense.” Nation 226 (25 February 1978): 213-15.

[In the following review of The Collected Poems, Shaw points to Nemerov's versatility as a poet and his attention to the important themes of great literature.]

What makes a man write a poem is a question which admits of no easy answer. My own initial question, prompted by Howard Nemerov's Collected Poems, is a related one, perhaps equally mysterious. What makes a man who has written a poem write another, and another, and another … ? This collection runs more than 500 pages, comprising nine volumes published over the last thirty years. Few of Nemerov's contemporaries can match his copiousness; one thinks back for comparison to the awesome productivity of Tennyson or Browning, or more recently that of Stevens and Yeats. The Victorians were at least assured of having a reading public to address; in our own time and place there would appear to be little incentive to be so prolific.

When a poet writes a lot nowadays one imagines that his impetus must come ever more decidedly from within. And the nature of that impetus must vary in character, if not in intensity. For Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, poems came faster as their intolerable emotions required more frequent purgation. For the later Wordsworth, by contrast, composition became a mechanical routine, disconnected from any emotional urgency, a passionless habit, like a daily walk to the mailbox. I do not think that Nemerov's extraordinary fluency can be traced back either to unbearable passions or to a need to fill the gap left by their absence. If he is obsessive, his obsession is like those which activated Yeats and Stevens; it is the prompting of a passionate intellect that leads him to write, the drive of a mind devoted to a set of ideas both irreducible and endlessly applicable. He may justly feel that he has in 516 pages barely scratched the surface of his chosen terrain.

The great simplicities, the essential themes, sound trite in summary, and the challenge to the poet is to insure that they will not sound trite when he invokes them in his poem. Nemerov repeatedly meets this challenge in exploring the classically problematic relationship of the self to the world, of the perceiving eye to the objects perceived. To what extent, he repeatedly wonders, is the world we see our own creation? Is design (meaning not merely pattern but purposefulness) truly present in the universe, or have men deluded themselves in discerning it there, struck a precarious truce with anarchic nature by projecting onto it the mind's rage for order and significance? And in either case, how is the function of the poem to be conceived? Is the poem a mirror reflecting the appearances of the world in responsible detail, or is it a window, a transparent medium through which we may see, perhaps, some reality beyond the usual appearances that hem us in? Or might it begin as the one and with care and luck become the other?

Nemerov never fully unravels these aesthetic and metaphysical knots. They provide him the material for endless reflection. “Reflection,” with its possibilities as image and pun, is a favorite word of Nemerov's, one of whose soldier volumes was entitled Mirrors and Windows. He prefers the spelling “reflexion,” which gives perhaps an additional punning facet to the word. It means for him not random musing but a strenuous mental exercise: as an athlete might flex his muscles, he takes the occasion of writing a poem to give his mind a workout.

A key episode in Nemerov's argument with himself over his favorite questions comes in “The Blue Swallows”: the poet delightedly watching the configurations made by the flying birds becomes aware of how his mind “Weaves up relation's spindrift web, / Seeing the swallows' tails as nibs / Dipped in invisible ink, writing. …” At this point skepticism bursts in:

Poor mind, what would you have them
Some cabalistic history
Whose authorship you might ascribe
To God? to Nature? Ah, poor ghost,
You've capitalized your Self enough.

This killjoy voice proceeds to reduce the scene to “The real world where the spelling mind / Imposes with its grammar book / Unreal relations on the blue / Swallows.” But the poet isn't content to let reductive rationalism have the final word. In the last lines he addresses the birds whose darting paths provoked his speculations:

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.

This yearning to find again a world both beautiful and intelligible has, of course, a religious dimension. The question of design leads to the question of a Designer. On this point Nemerov is thoughtfully noncommittal: his agnosticism has, I should say, more spiritual depth than the faith of many conventional believers. When one considers the unseemly extremes toward which the problem of belief can propel an inquiring spirit—the crass cynicism of the village atheist, the holier-than-thou crouch of the convert—one appreciates the poise with which Nemerov continues to maintain his difficult balance on the edge of Occam's Razor. The oscillation in “The Blue Swallows” between a hunger for ultimate significance and a self-accusing skepticism that suspects that appetite of sentimentality or obscurantism is present in many of his poems, lending intensity to his ongoing dialogue with nature.

To turn from theme to technique, Nemerov's encounters with the appearances he finds so lovely and so enigmatic are precisely rendered, frequently memorable. Even apart from the train of thought attendant on it, one remembers the description in “The Mud Turtle”:

His lordly darkness decked in filth
Bearded with weed like a lady's favor,
He is a black planet, another world
Never till now appearing, even now
Not quite believably old and big,
Set in the summer morning's midst
A gloomy gemstone to the sun op-

In his better poems Nemerov shares the gift that Frost had in his better ones, a sort of tact which keeps a proper distance from the scene observed, an instinct for finding a vantage point neither too close nor too far away. The presences of nature and the presence of the poet alike have room to make themselves felt; the verse itself (often a blank verse which like Frost's is relaxed, flexible, but ultimately true to form) gives a sense of spaciousness in which the mind can pursue its explorations freely.

Nemerov is a more versatile poet than I may thus far have indicated. Besides his most typical meditative colloquies with nature, he has written some fine narratives (“The Pond,” “A Day on the Big Branch”) as well as some brainy metaphysical lyrics that make their points without an evocation of landscape (“A Clock with No Hands,” “Moment,” “Celestial Globe”). There are also a great many satirical verses of various lengths. Lately Nemerov has relied heavily on the epigram, or as he likes to call it, the “gnome,” as a favored instrument of ridicule. These little squibs, like the heavier artillery that preceded them, batter their targets in a highly satisfying way. Here is one of the more benign ones, a condensed but largely accurate history of American poetry of the last few decades:

From epigram to epic is the course
For riders of the American winged
They change both size and sex over
          the years.
The voice grows deeper and the beard
Running for greatness they sweat away
          their salt,
They start out Emily and wind up

I have always enjoyed the wit and trenchancy of these pieces in the past, and thought them a bracing complement to the poet's less topical contemplations. Seeing them amassed in the present volume, however, I find myself noticing that the targets are in most cases predictable (U.S. foreign policy, the consumer society, passing fads and persistent fatuities) and that they sometimes repeat themselves with diminishing force. Nemerov years ago did such a number on Santa Claus (“Somewhere on his travels the strange Child / Picked up with this overstuffed confidence man …”) that you'd think he would feel able to let Christmas and its “shopping days” alone. Coming on his later treatments of the subject I began to wonder in dismay if he meant to produce something dyspeptic every year to be sent out with greetings of the season. I am glad he has written in this vein, giving voice to his urbane humor and justly provoked asperity. But these gnomes are probably a mite too populous, especially in the latter part of the collection where they may distract one from due attention to the fine recent work in serious modes.

I have few other reservations regarding this book. The two verse plays on biblical themes remain blank spots to me. And the poems in the first two volumes included here are admittedly derivative, bearing the typical influences of their period—Yeats and Auden, in particular. Yet these are honestly crafted, and interesting as background to Nemerov's mature achievement. His distinctive voice first emerged in parts of his third book, The Salt Garden (1955), and reached its dominant declaration in Mirrors and Windows (1958).

He continues to exercise mastery in exploring his perennial themes; it is remarkable to notice how many of his most recent poems are among his strongest. It is as though his mind, from regarding nature with such steady and respectful attention, had been blessed with something of nature's own capacity for self-renewal. One later poem, “Beginner's Guide,” can be read as a parable expressing the poet's evaluation of his life-long scrutiny of the world around him, and his attempt to match words to the world. He speaks of the guidebooks gathering dust on the shelf, discarded as nature's flux and prodigality outstripped attempts at classification:

The world would not, nor he could
          not, stand still.
The longest life might be too short
          a one
To get by heart, in all its fine detail,
Earth's billion changes swinging on
          the sun.

The poem ends with some stanzas which are vintage Nemerov: wry, touching, and modestly inspiring in their summing up:

Was it a waste, the time and the ex-
Buying the books, going into the field
To make some mind of what was only
And show a profit on the year's rich
Though no authority on this theme
He would depose upon the whole
          that it
Was not. The world was always being
And deeper and wiser than his little
But it felt good to know the hundred
And say them, in the warm room, in
          the winter,
Drowsing and dozing over his trying
Still to this world its wondering be-

Nemerov's contribution to our literature—as a gifted writer of fiction and critical prose, but pre-eminently as a poet—does not seem to me to have received as much celebrity as it deserves. Perhaps this is because he is so determinedly unhistrionic, refusing to equate feeling with noise. This unfashionable approach is one which I find appealing, believing as I do that my emotions as a reader, like the ingredients of a martini, are meant to be stirred rather than shaken. Nemerov's virtues are all in fact unfashionable ones for our time: vivid intelligence, an irreverent sense of humor, a mastery of formal verse, an awareness of mystery. One can only hope that the climate may have changed enough for this collection to attract a wide audience of “wondering beginners.” Such readers can expect to be charmed by the easy flow of Nemerov's reasoned discourse, and moved by those fine moments in his poems in which reason is overcome by awe.

Benjamin DeMott (review date 16 April 1978)

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SOURCE: DeMott, Benjamin. “Assertions, Appreciations.” New York Times Book Review (16 April 1978): 11.

[In the following review, DeMott praises Figures of Thought as a collection of erudite essays which touch deeper matters than mere literary criticism.]

“I am neither historian nor philosopher,” says the poet Howard Nemerov in Figures of Thought, a volume of subtly linked literary essays, “and this is not the occasion for a philosophical discourse or one on the history of mind.” Flanks covered, scouts out, whereupon a critic is free to do what he pleases, including history and philosophy. There is, in fact, rather more of both in this book than in most such collections. At the core of the majority of the pieces—the subjects include Dante, Joyce, the nature of modern poetry and the sins of contemporary criticism—lies an assumption about the direction of the modern history of the mind. And it's when the essayist bends intensely to the work of explaining complicated moments in that history—the emergence, for instance, of the poetic mode called Imagism, or of the occupation called English teaching—that he achieves his most admirable effects.

The assumption in question, simply stated, is that, owing to a “very great something that has happened in the world,” human beings are less able to think and feel from the center of things than they once were, with the result that art, language, humanness itself have undergone transformation. Not a hugely original idea, as the author is well aware. (Mr. Nemerov stresses, in particular, his debt to Owen Barfield and Erich Heller.) And I have an objection or two to the way it's advanced in Figures of Thought. The critic says little about why the great change came to pass. (We're told only that what's happened is attributable less to science than to the entire manifold of forces—business, education, revolution, racism, and the rest—that dominates the present age.)

There are a few tonal problems. Shrewd and elegant in verse, Howard Nemerov is sometimes a shade arch as a prose writer. (Too many feathery “O dears,” and “alases,” too many paragraphs beginning with singleword sentences: “So.”)

Taken as a whole, though, these “speculations” are uncommonly stimulating and persuasive. The opening essay, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Skylark,” offers brilliant formulation of the poetic preoccupation, in more or less recent days, with the phenomenal, with things as lived—experience first, meaning second, third or also-ran. “Poetry attempts to catch the first evanescent flickerings of thought across the surface of things. It wants to be as though the things themselves were beginning to speak; they would speak somewhat darkly, the light that came from them would be black light at first.” A subsequent series of pieces originating as lectures and entitled “What Was Modern Poetry?” develops the theme that modernism was a mode of coping with the human dream of oneness with “the things themselves.” (Some modernists—i. e., the Imagists—were driven, at their worst, into desperate baby-with-the-bath extremism by these longings, but many succeeded in re-creating the lost world of whole imaginative response.) And a superb essay on “Speaking Silence,” draws together the interpretation of change in humankind and the account of the aims of the poetic enterprise in such a way as to provide a basis for one of the soundest critiques of contemporary literature teaching that I've yet seen in print.

“… It would be true to say, about a vast lot of what goes on in the curriculum of the English department,” Mr. Nemerov writes, “that we had the meaning but missed the experience.” And he then demonstrates—boldly, humorously, affectingly—how a class on George Herbert's “Prayer” might go if conducted as a search for the experience.

More important than any of this, Figures of Thought communicates throughout a vivid sense of the possibility of a richer kind of knowing in all areas than we're in process of settling for, and, as a consequence, never seems purely literary in implication. There is a steady undercurrent of diffidence—hostility to over-reaching. (A rumination on “Poetry and Painting” that could have intensified awareness of the universality of the craving to “speak the thing”—by focusing on, say, Cézanne as interpreted by Merleau-Ponty—instead retreats gracefully from the field.) But the feeling for the richness of imagined experience, for the fullness that myth alone gathers, is wonderfully enlivening, especially as it floods into the splendid appreciations of Yeats, Richard Wilbur and Randall Jarrell—celebrations of poetic recoveries of wholeness—that conclude the book. At its best Figures of Thought isn't just modest and shapely; like the high art it salutes, it brims with the life of things.

Tom Johnson (review date summer 1978)

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SOURCE: Johnson, Tom. “Ideas and Order.” Sewanee Review 86 (summer 1978): 445-53.

[In the following review of Collected Poems and Figures of Thought, Johnson defends Nemerov against critics who have accused him of being too academic.]

Howard Nemerov is a poet known to most readers just well enough to be stereotyped. There are, in fact, two stereotypes regularly pasted upon his work. The first casts him as a good academic poet, which means that he teaches and writes criticism and that his poems are competent, intellectual, usually difficult, and usually dull. The second is by comparison unflattering; it is caught in the remark of an acquaintance who is an associate professor of English in a state university: he described Nemerov as a competent suburban poet. By which he meant, presumably, marginally competent, stuffy, hopelessly middleclass in concerns, unintellectual, and usually dull. This second attitude we shall dismiss, for the evidence will be seen to contradict all its points. The attitude is difficult to account for in Nemerov's actual poems (the ones one reads, rather than the ones one talks about at receptions) except in the vaporous hallways of the New York school, where poems are required to be aglow with non sequiturs.

The origins of the first attitude, which does represent some truth, are easy to discover. Nemerov is a teacher, and he writes criticism: the publication of Figures of Thought, his third collection of critical essays and addresses, close upon the release of the Collected Poems, is auspicious. Furthermore his poems are technically competent. Technical excellence is hard to come by among the poets of any age, but in ours the denial of it has often become a fetish. So let there be no ambiguity here: Nemerov is a master of the craft of poetry, and that is the way the highest praise must begin. One can find here, for example, a fine villanelle (“Equations of a Villanelle”), no mean task in English, in which the repetition of lines is used to turn the original proposition inside-out, like pulling the surface of a sphere through a small hole in itself. In a poem called “Sarajevo,” six stanzas of six lines apiece, the first line reappears in each stanza farther down, as though marching its way through the poem; at the end we are struck with a startling single change. The entire poem is a series of variations using terms and images taken from the figures in the first stanza:

In the summer, when the Archduke dies
Past the year's height, after the burning wheel
Steadies and plunges down the mountainside,
The days' succession fails from one to one
Still great as kings, whose shock troops in the field
Begin to burnish their green shoots to gold.

All of this, even the double entendre, transmuted and collected gradually through the course of the poem, becomes in the end one great diverse figure:

The wildly streaming past now falls to one
Plunge on the oldest number of the wheel,
The zero twice redeemed in suicide,
Last blood sport of the green civilian field
Where the old world's sun went down in gold
In the summer when the Archduke died.

The sound values and rhythms are sure; the poem seems to have fallen into place against incredible odds by a natural affinity of its images, like a building by the likeness of its stones.

Nemerov's prosody is eclectic, though conservatively so by contemporary standards. The influences of Stevens and Eliot are apparent by imitation in the early works, the influences of Milton and Yeats by suggestion in the later. He is most conservative in being partial to five-beat lines, from which he has drawn quite as much in the way of variety as anyone has in the thirty-six years since Four Quartets. This should not be taken as a limitation: in shorter lines he is capable of the sort of spare elegance that gets a man labelled, enviously, academic:

                              … I shall show you
A new thing: 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.

Even more than Jarrell he is a master of the American colloquial version of that English flatness of voice invented by an American and driven home by Auden. Frequently, perhaps too frequently, a line will flatten out to prose and the song will die in the ear. Yet it is slighting him to say that he knows the harmonies that make good verse fill even a reader's ear and afterward move in his mind. When he means to be at it, he can make the purest song, in which the idea is complete within the sound: “One snow will seal the sleepy cities up.”

The impression that Nemerov is intellectual begins in the observation that there are ideas in his poems, and the impression that he is usually difficult begins in the opinion that there are too many ideas. To build one's own poetry entirely out of his ideas is a dangerous business: it adds a high wind to what is already a long tightrope walk. That someone (Stevens) in our own century has got away with it has set, for too many, a fatal precedent. But Nemerov never goes this far. He merely accepts Stevens's proposition that one's ideas are quite properly an essential part of his life and therefore of his art. In Stevens's poems and essays the greatest word is imagination, which stands for everything that is valuable; in Nemerov's the word is thought, and it stands for—well, thought. There is always something more.

Not all Nemerov's ideas are easy ones. Sometimes there are more of them than a poem can handle. Frequently it seems that he is out to make a metaphor of everything in a poem, every image fitting into one scheme of reference and beginning another at the same time. This quality does make many poems difficult, and make many others seem more difficult than they really are; but it is not (as has often been said) the source of Nemerov's failure or of his success. In the scale of the Collected Poems we see this density of symbolic speech in both good poems and broken ones, and recognize it for what it is: part of his character, not one of his gimmicks: the essence of first-rate intelligence.

One of the hardest literary lessons of this century was that it is all right for poems to be difficult. Still every poet must qualify for this dispensation himself. And the indictment against Nemerov is even stronger: he writes about aesthetics, writing itself, and painting; his poems contain a density of allusion just as striking as their density of metaphor; he mixes funny things in with the serious ones. If we do object to the first of these we are in effect objecting to intelligence. And Nemerov knows painting. The same retorts can be offered concerning allusion; it was, after all, the issue over which the battle over modern poetry was joined. Nemerov's favorite referents are the works we call classics to excuse our not having read them well: the Bible, St. Augustine, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare. Nemerov's poems do not require high sensitivity to allusion: they expand in proper contexts, but are never obscure. So, in what is probably his most famous poem, “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee,” he describes a woman in a strict “rig” of whalebone corsets (“all the tackle”) as being like “a great ship, coming home.” We can hardly miss the pressing allusions to the Book of Job and to Moby-Dick. Then we may, with luck, recall that in Samson Agonistes Milton first describes Samson's faith as a vessel “gloriously rigged,” then later calls Dalila “a stately ship of Tarsus … with all her bravery and tackle trim.” We may; but if we don't the poem retains its impact.

The matter of humor is a touchy point. The last century to stress wit and high seriousness in its aesthetic was the eighteenth—altogether too intellectual a time for modern tastes. Nemerov and his critics have squabbled over his frequent irreverent intrusions of humor for years, and he has confessed that he has “sometimes found it a strain to suffer critics gladly upon this issue in particular.” Too much has been made of it. A few of Nemerov's best poems and several of his good ones are built on direct humor, usually as irony. Thus, in “The Town Dump,” we find relics of things that were alive:

                              … the lobster, also, lifts
An empty claw in his most minatory
Of gestures; oyster, crab and mussel shells
Lie here in heaps, savage as money hurled
Away at the gate of hell. If you want results,
These are results.

Still the majority of his best poems, even though they may contain irony, do not rely on it; nor on puns or inversions. Seldom, in fact, have the critics who objected flatly to humor been distinguishable from the ones who claimed that in otherwise sound poems the humor had degenerated to wit, that is, to cleverness and slyness for their own sake. If humor is important to Nemerov (and it is), that is none of our concern; we are concerned with the poems themselves. And without entering the battle over specifics in the larger poems, I will admit, by way of abandoning this issue, that many of Nemerov's short poems, his throwaways, are merely witty. But wit, like other forms of cleverness, is an indulgence of intelligence; and if wit is a triviality, we should add that all poets produce trivial pieces and that most of these have not even wit to recommend them.

Because densely metaphorical speech becomes a natural expression for Nemerov's continuously flowering thought, complexly interacting metaphors using recurring images, like the ones in “Sarajevo,” are favorites of his. He varies the import of his images in much the same way that a composer performs variations on a theme. This technique is explicitly set out in two fine long poems, “The Scales of the Eyes” and “Runes,” in both of which the variations are separated into numbered sections. The first of these is called a “text and variations,” and its diction and meters are formal, precise, and highly charged—

The quiet pool, if you will listen,
Hisses with your blood, winds
Together vine and vein and thorn,
The thin twisted threads red
With the rust of breath.

—poetry in the grand, which is to say the Miltonic, manner. “Runes” is more relaxed, quietly meditative:

This is about the stillness in moving things,
In running water, also in the sleep
Of winter seeds, where time to come has tensed
Itself, enciphering a script so fine
Only the hourglass can magnify it, only
The years unfold its sentence from the root.

The working out of these ideas is not so intricately formed as in “The Scales of the Eyes”; the loose-hanging threads are manifestly part of the design. And so it is like our own experiences. In the smooth insistent pervasion of its reorderings, the poem itself embodies that ineffable mixture of form and flow which is our lives. And having made, not described, the vision of these two things as one, he says:

It is a secret. Or it is not to know
The 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 the beaches, the huge artillery
Of tides—it is not knowing, it is not keeping,
But being the secret hidden from yourself.

These are not metaphysical speculations. If some of them are difficult, and some are, it is because life is difficult to apprehend. But then, as Nemerov frequently shows, that is why it remains interesting. We perceive, if only through the persistence of irony, that his strongest sense is both humanistic and pessimistic. Looking at the statues of the great, he says

Children, to be illustrious is sad.
Do not look up. Those empty eyes are stars,
Their glance the constellation of the mad
Who must be turned to stone.

He trusts reason by default, like an existentialist who would rather have believed. The many religious images are part of the great striving. The loss of a usable rationalism is our common tragedy: in “Endegeeste,” working across the street from Descartes's house, now an insane asylum, he is careful to touch the ironic figure gently:

I keep my reasonable doubt as gay
As any—though on the lawn they seem to say,
Those patient, nodding heads, “sum, ergo sum.”
The elms' long shadows fall cold in my room.

In poems such as “First Snow,” “Drawing Lessons,” and “The First Day” Nemerov has written more incisively of science and its place in our imaginations than anyone else has yet managed to do in good (or even readable) poems. And in poems such as “A Spell before Winter” he has succeeded in writing about nature at once sharply seen and felt, as both Emerson and Frost tried to do and failed.

After the red leaf and the gold have gone,
Brought down by the wind, then by hammering rain
Bruised and discolored, when October's flame
Goes blue to guttering in the cusp, this land
Sinks deeper into silence, darker into shade.

What is common to these themes is not abstraction, but rather, consistently, the most human of concerns—the difficulty of our decisions, of our sharing, of our knowing; the certainty of our suffering. The breadth of accomplishment and depth of insight are one's most striking impressions from first readings of the Collected Poems, enriched later by the humor, the intricacy, the grace. Jarrell, Roethke, Berryman, Wilbur, Lowell—these are the other members of Nemerov's generation (all dead but one, all much honored). Lowell loved to rate the fullness of work of poets; this book places Nemerov beside him as the major poets of their generation.

The title essay in Figures of Thought is a polemic against fraudulent and self-conscious intellectualizing. Actually it is a review, the only one Nemerov chose to put into this book, so its choice as title-piece is doubly significant. Nemerov wants his readers to see clearly the difference between what he considers useful, even creative, critical thought, which is the subject of the rest of the book, and what he perceives as a fashion for pretentious muddling passing as understanding. The subject is Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence (although the review does conclude with a brief complimentary notice of Denis Donoghue's Thieves of Fire). Nemerov does not quarrel with Bloom's central thesis, which he renders as “poets are influenced by the poets who have gone before them.” Nor is he entirely unwilling to accept Bloom's choice of a Freudian model to explain the mechanism of this influence. But he does object to practically everything else, principally to the paucity of ideas in Bloom's staggeringly overcomplicated terminology, and to the nonsense of the terminology itself: “The effort to render English unintelligible is proceeding vigorously at the highest levels of learning.” He first examines Bloom's prose to see if the sentences themselves, taken individually, make literal sense. He then attempts to analyze Bloom's logical arguments to decide if they withstand the simplest tests of consistency. Finally he tries to decide what evidence might verify Bloom's assertions, or whether we can say whether specific evidence which might do so exists. His conclusions from each of these processes are, respectively, Usually Not, Seldom, and No. Although the tone of his own critical prose is characteristically light—“If you took the key sentence beginning with what he means (‘I mean …’) and removed that parenthesis during which you spent three weeks in the stacks, you would still not be quite out of the woods”—his arguments are sound and compelling.

One other piece in the book (“Quidnunc the Poet and Mr. Gigadibs”) addresses, in less striking terms, the decay of critical language and perspective. Of the remaining fifteen essays two are more specifically critical works, one on Dante and one on Joyce; eight are concerned with poetry itself, its nature, methods, history, and future; two are about paintings; and three come in a special category of rumination which we may call pure speculation. One of the essays in this last category is entitled “On the Resemblances between Science and Religion”: its observations, though fun, are facile and a bit overdrawn: it reads like a transcript of good after-dinner conversation. Another, “About Time,” poses some interesting questions, but, again, passes into rambling. The third is well described by its title, “Speculation Turning to Itself”: it addresses, intelligently and intelligibly, questions of self-reference in our means of perceiving and knowing and defining. One wishes that there were more of it.

The two essays on painting are lucid and instructive. The essay on Dante is scholarly in the unpejorative sense of the word: it reaches deep. To one's immediate relief the essay on Joyce is not scholarly. “Thoughts on First Passing the Hundredth Page of Finnegans Wake” presents the first observations of an intelligent man in that precarious position without attempting to dismay the reader with the mechanics of his getting there. One has two senses simultaneously: first of wanting for the first time to read Finnegans Wake, whether or not one has already read it; and second of that reading's being no longer necessary. The latter sense, of course, is a fraud, but not Nemerov's fraud.

The heart of the book is the eight essays (most, perhaps all of them, were apparently addresses) on poetry. They are the longest pieces in the book, and any two of them contain enough original propositions to start an entire book for most critics: the density of ideas in this, Nemerov's most serious criticism, reflects (for good reason) the density of metaphor and allusion in his poems. The style is at once urbane and colloquial: the expression is sophisticated, but the language is the simplest that can be made to do. These essays are genuinely intended to be understood. Their range can be inferred from a list of poets whose works, in the course of elucidating particular themes or hypotheses, are analyzed in some detail: Yeats, Dante, Herbert, Auden, Jarrell, Shakespeare, William Carlos Williams.

The depth of these eight essays can hardly be conveyed without extensive quotations or equally extensive paraphrases. But their nimbleness and originality can be strongly hinted at by a brief example from an essay entitled “The Winter Addresses of Kenneth Burke.” “First off, it will be convenient to have the text before us.” Whereupon Nemerov lists two ordinary looking street addresses, marked with line numbers, and says of them: “One imagines that even a superficial reader will respond immediately to the appeal of this muted little lyric, so full as it is of verbal play, subtle variation, and incremental repetition.” You can't miss where this is going, and for three pages he draws out a brilliant delicious parody of close reading, finding all sorts of metaphorical connections and implications among the street and city names and numbers.

Then Nemerov pauses in the joke and tells you how, superficially, he came to make it. He begins to wonder about that how, and about why precisely it is a joke, and then he makes an unsettling suggestion:

I shall go further now, and assert that the two addresses have become a poem, though they weren't one before, largely in virtue of my having read things into them; things that are now there even if they weren't there before. … It's a joke, if you like, but it's a pretty dirty joke. This is so for a reason that is rarely if ever said aloud, maybe because when said aloud it becomes self-evident: that interpretation, of its nature, is or at least overlaps with misinterpretation; were that not so, it would be either fact or revelation.

Isn't this what Bloom says—the poem as a “map of misreading”? No, because, as Nemerov goes on to say and then to illustrate beautifully, the poem begins not in other poems, but in the world itself—even the poem of his deliberate misinterpretations.

This is a lot to swallow without the evidence and argument that Nemerov provides. And this one is the slightest of all the essays on poetry. The series of three large pieces (under the general title “What Was Modern Poetry?”) on the themes and methods of modern verse do more than anyone yet has to consolidate the gains of this century's many literary revolutions. And that by itself makes this a remarkable book.

Willard Spiegelman (essay date summer/fall 1978)

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SOURCE: Spiegelman, Willard. “Alphabetizing the Void: Poetic Diction and Poetic Classicism.” Salmagundi 42 (summer/fall 1978): 132-45.

[In the following essay, Spiegelman compares the poetry of Nemerov, A. R. Ammons, and Allen Tate, asserting that all three poets have drawn on the classical past and have become masters of linguistic form.]

Lifting mirages to break horizons, dreaming
Idolatries to alphabet the void,
Sending these postcards to the self at home:
Sunlight on pouring water; wish I were here.

Thus Howard Nemerov as Moses in “The View from Pisgah,” or the contemporary poet as Hebrew sage, tantalized by a vision of home but forbidden the promised land where word and object, thought and style, are automatically and felicitously wed. Turning from Pisgah to review retrospectively the terrain of modern poetry, we can see how struggles with language define the poetic task. And when three such disparate talents as Nemerov, A. R. Ammons, and Allen Tate, speaking virtually different tongues after our Babel, publish new volumes of collected or selected verse, we can profitably see how much they share.

Formality is the central fact. The scientific terminology of Ammons, Nemerov's linguistic precision and equally scientific themes, Tate's accommodation of a largely Latinate classicism to the exigencies of twentieth century speech: all are strategies for meeting the unstated challenge of Poetic Diction, which begs to be compounded, at once, of ease, chattiness, elegance and orotundity. The ratio of the ingredients varies from poet to poet, each constructing a suitable music of his own, but all three have reached Eliot's goal in “Little Gidding” of making a harmony, turning Coleridge's “best words in the best order” into a domestic coziness:

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic.

Good language is good manners, a social presence and behavior which balances reticence with assertiveness, and permits the poet to make a name for himself while submitting to the demands of his linguistic inheritance. Without such balance, language rudely disintegrates:

                                                            … Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

(“Burnt Norton”)

Psychic and linguistic breakdowns are synonymous with social maladjustment.

Looking at these poets we can see which manners change, which endure. Tate's classic poise, the elegance of America's most important man of letters, seems old-fashioned; the Eliotic vein has almost run dry, and the irony and ambiguities of this hardest of living poets (excepting Ben Belitt and William Empson, his true contemporaries are from an earlier generation, Eliot and Crane especially) are studied and even stuffy, as if arranged for a Brooks and Warren text. This is especially striking when Tate's austere decorum is seen beside the Audenesque playfulness of Nemerov and the unguarded exuberance of Ammons. Both of the younger poets have a casual wryness, nuttiness even, which Tate's commitment to what Ammons would classify as “the perpendiculars, / straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought” forbids him.

Of making many collected poems there is no end; and much editing is a weariness of the flesh. Of these three books, Nemerov's is the weightiest and most important, just as his position is central to American poetry of this moment.1 Between Ammons' open forms and philosophical themes, and Tate's steady, verbal paradoxes, and religious, Dantean concerns, Nemerov stands as a golden mean. He is our Auden and, to speak more grandly, our Horace.

In an early poem to Paul Valéry, Nemerov defines mastery as “manners that can speak / Of excrement without offense.” In the title poem of his 1955 volume, The Salt Garden, reviving for a moment Marvell's pastoral line, he portrays the good breeding of breeding: “Turnip and bean and violet / In a decent order set, / Grow, flourish and are gone; / Even the ruins of stalk and shell, / The vine when it goes brown, / Look civil and die well.” In Lu Chi, author of a fourth century prose poem on the art of letters, he finds a comrade: “… your quiet voice is clear / About the difficulties and delights / Of writing well, which are, it seems, always / The same and generally unfashionable.” The words of both men are “gentle as their substance is / Fastidious and severe.” Not a member of what he calls the “Bleeding Hearts Association of American Novelists” (or poets), Nemerov rarely wears his heart on his sleeve; he likes, he says, “those masters better who expound / More inwardly the nature of our loss.” Or, those who, like Vermeer, can domesticate the inexorable and make it charming:

Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvellous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful! a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care for daily things.

We can hear in these excerpts Nemerov's characteristic manner and tone, genuinely Horatian according to Auden's marvellous definition of looking at “this world with a happy eye / but from a sober perspective.” Nemerov's aurea mediocritas sails between philosophical skepticism (we can never see things as the physicists say they are) and social satire on one side, and, on the other, an open-eyed, child-like appreciation of the world's miracles. Nemerov, growing old, becomes younger as he most adopts the manner of an ancient sage. Cynicism barely touches his voice; the occasional sardonic moments are offset by feeling and sympathy. It is no surprise that Montaigne is a favorite author. Nil admirari is the password: admiring much, he is astounded and upset by little.

Although the style is always incisive and discreet, Nemerov's response to the world is an indiscriminate excitement which imbues with new life the banalities of the everyday. Merely to list his unlikely subjects is to adduce Nemerov's intellectual variousness: suburbs, football, black holes, waiting rooms, pockets, Christmas shopping, Bach cello suites are treated with the same courteous intelligence as the larger scientific and aesthetic topics, the reticulations, dependencies and ecologies which cement the world. Wordsworthian steadiness of perception coincides with Borgesian or Talmudic mystery. Kabbalahs and alephs are dressed in New England homespun.

Topical variety and tonal clarity are related to Nemerov's holistic vision of a reality in which all is connected and in which a single object, even when transformed, is never lost. In the somber, early, post-war poems, he allows that “we may not pray for permanence.” Later, Ovidian change is underscored by the essential conservation of matter and energy: in “Ozymandias II,” an old Cadillac, stripped and patched, moths in its upholstery, still runs—“it gets around, you see one on the street / Beat up and proud, well, Jeezus what a country / Where even the monuments keep on the move.” In the 40's and 50's Nemerov was rabbinically fixated on sin and redemption. What was, early on, a source of prophetic despair (“Like melting wax we change, / Waiting for the last shape of death at thy hand”), becomes in the poems of his middle age the cause of poetic variety and energy, metaphysical delight, and emotional equilibrium. Nemerov's poetry makes sense because the world makes sense to him.

Things belong together, especially language and its subjects: “How lovely, and exact the fit between / The language and the thing it means to say.” Without opening an Aeolian bag of countless windy permutations on nominalist and realist theories of language, we can say at least that Nemerov, rather like Ammons, is a poet of names. He could not walk through an arboretum and enjoy the trees unless he first looked at their labels. How can we know what a thing is until we know what it is called? “Learning the Trees” exemplifies Nemerov's belief that language, contrary to one popular view, is not “a system of conventional signs for the passive reception of experience, but [makes] an unknowably large part of a material world whose independent existence might be likened to that of the human unconscious.” The language of trees comes from a book (“which now you think of it / Is one of the transformations of a tree”); having learned it, the student may proceed outside to “see how the chaos of experience / Answers to catalogue and category.” “Confusedly.” Nemerov isn't so stolid that his orderly universe is without quirks, sputters, false leads and oddities. On the contrary, we learn slowly, often in spite of nature and reality. (Remember how in Frost's “Directive” nature “only has at heart your getting lost.” Nemerov has a touch of Frost's Yankee orneriness, his tongue-in-cheek pedagogy: one false move and nature has us trapped.) Language reveals and falsifies, “competing with / Experience while cooperating with / Experience, and keeping an obstinate / Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.” Cooperation is the key to the harmony in Nemerov's poetic and natural worlds; competition, the source of his bracing tonic, skepticism. After all, we can learn both trees and their language, “but their comprehensive silence stays the same.”

In spite of his leanings towards philosophical realism, Nemerov is too urbane and secular to assent to universals; a city dweller for a good part of his life, he is too urban to find and read the liber naturae which he nostalgically seeks. Writing is all around him, but it is all alphabeting in a void:

But I could think only, Red sun, white moon,
This is a natural beauty, it is not
Theology. For I had fallen from
The symboled world, where I in earlier days
Found mysteries of meaning, form, and fate
Signed on the sky, and now stood but between
A swamp of fire and a reflecting rock.

(“The Loon's Cry”)

Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing. 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.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.


It is only, as he tells us beautifully in “The Blue Swallows,” the spelling mind which imposes meaning and invests those relations which however cogent are also unreal. Seeing in the swallows' tails the nibs of invisible pens is an elegant fiction, admissible only after it has been stripped from the mind as a surrogate for reality. At the end of the poem, Nemerov assumes a middle position between discovery and creation, pragmatism and solipsism:

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.

“A Day on the Big Branch” glances towards Wordsworth's and Frost's ability to have epiphanies in nature, and to Dante's ideas of atonement and purgation. But Nemerov undercuts his models even while affirming them in a minor key. After a boozy all-night poker game, winners and losers climb a wilderness hill which is both a refreshing pastoral retreat and “the desert, the empty places of our exile.” It is nature looking like art, a waiting room or perhaps a purgatory for some paradise to come. The men bathe and sun themselves,

                                        … dried out on the rocks
like gasping trout (the water they drank
making them drunk again), lit cigarettes and lay back
waiting for nature to say the last word
—as though the stones were Memnon stones,
which, caught in a certain light, would sing.

Made drunk again (an echo of Frost's restorative waters in “Directive”), the men are ready for a vision but what they get is a silence, pregnant with natural sounds but not with otherworldly meanings. Still, Nemerov's steady tone combines jaded academic wisdom, the slightly hung-over feeling of middle age, and a rural eagerness for simplicities in nature and sermons in stones. Too smart to think a revelation will be made, Nemerov is too honest to turn one down when it offers itself. The old rocks do seem to induce purgatorial ideas, lessons about humility and patience because they are either a page in the text of the world or a projection of the speaker's literary mind. Whether the ideas correspond to a real purgatory is beside the point. In fact, thinking back to the relatively easy days of youth and war, the various men are moved to stillness by the water and stones which “entered our speech; the ribs and blood / or the earth, from which all fables grow, / established poetry and truth in us,” and resolutions, however self-deceiving, are made at last. Returning home, and noticing how three bridges had been splintered by the floods of the stream, the men are struck by the previously unnoticed, massive spectacle of artifacts hurled and smashed by a natural force:

                                                  … this was a sight
that sobered us considerably, and kept us quiet
both during the long drive home and after,
till it was time to deal the cards.

Something has been learned, perhaps (how “sobered” are they?); still, life goes on to the next poker game. Nemerov's modest relativism sounds a lot like Ammons', especially at the end of “Corson's Inlet,” an equivalent poem:

          I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory:
          still around the looser, wider forces work:
          I will try
to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
          that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

Perhaps this is only to say that, with whatever cause and effect, a major voice in contemporary poetry is one of gentleness which is not self-effacement. Skeptical but still hopeful of major revelations, Nemerov and Ammons speak softly, often bringing the cliché up to the level of grandeur (do we hear Scarlett O'Hara's “Tomorrow is another day” in Ammons' last line?). Restricting themselves to the curves of ordinary speech, they occasionally ascend to higher levels. The prosaic is their greatest sin and temptation, as it was for Wordsworth whom they resemble in their commitment to the mundane. We arrive at the sublime via the commonplace. More self-conscious and less apocalyptic, without Wordsworth's messianic fervor at the end of The Prelude, Ammons and Nemerov are both down-home schoolmasters. Here is Nemerov blushlessly remarking both the futility and necessity of formal graduation exercises, and shamelessly punning to prove that poetry can imitate, yet surpass, its origin in common language:

                                                                                … emptiness alone
Has generality enough to send
Yet one more generation to the world,
And platitudes become the things they are
By being uninformative and true:
The words that for the hundredth time today
Bounced off the sunlit stone into the past
Have made the silence deeper by degrees.

(“After Commencement”)

Nemerov always gets away with it, because he knows just how far to go.

The personal note in this poetry stems from the assurance of the voice but also from Nemerov's view of the world as an arena of reciprocities. William Pritchard has noticed that in certain passages in Eliot's poetry, no one seems to be speaking to no one in particular: language itself is confronting something outside it. This is never the case in Nemerov because stylistic decorum requires of him both a sense of audience and occasion, and of self-knowledge. Language is accurate and clear because the world, although sometimes crazy and perverse, is too. The quotation from Albrecht von Haller in The Western Approaches could stand as epigraph for the complete volume: “Nature knits up her kinds in a network, not in a chain; but men can follow only by chains because their language can't handle several things at once.” True enough, but refined, multi-layered poetic language is an equivalent of the simultaneity we experience in nature. Nemerov offers wickedly skewed advice with mock-worldliness to his son about education; one must learn certain things

In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs.

Beneath the Polonian sententiousness is an ironic hint that the world itself is not confused; only man's understanding of it is. Since “the mind includes what must the mind contain” (a line from Empson on which Nemerov meditates), all reality is a network of relations and interdependencies: “The Other is deeply meddled in this world. / We see no more than that the fallen light / Is wrinkled in and with the wrinkling wave.” Or, more intricate still are the convolutions and repetitions of “Equations of a Villanelle”: “The breath within us is the wind without, / In interchange unnoticed all our lives. / What if the same be true of world and thought?” The harmony has not been unnoticed by the discerning poet who loves his riddles, gnomes, and puzzles because he knows their answers.

Ammons, of course, shares Nemerov's concern with intricate ecological and mental dependencies and with philosophical debates between unity and multeity, or nominalism and realism. The fragile strength of webs and nets glimmers through the lines of both; there is a similar breezy alternation between colloquial speech and exact scientific nomenclature; a knack for self-irony which modifies the heaviness of the prophetic mantle they occasionally wear. At least two habits separate the elegant, sophisticated city boy who turned to nature late, and the countrified scientist. The shape of Ammons' poems on the page, their visible presence riddled through with colons which stand as marks of equation and subordination, is unlike the well wrought wares of Nemerov. More significant still is Ammons' view of the world, borrowed from Emerson but more horrifying, an ultimately Lucretian vision of potential chaos sufficient to wither and overwhelm man's hopes and place. He fears inundation from both nature and language (compare “a word too much repeated falls out of being” with Nemerov's “Man's greatest intellectual pleasure is to repeat himself”).

Ammons' encyclopedic lists, like Whitman's catalogues but without their ringing enthusiasm, expose the dangers of openness. As in Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons' greatest failing is the flatness of indiscriminateness. Like John Ashbery, Ammons wants to get it all in: “I'll have to say everything / to take on the roundness and withdrawal of the deep dark: / less than total is a bucketful of radiant toys.” Reading Ammons, one often wishes to tell him to get on with it, to avoid the simple detail (“ants ran over the whitish greenish reddish / plants”); the philosophical repetition (“the precise and necessary worked out of random, reproducible, the handiwork redeemed from chance”); the enthusiastic banality (“The wonderful workings of the world: wonderful, / wonderful”—does he think he's Lawrence Welk?). But these are the price and correlative of the magical moments:

earth brings to grief
much in an hour that sang, leaped, swirled,
yet keeps a round
          quiet turning,
beyond loss or gain,
beyond concern for the separate reach.


Like Nemerov in his more fearful moments, Ammons is generally an anti-pastoral poet; here is one source of the peculiar discontinuities in his tone and diction. For all his fascination with the details of the natural world, and for the precise attempt to capture its dappled, Hopkinsesque, grandeur, Ammons is basically alone and uncomfortable out-of-doors. In God's house there are many mansions, and Ammons usually picks the one without apparent walls. “I chose the wind to be delivered to”: his desire to be part of a general Emersonian unity is countered by inevitable feelings of self-loss, as in “Gravelley Run,” where like Wordsworth's Lucy, he seems to be “losing the self to the victory / of stones and trees.” The poem denies animism and insists, like Blake, that there is no natural religion. Although the “cedars' gothic-clustered / spires could make / green religion in winter bones,” man is not at home in this wintry scape. Ammons is led to the verge of natural contentment and containment and then backs away:

no use to make any philosophies here:
          I see no
god in the holly, hear no song from
the snowbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter
yellow in the pines: the sunlight has never
heard of trees: surrendered self among
          unwelcoming forms: stranger,
hoist your burdens, get on down the road.

It is no surprise that the characteristic Ammons landscape is bare and unattractive: gravel, gullies, roils, mud, and dunes are the features which most attract him. In them he is most, because least, at home.

This potential for a Lucretian alienation amid the fragmentary atomistic world produces the singular hallmark of Ammons' poetic diction—its polysyllabic and abstract words rolled together with jaunty colloquialisms. Lucretius, too, was comfortable with the arcane, the archaic, and the manufactured many-sided word. Ammons' “multifilamentous chains knobbed with possibility” joins abstraction to physicality, and the tongue-twisting appeal of long words cemented by a single, Germanic monosyllable. The balance between polysyllabic perversity and commonness corresponds to that in the world which is threatened by “discontinuities” and “disoriented chains,” “motions building and tearing down,” entropy tearing at order. The effect on mind is potentially terrifying:

          after these motions, these vectors,
orders moving in and out of orders, collisions
          of order, dispersions, the grasp weakens
          the mind whirls, short of the unifying
reach, short of the heat
          to carry that forging:
          after the vision of these losses, the spent
seer, delivered to wastage, risen
          into ribs, consigns knowledge to
          approximation, order to the vehicle
of change, and fumbles blind in blunt innocence
          toward divine, terrible love.


Ammons' great theme is “the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness” (“Corson's Inlet”); it is what makes him provocative to our age, and explains his ready advocacy by Harold Bloom, who can see in Ammons' swerve away from Emerson, Whitman, and Shelley a model for a certain midcentury American poetic voice (although Bloom has never seen the scientific and linguistic debt to Lucretius, a true, however distant, precursor). Freedom, verging on entropy, versus order, becoming confinement: these are the physical and speculative limits of Ammons' world. His distinctive achievement is to have combined the visionary chaos in Lucretius' atomic particles with the visionary, microcosmic auguries of Blake (who hated the atomism of Newton and Democritus). Blakean energy erupts in Ammons' exclamations—“errors of vision, errors of self-defense! / errors of wisdom, errors of desire!” (“Jungle Knot”); Blakean contentment in his reflective quietude—“the talk of giants, of ocean, moon, sun, of everything, / spoken in a dampened grain of sand” (“Expressions of Sea Level”). Like Nemerov on trees, Ammons on spiderwebs traces the imagery of philosophical possibility in the world (“Identity”): there is neither total genetic coding, eliminating differences and possibilities in how a single spider builds its web, nor total freedom, destroying the patterns in the webs of a single species. The truth resides somewhere between the two. Even as Lucretius perceives harmony as a balance between the destructiveness of Mars and the creativity of Venus genetrix, with an accompanying balance in his hexameters between long, convoluted paragraphs and pithy epigrams, concise summaries, so does Ammons chart chaos and order with comparably varied language.

The relentless account-making in Ammons' ecological ledger is usually leavened by his light wit; in this, at least, he is full of surprises. No one else but Emerson, without quite the same touch, talks to mountains, and to no other living poet do mountains reply. No one would so wryly entitle a poem “If Anything Will Level with You, Water Will”: and certainly no one as prone to large or meandering forms has so keen an instinct for the miniature, as in “Small Song”:

The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away

Whittling away at, or riffling, his peripheries, and accumulating, shovelling, or amassing detail in the hope of either distilling an essence or accounting for everything, Ammons always arrives at “the bumfuzzlement—the impoverished diamond” in finding an arc line, inside which there is nothing, outside which there is nothing. The amplitude of his language, its fluctuations between the abstract and the colloquial, demonstrates both that nature is inevitably alienating, since it will not accommodate itself to the categories of our longing, and that every walk is a new walk, a new linguistic and perceptual beginning. Vision is beyond him and so he settles for perception. Unity is provisional; the odd assortment of linguistic shards corresponds to the discrete, however radiant, objects of fear and desire around him.

To read Tate after Ammons is to be jolted by a formality so severe as to be forbidding. Tate's comment on the “Ode to the Confederate Dead” is faux-naif or myopic, and certainly out-of-line with the ordinary reader's experience of the poem: “the structure of the ode is simple … a tension between the two themes, ‘active faith’ which has decayed, and the ‘fragmentary chaos’ which surrounds us.” Now whatever else it is, this ode is not simple: compare Tate's statement in Brooks and Warren with Hyatt Waggoner's recent revaluation which stresses the poem's hermetic, deliberately distanced, stance: “the poem protects itself against the doctrinaire reader who would want to dissolve its ambiguities.”

Tate's perversity is different from Ammons'; once more, the problem of diction is central. There is no difficulty understanding the words in his poems: his allegiance to Jonsonian epigrams and his predisposition to a certain neo-classical crispness in rhythm and sound assure one kind of clarity. But the elegance is often brittle and icy, and the analyses of moral and historical decay recondite. Like Dickinson and Stevens, Tate makes the visible a little hard to see. The images seem opaque, the wit and irony sometimes strenuous and strained (like the famous opening paradoxes in the Ode: “the casual sacrament to the seasonal eternity of death”). His poetry demands to be paraphrased to be understood. It is a necessary, but somehow dispiriting, exercise. Thus, one academic critic explains the “message” of “Summer” from “Seasons of the Soul” and eviscerates the poem: “Man's overemphasis on the intellect, apart from the sensibility, allows him to live in a partial and imperfect view of the condition.”

What Delmore Schwartz noticed in Tate in 1940, “a certain unique harshness of diction and meter and an equally curious violence of imagery and sentiment” are still his defining traits. More distinctive is the Roman cloak wrapped around the poetry. Latin references and citations abound (there is, additionally, the fine translation of the Pervigilium Veneris); Vergil's lacrimae rerum is the volume's epigraph and its perduring tone. Along with Dante, Vergil is Tate's habitual master. In a tour de force like “The Traveller” (1932), a single sentence of eight quatrains in which the first comma appears in line 17, the stately, inexorable move from late afternoon to night, the intimidations and bewilderings of darkness' ghoulish harmonies, come closer to Vergilian melancholy than to grand guignol. Tate always impugns our noblest energies by hearkening to the whispers of fear and the sacraments of death which lie beyond them. In this, as well as in his meditations on the confused corridors of history and the price of heroism and empire, he is Vergil's heir.

In The Prelude, Wordsworth invokes a “dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements, makes them cling together / In one society.” It is a perilously fragile unity but Ammons and Nemerov would probably sympathize with Wordsworth, and the precision of their poems complements an essential universal orderliness. With his blurred, uncertain images, his distortions of perception, the dim mazes of this world are more likely to lead Tate to the Minotaur itself than to admiration for Daedalus. Vergil and Dante, poets of nightmare and the shadowy realms of the psyche, have shown him the way. Even in “The Swimmers,” the most accessible of his major poems (narrative is not his usual mode), the fearful “tart undersea of slipping night” is the metaphoric realm, even before real twilight falls, of the boys' shocking discovery of the corpse: “as sleepwalkers shift from a hard place / In bed, and rising to keep a formal pledge / Descend a ladder into empty space, / We scuttled down the bank below a ledge / And marched stifflegged in our common fright.” Vergilian emptiness, spatium and tempus inane, abounds. We may be reminded of the descent to the “hollow” dwelling of Dis in The Aeneid, VI; the young boy's paralysis at the town square at the poem's end is rather like the final moments of Turnus in Book XII, faltering, weak, astounded.

The Vergilian sequence, “The Mediterranean,” “Aeneas at Washington,” and “Aeneas at New York,” is mid-way between Pound's early cantos and the historical mélanges of Robert Lowell. Times and places are deliberately blurred, as if Tate wants to imply without really pressing the connections between 1932 and the Roman Empire or, further back, the mythological journey of Aeneas. Diction is clear, syntax and grammar are not:

Where we went in the black hull no light moved
But a gull white-winged along the feckless wave,
The breeze, unseen but fierce as a body loved,
The boat drove onward like a willing slave.

(“The Mediterranean”)

Is the breeze slave to the boat, or boat to breeze? As the sailors “flood westward” from the Gates of Hercules at the end of the poem, are they returning to their original source? Is Tate suggesting that the course of empire moves progressively westward? Is America the new Rome? Or is there a perfect historical circularity which matches the globe's roundness? The sailors go

Westward, westward till the barbarous brine
Whelms us to the tired land where tasseling corn,
Fat beans, grapes sweeter than muscadine
Rot on the vine: in that land were we born.

East and West, old and new, fatigue and energy, decay and growth: are they all words for the same thing? In the touching middle poem, “Aeneas at Washington,” where the correspondences between old empire and modern republic are cleaner, what exactly has Aeneas saved from his previous city?

In the smoke made by sea for a new world
Saving little—a mind imperishable
If time is, a life of past things tenuous
As the hesitation of receding love.

Is his love tenuous, or are the things of the past as they fade from memory? The referential ambiguity heightens the melancholy of the true Vergilian tone (and the conditional “if” is like a Vergilian forsan), but it also epitomizes the vigorous contrivances in Tate's verse, those moments, phrases or gestures which are his own tactic for filling the emptiness of page and world. Not only is Tate a classic of modernism (whatever that is or was); he is also a living reminder of the power which classicism possesses. His Vergilian gloom, like Nemerov's Horatian worldliness and Ammons' Lucretian scientism, keeps vivid the legacy of past masters. By maintaining linguistic poise, all three poets alphabet our void and fill, as well, the vacant spaces of history and time itself.


  1. Ammons' selection is helpful for a beginner as a guide to the territory, but it omits many of the important longer poems, and is no real advance over the Collected Poems of 1972. And Tate's is, with some changes, almost identical to the Oxford University Press edition of The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems of 1970. His major poems are few; indeed, his output in a career of sixty years is small.

Thomas Lask (review date 16 December 1978)

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SOURCE: Lask, Thomas. “Books: Two Approaches to Understand Poetry.” New York Times (16 December 1978): C14.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Figures of Thought and John Wain's Professing Poetry, Lask notes Nemerov's impatience with critics who dwell heavily on formal poetic analysis while ignoring reader response.]

Mr. Nemerov's book [Figures of Thought] is rather amorphous in character, and its title indicates a pattern of thinking rather than persons to think about. … Broadly speaking, his book is an attack on the kind of approach to a poem that subjects the work to a thorough analysis but fails to convey its poetic quality. Mr. Nemerov is sardonic about those commentators who get the meaning but miss the experience.


“Students of what are called the Creative Processes,” he writes, “do not observably turn into artists, and when the depths of things are exposed to the dry light of reasoned explanation, they may well dry up.” It could be said that Mr. Nemerov is against any schematic made to fit the field of poetry. He believes there is something in a poem that escapes narrow definition, that eludes formal analysis; that is why some of his more devastating remarks are aimed at Harold Bloom's “The Anxiety of Influence,” with its rigid categories, and why he feels it is necessary to look beyond the new criticism for another way to read a poem. Poetry, he says, could be defined as an “activity resistant to definition … or an activity extremely tolerant of definition, absorbing and transferring these into its own substance.”

What, then, does Mr. Nemerov offer as a substitute? If I understand him, he wants the reader to sink himself into the work to meditate on it, to experience it. He wants the poem to grow from within through the reader's contemplation, rather than by accretions and additions from without.

Such a transcendental method has its dangers. The unlearned response to Longfellow's “The Children's Hour” can be as intense as a more sophisticated response to Hopkins's “God's Grandeur” or George Herbert's “Prayer,” especially because the Hopkins and the Herbert are noticeably less accessible than the Longfellow. Mr. Nemerov does not quite come to grips with that problem.

That he himself has not abandoned reasoned analysis is evident, however, from the other essays in the book. One is a superb study of William Carlos Williams and Imagism, in which he points out the gap between what is claimed for Imagism and what is practiced. Other essays are devoted to the plentitude of Dante's imagined world, to the gamesmanship involved in reading “Finnegans Wake” and on the resemblances—rather than the differences—between science and religion. In all of these, a certain playfulness hides the seriousness of the inquiry. Mr. Nemerov is weighty without being lugubrious, thoughtful but not ponderous. His book is a great pleasure to read. Its wisdom is a dividend.

Thomas Lask (essay date 14 January 1979)

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SOURCE: Lask, Thomas. “Talking with Nemerov.” New York Times Book Review (14 January 1979): 43.

[In the following essay, Lask reports on Nemerov's musings on his literary career during a visit to New York City.]

Howard Nemerov, whose Collected Poems captured a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award last year, was in town recently on a brief visit from St. Louis, where he teaches at Washington University, to read at the 92d Street YM-YWHA. Mr. Nemerov's manner is almost formally courteous, but his judgments, usually succinct, are uncompromising, his language often harsh, his tone sardonic even if his humor is sometimes turned back on himself.

On the subject of his Collected Poems, Mr. Nemerov remarked that when the University of Chicago Press suggested a collection, he thought it too soon. But he did not think it too soon for the rewards it engendered. “After 20 years of being dismissed as an academic mediocrity, it was about time I received some rewards.”

This was said with an unsmiling smile and with a healthy expletive before “time.” And it was obvious from the subsequent conversation that he resented the catch-all phrase—“mere cleverness”—that used to be applied to his earlier work: “I never heard anyone say ‘mere stupidity.’”

Whether its origin was the unfeeling reaction to his work or his own philosophical conviction, Mr. Nemerov is committedly noncommittal about matters poetic. “I just want to get on with it,” he said, the “it” being the writing of poetry. “I write because it pleases me, because the language of the Muse allows me to do it. I keep to myself. There is no need to get into arguments.”

Of those who espouse all sorts of causes, who throw themselves in front of tanks in their ardor, he said shortly, “I admire their courage, not their wits.”

He refused to name poets he admired, on the ground that to do so was “bad union behavior” and that he liked poems rather than poets. He refused also to make a judgment about the ultimate influence of the the new poetry that emerged with such force after World War II. He cared little, he said, about poetic schools, and as to their influence, “What the hell difference does it make what happens to poetry when I am gone? Being around to do it is what's important.”

When the subject changed, Mr. Nemerov softened. Unlike so many teachers who complain about the inadequacies of their students, the poet praised his. “The students are absolutely good and beautifully trained by their high schools.” Recently he taught a course in George Herbert, William Blake and Richard Wilbur, a trio that didn't faze the students at all. Nevertheless, he said, “I insist on teaching freshmen, so that when they come back as seniors, they'll repeat my mistakes and not someone else's.”

Although he has written novels and short stories, he said he had given up writing fiction and can pinpoint the moment of that decision. It occurred while he was teaching at Bennington College. A faculty meeting, presided over by the critic Sidney Hyman, decided that Bennington needed a novelist on the faculty. Said a voice from the back, “Nemerov is a novelist.” Said Mr. Hyman in a no-backtalk voice, “He's a poet.” Bennington got Bernard Malamud and “never did regret it,” and Mr. Nemerov has been writing poetry ever since.

Wyatt Prunty (essay date January 1979)

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SOURCE: Prunty, Wyatt. “Permanence in Process: Poetic Limits that Delimit.” Southern Review 15 (January 1979): 265-71.

[In the following essay, Prunty examines Nemerov's Collected Poems, finding an emphasis on the interplay of movement and stasis, as well as a sense of compassion.]

Having won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his Collected Poems, Howard Nemerov has said he is going back to work to find out whether the book “is a tombstone or a milestone.”1 think it is fair to say that such a response is characteristic not only of his humor but of a dark reserve as well. In his poetry, this tendency surfaces when limit and process are seen as mutually dependent opposites. For example, in his first volume, The Image and the Law (1947), Nemerov begins one poem with “Only the dead have an enduring city” and in conclusion says “Like melting wax we change, / Waiting the last shape of death.” That is, we endure, our process somehow continues, but only by being caught in its opposite, “the last shape of death.” In a world where “we may not pray for permanence,” “milestone” and “tombstone” become mutually constitutive. The title of the poem is “The Situation Does Not Change.”

From this early point to the title poem in The Western Approaches (1975), there is a theme that in fact “does not change,” a preoccupation with permanence in process and with the significance this has for the individual. The latter poem begins:

As long as we look forward, all seems free,
Uncertain, subject to the Laws of Chance,
Though strange the chance should lie subject to laws,
But looking back on life it is as if
Our Book of Changes never let us change.

The paradox suggested by these lines is that permanence is concomitant with change; “Chance” is “subject to laws,” and “Changes” fail to “let us change.” Looking forward, Nemerov sees possibility for the self. But looking back produces the alternate view; thus toward the end of the poem the poet says he knows “How a long life grows ghostly towards the close / As any man dissolves in Everyman.” Aware of what process details, Nemerov is self-questioning even at an apparent high point in his career. It seems basic to his nature, and, in terms of his poetry, is a source for his clear and often austere vision.

At another point, Nemerov begins one of his major poems, “Runes,” with “This is about the stillness in moving things,” a stillness found (here or in other poems) “In running water, also in the sleep / Of winter seeds,” in seasons (particularly autumn), photographs, and (most basically for the poet) in “thought and the defeat / Of thought.” But for the moment I quote the opening stanza of “Runes”:

This is about the stillness in moving things,
In running water, also in the sleep
Of winter seeds, where time to come has tensed
Itself, enciphering a script so fine
Only the hourglass can magnify it, only
The years unfold its sentence from the root.
I have considered such things often, but
I cannot say I have thought deeply of them:
That is my theme, of thought and the defeat
Of thought before its object, where it turns
As from a mirror, and returns to be
The thought of something and the thought of thought,
A trader doubly burdened, commercing
Out of one stillness and into another.

Whether seed, thought, or running water, Nemerov regards the same predicament; that which appears static paradoxically owes its existence to something always in process. The poem concludes that “To watch water” is in a sense “to know a secret” or “to have it in your keeping.” Basically, it is neither knowing nor keeping “But being the secret hidden from yourself.” That is, we can celebrate the recurrence inherent in such process and at the same time lament the individual loss which it dictates, but finally, being part of that process, we can neither contain it nor encompass its meaning.

Another poem which focuses on “the stillness … In running water” is “Painting a Mountain Stream.” Yoking apparent contraries, the poem begins:

Running and standing still at once
is the whole truth. Raveled or combed,
wrinkled or clear, it gets its force
from losing force. Going it stays.

It is easy to think of a mountain stream as a thing somehow fixed when in fact its very nature is the opposite. Not only the process of running water but that of thought as well (as Nemerov says in the following stanza) is unfounded in the sense that, to be, it must continue moving beyond where it is at any one moment. Thus the painter painting such a process must fail before his object much as “Runes” argues “thought and the defeat / Of thought before its object.” Addressing the painter who attempts to reduce an ongoing stream to his static medium, the poem concludes, “paint this rhythm, not this thing.” Or, to return to “The Western Approaches,” the proper response to our finitude is the articulation of a larger pattern in which each of us participates and, in effect, “dissolves in Everyman.”

Similar to the preceding poem but taking its argument a step further, Nemerov says in “The Blue Swallows” (the title poem for a volume that appeared in 1967) that the objects of his art, here the swallows, are “evanescent, / Kaleidoscopic beyond the mind's / Or memory's power to keep them there.” A few lines later he continues, “Thus helplessly the mind in its brain / Weaves up relation's spindrift web.” That is, the mind through its “eye” creates a continuum on its own, first depending from then independent of the swallows themselves. Wakened yet “emptied of speech,” it sees “The real world where” by “spelling” and “grammar” it “Imposes … Unreal relations on the blue / Swallows.” The “spelling mind” imposes what is in many ways an arbitrary order (or limit), but in so doing, its “eye” delimits and occasions the sun's real light. The poem's closing lines follow:

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.

As a statement of purpose, Nemerov says in “Lion & Honeycomb” that he writes “for the sake of getting something right / Once in a while.” The poem is a thing which stands “On its own flat feet to keep out windy time,” and yet it is no more than “a moment's inviolable presence … an integer / Fixed in the middle of the fall of things.” However, even momentary order is not always possible, thus “Holding the Mirror Up to Nature” discusses the failures that exist in any mode of thought, this time in poetry. The opening lines state that “Some shapes cannot be seen in a glass, / those are the ones the heart breaks at.” Finding the world “non-representational,” Nemerov says he knows “a truth that cannot be told, although” he tries to tell it. In the attempt, he quotes his own voice to dramatize a gap in meaning:

I try to tell you, “We are alone,
we know nothing, nothing, we shall die
frightened in our freedom. …”

Comparing this with the opening line of “The Western Approaches” where looking “forward, all seems free,” “our freedom” may be seen in two ways: At its best it plays out of “Our Book of Changes,” past mere things into something like rhythm; at its worst, it suggests that we are unsponsored in a world where (to quote “Painting a Mountain Stream” again) “The visible way is always down” and where “there is no floor.”

In a more public vein, “A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed” was written after Nemerov's wife presented him a cabinet of dried seeds with space enough left for a short poem. It begins, “These are the original monies of the earth … They will produce a green wealth toppling tall, / A trick they do by dying.” The conclusion follows:

May they remind us while we live on earth
That all economies are primitive;
And by their reservations may they teach
Our governors, who speak of husbandry
And think the hurricane, where power lies.

Using a recurrent image, the seed, and a characteristic and traditional paradox, “They will produce … by dying,” Nemerov has turned from self and is making a statement suitable to be taken abroad. Also, in terms of the process of writing, it is interesting to note that out of the limitations which pre-given theme and allotted length dictate, out of closure, the poem achieves its disclosure. Limits are posited to which the poem's thought must have reference (and therefore meaning) much as the significance of a game depends upon arbitrary spatial boundaries and the clock, within both of which the game's meaning, its imaginative free play, is carried out.

One page to the next, Nemerov takes the reader from high rhetoric to aphorism, from meditation upon political topics to contemplation of a passing season. In particular, he writes poems confronting fall or the coming of winter, poems that deal with the limits which a season imposes. One such, “Again,” is worth quoting in large part because of its tumbling effect. Unrolling in one long sentence for fourteen lines, it describes the fall's first snow. It begins:

Again, great season, sing it through again
Before we fall asleep, sing the slow change
That makes October burn out red and gold
And color bleed into the world and die …

and concludes:

                                                                      till one afternoon
The cold snow cloud comes down the intervale
Above the river on whose slow black flood
The few first flakes come hurrying in to drown.

Here, limitation inspires because it reveals by delimiting what is otherwise concealed. As he says in “A Spell before Winter,” “Now I can see certain simplicities / In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time.” What he sees enables him to “speak … with the land's voice” of “A knowledge” (a measure of permanence) found “in the sleep of things.” For Nemerov, limitation (or closure) is more than simply an aesthetic principle arguing form; it is a modality taken from and analogous to the external world which makes knowing possible.

What the external world can lead to when limits are absent may be seen by looking at a poem such as “Kicks,” in which fishermen on Lake Michigan fix two baited hooks to the ends of a fishing line and throw the trap aloft into circling gulls “Who go for it so fast that often two of them / Make the connection before it hits the water.” Describing the gulls as “Hooked and hung up,” doing “a dance / That lasts only so long,” the poem ends with ironical flatness. As a title, “Kicks” suggests not only the brutality of the act but its meaninglessness as well.

Related but more muted, one poem describes an isolated traveler left waiting in a motel, not knowing why or for what he is there. The title is a familiar one, “The Human Condition.” The opening stanza follows:

In this motel where I was told to wait,
The television screen is stood before
The picture window. Nothing could be more
Use to a man than knowing where he's at,
And I don't know, but pace the day in doubt
Between my looking in and looking out.

As “in a picture by Magritte,” the “television screen” and “picture window” make “a perfect fit, / Silent and mad,” and yet this is the “only” way “world and thought exactly meet.” The poem is dramatically concerned with intelligibility; but the mind's room is “always an empty room,” and that peculiar meaning which does occur is imperfectly constituted by art, in this case, “A picture of a picture.” As in the last line of “The Blue Swallows,” the “mind's eye” generates its meaning, it lights what platonic “sun” there is. But to do so, to get beyond its initially dark confines, it must raise its own parameters so that by its synthetic activity it can travel beyond them. While the speaker waits, “The day falls into darkness,” though the TV is still going. What he is left with is “legendary traffic, love and hate,” screened (that is, shut off from view as much as revealed or shown) in a room that cannot be located.

For Nemerov, this predicament allows only minimal affirmation, for example that which we find in his “The View from an Attic Window.” He says he cries “because life is hopeless and beautiful,” because “we live in two kinds of thing,” and “because” he knows he has “to die.” The “two kinds of thing” follow:

The powerful trees, thrusting into the sky
Their black patience, are one, and that branching
Relation teaches how we endure and grow;
                    The other is the snow,
Falling in a white chaos from the sky. …

Endurance such as that of “powerful trees” is set against the apparent meaninglessness for the individual that results from the world's multiplicity. The self that would be permanent is eroded by process. Identity is made possible by the delimiting functions of thought, art, season, and death, yet each of these covers as much as it uncovers. As in “The Human Condition,” our cognition screens our surroundings, obscures what it reveals. The list goes on. However, in an attic that gathers his past and dramatizes his passing, Nemerov finds that “the promise” given Abraham was “kept” and says of himself, “a child I slept.” Perhaps the most important aspect of the “two kinds of thing,” therefore, is not their irresolution but our response to them.

With Nemerov as with few contemporary poets there is a powerful sense of compassion grounded in and resultant from his austere vision of the world. Similar to the “trees … branching / Relation,” his poetry serves as a momentary stay, a delimiting in which words are able to mean what they say, vitally so when by naming they approach what is otherwise unintelligible. The Collected Poems makes a valuable “stillness” of “moving things.”


  1. Howard Nemerov, “My Summer,” New York Times Book Review, June 4, 1978, p. 37.

John T. Gage (review date spring 1979)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2238

SOURCE: Gage, John T. A review of Figures of Thought. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37 (spring 1979): 373-76.

[In the following review, Gage says that Figures of Thought exhibits Nemerov's tendency to approach a subject from a variety of directions, especially the question of what happens to thought when it is expressed.]

Howard Nemerov's new collection of essays contains speculations on subjects as diverse as the graphic art of M. C. Escher and the nature of time, each subject providing, however, but another background on which to flash his constant interest: what happens to thought when it becomes expression. In one essay, he tells of attending a night baseball game and suddenly discovering what Dante is up to in his use of symbolic figures in the Divine Comedy, by imagining how Cross and Eagle would look if flashed across the electric scoreboard. The book is full of such unlikely, but insightful, surprises.

Since insight follows from such accidents, I ought to say that when I read Figures of Thought I was coincidentally reading Robert Frost's remarks about poetry, scattered through essays and transcripts of talks. It may be an accident, therefore, but a provocative one, that throughout Nemerov's book I kept hearing Frost, though he is mentioned but once. I was not at all surprised to find, toward the end of the book, Nemerov describing his brief friendship with Frost as “the sympathetic vibration of two misanthropes” (p. 134). By then, this vibration had become, for me, part of what the book is about.

There is, for instance, the tonal echo, as when Nemerov draws back from his subject and invites the reader to “Try to think that thought right through” (p. 37), using the paragraph as Frost would have used the long pause. Or, as when Nemerov sportingly confesses, “O dear, it feels very strange to be quoting all this at you when I don't seem to understand it at all well myself,” he dons an imitation innocence, as Frost would do, to remind us that our own understanding of the quoted passage, “written in the lofty language of Art Criticism” (p. 159), had something of the Emperor's New Clothes about it. “O dear …” Frost would say to his audience, and then would follow their devastating compeuppance. Most of the fun in Nemerov's book comes from the way he, like Frost, expresses his impatience with the fashionable in criticism and poetry. The experience of reading Harold Bloom is reduced to the “melancholy lesson … that the effort to render English unintelligible is proceeding vigorously at the highest levels of learning” (p. 26). With equal annoyance, Nemerov convicts one of the most successful of poetry's present marketing strategies, the public reading, by citing the “danger … that any old garbage will go down all right if it's read with conviction” (p. 65). In this collection, Nemerov is at his misanthropic best.

It is in the substance of the book, however, that Nemerov is most like Frost, who used to describe his own manner of arranging a lecture by comparing himself to a dog with a number of bones buried about the yard, each of which he goes and worries in turn. Nemerov, too, worries his main themes suddenly and from different angles. These themes are, for simplicity: that thinking is modelled on language; that language is distinctly limited as a means of mediating between reality, or experience, and mind; that poetry, made of thinking and language, is not a way to truth, but that it has the potential for consoling us for the lack of truth we suffer and thereby becoming the source of truths of a special sort; that modern poetry often fails because of its naive view of language as directly embodying reality; and that modern criticism and education often fail because, sharing this view of language, they prevent poetry from teaching the only sort of truths it is capable of. In different contexts, Nemerov is engaged in discussing these themes or, obliquely, illustrating them.

Just as Frost asserted frequently that all thinking is based on metaphor, producing what he liked to call “stand offs” between opposing ideas, Nemerov takes the process of relating pairs of opposing terms to be the means by which thought is forced by language to interpret and misinterpret experience. “It seems that the mind's characteristic mode of action,” he says, “is to take the vast multiplicity of the visible world and reduce it to a single … pair of terms. … Language, made of warring opposites, becomes the instrument of conquest and domination” (p. 91). And, after a splendid parody of logic explaining away a proverb, he injects the “humbling reminder that all we think we think depends upon language, language that already exists before we think, and in which we inherit … human wisdom and human folly at the same time” (p. 44). Thinking is, at best, “an artifice,” behind which lurks “the second nature called language” (p. 193). Since this means that “What we know is never the object, but only our knowing” (p. 19). Nemerov views thought in the service of truth as essentially problematical. He would like to think of poetry as an act of knowing but not as knowledge, to be unproblematical, if experienced sympathetically: “It is … the power of poetry to be somewhat more like a mind than a thought” (p. 62).

Nemerov is fully aware of the irony of using language to assert the inadequacy of language, an unwitting paradox he often reveals in the writing of others on the subject. Because he is aware of it, he is not categorical about the relativism that would seem to follow from such speculations. Instead, he is playful about it, as Frost was who used metaphors to describe both “the strength and weakness” of metaphor itself: “All metaphor breaks down. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with metaphor. … You have to know how far to ride it.” Nemerov, asserting a similar fact about metaphor, cannot be doctrinaire, for he recognizes that since his own language is bound by the limits of metaphor it can only succeed to the degree that it is poetical.

For Nemerov, then, as for Frost, the beauty of poetry is that it emphasizes the game of language, not the truth of it, and that it teaches you to be “at home” in metaphor, to use Frost's phrase, so that you can tell when it is breaking down on you in any sort of thinking. “Poetry,” according to one of Nemerov's playful definitions, “is the sport of the intellect” (p. 10), just as Frost's favorite analogue for poetry was athletics. He cites James Dickey's phrase, “metaphor as pure adventure” (p. 39), without noting that Dickey got it from Frost, who often spoke of “the adventure into materiality,” as the serious object of the poet's playfulness with metaphor and with form. Nemerov not only shares something of the antagonism toward free verse that Frost derived from his preoccupation with this adventure, but also the belief, as Nemerov says, that “Poetry speaks of the spirit's being able to renew itself, in spite of knowledge, in spite of pain, in spite of death” (p. 14). This is a version of Frost's familiar “momentary stay against confusion,” the result of “risking spirit in substantiation,” the process of both form in poetry and Incarnation in religion. For Nemerov, likewise, poetry is “getting something right in language” (p. 55), an unexplainable transformation, so that “in its highest range, the theory of poetry would be the theory of the Incarnation, which seeks to explain how the Word became Flesh (p. 7). In the adventure of getting something right, poetry shares with painting Nemerov tells us, the ability to teach us “not to despair, not to give up, but to continue the search with as much humor and patience as possible” (p. 125). Similarly, for Frost, poetry yields nothing to believe in, except the act of asserting the freedom of form (as opposed to the freedom from it), and the spirit of adventure is not to give up the game.

Such a view necessarily has implications for how poetry ought to be read and taught and judged. It ought to be read, Nemerov says, “by making it your own, rather than quickly translating it into something else rather like it.” Its understanding, he says, is “simple and silent” (p. 108), again reminding one of Frost with his favorite analogies for the process of understanding a poem: love at first sight, or knowing how to take a hint. Frost's preference for “devotional” as opposed to “exegetical reading,” is also Nemerov's, who says that “the success of explicative criticism is precisely its failure” (p. 111). He advocates that poetry not be taught, if that means explicated, but rather that students be allowed to be “taught by poetry” (p. 103), with a result similar to that sought by Frost in his essay “Education by Poetry.” One of the things poetry can teach, if left alone to do it, is “a general and surprising apprehension of the precariousness of all language, meaning, knowledge” (p. 108). Poetry compels the inspection of received assumptions about language and meaning as the embodiment of reality, as if reality were fashioned after language, and Nemerov believes that poetry loses this power in the hands of critics who hold those very assumptions dear. Rather than to reduce the “strangeness” of the poetic mode, Nemerov sees the teacher's role as to “make the familiar strange” (p. 106). After his attack on Bloom, and another on New Criticism (which after all gave us the “heresy of paraphrase”), it may seem odd for Nemerov to advocate such a role. But it only seems so until one realizes that for Nemerov it is a corrective role, and he does not advocate the silent “meditation” on poetry in the classroom as a replacement for analysis but only as a way to rediscover that poetry is beautiful, that its sound is valuable for its own sake (cf. Frost's “sentence sounds”), and that one can sometimes understand a difficult poem best by realizing that it means literally what it says. Frost only harped at his interpreters for exercising what Nemerov calls “the temptation … to make our experience of poetry both more intellectual and more pretentious that it is or ought to be” (p. 60).

Then there is the question of judgment. Nemerov's conclusions about the failure of modern poetry center on the inheritance of imagism, with its insistence on “seeing as superior to thinking, as opposed to thinking, and something the poet must do instead of thinking” (p. 152). Since Nemerov views metaphor as inevitable in language, he is skeptical about the efforts of imagism to avoid the conventional assertion of relationships in order to get at reality unmediated and to sever the essentially metaphorical connection between image and meaning. “Most ideas,” says Nemerov, “are not contained in the mere names of things … and have to be supplied from elsewhere” (p. 154). He views imagism as an attempt to get rid of ideas, and he sees this as a “crippled and crippling response” to the attempts by modernist thinkers to read mind out of the universe (p. 168). This, for Nemerov, is an impossibility, for a mind has to be doing the reading. It is but one of the ironies of modernist thinking about poetics which Nemerov cites. “No ideas but in things,” is, after all, an idea and an abstract one at that. “A poem must not mean but be,” to take another of modern poetry's slogans, is asserted meaningfully in a poem.

And so Nemerov judges modernist, if not all modern, poetry: “Indeed, these movements, like some movements in philosophy (and not in the branches of aesthetics alone), found themselves impelled, by the necessities of rhetoric if by nothing more serious, to a contempt for mind” (p. 166). I'm a bit puzzled by one part of the statement. If the phrase “by the necessities of rhetoric if by nothing more serious” refers to the poets' need to argue their theories, it makes sense. If, however, Nemerov means that rhetoric is unserious in its relation to poetics, I remain puzzled. It was because of the imagists' contempt for rhetoric that they were impelled to a contempt for mind, for it is a central proposition of imagist theory that rhetoric controls perception and must be escaped if perception is to catch an unconventional glimpse of the object. Nemerov has, in fact, taken the opposite line, that rhetoric, because it controls how we think about what we perceive, is inescapable, especially in poetry where “figures” do not lurk behind the language but become the surface. What poets know, he says, is that “Everything we think we know is a figure of speech” (p. 8). The very title of his book alerts us that it is to be taken as a book about rhetoric, the phrase “figures of thought” having its origins in classical rhetoric as the heading under which relations between thought and language were taken up, however superficially by comparison. Nemerov's book is, in fact, a contribution to a rhetorical way of thinking about poetry, a way that was, until Romanticism, the standard way of thinking about it. What this tells me, and what the parallels between his way and Frost's way tells me, is that these are not new ideas. Rather, they are old ideas whose time seems to keep coming over and over, and which need the wit and bravado of misanthropes like Nemerov and Frost for us to hear about the din.

Ross Labrie (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15523

SOURCE: Labrie, Ross. “The Fiction.” In Howard Nemerov, pp. 29-65. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

[In the following essay, Labrie provides a rare, extensive treatment of Nemerov's fiction.]

Nemerov has published two volumes of short stories, A Commodity of Dreams (1959) and Stories, Fables & Other Diversions (1971). A Commodity of Dreams takes its theme from its title story. Exhibiting Nemerov's penchant for fable, the story is set in an English forest where a man has constructed a museum in which his dreams are carefully cataloged and in which objects that have appeared in his dreams are displayed. The museum is a way of preserving Captain Lastwyn's psychic past as well as tangible articles from his undistinguished life: “‘The little boys and girls, my home, the way we used to live, the little things which happened that one doesn't remember. I've had them all back, I have them all back’. ‘Here?’ I asked, indicating the files. ‘Here, and inside me.’ He bowed his head a little, and added, ‘I have seen my father smile again, and spoken to my mother—though we said only silly things.’ As he raised his head I was not surprised to see tears in his eyes” (p. 64).1 Captain Lastwyn confides that he is not interested in psychoanalysis, presumably because it would be both superfluous and a semiabstract entry into a subconscious world which presents itself to him with perfect clarity and picturesqueness.

With characteristic poise Nemerov ends the story with the narrator somewhat dazedly taking his leave of the forest museum and boarding a bus which is going in the wrong direction. Rather than get off, he submits to his situation with a newfound quietude. Nemerov's short stories, like those of many contemporary writers, tend to end enigmatically. The jarring effect of these endings is in accord with his belief that, instead of judging the artist's work in the light of their own experience, readers should be encouraged to judge their experience in the light of the artist's work. Knowing that he is regarded as eccentric by the bus conductor, the narrator of “A Commodity of Dreams” placidly conceives of her and of all men as equally, if not knowingly, dreamers, a blurring of the distinction between inner and outer worlds which has Nemerov's deepest assent. The story reveals itself finally as about the drollness and oddity of man's solipsistic infatuation with himself and as such is typical of all of the stories in the collection.

“Yore” offers an analogous tale on a larger scale in which not only individuals but whole communities indulge in solipsism. The scene is the significantly named Forgeterie in the Hotel Beauldvoir and involves a group of worldly cosmopolitans of the sort who inhabited European watering spots at the turn of the century. The conventions of this group include arranged marriages and comfortable harbors, where they can sit out interruptions like war with a feeling of aloof security. Overseen by a bone-china moon, the inhabitants of the Forgeterie ritualistically cultivate the sense of their ordered past against the backdrop of a looming external world whose abrasiveness they will do everything in their power to avoid.

The story centers on Felicia Drum, who has been persuaded to marry an aristocrat whom she does not love. Her outlook is exquisitely bitter. She feels herself caught between two unappealing alternatives—a raw, fearful external world that she knows nothing about and the smoothly ordered and airless world that she does know. She marries as is expected of her, and thereby commits herself to a life of spiritual asphyxiation. This is dramatized in the Wagnerian water opera that she watches, which appears to have been loosely modelled on Andersen's fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.” Drifting mentally through the opera, she glows with consciousness as the final grisly scene is played out following the prince's ardent leap into the water to join his mermaid sweetheart for ever:

Felicia was quite in time to see that she, her long white arms fixed firmly around her lover's middle, her silver tail flashing in one powerful turn and dive, dragged him away below. The audience, leaning over the edge of the pool, had a clear view of his silent writhings, kickings and strugglings, accompanied by chains of bubbles from the air in his clothing and one final chain of bubbles from the air in his lungs; after this—it had taken over a minute—he lay still at the entrance of the coral castle, until presently a cortege of mermaids swam down and carried him away, while on distant pianos empty octaves bounded angrily up and down their deserted, echoing stairwells.

(p. 12)

The water world with its choreographed violence symbolizes the stifling urbanity exhibited by all of the characters in “Yore.” Stylistically, the scene is typical of the way in which Nemerov maintains a fine edge throughout the stories in this collection by counterpointing the note of violence with dry, elegant language and a tragicomic tone.

“Yore” concludes with the echoes of a real war heard in the distant background. Thinking about this war and with conscious irony, Felicia declares finally that “if there's anything in the world I love, it's reality” (p. 13). The statement expresses the stasis that is the configuration of her life. War would at least sweep away the decay that surrounds her and is thus a romantic force in her imagination. She accepts as desolately real on the other hand the outmoded conventions of her social caste and in a sense her final ironic comment with its jadedly self-conscious overtones is an anticlimactic confirmation of her place in that caste.

“The Sorcerer's Eye” is one of a number of stories in A Commodity of Dreams which develop the theme of obsessiveness. The story employs a fairy tale motif that includes a forest, castle and beautiful maiden. The girl's father is given the role of the tyrannous giant-God figure who must be overcome—in the best tradition of Freudian fairy tales—if the children are to assume control over their own lives. The glass eye of the tyrannous father, the eye of knowledge, becomes the center of the narrator's obsession. He finally seizes the eye and instantaneously discovers the refined anguish of new awareness. He knows suddenly all of the fear that in childhood “had been denied, all the fear, I think, of children all over the world when in their sinfulness and shame they stand before the mighty parents whom they are bidden to destroy” (p. 244). As a confirmation of the perils of mature vision the beautiful girl who flees with the narrator becomes suddenly transformed into a “thickened, sallow, blotched creature dressed in a somewhat elegant gown which was, however, badly ripped and stained” (p. 243).

The obsessions of Nemerov's unheroic protagonists frequently begin with some small nagging irritant. Sometimes this takes a physical shape, as in “The Twitch,” an amusing tale about a self-disciplined Hollywood mogul who has weathered a lifetime of anti-Semitism and a young Aryan actor who, reacting subconsciously to his own racism, twitches uncontrollably in having to play the part of a Jew. In “The Guilty Shall Be Found Out and Punished” the narrator is obsessed with an elusive itch under his right foot which he cannot understand but which the reader associates with lascivious impulses that the narrator is too timid to express but about which he still feels vaguely guilty. The guilt is a sign of the cultural and social origins of many of the characters' obsessions. The obsession of the protagonist in “The Web of Life” originates in a social convention, that of respect for the dead. He is condemned to see both his own life and his inheritance slowly evaporate in preserving his dead great uncle in an expensive cryogenic mechanism that is designed to provide the old man with a fresh-frozen immortality. Bound to his great uncle's posthumous obsession by the conditions of inheritance, the narrator acknowledges with chagrin the oddity of his simultaneously fortunate and helpless position: “If Great-uncle taught me one thing for which I am thankful, it is that money is the blood of the world, and as things are now I can comfortably go on bleeding for years, for life.” (p. 87). The theme of man's powerlessness is pointed up repeatedly in these stories of obsession—a powerlessness which like that depicted in “The Web of Life” frequently lurks within the very trappings of power.

Nemerov had intended to call his first book of stories Obsessions, only later changing the title to A Commodity of Dreams. The appropriateness of the original title is evident throughout the book. In “Tradition” the principal character funnels his life into the slaughtering of thousands of crows, taking advantage of a forgotten village bounty on crows. He then creates a marginal handicraft industry out of the bones and feathers of dead crows and creates a legend about the massacre of the crows by inventing a plague of crows and some heroic ancestors to deal with them. Infuriated by him at first, the town finally honors his death as a member of one of the area's oldest families. In addition to dramatizing one man's obsession, the story embodies a conspicuous Nemerovian theme, that of the impact of imagination on external reality.

At the same time the obsessed characters generally find themselves at some point, often a point of no return, in collision with the external world. Such is the case with Samuel Amran in “An Encounter with the Law.” Amran drives north from New York City in the autumn to see the New England foliage, his powder-blue Cadillac gliding effortlessly through the tiny white villages. He relaxes as he feels the weight of commercial and familial responsibility sliding from his shoulders. Unthinkingly he flicks a cigar butt out of the car window which suddenly brings him face to face with a humorless policeman who becomes the incarnation of his most surrealistic fears: “Except for mouth and chin, the man seemed to have no face but to be all blue-gray cloth, black leather and green glass; even his skin was leathery, red, rough, and his peeling nose seemed to incorporate itself somehow with the sunglasses which in turn fitted closely, concealingly, under the visor of his cap. He wore great black gauntlets going nearly to the elbows, and his belt sagged to one side under the weight of the holstered gun” (pp. 204-05).

Humiliated and flustered, Amran tries to bribe the policeman, who in turn orders him to go to the police station. Following the policeman's motorcycle, Amran comes to a fork in the road, a location that seems to flow from an earlier dream and he goes berserk, gunning the engine in a frantic attempt to escape. Exhilarated and flushed with a sense of power, Amran forges through what has become a solipsistic experience only to find that there are unforeseen, real consequences ahead as he smashes into the policeman, killing him instantly. He returns to contact with the external world with a heavy sadness, taking off the policeman's cap and sunglasses and noticing that the “face beneath was younger, softer, than what he had expected” (p. 210). The obsessions of characters like Amran are manifestations in Nemerov's short story typology of the impasse between the mind and the external world, an impasse whose consequences are as catastrophic as they are unavoidable.

While obsession leads to disaster in colliding with the external world, the energy which brings about the catastrophe generally comes from within, a satisfying circumstance in stories which focus in any case on characterization. This can be seen in “Delayed Hearing” in which a car accident so infuriates one of the victims, Miss Mindenhart, that she pursues the other driver with mounting fury through the courts. Frustrated by the inability of the courts to bend to her will, Miss Mindenhart strikes out at her gentle, pacifistic adversary in a scene that brings about the woman's surprising death and registers Nemerov's sense of the human condition:

If Mr. Julius Porter had not grabbed at his cousin's arm, slightly deflecting the trajectory of the handbag; if Mrs. Haxton had only put up an arm to ward off the blow, as Miss Minderhart assuredly anticipated she must do … if only Mrs. Haxton had not at this moment confirmed herself in a religion of suffering nonresistance; if only, above all, she had not worn that smile … But as it was, the silver- or chrome-plated arrow of the handbag pierced her left eye, and there was a grotesque instant of silence and motion arrested everywhere.

(p. 199)

With detachment and irony Nemerov shows the inevitable coming together of the willful and the inexorable in a pattern of determination so far reaching and so pervasive that it is identical in a diffused state with the very atmosphere of his fictional world.

An excruciating tale of obsession is “The Amateurs.” The title plays on the Latin word for love—a contrast with the bored group of elegant sado-masochists whose obsessive tormenting of one another results in the crucifixion of one of its members. Osmin, the man who is crucified, draws a romantic named Allan Hastings into carrying out the crucifixion by playing on the need of Hastings and the group for some conclusive action. The action performed is intended by Osmin to satisfy both Hastings's need for finality and the group's perverse hunger for raw emotional experience. The crucifixion serves the purpose of freeing Osmin from the prolonged self-hatred that has constituted his life. Fittingly, his death effects its intended catharsis as Hastings, overcome by what has happened, breaks into a “deep, healthy laughter” (p. 183). The story firmly underlines the fact that Nemerov's characters will what they are compelled to will even when they are completely aware of the brutal mechanism underlying their lives.

The propensity of the characters for violence when they are separated subjectively from the world around them is dramatized in the story “A Secret Society.” Judson Paley, a New England aristocrat, is both socially and psychologically cut off from the town in which he lives. Ostensibly enjoying the idle life of privilege, Paley in fact seethes with a helpless feeling of violence and alienation. Steeped in self-consciousness, he moves about town under the pressure of strange impulses. On one occasion he is driven by the temptation to take a policeman's revolver and kill himself. He finally does seize a bank guard's gun and turns it on himself, but he forgets to release the safety catch. A failure even in this, he is carried back home, whimpering.

The guard's gun becomes an obsessive symbol of Paley's desire to have some sort of impact on the world around him, a contrast with his pampered and ineffectual existence. Holding the gun in his hand, he feels that he holds the “absolute upon which everything was founded, the black imperative whose existence made conditional the existence of everything else, the banks, schools, stores, theaters; waitresses, barbers, dentists and hygienists too, for that matter; himself as well, come to that” (p. 33). Nemerov's characterization of Judson Paley is characteristic of his technique in A Commodity of Dreams in that it combines the luridness of the violent and the grotesque with the blandness of the mundane. He opens “A Secret Society” with a description of Paley in the barber's chair, a scene which is uncomfortably self-conscious for Paley but which makes the reader aware of the ordinary world that goes its way outside the membrane of Paley's obsessions.

An occasional character will strive to break down the impasse between himself and the external world, sometimes wittily, as in the story “Beyond the Screen.” In the 1950s, when not everyone had a television set and not everyone wanted one, Andrew Stonecroft has his house invaded by his mother-in-law and her TV. The world relayed through the set becomes for Stonecroft an emblem of the solipsism of his whole society, which attunes itself to reality only within the abstract, cinematic shadows of the living room screen. As Stonecraft watches the parade of real deaths which constitutes the world's news pass narcotically across the screen, he decides to act. In the midst of a thunderstorm he rips out the lightning arrester from behind his house, determined to take his chances with life and death along with those unfortunates on the TV news, most of them in the developing nations, whose lives still have some extra subjective reality.

All of the stories in A Commodity of Dreams possess a firm symmetry, a feature of Nemerov's narrative style. The most symmetrical is probably the story “The Ocean to Cynthia,” which involves a charming confidence man, Anthony Bower, who has spent his life seducing and living off well-to-do women he meets on transatlantic liners. Bower typifies Nemerov's attraction to stories which have to do with fraud: “Debasement and counterfeit especially of the intellectual and artistic currency,” he wrote on one occasion, constitute a “subject of great charm.”2 Flanking Anthony Bower is Father Frank, a fake priest who is anything but frank, and Elizabeth Brayle whose name symbolizes her blindness to Bower's designs.

The denouement comes when Bower is shocked to discover, through a locket containing a love inscription he had written many years before, that the woman he is now attempting to seduce is his own daughter, the illegitimate offspring of an earlier seduction. Swept away by an unusual wave of recognition and despair, he hurls both himself and Elizabeth into the sea with a final flourish so that they move together “as though dancing toward the free fall and the wild marble water singing below” (p. 103). As the passage illustrates and as is the case with most of these stories, the tight symmetry of the plot is matched by the chiselled precision and grace of Nemerov's prose.

On the whole Stories, Fables & Other Diversions (1971) is a more formal and subdued collection than A Commodity of Dreams. Although it contains some memorable tales, it tends to lack the dramatic energy of the earlier volume. The antiheroic qualities of the protagonists in Stories, Fables & Other Diversions are even more pronounced than in A Commodity of Dreams and the writing sometimes has a flatness that tends to undermine the dramatic potential of the stories. The characters are as alienated as in A Commodity of Dreams and Nemerov's view of them is as wry as ever. The reader is led to be even more detached from them than in A Commodity of Dreams and is moved to identify with the metaphysical condition of the characters rather than with their personal traits and circumstances. This is largely due to the emphasis on fable, a form which Nemerov values for its conciseness.

In addition, although they are still driven by subconscious forces, the characters in Stories, Fables & Other Diversions are more self-contained than those in the earlier collection. The narrator of the story “Unbelievable Characters,” for example, longs for a violence which does not appear. Watching a skywriting plane spell the syllable “ROB-,” he wonders if the completed instruction will be “ROB—BURN—MURDER.” The word turns out to be “ROBIN,” a word sadly bereft of dramatic connotations. Bored to the limit, he concludes finally that there was always the “millionth chance” that the smoking plane was “really on fire, that the smoke would turn black and begin to plunge away down the sky” (pp. 36-37).3 The scene reflects an idle interest in violence in a desiccated world rather than the bursting of violence from beneath and within that marks the lives of those in A Commodity of Dreams.

The characters in Stories, Fables & Other Diversions are devotees of consciousness. Even Mrs. Melisma in “Bon Bons,” who has a craving for filled chocolates, becomes a practitioner of self-analysis, the “passionate scientist of her vice” (p. 28). Hoisted up by Nemerov as an emblem of North American materialism, Mrs. Melisma pores over her dilemma: “She saw that life had embarked her on a hopeless quest for the One Supreme filled chocolate, containing in itself not the abstract or mere quintessence but the entire luscious being of the absolute; in the search for which all actual experience fell into the gullet and abyss of non-being, and was an nothing. Nor would the Platonic Idea of that chocolate satisfy; no, it must be the real thing, the filled chocolate incarnate, and to eat it would be to redeem time” (p. 28). The passage reveals the strength of Stories, Fables & Other Diversions, its nimble play of mind and language, bringing the collection into line with Nemerov's lyric poetry, so that what the stories lack in action they make up in the refined elaboration of idea. The narrative style is carefully distilled, with plots that are firmly contained and coolly ordered.

All of these qualities can be found in “The Nature of the Task,” one of the strongest stories in the collection. The story is a Kafkasque fable in which a man named Palen is given the task of killing flies in a square-shaped room. There is no indication of who has given him this task, but it would seem that he has been dealt the assignment by God or life and that he has accepted it. Not noticing any flies, his mind, which is in constant need of stimulation, seizes upon the idea of counting snowflakes. Remembering that he once heard that to count things was to kill them, he equates the counting of snowflakes with the killing of flies. He starts by counting the blue snowflakes on the walls of his room and then switches to counting snowflakes falling outside. He becomes blocked finally by the thought that since no two snowflakes are alike he may not in fact be counting identical objects. In stopping his counting, he suddenly becomes conscious of a fly buzzing in the room, a fly which had presumably been there all along but which he only became aware of when he stepped outside the confinement of his own mind.

As in “Bon Bons” Nemerov embellishes the story with metaphysical witticisms. He satirizes religious consolation, for example, in a scene showing Palen's scruples about carrying out his task: “One must simply sit still. Indeed, that might be precisely the mystical important of an instruction to kill the flies in a room where no flies were: that is, do nothing—the chief recommendation of the great religious of every persuasion from the beginning of the world” (p. 104). The story goes deeper than its verbal wit, however. Palen does not hastily confuse mind with world; rather, he is led to recognize the precociousness of consciousness in extracting meaning from a world which holds its meaning to itself. The rage for order is inevitable, however, given the mere existence of the mind. This is signified in the way in which Palen divides even the barred window into an intelligible grid, like that of a chessboard, so that the “sky, the single tree, the passing cloud, even the occasional bird, appeared superimposed on a graph” (p. 96). Reaching a plateau of Nemerovian wisdom, Palen stoically accepts his own inventiveness as the “glibness of a mind that moved, it seemed, independently of his will,” and he comes finally to a “deep and thoroughgoing distrust of the reason—just because it ‘reasoned’ so very well” (p. 103).

While Palen arrives at a healthy skepticism, other characters in Stories, Fables & Other Diversions lack his perspective. “The Idea of a University” was titled after Cardinal Newman's celebrated discourse on the purpose of a university and is a satiric sketch about intelligence isolated from the world around it. For Newman a university was a place for intellectual and moral formation, and he would have had little sympathy with the university in Nemerov's story, which seems to be an appendage of American technology. Furthermore, the moral status of Nemerov's fictional campus is silhouetted in the university's establishing its own slum for interdisciplinary study, a slum composed of poor people who had been imported from Georgia. The slum symbolizes the arrogance of the mind as well as the potential destructiveness of intelligence when it is abstractly detached from matter and from the external world. While far from being a social commentator, Nemerov has frequently underlined the severe social ramifications of intellectual aloofness.

Nemerov's contemporary university develops in piecemeal fashion, adding an aircraft hangar here, an experimental prison unit there. It develops sporadically and mindlessly into a receptacle for random spillovers from the larger society instead of providing that society with clarification and direction about its fundamental nature and purposes. The impotency of the academic community is illustrated in the scene in which the president of the university is peremptorily denied entrance to the experimental prison which is ostensibly part of his domain but which is actually controlled by the Pentagon. The meaning of this scene is amplified in the conclusion of the sketch, which focuses on the brain of the university, the significantly named Random Access Computer Unit. Inside the building that isolates the computer from the community it is meant to serve, a large typewriter “with no evidence of human control or for that matter attention” is seen “patiently printing something across and down an apparently endless roll of paper that fed in turn into a large but overflowing wastebasket” (p. 95).

A number of the tales in Stories, Fables & Other Diversions show Nemerov's interest in fantasy. Examples include “The Twelve and the One,” “The Outage,” “The Executive,” and “The Nature of the Task.” Of these the most imaginative and powerful is “The Executive,” a story about an encounter between the white manager of a supermarket, Mr. Budby, and Hubert, his black stock boy. Hubert is a walking disaster who innocently but effectively destroys whatever he comes into contact with. On one occasion, for example, he thoughtlessly leaves hundreds of cartons of fish standing out in the June sun. The manager, who enjoys thinking of himself as an executive, is a churchgoer whose anger over the costly ineptitude of his stock boy is tempered by moral scruples as well as by the store's policy of racial integration.

Nevertheless, Budby finds himself on the brink of firing his employee when he suddenly has a vision of Hubert transfigured into a luminous black angel: “The brightness circling his head hissed and crackled against the ceiling, but did not seem to set it aflame. Dark, downy wings stood out of Hubert's back, and fluttered a bit wildly, maybe because Hubert was still trembling some. Hubert's eyes, behind their limpid brown, flamed like stars, bending upon Mr. Budby an icy radiance” (p. 22). Budby keeps waiting for Hubert to become a proper angel with pink skin, fair hair and blue eyes, but all that happens is that a “blaze of black light, a blazing blackness like the moonlit glimpse of calm waters, continued to glimmer all around Hubert” (p. 22).

The intensity of the vision casts a spell over the relationship between Budby and Hubert for a while, but then as the feeling of the vision wears off and Hubert continues to blunder through the week, the manager gathers himself to act in spite of the scorched arc which he perceives nervously on the ceiling. In a final denial of the vision to which, after all, there had been no witnesses, he fires Hubert. “The Executive,” is the most dramatic of the stories in Stories, Fables & Other Diversions and is executed with finesse and economy. An urbane tone hovers over the narration, but it is modulated carefully so that it diminishes in the sections in which the characters' consciousnesses are the center of interest. Through such subtle alterations in tone, texture and mood, all of which contribute to the unity of effect, Nemerov demonstrates, here as elsewhere, his polished mastery of the short story.


Nemerov's first published novel, The Melodramatists (1949), was written during three successive summers. The last sixty pages, which comprise the denouement, were written in a creative cloudburst, two fifteen-hour sessions preceded by “(a) a mean quarrel with a friend, and (b) a month during which I did nothing but (of all things) play golf.”4 The novel is set in Boston in the winter of 1940 and involves the Boynes, a family of Boston Brahmins whose elder members try vainly to maintain appearances. The Boyne parents begin the action in an attempt to impose their values, specifically about marriage and divorce, upon their children. They only partly succeed. The insipid nature of their success in calling off the divorce of their son Roger and his wife Leonora is registered by Mr. Boyne, who perceives all of life as essentially a struggle for power:

The elders … had won, there would be no divorce. But they too realized that something had been sacrificed. They had been presented with a puppet performance, cheated of the life. Among the random images that went through Nicholas Boyne's mind was one of some Roman general who had ordered the execution of his own son on a battlefield; and another, more vaguely recalled, of a Roman—was it ambassador?—who for some reason had stuck his hand in a pot of fire and seen it consumed. To prove something, was it?

(p. 34)5

Having failed to achieve a satisfying victory, Mr. Boyne obligingly goes mad and thereby hands over the reins to the next generation. The daughters Susan and Claire dominate the action, with the plot revolving around their experiments with life. Susan explores the world of earthly love while Claire devotes herself to asceticism and mysticism. Both assume that they can fashion for themselves whatever lives their minds can imagine and much of the satire has to do with the collision between this adventurousness and the obstinate external world. Susan finds herself, for example, being blackmailed by her butler, Hogan, for indiscretions involving Dr. Einman and the family treasury; whereas Claire finds herself saddled with a group of smelly Hungarian nuns and eventually in the power of a prostitute, who has the appropriate name of Mother Fosker. So much, the plot seems to say, for the free exploration of life.

Nemerov's fondness for symmetry is seen in the careful way in which he parallels the lives of the two women. Upon the collapse of their father, for example, each quickly sets her own course. Susan becomes Dr. Einman's mistress on the same evening and in the same house in which Claire places her soul trustingly into the pastoral care of Father Meretruce. Even at twenty-one, when Claire was two years older than her sister, she had developed a “spinsterish asperity of voice and, on occasion, the primness of a young dowager” (p. 27). She approaches experience, particularly of the flesh, with fear and loathing: “Why can't we keep our lives clean?” she complains to Susan on one occasion. “Why is there this perpetual making of dirty jokes running like a sound-track beside us, as though some—some horrible little toadstools were leaning together and whispering about us?” Unsatisfied with her sister's inconclusive response, she moves to the window, where she thrills at the “wonderful coldness,” her mind filled with “images of coldness, of the magnificent vaulted solemnity of churches; convents, white stiff robes, coldness, centuries cold as the tomb devoted to denouncing warmth, intimacy” (p. 29).

Claire's frigidity, so incisively described in this passage, is complemented by a burning zeal for the spiritual. Under the guiding hand of Father Meretruce she embraces mystical asceticism like a lover, climbing eagerly to visionary heights. Taking pain as an ally, she clenches herself in prayerful anticipation of mystical union and experiences with full empathy the vision of Christ on the cross. Restraining the novel's prevailing tone of skepticism at this critical moment, Nemerov focuses eloquently on the expanding circles of Claire's ecstasy:

it was the instantaneous spread of light in the center of her mind, together with impressions of tremendous majesty, a light so white and blinding that our earthly robes seemed by contrast tarred and defiled. In agony and love she saw this light glitter and gleam in brilliant flashes through her spine and head, unbearable in intensity, so that she wished and did not wish for the end. The light like thunder echoed in the circle of her mind, played in fitful coruscations among the gray, coiling masses of her brain, so that she seemed to see by flashes of utter radiance her own essence, that which slept and that which waked, its purities and its corruptions, the carbon and the many-faceted diamond.

(p. 127)

Claire's mystical ecstasy exists in lieu of a strong faith, a fact which becomes uncomfortably apparent when the officious Father Meretruce, a visionless man himself, casts doubt upon the authenticity of her experience. Further complicating her assent to Catholic dogma is the arrival of the unkempt, monolingual Hungarian nuns whose physical unattractiveness awakens her queasiness. Staring at the salivating nuns who are caught up stupefyingly in their mumbled prayers, she wavers between seeing them as merely bestial or as living in “the skull of God” (p. 224).

Uncertain and yet eager to believe, she fears finally that the fury of the nuns' praying may after all be merely their obsession, a narrowing of the variety and sanity of the many forms of reality to the “nonsense of the One” (p. 224). Nevertheless, she forces herself to be receptive to the visitation of God, only to have appear instead “the towers of Notre Dame de Paris—pigeons in the sunlight of a public square—some sort of tall monument with a figure on its top.” Where, she wonders, were the “well-known peace and the much-advertised consolation?” (p. 253). Repressed almost to the last, Claire finally drifts subconsciously toward sexual union with Edmond Einman while upholding her conscious distaste for the body and for human love: “The idea of love revolted her; it was unclean” (p. 281).

In spite of his clear reservations about her, Nemerov invests Claire with intelligence and the capacity to grow. She eventually confronts the flesh in the shape of Mother Fosker and her cohort of allegedly reformed prostitutes. The confrontation produces in Claire a perception of the relationship between religion and subconscious sexuality which is sophisticated, if a trifle glib, and which eventually helps to free her: “She imagined that many must have witnessed with hot pleasure the Son of Man writhing on the Cross, which pleasure might in some subterranean change after his death have been the motive of their conversion. They feared, perhaps, the vengeance of the dead, not because they had killed Him but because He bore away into death the deepest powers of their lust” (p. 281). Like the other characters Claire is a melodramatist, brooding bitterly over her own unhappiness and that of others in a way that is simultaneously both moving and lugubrious: “To be unhappy, that is the weakness fullest of shame; that we are unhappy is the thing we dread most to be told, unless we dread still more the idea that another can think us unhappy” (p. 259). As with a number of the characters Claire's sentiments are a shade too ponderous and uncompromising.

From a structural point of view Nemerov divides his novel between the viewpoints of Susan and Claire, leaving some room for the consciousnesses of Einman and a few of the others. Susan receives more narrative time than any of the characters, reflecting Nemerov's interest in and sympathy with her. At the same time, in order to offset the dominance of Susan's viewpoint, he punctuates the flow of her consciousness with some unappealing illuminations of her. In one scene, for example, in which she is with Edmond Einman, she throws an unattractive light upon herself in displaying her feelings of boredom by yawning openly: “Edmond's talk, so long as it could be understood as primarily attacking her virtue and only in the second place sowing information, had been acceptable enough, a flattering attention. Now, however, it became a bore” (p. 119).

Symmetrically, Susan's dark hair and shapeliness contrast with Claire's fairness and angularity. Intellectually as well she is different from her sister. Impatiently on one occasion she complains about Claire's “perpetual mooning about noble motives” (p. 28). As with Claire, though, the Boyne affluence provides Susan with an opportunity to explore herself and what life has to offer, an adventure which is given thrust by the sudden, shocking collapse of her father's mind, a reminder that time is change and a melancholy indication of life's “infinite capriciousness” (p. 115). Nevertheless, Mr. Boyne's plunge into dementia sharpens Susan's appetite for life so that what she wants it to contain is a sense of “crisis, passion, decision, fulfilment” (p. 115).

Susan's approach to new experience is much less methodical than Claire's and her goals less clearly defined. She confides to Claire on one occasion that she can find out what her goals are only by wanting something first. Her plight is that her gravitating toward passion and finality collides with the “triviality and absurdity of things” (p. 202). Edmond Einman, to whom Susan becomes fatefully attached, is the spokesman for the triviality and absurdity of things, a philosophy of life that Susan cannot gainsay and that she seems to use subconsciously as an intellectual support for her drifting toward an amoral sensuality. Thus Einman becomes both her lover and the nihilistic underminer of the passion that she shares with him, a situation that presents itself to her as a bitter paradox: “She found his sexual powers more satisfying now in bitterness than previously in amusement, and his fancy in this matter more varied and provocative: the savage gratifications they achieved, though occasionally, and not without a mute anger liable at any moment to petty and spiteful fulmination, were the landmarks to bring into momentary focus the desolate plain on which she was” (p. 202).

Susan's commitment to love becomes indistinguishable from her commitment to death. Her conception of love, the product of a sensitive and imaginative mind, reflects this antithetical range of feeling: “Passion, tenderness, pity—she saw in her mind a spider scuttling on a wall—were suicidal extravagances of the will, the image of whose desire was really the white silence of the hospital room, the cool sheets, the bloodless redress of these grievances. And love (as one reverently called it, the very syllable a breath, an apologetic sigh, of weariness) tended that same way too” (p. 213).

Susan's viewpoint is so complexly persuasive that she gives the appearance of being the one character who is exempt from being a melodramatist. She resents Claire's “gushing,” for example, “no less than her assumed familiarity” (pp. 149-147). Listening to John Averist declare his love for her, she becomes sardonically aware that every admission was a “place of concealment for some further secret,” open sincerity a sure sign of “vile deceit” (p. 151). Slumming through Boston in the company of Einman, she decides finally that the smell of beer and urinals was the only significant difference between the city's low life and her own sphere. On another occasion she notices a garishly dressed woman whom she takes to be a whore and following her out of curiosity has the “inconclusive pleasure of seeing her enter a respectable-looking brownstone house on Beacon Street” (p. 95).

Critical and shrewd, Susan does fathom her entanglement with Einman. If it is true that she cannot help herself, it is equally true that she avoids self-pity. She accepts the perversity of her relationship with him, a relationship whose “melancholy charm lay in disillusion which when it could not provoke it would invent” (p. 214). Furthermore, she confronts the ugliness of her life with courage. Scrutinizing one of the reformed whores whom Claire has admitted to the Boyne mansion, she becomes aware of a “loathsome softness” which causes her to bow her head in recognition: “I too am like that, she thought” (p. 264).

In desiring passion and finality, however, Susan is a melodramatist. She is also a melodramatist in resolving the relationship with Einman in a pact of mutual abnegation, a pact which he cunningly engineers by making her believe that he is terminally ill, a stratagem that he calculates will alter her course from death to that of renunciation. A melodramatist in taking the bait, she tells Einman, whom she considers near his end, that they will be a “Christian household, forgiving each other daily for everything” (p. 216). Ironically, Susan exhibits a religious tenderness at this moment which seems forever beyond Claire's reach. She is a melodramatist finally, however, in assuming that what she decides will determine her life, a mistake made by all of the major characters. It is, after all, Mother Fosker and Hogan, emissaries of the intractable outer world, who are the final shapers of her fate.

Even Edmond Einman, who promenades through the pages of the novel as the ultimate realist, is a melodramatist. Einman's nihilism, the venom of which he injects into his relationship with Susan, is based upon a solipsistic despair which is only partially alleviated by the relief which he finds in cerebration. Einman's philosophical perorations are the refreshment of his soul, particularly when communicated to an attentive audience, such as that at the party at which Arthur Charvet attempts to kill himself. Using the incident as his point of departure, Einman quickly moves onto more generalized reflections:

The definition, the essence, of life, look, is this: not that it moves, no. But that it continues to move, it keeps going—so far as we can see, at any rate; though we must never overlook the possibility, the rarest joke of all, that what we live in is not life at all, but simply the vast motion of a mechanical energy to the largest scale, like a rock falling from the highest mountain, like a ship—with its gods and emperors, crew and passengers, its fine foods and economic problems—sinking slowly down the height of an incredibly deep ocean.

(p. 55)

Although Einman touches on some metaphysical ideas that resemble aspects of Nemerov's thinking, he does so with a pedagogical gravity that Nemerov clearly satirizes. Furthermore, Einman's confidence in thought, his ingenuous assumption that his philosophizing about the futility of life has any impact on the course of things, is his most melodramatic illusion. It is the most fundamental mistake that a Nemerovian character can make and is probably as close as Nemerov ever came to depicting tragic hubris.

The denouement of The Melodramatists has the dramatic flair of Restoration comedy. The final confrontation scene, which assembles all of the central characters, also reflects Nemerov's passion for the detective story. The Boyne mansion becomes a tableau of the whole society with the privileged and powerful in revelry below while those who represent intellect and spirit are held prisoner in the upper part of the house. In a burlesque of institutionalized religion, Mother Fosker, with her pulse on the outer world, oversees everything like a demanding Mother Superior.

In spite of their ineffectualness those who represent mind and spirit are the focus of narrative attention since they are more interesting even in failure than their Saturnalian counterparts below. The upper room is the repository of culture, a museum of philosophy and religion. The scene represents a culmination of the past for the characters as well. Susan ruefully acknowledges this when she considers that “one forgot nothing; everything that had happened was there, was still there, and not dead either, but alive and mysteriously moving, the crawling corruption of the past by which one bred the future” (p. 316). Part of the action involves a debate between Dr. Einman and Father Meretruce on science and religion. The debate is as inconclusive as it is meaningless and irrelevant to the representatives of the active world in the rooms below them. Neither Dr. Einman nor Father Meretruce present a convincing case for either science or religion. One of the reasons for this is that Nemerov does not want to turn his novel over to discussion. The points of view expressed by the debaters are merely colors on the novelist's palette and are meant to engage the characters and the reader rather than to elucidate the human condition.

The fact that the debate focuses eventually on the topic of love is not only a source of great irony among such acerbic and disillusioned protagonists, but is in fact unexpectedly relevant. Each of their conceptions of love, both human and divine, together with the machinations and complications attendant upon these conceptions has led, at least in part, to the bizarre spectacle of Hogan holding them all prisoner in an upstairs room. Claire recognizes all of this when she exclaims toward the end: “I am shut in a room in my own house and watched by a man with a pistol—simply because of love and its mysterious ways” (p. 328).

The death of Susan is carefully and ambiguously described by Nemerov so that it is seen simultaneously as the ultimate expression of power by Hogan and as suicide, Susan's earlier submission to Hogan having filled her with a final, despairing self-revulsion. Her death is at once pathetic and absurd. It captures the novel's complex mood—its melancholy, poignancy, and ludicrousness. The mood is sharpened at the end by the elegant surface of the action being ruptured by violence. The complex mood represents Nemerov's bifocal view of fate closing in on man, a fate that registers both the meaninglessness of life and the surprisingly fixed laws of character and behavior that lead relentlessly to unforeseen destruction. The denouement of The Melodramatists may be compared to the laws that Nemerov perceived underlying the ending of Faulkner's Light in August: “Event ineluctably creates event, there is no escape from the assigned role, the idea of freedom consists in our having forgotten that we learned the part we must play. God, or destiny, or luck, or life itself, is inherently novelistic … coincidence itself has no longer any real existence but is unabashedly faced up to as necessity.”6

With characteristic balance Nemerov follows the death of Susan Boyne with a brief scene of recovery and adaptation. Amidst the relaxed yawning of Father Meretruce, Claire goes over to the harpsichord: “She sat down and began to play, inattentively at first but presently with more care, a little piece in fugue. The instrument was out of tune and not only that, but broken glass tinkled on some of the strings, but it seemed not to matter. The morning light seemed to clear the room as the voices in a minor key steadily moved to and from one another, showing an inexorable confidence in their not quite harmonious world” (p. 338). In spite of the feeling of chaos unleashed by Susan's death, the surface of life closes over again with Claire apparently turning away from religion and toward art in her quest for spiritual meaning. Furthermore, culture, as symbolized by the out-of-tune harpsichord, appears to respond.

The central motif in the novel is that articulated in the title. The melodramatic is mirrored in the names—the name Leonora, for example—and is present in every character in the novel with the exception of Mother Fosker, who symbolizes objective reality. Among the minor characters, John Averist, for example, is a sentimentalist: “It was the habit of his soul to wallow romantically. He was in love with Susan, he thought, and made of what he proposed to himself as a hopeless passion, together with her obvious accessibility at least to another, something rather special in the way of emotion” (p. 141).

Even the imperturbable Hogan slips into a melodramatic frame of mind on occasion, as in the scene in which he faces John Averist in a showdown over Hogan's blackmailing of Susan. Hogan assumes that Averist has come to kill him and reflects histrionically: “You pushed the victim's patience too far, you did not know when to stop, you would be found, one gray dawn, lying with your iron-gray hair in a pool of mud that gradually was becoming red. By your side was the strange oriental weapon—yataghan or kris—that did you in” (p. 190). Similarly, before his collapse, old Mr. Boyne is depicted as melodramatic in standing for what he regards as old-fashioned values, all the while exhibiting an “incredibly devious, Machiavellian smile” (p. 25).

While the characters perceive as reality what the reader sees as unreality, the characters perceive as dream what the reader judges to be reality. Averist, for example, cannot accept the reality of his own behavior in trying to decide whether or not to share in the blackmail money that Susan pays to Hogan. He imagines himself transferring the money to Edmond, his rival, so that ironically Edmond might spend the night in a hotel with Susan. The situation becomes ludicrous in its dreamlike illumination of a world “full of connections, circles, cycles and dark designs,” a world whose ingrown complexities and accompanying ironies strike Averist as preposterously unreal (p. 198).

Susan Boyne is also susceptible to perceiving the world as a dream. As the allegedly reformed prostitutes arrive at the Boyne mansion in the company of policemen and Father Meretruce, Susan, watching from above, perceives the scene as having a quality of “remote and silent intensity, as though (she thought) it were an advertisement for a dream” (p. 262). Her own life comes to seem to her to be “dangerously dreamlike,” a feeling which persists as she contemplates ending that life (p. 200). She “lay down on the bed and held the point of the knife to her side. She had little enough idea where to strike so as to be sure. But the symbolic propriety of the place and the position struck her as contemptible and operatic, so she got up and took the knife into the bathroom, whose white and hygienic brightness she imagined her blood as already soiling” (pp. 316-17). The use of the dream motif is Nemerov's way of turning the novel inside out. The melodramatic delusions which fill the subjective lives of the characters but which are unrecognized by them become projected in the outer world as a cosmic parallel for the ever fluctuating margin between the imagined and the real. Much of the novel's narrative apparatus—the unlikely appearance of the Hungarian nuns and the prostitutes in the Boyne mansion, for example—extends the perimeters of the dreamscape to include the reader.

Nemerov uses a technique of surrealistic formalism. The formalism is conveyed through the novel's restraint and urbanity. He admired the dryness of Stendhal, who, when he wrote The Charterhouse of Parma, read a page of the Code Civil every morning—for the style. The Melodramatists centers on a humanized world with only the most perfunctory attention given to nature. In addition, Nemerov circumscribes his characters with epigrams and aphorisms in the manner of Neoclassical writers. Similarly, he makes liberal use of ironic juxtaposition, a favorite Neoclassical device, as in the scene in which Susan pays off Hogan each week by placing forty dollars under the bust of Plato which stands on the harpsichord in the library.

The formalism is emotionally reinforced by Nemerov's antipathy to sentimentalism. He summarized his attitude toward sentimentality memorably in the poem “To the Bleeding Hearts Association of American Novelists”: “I like those masters better who expound / more inwardly the nature of our loss, / And only offhand let us know they've found / No better composition than a cross.”7

Nemerov also strove to make his plot intricate and formal. He has been quoted as saying that he does not regard character in the novel as a very deep matter: “And I certainly do not read fiction to be told how terrible the world is. I can find that out on the morning news.”8 His use of the mock-heroic also inhibits the rush of emotion and emphasizes the formalism of the style. When Hogan is about to enter Susan's room to claim her, an act that destroys her, Nemerov offsets the chilling implications of the scene with a mock-heroic description of the door through which he passes: “Anciently the guardian of gateways was Janus, whose two faces, though they gained him a reputation for irony and deceit, were merely the image and denomination, as honest as possible, of the crucial situation expressed by a door: that it had to do with inside and outside and represented therefore the entire possibility of human society, which without this distinction could not have existed” (p. 273).

Hogan is the focus for much of the mock-heroic imagery because he combines insignificance of soul with a large and calculating ambition. Projecting himself out of his servitude into the upper classes, he lives out the melodrama of his life in the imagined company of kings and generals:

According to the paradigm of history, as Hogan understood it, the Boyne household was passing through a period of decadence, an interregnum consequent on the abdication of the supreme authority (Mr and Mrs Boyne), the over-running of the domain by barbarians (whores and nuns), the dispute over the throne between two princesses, of whom one was swayed by the Church and the other was accessible to lust: the erotic and the political were in conjunction and in favorable aspect, and Hogan's star was at last, by some means not entirely clear, to rise.

(p. 270)

The pervasive use of the mock-heroic enters the realm of reflexiveness when Nemerov enters the narration with derisive philosophical conceits of his own, as in his description of Charvet's attempted suicide: “The party had rather rapidly changed its quality. The proximate cause of the change was evidently alcohol. The formal cause was Arthur Charvet, and the material cause lay perhaps far back and forgotten, somewhere in the tangled mess of relations in space and time that was so glibly referred to as Arthur Charvet. The final cause, however, seemed to be Dr. Einman” (p. 47). The effect of the scene is to place Nemerov as narrator between his characters and the reader and thus to prevent the reader's sympathetic identification with the characters. The technique is necessary in order to sustain the hybrid tragicomic perspective.

The symbolism in the novel is also of a rather formal order. Similes abound and there is overt symbolic use made of setting in the case of the Boyne mansion. The house, which symbolizes the withered vitality of Western civilization, is built around an “enclosed court” which is “stone-flagged and bordered by arched columns; in its center stood a fountain that did not work” (p. 293). The most elaborate and insistent symbol is the photograph of the fetus which Einman carries around with him. The arms of the fetus are folded in “judicial and almost contemptuous posture,” and the mouth, similarly, seems “cruel and royal and full of sullen condemnation” (p. 80). The photograph becomes an absorbing talisman for Susan, who accepts it as an emblem of the alien and enigmatic world outside the mind and the self.

The Melodramatists is not as evenly polished a structure as Nemerov's second novel Federigo. It has a looseness, for example, that becomes uncomfortably apparent at times in the speechifying of some of the characters. On the other hand, as has been demonstrated, the novel exhibits a sophisticated handling of form. In addition, it possesses an attractive emotional vitality unequaled in any of the later fiction.


Federigo, or, the Power of Love (1954) is an elegantly structured novel that testifies to Nemerov's belief that prose can be as fastidious a medium as verse. He felt impelled toward sophistication and elegance by his abhorrence of the slickness of much contemporary fiction: “How narrow the way, and how fastidious, even precious, must the artist be in a world so full of cheap plastic art works that every word, every feeling, every tonality, seems used up and dead and available only as its own parody.”9

Federigo followed five years of false starts on different novels which added up to several hundred pages. Paradoxically, Federigo was completed in just under two months, an admirable feat in connection with a novel of so fine a grain.10 The novel concerns the romantic adventures of Julian Ghent who, approaching middle age and sunk in boredom, writes letters to himself fictitiously signed Federigo in which he implies his wife's unfaithfulness. He leaves the letters where his wife Sylvia will inevitably come across and read them. The letters provide Julian with an excuse to be unfaithful and have the further effect of persuading his wife to be unfaithful since she has gained the reputation of infidelity in any case. Both Julian and Sylvia attract younger partners, but the affairs are impeded by the timidity of Julian on the one hand and the sexual aggressiveness of Sylvia on the other. Through a ploy by the younger partners, Julian and Sylvia find themselves reunited at the end in a manner that recalls the bedchamber scenes in some of Fielding's novels.

The device of the Federigo letter represents Julian's venturing from the monotonous safety of his middle-class existence into what he considers to be the realm of evil. The essence of his desired adultery is not that it is a concession to salacious weakness but that it signifies horror and wickedness. Julian wants the imaginative stimulus of a terrifying freedom at a time when he feels jadedly that his life is fixed within firm grooves and when he feels the ebbing of his vitality.

For much of the novel he feels that his intrigue has been a success: “he was fascinated, his entire sensibility was heightened; instead of a dull succession of moments along which he traveled like a bead on a thread, he began to see time as a house, an immense closed space of many mansions (like the Museum, in a way) with secret passages, hiding-places, alcoves, false partitions behind which whole rooms could be concealed without disturbance to the apparent dimensions as seen from outside” (p. 175).”11 The ending makes it evident that the freedom seized upon by Julian is illusory. Reinforcing this perception, Nemerov notes dispassionately at one point that a “man moving across an open field, under the open sky, naturally refuses to believe he is moving through a dark, narrow tunnel from which there is no escape; yet frequently, so far as his will is concerned, the latter is the more accurate version” (p. 257).

Julian's escape into evil initially involves a plunge into sensuality in the affair with Bianca. Their meeting-place, the Zoo, is almost as erotic a stimulus for Julian as Bianca herself: “Bianca would be walking, perhaps, toward the Zoo, toward the pool, where he imagined the seals, silent and unwatched now, plunging swiftly through the opacity of the water” (p. 110). Significantly, Julian feels relief that the animals, emblematic of sensuality, are caged and that their lives are carefully ordered. With characteristic caution he wants the feeling of a free fall into forbidden sexuality without upsetting his deep-seated gravitation toward order.

The relationship with Elaine Bernard is indicative of Julian's desire to mitigate not only the attrition of time, symbolized by their meeting in the Egyptian tomb, but also to recover those springs of romance which he had felt early in his marriage to Sylvia. His marriage to Sylvia had in fact been brought about by her involvement with a romantically mysterious man (who turns out to have the appropriate name of Alter) while Julian was away at war. The clandestine affair, together with Sylvia's subsequent abortion and unhappiness give her in Julian's eyes an irresistible “flavor of sad experience, of tragic possibility” (p. 26).

At its deepest level Julian's rebellion against his comfortable life with Sylvia is ultimately a revolt against the ordering of his life by the external world, time, and nature. In this sense the purpose of the fictional letters is to elicit from reality a response that will confirm his control over it: “One put to the world a hypothetical question,” he reflects at one point, and “one received, it would appear, a real answer” (p. 72). Julian's pitting of the power of his consciousness against those external forces which would shape reality is derided by the apparitional Federigo in one of their occult meetings: “Hasn't it ever occurred to you,” Federigo asks, “that things are profoundly and beautifully, sometimes, just what they seem to be?” (p. 220).

There are three Federigos: the epistolary Federigo invented by Julian, the literal Federigo Schwartz, a minor background character who symbolizes the independence of the external world, and the apparitional Federigo, who is a manifestation of Julian's subconscious. The emergence of this latter Federigo is an ironic and unsettling subconscious response to Julian's conscious desire to lead a double life, a development that leads to his leading his life in triplicate.

The identification of the apparition with Julian himself is made by Federigo: “To make me leave you alone,” he announces to Julian, “you must be other than you are” (p. 173). Federigo appears to be clairvoyant, but is more likely the conveyor of knowledge or beliefs which lie suppressed within Julian as well as being the embodiment of some embarrassing truths about Julian—as in a hint of latent homosexuality. Sipping his drink in an “extraordinarily delicate way,” Federigo is dressed “casually in slacks and a shirt open at the throat; he also wore sandals instead of shoes, and looked very much at his ease; even impudently so, thought Julian—like a proletarian poet or some such individual” (pp. 216-17).

In a sense Federigo is simply an extension of the fantasy/reality motif which is present in the novel, a dreamed figure who nonetheless brings to the surface the deepest currents of reality within Julian—the inside becoming the outside again. Although Federigo is not consciously summoned, Julian does intentionally fantasize a good deal. On one ironic occasion, for example, he imagines his wife being unfaithful to him by taking Hugo Alter as her lover. Since, unknown to Julian, Hugo had in fact been Sylvia's lover, the scene drolly captures Nemerov's satiric appreciation of the fluid relationship between dream and reality.

The mixing of fantasy and reality follows inevitably from Julian's ingrained skepticism about the real world. He has a “dreamlike sense of the silliness of the world. There had been about him then, what was perfectly proper for an undergraduate, a certain want of commitment to a real world, a world really and intransigently existing, and this slight imperfection, this little hollowness where there should have been belief, still formed, negatively, a part of his character, a kind of abscess. … He did not quite believe in the world” (p. 71). In a similar vein Julian speculates repeatedly on the propensity of life to imitate art, an assumption that underlies his sending of the Federigo letters. His ability to fantasize does have its limits, though, limits which are imposed by his sense of reality. In the fantasy in which he has an affair with Alma Alter, he imagines the two of them dying in a murder/suicide pact. In contemplating the aftermath of this, however, he finds that he is unable to generate any intensity of feeling in the survivors, Hugo and Sylvia: “So much for doing as one pleased,” he reflects sadly (p. 11).

The novel is divided into two books, each of which begins with a fictitious letter of warning and each of which ends in a blending of fantasy and reality. Book One dissolves in a dream as Sylvia becomes convinced by her psychiatrist Dr. Mirabeau as well as by her own standards of reality that she had imagined the letter. Book Two ends in a masque of mistaken identities that again undermines the distinction between dream and reality. Nevertheless, the final acts of Julian and Sylvia carry a convincing sense of reality. A child is conceived on the night on which they believe—and this turns out to be a fantasy—that each is enjoying sexual gratification with someone else. Thus, as always in Nemerov, the sands of reality and the sea of fantasy change places with one another and even the most attentive mind finds itself outmaneuvered. The complexity of the ending is enhanced by its transcendence of comedy in that Julian finally rediscovers the mystery of his wife and thereby that “essential strangeness which was the beginning of love, and which is never lost but only gets forgotten, not replaced but overlaid by a number of dangerously familiar details” (pp. 16-17).

The action of the novel is centered in Julian's consciousness. This impressionism is counterbalanced, here as in The Melodramatists, by elements of formalism, but the weight of the narration is so preponderantly in favor of the subjective that physical action of any sort has a somewhat jarring effect. This explains why the mugging of Julian by Bianca and her friends has such an extraordinary impact as the rasp of her voice cuts through the softness of Julian's reveries: “Go over him good,” the girl said. “The bastard's married, too” (p. 113).

The mugging serves to remind Julian and the reader of the obstinate independence of the external world. In a similar way the perception that the external world goes its own way outside the circumference of Julian's intrigue is brought home solidly in the scene in which he recalls the sight of a window cleaner who had fallen to his death: “Women, with faces averted, went carefully around the body on clicking heels and continued on their ways. … Nor had he himself done anything except feel an indescribable helplessness and lonely guilt, until a policeman and a doorman came running up, and the latter covered the body with a rubber mat taken from before the entrance of a building down the street. He thought now that the policeman and the doorman had been enabled to do this thing for no better reason than that they wore uniforms” (pp. 142-43). Thus Julian's skepticism about the ostensible reality of things and his determination to order things for himself are intermingled with his partially acknowledged sense of helplessness in coping with the external world.

The imagery of mirrors is used by Nemerov to portray the enclosed world of the mind that Julian appears so hesitant to leave. The epigraphs chosen for Federigo herald this motif. The first quotation from Shakespeare shows the mind projecting itself into and combining with the outer world where “it may see itself.” A second quotation from Hart Crane develops the image of a solipsistic mirroring of experience which is paralleled by outer realities that “plunge in silence by.”

Self-conscious and apprehensive, Julian spends a good deal of time watching himself in various kinds of mirrors, a habit that proceeds in part from his divided self, “the one to be observed (by others) as in a mirror” and the other “who did the observing, who looked out of the deep eyes but could never, by any arrangement of mirrors, look into them” (p. 7). The affair with Elaine is pursued both under the eyes of the museum's staring portraits and under the gaze of Federigo, the mirror of Julian's subconscious self.

Julian is also a conscious observer of himself. Indeed, he derives considerable pleasure from this activity, especially under the stimulus of his illicit adventure. The effect is to create a narcissistic mirror that reflects the novel's ironic subtitle among other things. The only power of love in the novel is that of self-love, as can be perceived in the museum scene:

At certain moments he had the penetrative knowledge that he himself was doing the watching, that he stood back in a corner of the gallery, slightly shielded by statue or glass case, and saw himself over some little distance taking Elaine's arm, walking her, heard himself talking to this girl (his voice sounded very odd); at these moments he watched with cynical doubt and a sneer how their heads came close together as they looked at one or another exhibit—came together and casually, whisperingly, drew apart again without a smile, without a glance, with no acknowledgment of what they both knew.

(p. 183)

While Julian obviously relishes this sort of reflexive consciousness, the effect of it is to create a completely enclosed world in which “knowledge becomes a kind of cannibalism” (p. 219). Mirror consciousness becomes in fact a terror for Julian as well as a pleasurable heightening of his experience because in reflecting himself everything becomes “fluid and unstable, there was no solidity anywhere, as in a dream the most trivial object became charged with feelings of despair and fear, while the world began to fall away as in a dream” (p. 132).

The other characters also exhibit mirror vision, thereby implying that this sort of vision is inherent in the human condition rather than peculiar to Julian. Seven years after her affair with Hugo, Sylvia sees her earlier self in a mirror whose range is unimpeded by time: “She seemed to be standing back and looking at this body receiving those caresses as though it were the body of another person, for whom she felt both pity and contempt” (p. 197). Similarly, Marius Rathlin enters the rivalry with Julian for the love of Elaine Bernard thinking to himself: “I am a suitor, I am entering the arena, this that is happening to me is love” (p. 187).

The solipsistic implications of mirror vision sometimes come home to Julian, who speculates hopefully that the sensation he has of being watched may not only reflect his own self-consciousness, but may obscurely point to the existence of other observers from a Platonic world that “exactly replicated the way in which this world ought to go, and with which this world was steadily, point for point, being compared” (p. 145). The idea is further expanded in a biblical version of the postulated cosmic observer, a “They (or He, or It)” who watched both the “fall of every sparrow” and the “progress of Julian Ghent through time,” divinely aware of his “most secret feeling that he ought to have been a monk or priest” (p. 10).

Federigo is an impressive novel by any standards, offering an unflinchingly unsentimental view of some fairly sophisticated characters. Nemerov structures his narrative with a baroque circularity that gracefully matches his complex epistemological themes. The fine meshing of linear and circular development can be seen in his deft use of foreshadowing. Early in the novel Julian is captivated by the view of a woman bending before a mirror at the end of a long, gloomy corridor. Moving toward him and even before she enters the light Julian recognizes her as his wife, a foreshadowing of the novel's final unmasking. The book is not without its imperfections. The subplot, for example, which involves Julian's career in the advertising business, is crude in comparison with the main plot, and is unconvincingly related to the larger action. Nevertheless, this is a minor blemish in a work that is so intellectually satisfying in its handling of both form and theme.


Nemerov's third novel, The Homecoming Game, appeared in 1957. He wrote the book during one summer, the bulk of it in a month.12 While his first two novels had earned less than a thousand dollars, The Homecoming Game—by being turned into a Broadway play and Hollywood film—brought in bags of money: “All one winter and spring,” he has noted, “my shoulder ached from carting those checks to the bank, and for six years thereafter there came every January some six to seven thousand dollars from the movie.”13

The novel centers on the moral dilemma of Charles Osman, a history professor at a small Eastern college. Osman, a Jew who does not look Jewish, is a widower who feels guilty about his wife's death. He fails Raymond Blent, the college's football star, on a history test and thereby imperils the annual homecoming game. A strict but fair grader, Osman is appalled by the pressure brought to bear on him to change Blent's mark. In successive waves he is assailed by student delegations, Blent's erotic girl friend, Lily Sayre, the college's president, and various potentates from the business and political worlds who are benefactors of the college. In an interview with Blent, Osman discovers that the young man deliberately failed the test in order to be disqualified from playing in the game. He had taken a bribe to throw the game and in a change of heart had decided to fail academically in order to disqualify himself.

Moved by Blent's predicament, Osman decides to take charge of the situation and to allow his student to take the test over and to play in the game. He promises to return the bribe money to its criminal sources. Complicating the situation is the fact that Blent has failed not only his history test but a test in philosophy as well. The philosophy instructor, Leon Solomon, adamantly refuses to change the mark, although a painstaking intervention by Osman almost persuades him to do so. In any case the college hierarchy overrules Solomon, and Blent is permitted to play. In spite of this the team loses, since the gamblers who had bribed Blent had also prudently bribed other players on the team. Osman ends up feeling sheepish and empty, disillusioned about his foray into the world of action.

While a reasonably intelligent man in academic matters, Osman is nevertheless something of a pedant and a snob. He carries around a green book-bag from an ivy-league university as a badge of superiority over the intellectual standards which obtain at his small college. He describes the historian as examining the “outsides of past events, with a view to discovering what their insides were” (pp. 3-4).14 In a modest way the dilemma regarding Blent gives him an opportunity, he believes, to assess both the inside and outside of a situation as both impartial historian and participant. He is motivated in part by feelings of ambivalence which he has always had toward football. An undergraduate member of his university's intelligentsia, he had remained aloof from sport. Even then, however, he had felt himself involuntarily excited by the atmosphere surrounding the Saturday game. Sundays were a melancholy aftermath, the “first major hint, perhaps, for Charles, or at any rate the first hint consciously taken, of the disastrous impermanence of all things” (p. 54).

One of Osman's most self-conscious memories is that of having stood as a boy before the mirror dressed in a football uniform with a ball under his arm. In this position he had practiced “those prancing postures and snarling expressions conventionally used in photographs and cartoons of his heroes” (p. 53). As an adult his ambivalence is amplified by occasional doubts about the social and even intellectual impact of the academic world, a world that he characterizes as striving for a “serious austerity” but that as often as not achieved “shabbiness” (p. 22). Feeling that he may after all be part of an ineffectual enterprise, he plunges eagerly into what he perceives as the invigorating world of decision and action.

As with most of Nemerov's protagonists Osman reflects the dichotomy of the subjective and external worlds. Even within the sphere of the subjective he is noticeably vulnerable. He perceives himself as moving with judiciousness, for example, when in fact he is motivated in ways which he does not fully acknowledge. He is drawn to Raymond Blent, for example, not only because of the merit of his case but because Blent is physically attractive, possessing “fineness and delicacy, though it was delicacy on the magnificent or heroic scale” (p. 76). He is also influenced by his own vanity, as Nemerov satirically points up in the scene in which a pushy student delegation presses for a change in Blent's mark: “Didn't they know, didn't they even suspect by this time, that one simply didn't talk to people as they had talked to him? That what their being in such a place as this implied was, in the first place, their will to civilization, civilization with all its admitted faults and evils, civilization at all costs? But their morals, no less than their manners, belonged in a reformatory, not in a university” (p. 17).

Characteristically, Osman thinks over his annoyed reaction to the students and decides rather hastily that if he had not been so annoyed at the students he might have taken a more conciliatory line. Striving to be fair and decisive and yet haunted by the fear that he might be mistaken, he apprehensively considers walking the “high wire of the ethical” (p. 19). Ironically, and this reflects on his intellectual presumption, he discovers once he has been out on the high wire that the situation does not depend on him alone. He discovers that Leon Solomon must also approve a change in Blent's mark. His strenuous though dignified efforts to masterfully determine the outcome of Blent's and his own situation lead belatedly to the humbling reflection that the relationships involved are too complex to manage: “For it lay in the nature of time itself that the experimental method was impossible to be applied to human action” (p. 216). Adding to his final chagrin is the humiliating perception that somewhere amidst the “heroics, dramatics, and noble expressions of principle” he had been forced to resign over an issue which in cool retrospect seemed “small, distant, and ridiculous” (p. 219).

Nevertheless, Osman's ordeal does have a maturing effect on him. For one thing, his ambition, the flagship of his existence, recedes into a dimmer light in his scheme of things: “here perhaps, after all, was the heroism that truly existed in this vale of tears; that men unflinchingly went on facing up to the noble pretense that what they wanted was success, when in truth they wanted nothing of the sort, when every success revealed itself—at once, before the testimonial dinner was over, or the ink had dried on the parchment of the diploma—as merely another piece of nonsense gained at the awful cost of having to defend it and things like it forever and ever” (p. 192). Stung by the discovery that the gamblers had determined the outcome of things in their own effective way, Osman—feeling ironically at the end that he alone is completely outside of the situation—succumbs to his cup of Ovaltine with the “cheerfulness, courage, and constancy displayed by Socrates when they brought him the hemlock” (p. 246).

Structurally, although Osman's is the focal point of view in the novel, the exploration of that point of view is dramatized through his relationships with Lily Sayre and Leon Solomon—spokes attached to the hub as it were. Lily, the candid and bewitching daughter of Herman Sayre, one of the college's affluent benefactors, seduces Osman with her air of “natural freedom, even wildness” (p. 22). In her presence he feels the encroachment of time and eagerly reaches out to her in spite of an “element of calculation” he senses in her (p. 26). Lily has the effect of crystallizing in Osman certain “vague tendencies toward the renewed possession of life, toward the assertion of oneself in the field of reality; tendencies which, for all that they are regarded as normal, had suffered the severe shock of defeat in Charles upon the death of his wife some years before” (pp. 124-25). She entices him out of his habitual introspectiveness and caution: “Darling, you must have been a rather stolid, unimaginative child,” she tells him, adding that the “whole object of life is to make it more glorious and exciting than it is, even if you sometimes come down with a thud in the end” (p. 150).

She appeals to Osman at his two most vulnerable points, his reawakened desire for sexual gratification and his latent snobbery. Combining an icy elegance with youthful sensuality, she overpowers his fastidious imagination: “She wore a black evening gown very severely cut and unadorned, but leaving naked her shoulders and arms. Around her neck lay a heavy, flat chain of gold. These contrasts particularly of texture, the flesh, the funereal cloth, the solidity and hardness of the metal, produced an impression very striking of aristocracy and slavery together. The expensive perfection of the object of desire provoked in the beholder, as it was meant to do, destructive longings to seize the chain, strip off the gown, dishevel the hair” (p. 126).

Osman's relationship with Lily is an important aspect of the novel's structure and irony because as temptress she draws him away from the austere conditions which befit his role as a dispassionate judge in the Blent affair. With her he gives himself up willingly to feelings of “helplessness, irresponsibility, and adoration” (p. 189). Flying about in the Bugatti with Lily inebriated at the wheel, Osman lets himself go, sinking euphorically into a sensual, adolescent world of feeling that is wildly incongruous with his self-appointed role as the ethical arbiter of other people's lives. Although calculating, Lily is attracted to Osman, and although their future would be doubtful she offers herself to him in a moment of tenderness. Paralyzed by so direct a proposal, Osman retreats into his conservatism: “One did not rape, even by invitation, a drunken, unconscious female” (p. 206). Having committed himself to the world of action, the only world that Lily respects, Osman freezes, partly because he would be gaining from a situation which he has pledged himself to adjudicate but mostly because he is after all a quiet, reflective, and reserved man.

The relationship with Leon Solomon is important because it reaches to the roots of Osman's identity and causes him to scrutinize his motives for any trace of impurity. Solomon is an embittered, uncompromising Jewish leftist who had entered the slumbering academic world from a lower-class New York City background, making enemies wherever he went. As opposed to Solomon, Osman's Jewishness blends in with his surroundings. He is a “Connecticut Jew, and not Merritt Parkway Connecticut either, but of the small town, inland variety which resembled the Connecticut Yankee at least a good deal more than it did the Jew, whether rich or poor, of New York City” (p. 66).

Assuming the harsh voice of a prophet, Solomon taunts Osman with having given up the thirst for justice that he contends is the birthright of every Jew: “You are a Christian gentleman,” he sneers, “or practically a Christian gentleman, and a true member of the maspocha of educated men” (p. 70). When the student mob materializes outside of Solomon's house, Osman finds himself identifying with his colleague's Jewishness in an unexpected way. Waiting for Solomon to draw parallels between the student mob, the Gestapo, and the gas chamber, he nervously concedes that Solomon might after all be right but that there was in fact nothing more paralyzing than a “paranoid attitude to dangers which really exist” (p. 179).

Solomon's other chief narrative function is to test the validity of Osman's proposal to Blent and to force him to be scrupulous in examining his motives. The reason for this is that Solomon is so clearly the scapegoat in the situation that he is the one man whom Osman, with his instinct for fairness, must shield from injustice. In addition, Osman senses the moral purity of Solomon in comparison with that of the powerful individuals with whose expedient cause he has aligned himself and he prefers not to offend Solomon “precisely because he could well afford to offend him” (p. 69).

Technically, The Homecoming Game is a suspenseful novel which may be said to combine the dramatic confrontations of The Melodramatists and the polished structuring of Federigo. The effect is to retain the energy which had become somewhat dispersed through the loose ordering of Nemerov's first novel. The various plots and themes are skillfully interlaced. This can be seen, for example, in the clever way in which Nemerov handles the description of the game. He carefully builds the narration toward the game and then depicts the sloping aftermath without in fact describing the game itself. In this way the game figures in the novel's design like the eye of a hurricane.

The satire is handled somewhat more heavily than in Federigo and some of the incidents—like the visit of the student delegation to Osman's office—are implausible. There are some witty moments, however, as when Nemerov illuminates the powerlessness of the academic establishment by pointing out that any combination of the college's wealthy benefactors could, if they wanted to, buy the college and “turn it into an experimental sheep farm or a Jesuit novitiate or a country club” (p. 97). Nemerov was more attentive to the landscape and to the seasons in The Homecoming Game than in his other novels. The descriptions of the landscape are concise and yet evocative as is Osman's grateful absorbing of his surroundings after the student delegation had met with him: “The day had begun splendidly, as autumn days regularly did here, with a brilliant frost on the grass, an air strange and keen in the mouth as the first taste of an apple” (p. 16). The autumn landscape is developed because Nemerov wanted to relate it to the annual homecoming game, which he in turn relates to rites of combat and man's relationship with the earth.15

His use of myth enlarges the novel's scope. In describing the bonfire, he compares it to the rain dance, which, although it did bring the rain, brought the “tribe to the pitch of enthusiasm at which they really at any rate planted the corn” (p. 91). The bonfire even includes an appropriate sacrificial victim. Similarly, the football field is said to have a kind of “totemic or sacrificial” appearance and the ritualistic prancing of the players before the game is said to reflect some “new, delightedly innocent relation with the earth itself” just as their contrasting red and white and black and white uniforms produce an effect of “cleanliness carefully preserved for the one ceremonial destruction” (pp. 209-10).

In spite of the satirical corona which surrounds Nemerov's use of these myths, they do finally give a certain depth to what otherwise would be a rather banal action. Musing on the controlled violence which he sees as the essence of such spectacles as football, Osman reflects persuasively that perhaps war itself in its beginning had been no more than such a ceremony. Turning over the familiar Nemerovian theme of the intermingling of imagination and reality, Osman stares into history and wistfully ponders the significance of the homecoming game: “It might be—again the odd joke of history!—that the earliest form of war was predetermined as to its outcome, having a magical purpose and a ceremonial arrangement which, entering history as garbled traditions, were misinterpreted as both real and necessary: a nasty joke” (pp. 213-14).


Nemerov's Journal of the Fictive Life (1965) is a diary he kept during the month from July 10 to August 10, 1963. He begins the Journal under the pseudonym Felix Ledger,16 a novelist who has not written a novel for many years and who wonders why he is unable to write. In trying to answer this question, he finds himself caught up in a general exploration of art and the creative process. Unsatisfied with the indirectness of using the persona of Felix Ledger, Nemerov unmasks and then devotes most of the book to a searching examination of his own life. He writes in a time of personal crisis. His father had recently died and he himself is about to become a father for the third time after an interval of thirteen years. Gradually the Journal becomes a record of his past and his dreams. The dreams in turn lead to a psychoanalytical evaluation of his published writings. The book ends with the birth of his son.

The force of the Journal derives from its immediacy. Nemerov's sexual estrangement from his wife during the later part of her pregnancy, his guilt about his father, his fears about incorporating personal experience into a novel, and his skepticism about the future of art are intertwined convincingly and powerfully. The rawness of the book, while formally unattractive perhaps, provides a note of authenticity that caused Nemerov to think of the Journal as a “third way” of writing, intermediate between fiction and fact (p. 55).17 The need for an alternative to the traditional novel is obliquely pointed up in one of Felix Ledger's whimsical reflections: “Felix would rather not be found dead in possession of the remark, The Novel is Dead. But he knew of a good many novels that showed how rumors of that sort get started.” (p. 3).

Nemerov originally entitled the book Mosaic, meaning thereby to suggest the collagelike, nonlinear form of the work, a form which is superbly adapted to the book's contents. The progress of the narrator through the book is essentially circular. Blocked from writing fiction, he decides instead to write autobiography only to discover that he has in fact written fiction—hence the journal's title. The purpose of the Freudian analyses is to confront the subconscious by revealing the meaning inherent in its creations. The process is inevitably slow and cumulative. For this reason the shifting about in the format of the Journal which goes on in the first fifty pages is, from the point of view of verisimilitude at least, an important part of the book's authority.

The narrative method is that of free association. “The first principle of this writing,” Nemerov notes, “is that everything is relevant; accidents turn up and later, under close reading, prove their right to be here by getting themselves woven into the fabric” (p. 90). Ultimately, he believed that the setting down of random observations and recollections would stir his conscious and subconscious in such a way that a pattern would result. The images thrown up by the subconscious circulate through the book until one has a sense of Nemerov's most absorbing obsessions. In this way there emerges a series of themes and variations.

Nemerov thought of his method as magical in that it fortuitously led to the discovery of hidden and significant relationships and in that way resembled the process of art. For this reason he was exhilarated by the thought that he had stumbled upon a new way of doing the novel. In this connection he wrote to a friend in 1963 about the novelty of his Journal: “I realize that the book is a strange one, though to anyone who is intimate with the art of letters at present, there are the plainest signs that this is The Next Phase, and in five years every hack in the country will be doing it instead of novels.”18 In a later interview he observed that “if you pay close attention to your life, the number of what you would otherwise think of as co-incidences rises remarkably, just probably because of the transformational grammar going on inside your head, always looking for pattern when it's paying heed.”19

The effect of Nemerov's method is a curious ambiguity in which he feels as if he is writing not about himself, but a novel about a life similar to his. The ultimate irony is the underlying implication that every writer faces the same impasse in trying to write about himself—the inevitable transformation of that which was intended to be real into the imaginative and the fictive. Even such a fictive life, however, has a substantial universality about it in its enactment of man's inveterate habit of discovering only what he has first of all imagined. It might be argued that in turning the experience in Journal of the Fictive Life over to Freudian analysis Nemerov committed himself not to the pursuit of truth but to a cumbersome, mechanical system. It must be remembered, though, that he thought of Freud not simply as a scientist but as a great poet. Moreover, he uses the methods of Freudian analysis with considerable freedom, noting throughout the book the similarity between these methods and his own accustomed ways of using his imagination in writing poems and stories. In any case, whatever the future of Nemerov's unusual narrative method, he has written a book of considerable power whose images and anxieties cling to the mind.


  1. A Commodity of Dreams & Other Stories (New York, 1959). Page references appear in the text.

  2. Journal of the Fictive Life, p. 31.

  3. Stories, Fables & Other Diversions (Boston, 1971). Page references appear in the text.

  4. Journal of the Fictive Life, p. 61.

  5. The Melodramatists (New York, 1949). Page references appear in the text.

  6. Poetry & Fiction, p. 249.

  7. The Next Room of the Dream (Chicago, 1962). Reprinted in The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (Chicago and London, 1977), p. 272.

  8. Crinklaw, p. 66.

  9. “The Nature of Novels,” Partisan Review, 24 (Fall 1957), 605.

  10. Journal of the Fictive Life, p. 61.

  11. Federigo, or the Power of Love (Boston and Toronto, 1954). Page references appear in the text.

  12. Journal of the Fictive Life, p. 61.

  13. Ibid., p. 15. The Warner Brothers film was called Tall Story and featured Anthony Perkins, with Jane Fonda in her starring debut. A comparison of the novel and the film is made in Robert L. White's “The Trying-out of ‘The Homecoming Game,’” Colorado Quarterly, 10 (Spring 1959), 84-96.

  14. The Homecoming Game (New York, 1957). Page references appear in the text.

  15. See Nemerov's unsigned essay “Football” in Furioso, 6 (Spring 1951), 66-68.

  16. Nemerov introduced Felix Ledger in the sketch “From a Novel as Yet Untitled,” Furioso, 6 (Summer 1951), 11-22.

  17. Journal of the Fictive Life (New Brunswick, N.J., 1965). Page references in the following pages of this chapter appear in the text.

  18. Letter to Margot Johnson, November 16, 1963.

  19. Crinklaw, 66.

Ross Labrie (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15668

SOURCE: Labrie, Ross. “The Later Poems.” Howard Nemerov, pp. 104-42. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

[In the following essay, Labrie discusses Nemerov's books of poetry from New and Selected Poems to The Western Approaches, emphasizing the ways in which the poet reconciles imagination and reality.]

New & Selected Poems, published in 1960, contained fifty-eight poems, of which only fifteen were new. Included among the new poems, however, was a major work—“Runes.” The collection is a transitional one, a culmination of the themes and motifs of the 1950s and a prelude to the more intricate and reflexive poems of the 1960s. Nemerov described “Runes” as both a “summary of many years' partial preoccupation with its subjects and illustrations” and at the same time as the “beginning of something else.”1

“Runes” was written in an intense two-week period—the way Nemerov likes to write. The memory of its composition has stayed in his mind as a time of “great delight” in which through the compressed time he felt himself able to write from the “midst of some sustaining center, whose variations and examinations” became the poem.2 He has described “Runes” as a bookish poem in that it contains allusions to writers like Dante and Homer and yet he did not intend it to be esoteric. Rather, in its reflexive ruminations on the pleasures of consciousness, he meant it to sum up his principal interests as eloquently as he could and on the whole he was satisfied with what he had made of it.

The title, which derives from the enigmatic, engraved characters of the earliest German alphabet, conveys an impression of magical symbols that have been discovered and yet not adequately deciphered. “Runes” approaches phenomena in exactly this way, opening things up only to have them close in mystery again. The poem is less obsessively concerned with the dark roots of the self than was “The Scales of the Eyes” and in general possesses an orderly serenity that contrasts with the turbid restlessness of the earlier work.

The principal motifs are given in the opening sections—the stillness in moving things, the movement in still things, the world of generation versus that of thought and art. The principal metaphors are those of water and seed. The sequence, which is composed in blank verse, contains fifteen stanzas of fifteen lines each. The structure is polyphonic and involves complex variations on the central themes of mutability and permanence. The shape of the poem is centrifugal with the eighth stanza being dead center. Energy moves out from stanza eight in two complementary directions, the first part of the poem depicting the contraction of life from late summer to winter and the second part portraying the slow rising of new life, which finally quickens in the spring.

All of the stanzas except stanza eight are paired, the fifteenth with the first, the fourteenth with the second, and so on inward toward the center, stanza eight, the point of stasis. The pairing usually involves the use of similar or identical imagery or allusion—such as the Ulysses myth, which appears in stanzas two and fourteen. The effect of this close symmetry is the creation of a circular structure that parallels the cycling of the seasons. For Nemerov the circle is an ambiguous and necessary part of artistic structuring, representing both the “mind of God” and the “futility and unending repetition and the boredom of a bad eternity.”3 A fainter linear structure, dialectically complementing that of the circle, can be seen in the poem's arrival at spring. The strongest impression in “Runes” is that of the governing, cyclical rhythms of life, but the progress of the soul and of hope through the poem is faithful to the short term linear perspectives of human vision. To deny the impact of this vision would involve a denial, the poem implies, of human experience and therefore of the reason for poetry.

The structure of “Runes” is introduced in prelude fashion in the first rune, although the sense of contrary movement is already present in the epigraph from the Confessions of St. Augustine:4

This is about the stillness in moving things,
In running water, also in the sleep
Of winter seeds, where time to come has tensed
Itself, enciphering a script so fine
Only the hourglass can magnify it, only
The years unfold its sentence from the root.

(Collected Poems [hereafter abbreviated as CP] 211)

The motif of water, whether moving or still, is a recurrent one in Nemerov and is usually associated with what he called “from continuing in the changing material.”5 In addition, water imagery is usually associated with the fluidity of perception and the imagination. Still water mirrors both the external world and the completed acts of the imagination. In general the water imagery in the poem sustains the mood of reverie that is so essential to the themes connected with the passage of time. The flow of time is stilled only by death or by a fortuitous moment of illumination as the watery surface shaped by its current momentarily takes on a recognizable shape. The seed symbolizes both the inert state of death and the process of regeneration. Like the water it can represent both movement and stillness. The two motifs are brought together in the symbol of water streaming through the seed, the apex of the poem's metaphorical structuring.

Rune one is complicated by the speaker's announcement of his theme halfway through the stanza:

That is my theme, of thought and the defeat
Of thought before its object, where it turns
As from a mirror, and returns to be
The thought of something and the thought of thought,
A trade doubly burdened, commercing
Out of one stillness and into another.

(CP, 212)

This theme seems initially to be unrelated to that already offered in the first part of the stanza. What happens here is that, characteristically, Nemerov pauses in the creative process to contemplate reflexively what his mind has just been doing. This gives a further dimension to “Runes” so that the pattern of movement and stillness involves not only things but also the attentive consciousness which in perception flows through things in a metamorphosis that in lucky moments generates something new and meaningful. In a letter Nemerov has written in connection with rune one: “It may have happened to you, as it so often does with me, that when you are lucky enough to be visited with a thought, the thought that follows it will not be a logical or associative consequence, but a reflexive one: Look at me, I'm thinking! So the thought about stillness in motion quite properly … induces the thought of thought.”6

The “trader” metaphor at the end of the first rune becomes the dominant motif of the second rune. Nemerov's trader is Ulysses, who symbolizes movement in stillness by completing his epic journey and giving it meaning. The two arrivals attributed to Ulysses, those recorded by Homer and Tennyson, are presented as equally tenable endings. In Homer, Ulysses destroys Penelope's suitors and resumes his former life. In Tennyson, however, he “sails south / To disappear from sight behind the sun” (CP, 212). Tennyson portrays Ulysses as a Faustian seeker of new experience, who vanishes voluntarily into the abyss of the unknown. The two endings are crucially different in that the trader and Ulysses motifs symbolize venturing consciousness. Thus, the poem postulates very different limits for consciousness depending upon which ending is chosen. In line with the negative drifting of the first eight runes the speaker finds that he does “not know which ending is the right one.”

The third rune centers on a sunflower motif and is set in late summer when everything dies and goes to seed. While the summer scene is still replete with life, there are signs of change in the violence and desolation of the imagery and in the harrowing tone. There is a pronounced overlapping in rune two of the sunflower and trader motifs as the flowers are described as “traders rounding the horn of time / Into deep afternoons, sleepy with gain” (CP, 212). The imagery of gold, which unites the two motifs, is woven into a conceit that runs the length of the stanza.

In the fourth rune the gold coins issued by the sunflower—its seeds—are buried beneath the autumn soil in the “furnaces of death” (CP, 213). To emphasize the inertness of the seed in this section, it is alternately called a stone. The promise of movement in the stillness of the seed's apparent death lies in the genetic hieroglyphics of the future life that is contained within it—whether the seed be in the cycle of nature or in the depths of the psyche where it may one day generate “the living word.” “Give us our ignorance,” the speaker asks in wanting not to know the potentiality that lies within the seed—“How one shall marry while another dies” (CP, 213). The world outside the seed is so threatening that even embryonic life is portrayed as in peril in the image of the cock's egg hatched by a predatory serpent.

The fifth rune is an ironic poem to autumn. The softness of Keats's season becomes here the harsher “fat time of the year.” It is also for a Jew the time of Atonement when in contrast to the harvest outside the “dry husk of an eaten heart” has nothing to offer up. Death still covers the “undecipherable seed” (CP, 213). The mood is bleak and the tone recriminatory and although it is autumn the atmosphere is already that of winter. Winter arrives explicitly in rune six where the stillness is paralyzing: “White water now in the snowflake's prison” (CP, 214). The swirling particles of snow symbolize both chaos and a wintry view of God: “A mad king in a skullcap thinks these thoughts / In regular hexagons.” Instead of being continuous, memory in this dead season is composed of “atoms,” which have “hooks / At either end” (past and present). All is fragmentary, meaningless, and the direction is down: “White water, fall and fall” (CP, 214). Rune seven continues the downward movement, beginning with the biblical text “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel,” Jacob's astringent prophecy for the tribe that would descend from his firstborn son, Reuben (Genesis 49:3-4). The seventh rune depicts movement without stillness in contrast to the sixth, which portrays stillness without movement. In terms of the governing symbols of the sequence both present a form of life that is disastrously incomplete. The unchecked and unintelligible movement of the seventh rune is modelled on that of contemporary technology, the bane of a “dehydrated age” whose characteristic, ignoble activity involves “Quick-freezing dreams into realities.” This is movement without purpose and without conscience whose only constancy is to vulgarity—“till sometimes even the Muse, / In her transparent raincoat, resembles a condom” (CP, 214).

Rune eight is the exact center of the sequence, the void:

To go low, to be as nothing, to die,
To sleep in the dark water threading through
The fields of ice, the soapy, frothing water
That slithers under the culvert below the road,
Water of dirt, water of death, dark water.

(CP, 214-15).

The nadir is reached when the dark, filthy water, which is usually a crystalline symbol of hope in Nemerov's poetry, falls into the “pit where zero's eye is closed” (CP, 215).

Rune nine is paired with rune seven in that both deal with the ugliness of contemporary culture, sometimes in the same metaphorical idiom (“this dehydrated time”). Although both poems offer similar condemnations of the plastic age, rune nine rises marginally at the end (as opposed to the unrelieved gloom of rune seven) in the lyrical reference to “Mary and St. Christopher, who both / With humble power in the world's floodwaters / Carried their heavy Savior and their Lord” (CP, 215). Rune ten complements rune six in using the motif of “white water,” but whereas in six the water had been imprisoned in the snow, here it runs freely, “Rainbowed and clear and cold,” and the speaker confides pleasurably that its brilliance blinds him (CP, 215). Similarly the inert seed of earlier stanzas “unclenches in the day's dazzle” and the renewal of life is at last promised if not as yet assured. As opposed to the chaos of rune six, the scene draws the mind to perceive relationships among the wakening creatures and to accept the water's rushing as an “utterance,” which although “riddled,” being a rune of nature, speaks to the reviving consciousness of the narrator (CP, 216, 215).

While somewhat ambivalent in its themes, rune eleven exhibits an expansion in consciousness that is equivalent to the strengthened sun and water which have melted the winter ice. In this section the speaker is able to dream, a Nemerovian metaphor for the imagination, and the dream encompasses the whole mythic cycle of Judaic / Christian history. While this history is seen to culminate in the Crucifixion, it is at least coherent, reflecting the new power of the mind to discover and create relationships. This poem thus overcomes the desolate religious imagery of its opposite number, rune five.

Rune twelve, like its counterpart rune four, focuses on the seed under the earth. Here, though, the seed bursts into life like the miraculous “stone” in Exodus, (17:6) and seed and water stream joyously toward their gathering shapes and destinies. The promise of the seed is foreshadowed in the image of the tree, whose leafy branches symbolize the maturation of the motif of stillness in motion as well as providing an existential answer to the paradox contained therein. Reciprocally curving toward its origins, the tree conceals its “hidden grain” under its protective bark and thus resembles the undecipherable seed from which it grew (CP, 216).

Rune thirteen begins with an allusion to the bloody period of imperialism portrayed in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a reminder that Marlow was Nemerov's favorite fictional character as well as an echo of the trading motif of rune three.7 The stanza suspends the joyous mood of the immediately preceding runes, rather like the contrariness of spring itself, in a review of the savagery of human history:

To the ends of the earth
One many-veined bloodstream swayed the hulls
Of darkness gone, of darkness still to come,
And sent its tendrils steeping through the roots
Of wasted continents.

(CP, 217)

Saline imagery mixes with that of blood and the sea recalling the salt in rune twelve and the general use of this motif in The Salt Garden.

The fourteenth rune is the most artfully embroidered of all of the poems in the sequence. The link with its counterpart, rune two, is made in the allusions to the lord of Ithaca and the “damask” woven by Penelope. The damask is described as “either-sided,” relating it to the governing motif of this section, the meniscus, the two-sided lens of the eye. Because the meniscus is concave on one side and convex on the other, it allows the undulating waves of light to pass through as the eye focuses on some external object. The stimuli of the external world are symbolized by the water beetle, which in traveling over the meniscus “walks on drowning waters,” a foreshadowing of the later dark imagery of the shroud and of death. Death is here, though, associated with “unfathomable mercies” (CP, 217). The ubiquitous water imagery of the sequence is included in the “reveling stream,” which is associated with Penelope's tapestry and the motif of the design discovered in moving things.

The stanza is one of the most optimistic accounts of perception in Nemerov's writings. Apart from reflecting the renewed power of the speaker to draw significant relationships, the fourteenth rune depicts perception as a beautiful interchange between the mind and the external world across the fine membrane of the eye, which delicately balances the liquid sea of consciousness against the hard objects of the external world. In terms of its poise and complex interlacing of intricate metaphors, all of which interrelate effectively with the central poetic ideas of the sequence, the fourteenth rune is a stylistic tour de force.

The fifteenth and final rune is a blissful poem that describes the flowing of a spring stream. The scene has a sensuousness and natural vigor that contrast with the metaphysical stillness of rune one:

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 titled 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.

(CP, 218)

The stanza contains a diaphanous purity and mood of suppleness and reconciliation that temporarily outweigh though do not overcome the darkness of death, whose voice repeatedly enters the lines. The spell works and death is held at bay as long as the “secret” is kept. The secret is associated with the soft image of “herringbones of light / Ebbing on beaches,” the shifting signatures of the tide's movement. These hieroglyphic marks relate to a number of such marks in the poem, particularly those encased within the seed. The secret is identified as the self—“it is not knowing, it is not keeping, / But being the secret hidden from yourself” (CP, 218). Thus, the final lines symmetrically reemphasize that reflexive dimension of the sequence that had been introduced so conspicuously in rune one. The mind, though, is asked to harbor the secret without insisting on knowing it, for to do so is to invite death—not of the body since this is inevitable anyway but of the mind, which can burn itself out in turning its analytical powers relentlessly and obsessively upon itself.

“Runes” offers an absorbing exploration of the dilations of consciousness in concert with the movement and stillness of the external world. The sequence avoids the making of statements that have anything other than a structural and dramatic value as parts of the whole and it preserves throughout a sense of the hallowed mysteriousness of experience amidst the deft probing of the venturing mind, which seeks to lay open that mystery. Poetically, the sequence is filled with fine modulations in phrasing and prosody while the structure, admittedly ambitious, exhibits a sophisticated and rich network of thematic and formal crosscurrents. “Runes” reveals Nemerov at the height of his powers.

Other poems in New & Selected Poems are also of high quality. “Moment” is especially incisive, as can be seen in this extract:

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.

(CP, 211)

Nemerov's cosmic projection of the moment is marked by the complex precision that is characteristic of his later poetry. “Mrs. Mandrill” is one of the most successful of the new poems. The poem shows the tension between the proud, civilized bearing of Mrs. Mandrill and the impending humiliation of death: “‘I had not thought of this,’ that lady said. / ‘Involved with crowsfeet, husbands, lawsuits, I / paid it no heed’” (CP, 224). Detached from the consolation of religion, she describes herself as ready for her final ordeal were it not for the prospect of pain. Nonetheless, she enters nature in death and thereby undergoes an ironic “conversion” as her “wet heart spills and goes to seed” (CP, 225). Her conversion is paradoxical since it is associated both with the “love of God” and with the literal metamorphosis of her body into compost. The two poles of her vision are finally united in an acquiescent sense of the unity of all life, something which she had lost sight of in her matronly years. Overall, “Mrs. Mandrill” exhibits the thematic depth and technical finesse that are characteristic of the new poems in this volume.


The Next Room of the Dream, published in 1962, contains a wealth of new poetry along with the biblical verse dramas Endor and Cain. The melancholy mood of the collection is echoed in these lines from “The Poet at Forty:” “Ah, Socrates, behold him here at last / Wingless and heavy, still enthusiast” (CP, 272). The “enthusiast” is present in Nemerov's thirst for knowledge, but this search is offset by an entrenched, metaphysical pessimism. The 1960s were not an especially happy period for Nemerov. There were marital difficulties in addition to other emotional setbacks, some of which are documented in the Journal of the Fictive Life. Many of the poems in The Next Room of the Dream are gloomy and anguished. The natural landscape is no longer the source of consolation it had been in preceding volumes. In “The First Point of Aries,” for example, nature impassively watches man “loiter on the road to death” (CP, 255). The poems are usually given autumnal settings. “A Spell before Winter,” “At a Country Hotel,” “Burning the Leaves,” “Elegy for a Nature Poet,” and “The Fall Again” are examples. The images in “The Fall Again” are uniformly somber, from the falling water that leaps in “shatterings” of light to the “drunken dark” of the heavy season in which the “rainbow shines no more” (CP, 262).

The joyful running water of Mirrors & Windows and of “Runes” has vanished. While the speaker observes nature with his usual attentiveness, it no longer speaks to him of hidden relationships and meanings. In “A Spell before Winter” a “knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things” and the speaker announces that he can “see certain simplicities / In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time.” The poem also contains the familiar, elemental motifs of water and stone, but here these motifs are submerged in the prevailing atmosphere of apprehension: “The old hills hunch before the north wind blows” (CP, 246).

A mood of dejection is felt as well in the antiheroic characters who are the protagonists of historical and religious poems like “Lot Later,” “The View from Pisgah,” and “A Predecessor of Perseus.” In a discontented review of contemporary culture Nemerov portrays Santa Claus as an “overstuffed confidence man” who “teaches the innocent to want” and thus keeps the “fat world rolling” (CP, 238). Santa Claus is part of the statue motif in Nemerov's writings and as such he symbolizes the power of the past, of the dead.8

The dominant motif of The Next Room of the Dream is the dreamscape. The title of the book is based on an experience Nemerov had in which he interpreted one of his dreams only to discover that he was still asleep and that the interpretation was a further stage of the dream.9 The experience is analogous to that described in “Winter Exercise” in which the speaker deliberately goes to sleep inside his dream in order to force himself to awaken. The title was drawn from the poem “To Clio, Muse of History.” The poem concerns a large statue of an Etruscan warrior that was discovered to have been a forgery and was consequently moved from its place of honor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The statue had had a powerful imaginative impact on the speaker in his youth:

He, great male beauty
That stood for the sexual thrust of power,
His target eyes inviting the universal victim
To fatal seduction, the crested and greaved
Survivor long after shield and sword are dust,
Has now become another lie about our life.

(CP, 237)

Through the mysterious depth of art the warrior also taught the speaker “Unspeakable things about war that weren't in the books” (CP, 238).

The announcement of the forgery has the effect of invalidating both the statue's worth and part of the speaker's past. The poem thus symbolizes the arrogant destructiveness that can attend empirical knowledge, all in the “interest of truth.” In becoming a nonperson, historically, the warrior enters the “next room of the dream,” an ironic indication that factual history, unknown to itself, is also part of the dream of existence (CP, 237).

Glimpses of the dream are found in many of the poems. goldfish, for example, cruise the “ocean of an alien dream” (CP, 252). In “The Fall Again” the rain spills its “dreaming strength” upon the trees (CP, 262). In “Winter Exercise” a man out for a walk in a blizzard enters a world of fantasy, a “walk around a dream / Whose nonsense only waking could redeem” (CP, 248). The distinction between the actual world and the dream world is blurred in the poem so that the speaker is unsure which world he inhabits at any one moment, especially as the scenery and characters in the two worlds are similarly familiar and improbable. The same sort of uncertainty haunts the speakers in “The View from Pisgah” and “Lot Later.” The dream thus becomes the metaphor in this collection for perceived reality. It registers the mind's total response to its surroundings without the need for rational interpretation. In addition, in approaching experience in this way, Nemerov avoids becoming embroiled in epistemological discussions with himself about the validity of his perceptions. In a dream world all perceptions are equally valid.

This approach has the salutary effect on occasion of permitting Nemerov to record impressionistically the look of things with a hint of the old emblematic spirit, as can be seen in “Human Things”:

When the sun gets low, in winter,
The lapstreaked side of a red barn
Can put so flat a stop to its light
You'd think everything was finished.
Each dent, fray, scratch, or splinter,
Any gray weathering where the paint
Has scaled off, is a healed scar
Grown harder with the wounds of light.

(CP, 246-47)

The bittersweet evocativeness of the poem recalls Emily Dickinson.

In a number of poems Nemerov undercuts the solidity of the phenomenal world that people conventionally take for reality. The predation of the dragonfly larva, for example, an emphatically empirical phenomenon, is paradoxically described as the “small / Remorseless craving of his dream, / His cruel delight; until in May / The dream transforms him with itself” (CP, 255). In “Realities” a man and a woman find their behavior not only reflected in but dictated by scenarios enacted in dreams. There are occasions, however, when the vulnerability of the dream dimension is pointed up. In “De Anima” a woman stands before a window unable to see out to her lover because of the reflection of herself in the glass. She tries vainly to see beyond her own image and “half become another, / Admiring and resenting, maybe dreaming / Her lover might see her so” (CP, 250). The poem is an allegory of the soul's relationship with the external world: “We look to both sides of the glass at once / And see no future in it” (CP, 250). The importance of “De Anima” lies in its flawless poetic ambiguity and economy. The analogies between the lovers' drama and the anxieties of perception sustain the pathos of both situations. If the mind cannot know the external world, then the lovers cannot know each other. The effect of the poem is to broaden the drama of perception and to imbue it with poignancy.

In “At a Country Hotel” a widow watches her children sailing paper boats amidst the falling seeds of autumn while she dreams of her dead husband. As in “Realities” the pathos of the woman's situation is perceived by a third party, the poet, and it is he who sees the spirit of the dead husband responding to her thoughts but not getting through. He “dreams / A kindly harbor, delicate with waves, / Where the tethered dories, rocking, rise and fall, / Until the high sail heightens, coming home / To landfalls of the lily and the ash” (CP, 259). The only place where the living and the dead cross over is in the falling of the seeds, which signal both the “landfall” of death and the distant prospect of renewal. The poem has a tender lyricism that answers the objections of those who claim that Nemerov's poetry is overly cerebral.

The most recondite of the dream poems is “Polonius Passing through a Stage,” which attempts to see Polonius through his own eyes instead of through the unsympathetic viewpoint of Hamlet. Nemerov has described the poem's subject as about a “certain kind of incoherency” in the idea of character. Polonius sinks despairingly into a dream in search of his identity, held precariously to sanity only by his platitudinous advice to Laertes: “To Thine Own Self Be True.” The advice comes mockingly back to him with the implicit question: what is this self that one is to be true to? The poem explores the sources of Polonius's identity through various historical and literary allusions, the complexity of which have been testified to by Nemerov himself:

there are several fathers who briefly and glancingly appear through the confused mutterings of the poem: There is God the Father with his “Ten heavenly don'ts,” which are of course the Ten Commandments; there is Hamlet's father, who speakes sternly to his son about rotting at ease on Lethe wharf; there is King Lear, who in his madness proposes to shoe a troop of horses with felt in order to steal upon his sons-in-law and kill, kill, kill; finally, there is William Shakespeare, the father of Hamlet and so many others—exactly as, in a famous figure, Jehovah is the father of mankind generally.10

The parallel between Polonius and Lear as foolish old men underscores the sympathetic view that is taken toward Polonius generally in the poem. The “fathers” are of various kinds, but all shape human identity through the transmission of culture. Polonius's problem is that he is not clever enough to make much of his cultural heritage: “Try to be yourself,” he had been told in his youth. “I tried. Accumulating all those years / The blue annuities of silence some called / Wisdom” (CP, 252). The image is one of the most brilliant in Nemerov's poetry, effectively dramatizing the helpless state of Polonius, who has been shaped by others (God and Shakespeare) whose intentions he cannot fathom. As a result he shuffles through life on a thin program of expediency. The result is catastrophe. He “brings the house down” (CP, 253) not only in eliciting the audience's scorn but in bringing about his own death. Moreover, his death portends the collapse that awaits the bulk of mankind, which is equally blank about its own identity.

Society's dream is explored in “The Daily Globe.” The title invites a comparison between the saga of the newspaper's collective dream and the actual history of the globe. The paper overlooks the natural hum of life on the globe in favor of sensationalism, concentrating on the “paper flowers of catastrophe” (CP, 242). Even those back sections of the newspaper that purport to deal with the ordinary world, the social and obituary pages, reflect editorial distortion as the matrimonial pages contain pictures only of women and the obituary pages show only men.11

The relationship of the dream to art is outlined in a number of poems. The alternative to an art based upon dream is realism, which is the subject of “Vermeer.” The Dutch painter is praised for addressing himself to “What is, and seeing it as it is” (CP, 257). The relationships in Vermeer's paintings are transparent and exact, part of a “holy mathematic.” Nemerov speaks of wanting to emulate the style of this great artist and he does strive for a sort of imagistic palpability in poems like “Goldfish,” but he does not persist. His interest in consciousness is too compelling. Thus, in “Goldfish” he slips into the ambiguities of metaphor and finally into the imaginative freedom of the dreamscape. Nevertheless, although he sympathizes with the poet who attempts to peel the landscape back in order to show it is a “story,” he is struck in “Elegy for a Nature Poet” by the un-storylike bluntness of the poet's death at the hands of nature (CP, 261). Characteristically, he turns toward the prospect of imaginative freedom—of the sort exemplified in “Metamorphoses,” for example—with a sense of pleasure but also with the mitigating sense that the artist's dreaming does not compensate for the absence of a knowledge of the external world.

Nemerov arrives at his ars poetica in “Lion & Honeycomb.” The title recalls Samson's encounter with the lion's carcass in which there was a colony of bees. The poem divides into two polarized sections. The opening lines show the speaker in a disaffected mood in which he seems tired of virtuosity and yet is similarly bored with those poets who stridently emphasize the “need for values” (CP, 277). Going his own way, he describes the role of poetry as the recording of the “moment's inviolable presence:”

The moment before disaster, before the storm,
In its peculiar silence, an integer
Fixed in the middle of the fall of things,
Perfected and casual as to a child's eye
Soap bubbles are, and skipping stones.

(CP, 277)

The final images from the child's world are the honey that mysteriously issues from the discontent of the earlier part of the poem. The problem of dualism in perception is skirted by focusing holistically on the experience of the present moment. The poet's skill, honed on the villanelle and the sonnet, will be used to describe the precise balance that the moment's particular vitality upholds against the running down of time.

Nevertheless, the pressure of the mind to understand and the simultaneous intuition that it never can, persist. The insatiable hunger for meaning coexists with the awareness that the meaning sought by the mind will inevitably turn out to be the meaning imposed by the mind. The governing motif in this perceptual drama is the eye. In “The Private Eye,” for example, the eye's “lust to apprehend” is described (CP, 268). In “To David, about His Education” Nemerov tells his son that the world is full of “mostly invisible things” and that there “is no way but putting the mind's eye, / Or its nose, in a book, to find them out” (CP, 268). Similarly, in “Idea,” although pure thought, a “lonely star,” is associated with madness in its inviolable separation from the external world, the “independent mind thinks on, / Breathing and burning, abstract as the air” (CP, 248). This ingrained perversity of the mind is given pathos by the ancillary observation that all “other stars are gone” (CP, 249). The collapse of traditional epistemological and ethical value systems has left the mind with nowhere to turn for light but to itself in a narcissistic drama that is as poignant as it is futile.

Though the mind thirsts for knowledge, the impact of knowledge on behavior is problematic, a further refinement of the pessimistic mood that pervades The Next Room of the Dream. “Somewhere” is the lament of a girl who “regrets her surrender with tears.” The lament is set against a background of famous women—“Yseult, Antigone, Tarquin with Lucrece, / The Brides in the Bath”—whose “careless love” led to similar misery (CP, 249). The implication is that the knowledge of the past offers no protection in the experience of the present. In “These Words Also” consciousness itself is seen to be the primary source of pain in contrast to the “toy kingdom” of the insects where “nobody thinks” (CP, 257).

The unfruitful relationship between thought and behavior is mirrored as well in The Next Room of the Dream in the verse drama Endor. The Old Testament king Saul observes wryly that those prohibitions that a man lays down for himself and others he “will do / One day, as if to spite himself” (CP, 278). The play involves a visit by the prophetic witch of Endor to Saul on the eve of his defeat and death. Structurally, the play is interesting because it juxtaposes an implacable determinism against man's emotional need not to know what the future holds in store. Like the other biblical play, Cain, which is set next to Endor, it lacks dramatic force. Nemerov's characteristic pursuit of fine shades tends to obviate the boldness, contrast, and intensity that are found in an effective play. Basically, both plays are deficient in action, that most indispensable ingredient of the drama.

Taken as a whole, however, The Next Room of the Dream is an impressive collection. It is impressive technically in exhibiting Nemerov's elegant mastery of a variety of forms, but it is also impressive in its intuitive acuteness. Karl Shapiro objected in 1967 that Nemerov's poems, while “shaped and sculptured to a turn,” were somewhat lacking in sympathy and tenderness.12 As the previous discussion has suggested, if Nemerov is absorbed by the play of consciousness, the mood of these poems is anything but cerebral. Many of the poems, such as “At a Country Hotel” and “De Anima,” are deeply moving. If Nemerov's tone is fastidious and ironic, it is also compassionate. His importance as a poet derives in fact from his sophisticated application of language and rhythm to the articulation of remote and elusive emotional resonances.


The Blue Swallows was published in 1967, five years after The Next Room of the Dream, a difficult five years, as can be seen in the Journal of the Fictive Life. Furthermore, Nemerov's appointments to the Library of Congress as poetry consultant and to the Department of English at Brandeis University did not provide the stimulus to his writing that Bennington had provided. In 1964 he gave some indication that he was in the process of taking stock of himself as a writer:

when the poet is older, if he has continued to write, it is at least probable that he will reach a point, either a stopping point or a turning point, at which he finds it necessary to inquire into the sense of what he has been doing, and now the question of poetic diction becomes for him extremely important, of imagination itself, of how thought ever emerged (if it did) out of a world of things.13

The passage indicates a pronounced tendency toward reflexiveness. For Nemerov the poetic process, especially the use of language, became a way of exploring the “question of primary perception” and of the “imagination itself.” Implicit in this exploration is his belief that the answers to these large questions will be the answer to the even larger question of what makes human life distinct from that of other organisms. Looked at in this way, his poetic preoccupations seem anything but narrow.

The high quality of the poems in The Blue Swallows was confirmed when the book received the Theodore Roethke Memorial Award for poetry. Thematically, the poems exhibit Nemerov's growing interest in science. Formally, the collection possesses a simplicity and abstractness that distinguish it from previous volumes. As opposed to the preponderance of narrative and descriptive elements in many of the poems of the 1950s, a number of the poems in The Blue Swallows come close to being statements. This is offset to some extent by a tendency toward brevity that reflects itself in the extensive use of short lines, sometimes involving a partial use of rhyme.

The atmosphere is generally pessimistic, although a few of the poems, like “Firelight in Sunlight” and “Interiors,” possess a sort of burnished warmth. In spite of the prevailing pessimism some of the poems are flooded with light, even if it is not always a saving light. The darkness in other poems comes largely from Nemerov's obsession with death, which is nowhere more present than in “Growing a Ghost,” a grim portrayal of his father's preparation for death. Against this background of death is Nemerov's bleak consciousness of the waning of his enchanted perception of nature. This can be seen in the opening lines of “The Companions”:

There used to be gods in everything, and now they've gone.
A small one I remember, in a green-gray stone,
Would watch me go by with his still eyes of a toad,
And in the branch of an elm that hung across the road
Another was; he creaked at me on windless days.

(CP, 355)

As the title of The Blue Swallows suggests, the relationship between man and nature is symbolized by birds. The relationship is generally portrayed as alien rather than hostile. In “The Distances They Keep,” for example, the sparrows and the pheasant show “no desire to become our friends” (CP, 348). The speaker speculates, however, that this reserve in nature may ironically be its protection. As pieces of a world “we're not responsible for,” natural creatures may through their shy separation from man “yet survive our love” (CP, 349). Among other things the poem reflects Nemerov's exposure to the ecological consciousness raising of the 1960s. The difference between the birds in The Blue Swallows and those in earlier volumes is that, even though they occupy the symbolic space between heaven and earth, they do not have the power to evoke emblematic versions of reality for the poet-observer. Nevertheless, they are associated with some of Nemerov's most hopeful imagery, especially that of trees. This symbolic association can be seen in poems like “The Cherry Tree” and “Learning By Doing.” In “Learning By Doing” the presence of man is felt as menacing and this again overshadows any disappointment about nature as alien.

One of the most significant poetic statements about nature occurs in the title poem “The Blue Swallows.” The poem opens with the speaker in the unusual position of looking down on some flying swallows. The darting of the swallows below reminds him of the mind's lowly location in the brain, weaving up “relation's spindrift web,” just as the swallows weave designs with their flying (CP, 397). The speed and complexity of the birds' flight, however, prevents him from seeing what these designs are. With sympathy but also with finality he rejects the “spelling” mind's tendency to delude itself into thinking it has discovered design in nature when in fact it has imposed it. Having rejected the mind's symbolizing, he invites it to consider a new role for itself:

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.

(CP, 398)

The mind is invited to enjoy the natural forms of the external world without seeing them as coauthors of treasured moments of consciousness. The mind is then urged to glory in itself as a genuine and prolific source of responsiveness and beauty.

The only emblems left to the poet are those that portray the alien and unfathomable workings of nature. Such an emblem exists in “Between the Window and the Screen,” which depicts the death of a trapped fly and the subsequent carrying off of its body by a diligent ant. “I helped not, nor oversaw the end,” writes Nemerov, “Ordained to the black ant / Bearing the thin-winged heavy death” (CP, 386-87). The martial imagery of the poem connects the incident with man's bloody history, but the detachment of the insect protagonists symbolizes a savage, inhuman innocence. A similarly neutral view of nature is taken in “The Mud Turtle.” Without any need for comment on Nemerov's part, the turtle generates metaphorical reverberations that expand outward from the center of the poem. The center of the poem is the moment when the turtle turns over and the speaker sees the swollen leech fastened “Softly between plastron and shell. / Nobody wants to go close enough / To burn it loose” (CP, 403). Left to itself, the turtle lumbers off bearing his “hard and chambered hurt / Down, down, down, beneath the water, / Beneath the earth beneath. He takes / A secret wound out of the world.”

As the incantatory, downward motion of the lines suggests, the secret lies beneath the beginnings of history and is merely recognizable though not explicable when a prehistoric creature like the dark mud turtle surfaces to remind us of what we do not otherwise remember. Like the fly and the ant, the mud turtle is an emblem of darkness, a “lordly darkness decked in filth,” a “black planet,” a “gloomy gemstone to the sun opposed” (CP, 402-03). The imagery magnifies the size of the turtle until it is adorned with a primeval magnificence. It emerges from its slimy womb for a transient moment as a mute and somber manifestation of the life process itself, a process that is mysteriously and pathetically flawed and yet that holds up its savage head for a moment before sinking back amorphously into its protoplasmic grave. The poem is as powerful and moving as anything Nemerov ever wrote.

In spite of the portrayal of nature as uncomfortably primitive, the mind in the later poems bends toward union with nature. In “Lobsters” the mind sinks obliviously into the “blind abyss” thinking there is “something underneath the world” (CP, 362). The “something” is identified as the “flame beneath the pot that boils the water.” The flame symbolizes both the predatory cycle that involves both man and lobster, and includes eventually whatever fathomless force it is that drives the world. In “Landscape with Figures” the middle-aged flirtation of a man and woman is seen in retrospect as a pleasurable falling into nature, into the “green sleep of the / Landscape, the hooded hills / That dream us up & down” (CP, 348). The conformity between man and nature is enforced artfully through the image of the hooded hills, which rise and fall like the inflamed breasts of Mrs. Persepolis. Caught by the tide of passion, the two consider entering nature's dream if they can persuade themselves to throw down the barrier of self-consciousness.

Similarly, in “The Beekeeper Speaks and Is Silent” the beekeeper imagines himself sinking into the well of being, becoming a bee first—

And then the single-minded hive itself,
And after that the blossoming apple tree
Inside the violation of the swarm—
Until I am the brute and fruitful earth,
Furred with the fury of the golden horde,
And hear from far upon the field of time
The wild relentless singing of the stars.

(CP, 402)

The mind's submersion in nature is given impetus by Nemerov's image of man as a marooned creature. In “The Human Condition,” for example, man is suspended absurdly between his mind and body. Increasingly in the poetry Nemerov wrote during the 1960s, man is depicted as a dangerous creature. The stream in “The Breaking of Rainbows,” for example, struggles to throw off the foulness that man has dumped into it and for the moment succeeds—“Leaping and dancing and singing, forgiving everything” (CP, 400). Man's abuse of nature is echoed in his abuse of himself. In “Enthusiasm for Hats” the quiet neighborhoods of the affluent are places where “people keep / Hidden in filth a broken relative” (CP, 368).

Nemerov devotes a complete section of The Blue Swallows—“The Great Society”—to a sardonic study of the grievous effects of social and political mismanagement. In “Christmas Morning” a conventional, snow-frosted village on a greeting card is juxtaposed with the news of a Buddhist priest immolating himself in protest against American involvement in the Vietnam war. The boldness of the language in the poems about society can be felt in “Money,” which scrutinizes the now defunct design of a U.S. nickel:

one side shows a hunchbacked bison
Bending his head and curling his tail to accommodate
The circular nature of money. Over him arches
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and, squinched in
Between that and his rump, E PLURIBUS UNUM,
A Roman reminiscence that appears to mean
An indeterminately large number of things
All of which are the same.

(CP, 369-70)

The bluntness and colloquialism, which are characteristic of the later poetry, are given a sharp edge through the underlying anger. Just as the buffalo was pushed into extinction by greed, the great society is propelled narcissistically by the “circular nature” of money into a callous destructiveness that is only partially masked by a nebulous idealism.

The artists who become socially aware are no help, as can be seen in the satirical poem “A Relation of Art and Life.” The socially committed poets are depicted derisively as “savage sages” who seek to bring catastrophe under a “copyright, and doom to its publication” (CP, 376). The poets are flanked by similarly ineffectual academics, “master ham and doctor clown,” whose pedestrian prose equivocates about the “Word that was no word” (CP, 378).

Nemerov's approach to social injustice is sometimes oblique and muted. In “The Sweeper of Ways,” for example, the sweeping of leaves from public paths by the old Negro is both a reflection of his servile social status and of his dignity as part of the grace of autumn. In an article about the poem Nemerov compared the futility of the man's sweeping to the labors of Hercules.14 Nonetheless, the effective work of the sweeper in performing his seemingly hopeless task moves the speaker to an admiring recognition of the man's conscious adjustment to his lot. Burdened with a history of social inequality that he cannot avoid, the man expresses the only pride he is permitted to reveal in a skillful performing of his limited task. This is the meaning of the last line, which declares that he “can do nothing, and is doing that” (CP, 406). The poem succeeds by being an aesthetic study and a sensitive delineation of human dignity rather than by means of condemnation.

In spite of the somber shading given The Blue Swallows by the poems about nature and society, many of the lyrics are suffused with light. Nemerov focused on the capacity of light to act across distance in an invisible manner.15 Thus, light imagery is used to signify the mind as in “Interiors” and “Celestial Globe:” “The candle of the sun, / The candle of the mind, / Twin fires that together / Turn all things inside out” (CP, 395). Ironically, however, the mind's ability to illuminate by turning things inside out is contiguous with its mortality, as can be seen in “The Flame of a Candle:”

Miracle! the soul's splatter and flap
Aloft, enlightened lamb
That spurting through the beastly trap
Is able to say I am
That I am—
Our fathers lived on these
Desperate certainties;
Ate manna in the desert, it is said,
And are dead.

(CP, 386)

The soul's triumphant freeing of itself from the body like the flame arising from the wax is polarized against the certainty of death, which ironically reunites soul and body. The light of life is thus as frail as it is hallowed. In “Small Moment,” for example, it is described as a “light that shudders in the leaves” (CP, 407).

The intertwining of mind and sun is present throughout The Blue Swallows. In “Thought” the play of light through the foliage and among the “minnow waves” on the shore is likened to the mind passing across the world making its “differences / At last unselfishly / The casualties of cause” (CP, 393). Similarly, in “One Way” the mind, through its instrument language, is wedded to the phenomena of the external world like “sunlight / On marble, on burnished wood, / That seems to be coming from / Within the surface and / To be one substance with it” (CP, 395). At the end of the poem thought is described as the fire in the diamond, which itself stands small and alone against the encroaching gloom of death and meaninglessness.

Increasingly the poems picture the world in scientific terms. “The First Day” involves a witty juggling of the questing mind and the intractable external world:

Below the ten thousand billionth of a centimeter
Length ceases to exist. Beyond three billion light years
The nebulae would have to exceed the speed of light
in order to be, which is impossible: no universe.
The long and short of it seems to be that thought
Can make itself unthinkable.

(CP, 345)

What makes the external world appear intelligible is the lens of the eye, which like a movie film supplies an “image, a thin but absolute membrane whose surfaces / Divide the darkness from the light while at the same time / Uniting light and darkness.” The lines contain strong echoes of the creation story in Genesis. The eye's movie creates a pseudoreality that gives the illusion of progressing through real time and space. Primitive culture, which is dominated by the imaginative simplicity of religion, is symbolized by the black and white silent film. Modern culture is more subtle, and is represented by the color, sound film.

The wit of the poem lies in the playing off of scientific truths against poetically imaginative ones. The initial impression of the mind's clumsiness in arriving at an exact knowledge of the cosmos gives way to a qualified affirmation of its own powers: “For ‘nothing in the universe can travel at the speed / Of light,’ they say, forgetful of the shadow's speed.” With its own projector, the imagination, which traditionally lives in the shadows, records its version of reality. Nemerov sets limits on the mind, however, by noting dryly that the “Fall already is recorded on the film,” an ironic comment on the retarding effect of cultural tradition on the progress of knowledge.

A simpler use of science occurs in “Firelight in Sunlight.” The winter scene combines brilliant exterior sunlight with the fire of apple logs inside. The scene evokes a sense of the whole cycle of nature since the logs in generating heat are merely releasing the original energy of the sun that had been transferred to them in the past. Therefore, there is what the speaker regards as a noteworthy meeting in the poem between the old sun, supposedly spent, and the new, which falls in “silvered gold / Through the fern-ice forest” on the window (CP, 407). The recovery of the old sun provides the speaker with hope that the mysteries of man's past and of his nature may be similarly released through the “logs” of language that have been used in constructing literary masterpieces. The meditation offers the speaker hope that his own poetic language will cross time and matter releasing its light in the minds of future generations.

“This, That & the Other” involves a debate between a scientific realist (This) and a Romantic (That). In order to break the stalemate between their respective viewpoints, each yields a bit and attempts to look out at the world from the other's point of view. Eventually each is able to correct the bias in his vision without depending on the other for help. That, for example, pulls up at one point recognizing that he is about to revert to subjectivism by straying from physics into theology. Their reconciliation is sealed in the mutual recognition that a mysterious “Other” is involved in reality in a way that makes both their viewpoints simultaneously inconclusive and promising: “The Other is deeply meddled in this world. We see no more than that the fallen light / Is wrinkled in and with the wrinkling wave” (CP, 360).

If Nemerov found science stimulating within its range, so too were myth and religion. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” man turns passionately and repeatedly toward myth in order to satisfy some long forgotten need in himself. Although mythic vision is viewed as childlike, it is also a paradigm of all knowledge. This can be seen in the seriocomic poem “Projection” in which sophisticated adults desperately try to attain the child's clarity of vision:

                                        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.

(CP, 389)

Similarly, in “To a Scholar in the Stacks” a professor enters the world of myth through the ostensibly arid route of the library only to find his imagination enlivened so that the bookstacks become the labyrinth of Crete and he himself is transformed into the legendary Theseus. As the scholar slips into the desiccated rituals of his profession, he loses his earlier potent sense of imaginative contact with myth. The conclusion of the poem suggests, however, that this sense will return in periods of “darkness and deep despair.” At such a time the scholar will become Theseus again and will become the “Minotaur, the Labyrinth and the thread / Yourself; even you were that ingener / That fled the maze and flew—so long ago—/ Over the sunlit sea to Sicily” (CP, 361). The “ingener” is Daedalus, who symbolizes the artist and who is therefore the sublime apex of the scholar's metamorphosis.

Myth excites the imagination into perceiving history as a “dream within a dream” as the speaker puts it in “Departure of the Ships” (CP, 364). For the imagination the external world is an unfolding and yet cyclical story which speaks to the child within even the most cultivated observer. For science there is no story, only painstaking descriptions based upon minute observation of the hard shell of the external world. For the mind that has been floating in the reveries of myth and the thin air of abstractions, the sharply visualized descriptions of science are refreshingly concrete. The limitation of science as opposed to myth is that it tends to atomize knowledge as can be seen in “In the Black Museum” where it shears off the diversity of relationships between things until at last there is “only one of everything” (CP, 389).

In combining the data of scientific observation with his usual skeptical exploration of perception, Nemerov addresses himself in The Blue Swallows to issues that are at the forefront of contemporary thought. The risk with this sort of poetry is that it can become esoteric and sententious. On the whole he evades this problem by creating tensions within the poems between belief and skepticism, empiricism and Romanticism, and mind and feeling that turn the poems into absorbing dramas of the subjective life. In addition, by making the poems the subjective adventures of his observers, he hopes to generate a picture of the subjective life that can become a basis, perhaps the only basis possible, for unity between himself and the reader.

Technically, The Blue Swallows exhibits an ambitious range of poetic forms. In addition to the usual blank verse, for example, there are a number of short-lined poems, including both trimeter and dimeter. The rhythm of all of the poems is more subtly flexible and colloquial than ever. Nemerov shows himself as much a master of baroque art as ever, but he shows a keener interest than in earlier volumes in matching his complex forms to the exigencies of his themes. In “Sarajevo,” for example, he uses the intricate form of the sestina. In this form the same last words are used in different order to end the lines in each of the six stanzas. The fastidious elegance of the form gives the poem the appearance of a minuet and this skillfully mirrors the mood of pre-1914 aristocratic Europe which is the portentous subject of the poem. The poem is one of a number of remarkable technical achievements in The Blue Swallows. With justified assurance Nemerov shows himself equally at home with the formalities of past poetic styles and the more relaxed prosody of the present.


Gnomes & Occasions, published in 1973, is a slim volume though not a meager one. At the same time, considering that six years had passed since the publication of The Blue Swallows, the fifty-nine short lyrics in Gnomes & Occasions do not strike one as prodigious. Nemerov was not troubled by personal problems in this period. Moreover, he had settled happily into the Department of English at Washington University in St. Louis. In addition his work was finally beginning to receive the sort of critical attention it deserved. He did, though, experience the sort of block that had earlier overtaken him as a writer of fiction and that he discussed in Journal of the Fictive Life.

The poems are varied and uneven. About half of them are epigrammatic “gnomes.” Some, like “Lines & Circularities” and “The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House,” are substantial and among Nemerov's best works. The subjects vary a great deal—riddles, science, art, the war in Vietnam, his sister's suicide, autumn. The diction and syntax continue to move toward informality and simplicity and yet the verse is somewhat austere. The mood, however, is mellow in comparison with The Blue Swallows and The Next Room of the Dream. This is especially apparent in the geniality of poems like “Extract from Memoirs”:

Surely one of my finest days, I'd just
Invented the wheel, and in the afternoon
I stuck a bit of charcoal under the bark
And running it along a wall described
The cycloid curve. When darkness came, I sang
My hymn to the great original wheels of heaven,
And sank into a sleep peopled with gods.

(CP, 415)

The mellowness of the mood proceeds from an underlying tone of acceptance that had replaced the pessimism of the 1960s. Also noteworthy is the soft intermingling of scientific and religious perspectives.

The changed mood is reflected in the relaxed approach to spirituality in “A Memory of My Friend” and in the serene acknowledgment of the mind's isolation from the senses and the external world in “Analogue”:

You read the clicking keys as gibberish
Although they strike out sentences to sense.
So in the fluttering leaves, the shoaling fish,
The continuum nondenumerable and dense,
Dame Kind keeps rattling off her evidence.

(CP, 442)

The mind's isolation is balanced by the speaker's confidence that nature is eloquently writing some sort of story and that this is imprinted hierographically on his own senses. His connection with nature is thus absolute even if it is incomplete.

In his fifties Nemerov felt grateful to be writing any poetry at all, and this underlying feeling of gratitude seeps into most of the poems in Gnomes & Occasions. He told an interviewer in 1973 that the writing of poetry was a “great privilege.”16 The joy of composing comes across warmly in jeweled miniatures like “The Crossing,” “Late Butterflies,” and “Above”:

Orange translucent butterflies are cruising
Over a smoke of gnats above the trees
And over them the stiff-winged chimney swifts
Scythe at the air in alternating arcs
Among the roofs where flights of pigeons go
(slate as the roofs above and white below)

(CP, 443)

The collection abounds with aphorisms and riddles. The aphorisms found in poems like “Philosophy” and “The Death of God” are set against the riddles in poems like “Power to the People” and especially “Quaerendo Invenietis.” Nemerov's fascination with riddles stems from his sense that they represent the “very basis of poetry.”17 What he meant is that, like memorable poetry, good riddles remain mysterious even when the answer to them is known. This can be felt in the poem “Mystery Story,” where the answer to the riddle is provided at the outset. Riddles also resemble poems in that the answers precede the questions. The answer to the riddle is like the title of a poem, which often becomes meaningful (without losing its mysteriousness) only when one has worked carefully through the poem. Nemerov likes the surprise of riddles, which he sees as paralleling poetry in revitalizing experience by altering its mundane appearance.

“Quaerendo Invenietis” (Seek and ye shall find), contains three riddles. The answer to the first riddle is the alphabet (“I am the combination to a door / That fools and wise with equal ease undo”). The answer to the second is the tone arm of a record player (“It is a spiral way that trues my arc”). The answer to the third riddle is a sentence (“Without my meaning nothing, nothing means” CP, 413). Significantly, two of the answers have to do with language, which for Nemerov is the supreme riddle in its mysterious reconciliation of the mind and the external world. Considering the prosaic nature of the answers, the riddles in “Quaerendo Invenietis” contain oddly mystical language. Even the tone arm shares in this heightening as it is visualized moving toward “central silence.” The image suggests religious depths that seem curiously out of place. They can be explained by the attitude of the observer in the poem, an attitude that can be described as a Taoist concentration on the flowering of even the most ostensibly mediocre manifestation of being. In some respects this is reminiscent of the contemplative serenity in the poems of the 1950s, but the mood is more hallowed and austere than in these earlier volumes.

In harmony with this shift in mood the poems in Gnomes & Occasions show a relaxed acceptance of the suggestiveness the mind perceives as latent in the ordinary workings of the external world. In “Lines & Circularities,” for example, the speaker listens to the music of Bach on the record player in a way that recalls the riddle in “Quaerendo Invenietis”:

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.

(CP, 416)

The rebirth of Bach on the record involves a blending of sublimity (the music) and the mundane (the record player). For this reason the occurrence is called a “silly” miracle, which, although it will not “save” the world, is nonetheless “miraculous” (CP, 416-17).

Nemerov retained his sense of the ruined world, as can be seen in “The Puzzle,” but he responds gratefully to life in these poems not only in spite of but because of its flaws. “Snowflakes” is an example:

Not slowly wrought, nor treasured for their form
In heaven, but by the blind self of the storm
Spun off, each driven individual
Perfected in the moment of his fall.

(CP, 440)

The return to nature as emblematic is as striking as Nemerov's renewed loyalty to the only life he knows—even if that life is thought to be illusive. There is as well an attitude of undisturbed indifference to the epistemological doubts that scarred the poems of the 1960s. The doubts persist, as can be seen in “Knowledge,” but they are absolved in a benedictory calm that is diffused throughout the collection. The mind's relationship with nature is informed by a feeling of comfort as in “Beginner's Guide” and “The Poet as Eagle Scout”:

I said to the stone, “Am I standing all right?”
“How's this for running?” I said to the stream.
“Is it bright enough for you?” I asked the light.
And I told my dream, “You're a damn fine dream.”

(CP, 441)

The imagination's revived pleasure in its surroundings encompasses art as well. In “Breughel: The Triumph of Time” the world is depicted as a “ramshackle traveling show” that cyclically and arbitrarily “does whatever's done and then undoes it” (CP, 417-18). “The World as Breughel Imagined It” presents a similarly bizarre portrait of reality in which whatever is “proverbial becomes pictorial” (CP, 429). Thus, if people proverbially go “crawling up a rich man's ass, they must be seen to do so.” After the proverbial lore that underlay the paintings has been forgotten by subsequent generations, Breughel becomes difficult to decipher. Nonetheless, through the durable clarity of art a modern observer can intuit the meanings so that, struck with the aptness of some of Breughel's pictorial allegories, he will take Breughel's word in “many matters wherein we have no further warrant / Than that his drawings draw enciphered thoughts from things” (CP, 429). The mind gravitates toward art because unlike the opaque phenomenal world it possesses a meaning whose value is axiomatic and which does not depend upon being completely understood.

“The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House” was written in memory of the modernist painters Paul Klee and Paul Terence Feeley and was read at the inauguration of the president of Boston College in 1968. The poem thus has the amplitude of a formal public statement. The meditation arises principally from Nemerov's reflections of Klee's paintings, but he obviously feels a strong sense of identification with Klee's breadth as both artist and scholar. Moreover, both poet and painter depend upon the mediation of language, whether language take the form of brushstroke or word. Similarly, the mind of the painter, like that of the poet, goes out into the forms of the surrounding world—into a tree, perhaps—where it become “incarnate” (CP, 435). At that point the painter paints the tree, which is then indistinguishable from his charged idea of it. The poem ends with the “light” of the external world going forth in search of the eye, a paradoxical reversal of the earlier part of the poem, which focused on the eye and the mind in pursuit of the external world. The eye of the artist plays so important a role that the world is vacant without it. Instinctively realizing this, as it were, the world seeks out the eye in an attempt to confirm its own being.

Nemerov continues to rely on science in Gnomes & Occasions to provide him with metaphor. In “Solipsism and Solecism” the light cast by the sun is seen to be solipsistic and therefore a model of the mind. The sun sees only what it illuminates and therefore unlike the moon has no knowledge of shadow or night. Elaborating whimsically on the motifs of solitariness and light, the poem contains a glaring solecism in the last line: “He'd be appalled at what he's done” (CP, 414). The grammatical error echoes the note of dislocation that issues from the ironical fact of the sun's blindness with respect to the world of shadows. The awkwardness of this defect in vision is wittily symbolized in the solecism. The notion of two-sided realities is also found in “The Tapestry,” “Hide & Seek,” and “Creation Myth on a Moebius Band.” “Creation Myth on a Moebius Band” shows Nemerov using a scientific metaphor for his longstanding inside/outside motif, a variation of which appears in the top/bottom motif of “Solipsism & Solecism.” A. F. Moebius (also spelled Möbius) was a nineteenth-century German mathematician who developed a mathematical demonstration to form a continuous one-sided surface in which the inside literally becomes the outside. The Moebius strip thus resembles language in allowing the outside world to pass to the inside and vice-versa. The poem illustrates Nemerov's sense of the continuity between being and consciousness as opposed to the biblical notion of a single act of creation by an isolated divine consciousness.

The inside/outside motif is also elaborated in “Questions” where the “radar of the mind” receives back what it sends, “but modified. / The breath of language goes out on the wind, / The drumming on the eardrum comes inside” (CP, 442). The motif is given ironic treatment in “Druidic Runes.” The poem recounts the history of astronomy from the simple observations of the Druids, made with the naked eye, to the sophisticated technology of the radio astronomers of today. In radio astronomy the mind goes forth “without the eye” into the “realm of number pure” and significantly its purely mathematical idiom surpasses the range and precision of the eye and the telescope. Thus, the outside can only become the inside when the external data are of limited complexity: “It was as if the lip / Of silence learned to intimate / In integers that it might mate / Its dark selfhood to any mind / Consenting to go blind” (CP, 419). The aesthetically satisfying vividness of the eye's patterning is offset by its simplicity, a state of affairs that Nemerov appears finally willing to accept with equanimity.

Gnomes & Occasions contains a number of topical poems on American society including “Power to the People,” “The Poverty Programs,” and “On Getting Out of Vietnam.” Nemerov's skepticism about the value of such poems is balanced by his reluctance to suppress poetic ideas which come to him—for fear that he would thereby shut off the flow of inspiration. The best of the social satires is “One Moment in Eternity.” The poem focuses on the exclamations of two altar boys, who are more impressed with the luxurious Cadillac hearse outside of their church than by the grandeur of immortality that is symbolized by the funeral Mass within. The overpowering of religion is dryly signified by the chrome insignia on the tip of the car's gleaming hood, “sighting between the up/spreading wings of a silver angel taking off” (CP, 414).

The poem possesses the conciseness and urbanity that are characteristic of Gnomes & Occasions. With the exception of “The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House,” which was composed for a public occasion, the poems show Nemerov striving for brevity in an effort to sum up. This affects both the small, exquisite nature poems and the more abstract meditations on the mind, art, and society. The unfolding explorations of earlier collections are supplanted by the compactness of retrospective vision as Nemerov screens out all but what is essential. This results in a powerful intensity and singleness of effect.


The Western Approaches, which appeared in 1975, came as a joyful surprise to Nemerov, who feared that he might have been drying up: “I was fully convinced that I was ‘past it’ through with writing and that nothing would ever happen to me again. And then suddenly in my fifty-fifth year last summer, I produced a book of poems.”18 Although the book was almost completely written in the one summer of 1974, it is a full one in comparison with Gnomes & Occasions. Nemerov commented a few years later on the unpredictable ebb and flow of the creative impetus in his case: “Writing is either easy or impossible. I can't turn a poetry crank and make it happen. I have my bad spells. But when it happens, it happens fast.”19 The mood of The Western Approaches reflects his consciousness of being “happier” and “much less introspective” than he had been in the mid-1960s, when he wrote the Journal of the Fictive Life.20 Most of the poems are short lyrics. He had come to dislike the amplifying of some of his fellow poets, as he indicates in “Strange Metamorphosis of Poets:” “From epigram to epic is the course / For riders of the American winged horse” (CP, 451).

The title of The Western Approaches was derived from the British name for the World War II convoy route from Iceland to Liverpool. In RAF Coastal Command Nemerov flew the half of this route closest to England in a Wellington bomber. The flights took him past the Skerries, rocky islands off the Hebrides. The Skerries are mentioned in the title poem in connection with an old Icelandic myth that depicted Hamlet as a sea god. In a letter Nemerov has explained the obscure lines about the nine maidens and the Skerries in this way: “The bit about the nine maidens grinding Hamlet's meal suggests one of those stories about how the sea turned salt after some fall from paradise in which it ground the meal for bread (and for free); in my poem I assume a second fall after which the sea ground only stone (it is reported that the rote off the Skerries can toss ninety ton boulders over (or through) the lighthouse tower.”21

The title poem sets the mood for the collection in its preoccupation with death and entropy. The fatigue and determinism that overshadow the poem are offset, however, by the equally strong and valid perception that life is forever beginning anew:

How a long life grows ghostly towards the close
As any man dissolves in Everyman
Of whom the story, as it always did, begins
In a far country, once upon a time,
There lived a certain man and he had three sons …

(CP, 464)

The underlying balance of the poem is upheld by the acuity of vision that enables a middle-aged man to finally understand the experience of his youth, just as Nemerov finally came to understand the meaning of the war he had fought in many years before.

The poems in The Western Approaches are grouped under three headings. “The Way” is the broadest of these headings and deals with the way man lives in society—as opposed to the way he ought to live. “The Ground” contains poems about nature for the most part and “The Mind” deals with the familiar themes of perception and culture. The entropic theme of the running down of the world circulates through all three sections, most conspicuously perhaps in the autumnal emphasis and in the allusions to the second law of thermodynamics.

The mood of enervation is mitigated by the underlying tone of resistance that is implicit in the opening anecdote about the dying man who refuses to listen to the revelations of the angel of death: “Among all the hosts of the dead,” Nemerov notes, “he is the only one who does not know the secret of life and the meaning of the universe; whence he is held in superstitious veneration by the rest” (CP, 449). For Nemerov the man is an archetype of the artist, who also refuses to succumb to knowledgeable clarifications of the world by either science or religion in the face of a lingering mystery that clings to experience that has supposedly been explained.

A similar attitude of resistance surfaces caustically in poems like “He” and “Capitals,” which polarize doctrinaire abstractions with the subtler, indefinite intimations that arise from experience. Thus, in attaching himself to institutionalized religion, the hero of “He” is paradoxically described as having “lost his faith” (CP, 457). As Nemerov felt himself aging and coming closer to death, he became irritable about the demands of religion, as can be seen in the biting conclusion of “Einstein & Freud & Jack”: “What God wants, don't you forget it, Jack, / Is your contrite spirit, Jack, your broken heart” (CP, 459). The poem is a good example of Nemerov's use of the colloquial, low style.

The heavy presence of death and dying is felt in “Flower Arrangements” in which hospital patients are compared to the cut flowers that have been set next to them. The speaker ignores the conventional symbolism of the flowers in order to focus on their severed and therefore doomed state. Like the patients they are in “death already though they know it not” (CP, 474). The theme of death is taken up as well in the poems about autumn. “Again” is probably the most striking of the autumnal lyrics:

And through the muted land, the nevergreen
Needles and mull and duff of the forest floor,
The wind go ashen, till one afternoon
The cold snow cloud comes down the intervale
Above the river on whose slow black flood
The few first flakes come hurrying in to drown.

(CP, 476)

With its impeccable imagery and finely modulated rhythm the poem recalls both the evocative settings and fluidity of the poems of the 1950s. The use of sound is particularly impressive, the muffled sounds of the “u” and short “o”, which capture the apprehensiveness and stillness, skillfully set against the long “o” of the concluding lines, which signal the approach of winter and the terrifying finality of death.

Reflecting Nemerov's instinct for balance, the hand of death is usually held in check by opposing forces. In “Near the Old People's Home,” for example, the “turned-off fountain with its basin drained” is compensated for by the sparrows and the winter sun (CP, 478). In “Equations of a Villanelle” death, “the candle guttering to naught,” is portrayed as forgiving the “breath within us for the wind without,” a hopeful recognition of the beneficent continuity of being: “What if the same be true of world and thought?” (CP, 477). The balanced structure of the poems is nowhere better exemplified than in “A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed.” The seed is one of Nemerov's emblematic symbols for the poised state between life and death that is epitomized in the moment. Trees fulfill a similar function in “The Consent.” The trees are the ancient Chinese ginkgo trees whose fan-shaped leaves adorn the dust jacket and title page of The Western Approaches. The exoticism of the trees is balanced by their foul odor as is made clear in “Ginkgoes in Fall.” The leaves of the trees, which flank the main walkway of the quadrangle at Washington University in St. Louis, enact the death of the year with a mysterious unanimity that is unrelated to temperature, wind, rain or any other visible cause: “What use,” Nemerov asks, “to learn the lessons taught by time, / If a star at any time may tell us: Now” (CP, 476). The event is a humbling one in terms of human knowledge, but it does cast its own compensatory spell.

Like the seed, the tree is suspended delicately between life and death, stillness and motion, and the one and the many with the solid strength of the bole played off symbolically against the tremulous shivering of the foliage. Trees are everywhere in The Western Approaches, their ubiquity being a reflection of their status as one of the “shapes of our Protean nature” as Nemerov puts it in “The Thought of Trees.” Since the mind itself evolved from “Protean nature,” he concludes that the “trees are within us, having their quiet irrefutable / say about what we are and may become” (CP, 496). Similarly, in “A Common Saw” man is portrayed as bound to nature in the way King Lear was bound to the wheel of fire. Man is described as twined “round the pinkie and pinned under the thumb / Of Dame Kind dear and beautiful and dumb” (CP, 478).

Nature's unconscious fecundity and dominance are distinguished in The Western Approaches from the rigid cosmology and ossified ethics imposed by formal religion. Moreover, man is perceived as dependent upon nature, whereas, although he may in nature be a religious creature, he is viewed as having a tentative relationship to particular religious systems. His essential relationship to nature is expressed in “The Dependencies” where the speaker passively observes the nighthawks migrating south, unable to do much more about the world than attend to its beauty and violence and prepare himself for those outer and inner alterations which the seasons will inevitably bring about. Thus, seasonal fluctuations become the “private rites / And secret celebrations of the soul” as the speaker puts it in “Walking Down Westgate in the Fall” (CP, 474).

In spite of the thorough pessimism of poems like “Waiting Rooms” most of the poems hold to a dialectical format. Thus, the theme of erosion is characteristically offset by a depiction of life's resilience. This can be seen in the use of the motif of the second law of thermodynamics, which focuses on the irreversible loss of heat through the expenditure of energy—the running down of the world; “We're going to our doom in supreme comfort, compared to any other world you could name.”22 The second law is pictured as at least temporarily halted, however, in poems like “Drawing Lessons” where water, as opposed to land, has the “wondrous property / And power of assembling itself again / When shattered” so that the second law “seems to reverse itself, (CP, 498). The land with its “decay, and dust that blows away” becomes a symbol of the empirical world. The sea, on the other hand, a symbol of the imagination and of the recesses of being that lie beyond knowledge, is portrayed as a “little more mysterious than that.” The poem thus affirms the spirit and its freedom from the attrition implicit in the second law of thermodynamics.

Nemerov sees the entropic process of the second law as balanced to a limited extent by the conclusions of Darwin.23 Darwin's scenario of the spiraling evolution of being means that if the universe is running down in most fundamental respects it is also simultaneously throwing up higher forms of life. The pull of the second law is dominant, however, as can be seen in “Route Two” with its absurd billboard message—“Save While You Spend”—which Nemerov passed while driving along a secondary highway: “As if one saw / A way to beat the Second Law / By pouring money down the drain / As long as it was one's own drain” (CP, 456). “Playing Skittles” and “Gyroscope” describe a delicate navigational instrument, which becomes another Nemerovian symbol of stillness in motion. The gyroscope's “unshivering integrity” makes it appear to be in an apparent state of perpetual motion, but it eventually wobbles and “drops dead into its own skeleton” (CP, 501).

An analogous decline is visualized in “First Snow” with the world eventually becoming enshrouded in a final snow that seals the “sleepy cities up, / Filling their deep and canyoned avenues / Forever” (CP, 480). Here, though, the speaker resiliently shrugs off the feeling of portent as an example of nineteenth-century hysteria and focuses instead on the present moment with its softly falling snow that “hisses through the whitening grass, / And rattles among the few remaining leaves.” In “Two Pair” the first and second laws of thermodynamics are interlaced with the Mosaic first and Christian second laws of religion in ironic symmetry. Playing on the theme of conservation that is implicit in the first law of thermodynamics, Nemerov writes: “The first pair tells us we may be redeemed, / But in a world, the other says, that's doomed” (CP, 457). The poem implies that the hopeful vision of the Jews, the old law, was somehow lost amidst the mortifications of its Christian sequel.

A number of the poems employ elaborate scientific conceits. The laws of relativity are applied with great metaphorical freedom in “Fugue,” which attempts to illuminate the human perception of time. Because of the close relationship between music and mathematics the title of the poem has the effect of reconciling discrete kinds of perception and experience. The poems are studded with occasional metaphors that reflect a scientific perspective. In “Figures of Thought,” for example, the mind's capacity to discover analogies is pictured as the laying of a “logarithmic spiral on / Sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit” (CP, 472).

In general Nemerov's view of science is fairly tough minded in spite of his reliance on it in the later poems. In “Seeing Things” the narrator has a view of a marsh on a summer evening that strikes him as the closest he has ever come to “seeing things / The way the physicists say things really are” (CP, 479). What he sees is a ring of smoke around a tree that gives it the appearance of being on fire but which when looked at through binoculars turns out to be 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.
Strike through the mask? you find another mask,
Mirroring mirrors by analogy
Make visible. I watched till the greater smoke
Of night engulfed the other, standing out
On the marsh amid a hundred hidden streams
Meandering down from Concord to the sea.

(CP, 479-80)

The binoculars appear to dramatize the corrective vision of science. In the conclusion, however, science is seen as just another “mask.” Furthermore, the enlarged perspective of the final lines places both the ordinary vision of the eye and the mechanical vision of the binoculars against a background whose cosmic mysteriousness outweighs the differences between the eye and the telescope.

In “Einstein & Freud & Jack” science is described as beginning and ending “in myth” (CP, 459). Nemerov's irreverence toward science reaches its nadir in “Cosmic Comics”: “Where Moses saw the seat of God / Science has seen what's just as odd, / The asshole of the universe” (CP, 451). If formal religion fails because of its rigidity, science fails in the gross application of its methods to reality. Nevertheless, Nemerov appreciates the freshness of the perspectives provided by science. In “The Weather of the World,” for example, satellite cameras literally capture the face of the planet giving it an unexpected affective dimension:

Containing contradictions, tempers, moods,
Able to be serene, gloomy or mad,
Liable to huge explosions, brooding in
Depressions over several thousand miles
In length and trailing tears in floods of sorrow
That drown the counties and the towns.

(CP, 483)

Reflecting a similar originality in perspective, in “The Backward Look” satellite man looks back longingly to earth, a “small blue agate in the big black bag” and hopes for a safe return from the precariousness of space in the “hand / Of mathematics” (CP, 470).

When liberated from scientism, science becomes simply another pathway for the mind, whose powers are celebrated in the final section of The Western Approaches. In “There” and “The Spy” the immense mysteries of space and the earth are compared paradoxically with the comparatively minuscule arena of the skull:

Behind the brow, a scant deep inch away,
The little nutshell mystery meditates
The spiral fire of the soul;
Through eyes as innocent and wide as day
It spies upon the true appearances of
Our sensible old world.

(CP, 502-03)

By expanding the size of the eye to be as “wide as day” in the final lines, Nemerov manages metaphorically to dramatize the awesome power of the “nutshell” eye and cerebrum.

Nemerov not only abandons his pessimism about the mind's limitations in The Western Approaches, but he suggests in poems like “TV,” which deals playfully with idealistic metaphysics, that all life depends on someone's looking at it, just as the world on television implies a cameraman. Similarly, the fictional universe in “Reflexion of a Novelist” depends upon a sustaining ultimate consciousness. Such an ultimate consciousness could never be understood by the characters in a novel, nor by living men, for that matter, because of the very nature of creation—their creator “hovering there / A dimension past the space in which they speak” (CP, 483). The mind's creativity is honored in a number of poems, notably in “The Makers,” “Plane,” “Conversing with Paradise,” “The Four Ages,” and “Playing the Inventions.” In “Playing the Inventions” Nemerov marvels at the sublime fugues of Bach. The music reflects the adventurousness of a mind that “cannot know / Except by modeling what it would know” (CP, 489). Having thus struck out into new territory, the mind of Bach curves back upon its new theme and upon itself in a pattern in which the melody's “sides and the roof and floor are mirrors / With some device that will reflect in time / As mirrors do in space.”

The mirror motif lacks the pessimism that characterized Nemerov's earlier epistemological excursions. One reason for this is that the mind's reflexive curving upon itself, which underlies art, is perceived as analogous to the shape of external reality. In “The Metaphysical Automobile” the shortest way between two points on the earth, the speaker explains, happens to be a curve:

                                        And so do song
And story, winding crank and widdershins,
Still get there first, and poetry remains
Eccentric and odd and riddling and right,
Eternal return of the excluded middle.

(CP, 453)

In these late poems Nemerov simply recognizes that it is mind that had chiefly captured his interest all along and that the vast brow of the external world pales in comparison with the mind that illuminates it. Therefore, the moments of reflexiveness that had interrupted earlier poetic meditations here become the principal subject. In a sense Nemerov's life finally becomes his art, an art which holds out the prospect of paradisal vision and a refuge from the sterile neutralities of the empirical world. Even the poems about society seem to be as much about the mind of the narrator as about external behavior, as is evident in the anthropological ruminations of “Watching Football on TV” and the garrulous pronouncements of “The Metaphysical Automobile.”

In its preoccupation with various kinds of laws, The Western Approaches brings Nemerov's poetry full circle. Like The Image and the Law and indeed like most of the subsequent collections The Western Approaches revolves around the central philosophical question of the one and the many. The function of the law is somehow to reconcile the concrete particulars of experience with the generalizing and abstracting habits of the mind without losing sight of the sensuous individuality of things. By the time Nemerov gets to The Western Approaches, the phenomenal world has become as much a part of an enveloping cosmic dream as the laws drawn from it. While taking care to preserve the concreteness and individuality of phenomena, Nemerov is no longer haunted by the question of their epistemological validity.

Stylistically as well there are resemblances between The Western Approaches and The Image and the Law. The use of formal metaphors and conceits is a noticeable link between the two volumes. Poems like “Late Summer” and “A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed” in The Western Approaches are obvious examples. The acorns in “Late Summer” are portrayed as wearing “neat berets,” while the horse chestnuts are “shiny as shoes inside their spiny husks, / Prickly planets among the sweetgum's starry leaves” (CP, 473). In “A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed” the seeds are fancifully depicted as the “original monies of the earth, / In which invested, as the spark in fire, / They will produce a green wealth toppling tall” (CP, 473). Similarly, in “An Ending” the mind is pictured as subdued by the later summer rain going forth a “penitent in a shroud of grey / To walk the sidewalks that reflect the sky” (CP, 506). The stylistic hyperbole mirrors Nemerov's confident attitude toward the play of the mind. Freed from the need to conceal itself in the shapes of the external world, the imagination in the later poems rejoices in a frank display of its powers.


  1. Poet's Choice, ed. Paul Engle and Joseph Lang (New York, 1962), p. 186.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Reflexions, p. 87.

  4. Loosely translated, the epigraph reads, “While in good health, I was overcome by madness, and while filled with life, I was dying.”

  5. Reflexions, p. 172.

  6. Letter to the author, July 29, 1978.

  7. Journal of the Fictive Life, p. 152.

  8. Ibid., p. 170.

  9. Author's conversation with Nemerov, May 1977.

  10. Reflexions, pp. 154 - 55.

  11. Nemerov comments on this phenomenon in “Attentiveness & Obedience,” Reflexions, p. 171.

  12. “Showdown at City of Poetry,” “Book Week,” Chicago Sun-Times, December 3, 1967, p. 5.

  13. Introduction to Owen Barfield's Poetic Diction (New York, 1964), p. 3.

  14. Reflexions, p. 162.

  15. Ibid., p. 40.

  16. Paul Wagman, “Profound Master of ‘Plain’ Poetry,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 11, 1973, Sec. H, p. 3.

  17. Quoted in Julia Bartholomay, The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov (Gainesville, Fla., 1972), p. 154.

  18. Crinklaw, p. 52.

  19. W. U. Record (Washington University, St. Louis), May 19, 1977, p. 2.

  20. Crinklaw, pp. 66 - 68.

  21. Letter to the author, July 29, 1978. Nemerov came upon the reference to Hamlet as a sea god in Israel Gollancz's The Sources of Hamlet.

  22. Crinklaw, p. 69.

  23. Author's conversation with Nemerov, May, 1977.

Howard Nemerov and Neal Bowers and Charles L. P. Silet (interview date spring 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4959

SOURCE: Nemerov, Howard, and Neal Bowers and Charles L. P. Silet. “An Interview with Howard Nemerov.” Massachusetts Review 22 (spring 1981): 43-57.

[In the following transcript of an interview with Nemerov, the poet touches on many aspects of his work.]

[Nemerov]: Do you want me to provide answers first?

[Interviewer]: That might be a better way.

I've got a good answer.


Yes, theoretically, but in practice it comes up so seldom as to be negligible.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you go about composing poetry? For example, do you write every day? How much do you depend upon inspiration? Do you have a form in mind before you start writing or does that develop as you write the poem?

There are several questions in there. I do not write every day. In fact, except for correspondence, which is fairly extensive, I may not write for a couple of years. And, of course, you worry about that, and worrying about it is part of the process itself. I've got a notion you have to get depressed before something happens. On the other hand, after twenty books it is harder to get depressed than after two. You know, so if you didn't write anything … so what? I would like to do it but the world is full enough of literature; probably my little mite would not be missed if I didn't do any more. When it is there it's wonderful and it's easy, and when it's not there it's impossible. And I don't know what makes it be there. Unlike many friends who write, I do my best, such as it is, very fast. Ninety-five percent of the Western Approaches was written in four months—again, after two years of … “I can't write.” You would think that if you wanted to be a professional and make a business out of it that with, you know, what even my nastiest reviewers allow to be virtuoso technique, I could turn the poetry crank seven lines every morning and come out with far too much at the end of the year, but it doesn't work that way at all. When it's not there I tend to whistle on my walks. Horrible little tunes I can't get rid of go through my head—things I wouldn't want to listen to. When it's there things start saying themselves in my head, usually in blank verse, but that's my fault, sometimes in rhyme. And the little things in two and four lines make themselves up and I can remember long enough to get to the desk and put them down. The other things, you get the beginning of something, a notion, a line, a line-and-a-half, and it's always—not always, I never thought about it in earlier years—but latterly, it's always remarkable to me that one thing should follow another. It's the most remarkable feature of thought, and nobody seems to study it; perhaps people do and I just don't know about it. As to the form things take, well, those little epigrams, gnomes, they tell you “I'm not going to be the Iliad.” I sent one to Kenneth Burke who said, “You know, if you do something this short, you have to rhyme it.” I said, “Kenneth, you're right.” I up and ripped the whole thing apart and rhymed it, six lines; I thought that was a great achievement. That little couplet of Pope's on the collar of the dog he gave to the Prince of Wales: “I am his highness' dog at Kew. / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” That wouldn't be anything without the rhyme, would it? In the longer things there is a slight tendency for my laziness to turn them into blank verse, but sometimes things clearly say, “I'm a sestina” or “I want to be rhymed and quatrained.” If I know it's going to go like maybe two pages, I tend to write it in blank verse. I'm always worried I might not find a rhyme for the last two lines or something. But rhyme is a marvelous thing all the same. It makes you think of things you would not be forced to think of—wouldn't have had a chance to think of—otherwise.

What do you see as the relationship between your fiction and your poetry? Is there an overlap? Are they part of the same process?

I would have said earlier, when I did more fiction, that I tried to make them as different as possible. No poetic prose when you're writing a novel, or at least try to stay away from it.

Do you write novels in the same sort of burst of energy as you write your poetry?

Well, I didn't write enough to be able to generalize about it. For a story or a chapter I think I tried to get it all done in one day because you can never be certain that the idea will still be there the next morning. In novels, the first one I wrote took me three years during the summers, and the second one I wrote in 58 days, and the third one in 28 days. Then I said to my wife, “The next one I will write on Labor Day.” It didn't work.

Some critics speak of a progression in your work from a somewhat more academic style reminiscent of Eliot or Pound to a much more conversational, relaxed style. Do you see such a progression in your poetry?

It may be true. You know, writing of poetry is just one of the specialized forms of what happens when you grow up or grow older. Of course, you live life forward and think about it backwards. You might spend a lot of time in embarrassment about the silly, trivial things you did when young, that you didn't know you were doing silly trivial things when you were old too. You know, there is a beautiful place in Proust where the painter Elstir talks to Marcel about this. Marcel has just discovered that this great master must have been the silly young man who was referred to at parties, and Elstir, instead of turning away and refusing ever to see him again, sets him down and gives him a little talk about growing up and about how it's only nonentities who have nothing to be ashamed of in their past, how you have to overcome what you were before, and it's only, he says, in this way that something a little above the common life of the atelier is achieved.

Do you consider yourself to be a poet of reflections—in the Wordsworthian sense? And, if so, do you feel this necessarily implies an absence of emotion?

Yea, I might be a pretty cold fellow in some ways, except I know I'm a weepy slob. But I don't see that the two are incompatible. We mostly have both capacities at once. In younger days, my colleagues and friends from Furioso magazine used to tell me solemnly that I was a meditative poet, and in those days meditative poetry was a very dirty word in that you were not dramatic like John Donne—“Busy old fool, unruly Sunne,” he says just before he starts meditating on the subject. Those terms all collapse as soon as you look at them, like a world full of traffic lights with no cars. Yes, I've got a touch of the Wordsworthian or what Keats called the egotistical sublime, but only a touch, I think. And some of my poems are obviously dramatic in the sense that somebody not myself is talking in a particular situation. That's about as dramatic as I get. I never did quite feel at home in that idea that the dramatic is always conveyed to me as some opera singer making huge gestures and stamping his foot petulantly on the stage.

You have been a teacher for a long time.

Yes, longer than Jesus lived.

Does being a teacher influence your poetry?

I'm quite sure it must. As a very nice review in the Times Literary Supplement said about a poem of mine called “The Pond,” “it is like Frost but it's more sophisticated than Frost, and also it's a teacher's poem.” The reviewer didn't go on to explain, but I could sort of see. You know, if you're brought up under the New Criticism of Eliot and Empson there are certain things you probably do as a matter of course without realizing that they are matters of convention. There is one particular convention that I'm sure I don't do as much as I did when I began, cute little puns and stuff, but I'm sure I still do it some.

What do you think about the position of someone like Robert Bly, for example, who deliberately keeps himself away from a position in a university because he thinks a poet should not earn his living by teaching but should, somehow, divorce himself from that kind of a pursuit?

As John Ransom said about a similar question, “It's a free country isn't it?” I mean, you know, is it for me to criticize how Robert Bly runs his life?

Several critics have pointed out, for lack of a better word, the pessimistic side of your poetry. Do you consider yourself basically pessimistic?

That's a hard one, isn't it? The optimist thinking the glass is half full and the pessimist thinking it's half empty. You see, pessimism has gone out of fashion. I notice that in reviews they treat me much nicer than they ever used to. But there is this notion that he's too bitter to be a really great American poet. Whereas, I was brought up under this great tradition of things like The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday, where you'd better be bitter because that's what poetry was. And even if Dante ends up in paradise with the sight of God himself, he doesn't sound exactly what you would call happy about the situation on earth.

Can you elaborate on a comment that you've made in several different places (and I think this is a direct quote), “The serious and the funny are one”?

How about King Lear, which I would rate (as I tell my students, this is enthusiasm, not theory) as one of the few great human achievements. What about when Gloucester thinks he is jumping off the cliff and falls flat on his face on the stage? That may be my only example, but it's quite an example to get by. That is, many people have recorded the feeling that they want to laugh at a funeral and that they mustn't, you know. Because whether something is serious or funny, solemn or unsinging, is but an expression of our predicament, where for every soulful sacred notion we have there is some wonderful bodily analogy to it. So if you are seated among the angels it is still on your butt. I know I do have a tendency to be funny in what people say are serious places. I remember Randall Jarrell saying I spoiled a perfectly good poem by saying something cute right in the middle of it. I only just say I don't think so. These things are matters of opinion.

Do you see this bonding of the funny and the serious as producing a fundamental tension in your poetry?

I suppose so. There have to be always at least two voices. You wouldn't want to be all one nervous system or you'd fly to pieces, or be all the other nervous systems or you'd shrivel up. Nietzsche was very strong on all this business that everything that is ironic, joyous and evasive belongs to life. Everything absolute belongs to death. I have more and more come to take the view that little Howard Nemerov is not the fellow who is responsible for deciding these mighty matters. People are so inclined, especially in writing, to behave apocalyptically—“Depart from me. Thou my elect.” Five minutes later the situation has changed. Like one of those pictures of Bruegel's, it's hard to decide which lot is headed for heaven and which lot is headed for hell.

Is humor a way of handling that darker side?

Humor is a remedy against lust. It's very often been said to be a way of dealing with that. It's like dirty jokes, which provide some kind of release to something. Many subversive tendencies are probably not directly connected with sex as such but connected with our wonder about whether we live in the body or whether we are the body. So, something Innocent III said, only a little piece, “De Miseria Humanae Conditionis.” Wit is essentially ascetic against the flesh.

What about the relationship between your criticism and your poetry, and then the criticism of others of your poetry?

That's two questions, isn't it? As to the first, I think I quoted in there something Leonardo said about “He is a bad master whose work outruns his criticism.” Well, there's some sense to that. I've learned that the real criterion, in which I have learned to trust somewhat, is not verification but falsification. That is, you can never prove of a theory that there is no fact in the known or unknown universe that contradicts. Or what you do once you've got your theory is to try to disprove it as hard as you can. As for people's criticism of my poems, you do get inured to that. Also, you're never going to like public contumely followed by private apologies, but you damn well get used to it—guys writing sneaky little letters saying, “I didn't really mean to destroy your book.” Well, they didn't destroy my book. I think I've come not to worry about it. I had a beautifully salutary experience—some chap who said he was writing a bibliography of me. I thought he meant 12 pages of titles, but no, he'd collected reviews and swatches of reviews for 30 years called The Critical Reception of HN. It's very funny to look back on those things, the lady writing on a book, a novel of mine, I forget which one, who said, “It's good, but finally, is it good enough?” That's the kind of a sentence you might have heard at a Harvard cocktail party in 1940. And I thought, “Well, that's criticism in the highest and unanswerablest degree.” Then I had the answer; I said, “Well, lady, it depends on what you're gonna use it for.”

Do you learn from critics? Are there critics, which you have respect for and who are judicious in their treatment of your work, that you'd pick up something from?

Yes. I think that's true. These are serious people. They are not reviewers as a rule, like Mary Kinzie, in Parnassus, 57 pages, by God, about me! I thought some of that was pretty illuminating, and some of that I even didn't know. And there's another critic, Julia Randall, who is a splendid poet herself; well, she wrote in Hollins Critic a dozen pages on what I was about. Stanley Hyman told me one day he was going to take a few months off and write a piece about my poetry that would show me so much I would never write again, but maybe I was lucky. He never got around to it.

Do you ever change anything? Do you ever question what you've done as a result of somebody else's criticism?

I don't think so. After all, those things are by definition written about things that are published already. I tell you, Mary Kinzie wrote me a letter about some 20 new poems I sent to her, which caused me to agree that I should simply suppress 4 or 5 of them—that they're just not up to it. I think perhaps one reckonable result of receiving prizes, getting to be a slight bump on the horizon, is that you do think about next time. Maybe you ought not to put in every little remark you make; maybe you'd better wait. I hope to wait another five years before the next book. It may come earlier than that.

Is criticism easier to take when you're younger?

Well, I think when you're younger you get most use out of criticism by your fellows, not your teachers. They will say things to you that the teacher would gentle down a bit. Then you get to a point; I remember Stanley Hyman saying to me, “Howard, I couldn't tell you about your poetry. I might not like something in it but I figure he's grownup; it's his business; he knows what he's doing and he wants to do it that way.”

Do you enjoy talking shop with your fellow poets?

I don't think we do, mostly, talk shop. Lowell told me once that he circulated his poems to fellow poets for advice and criticism, and I was shocked. Yesterday afternoon was the only time I've ever done it and it was partly because I didn't know what else to do—give a lecture. That's why I told the audience yesterday, “I'm not going to take any of your advice; I'm just trying to pass the time.”

Some critics seem to think that you're getting mellower as you get older, becoming more accepting of the limitations of life and being less angry. Do you feel that's correct, and if so why?

Well, you're looking at the complacent, smug old slob instead of the nasty, mean young slob. It's true, when I was reading the proofs of my Collected Poems, I kept thinking about the first two books, “What did that young fellow think he was doing?” And I said, of course, he was trying to be bitter like Eliot and Pound and the other fellows. A lot depends on what time you come into the world, like the early Yeats, looking around. People spend volumes and hours of class time worrying what those early poems mean. But he's an 18-year-old fellow come from Ireland. He's trying to find a way of doing something that isn't either Browning or Swinburne. He avoided Browning pretty well, but he doesn't avoid Swinburne too well. That's too bad; we don't come into the world fully formed, but there it is, back to that lecture that Elstir gives to Marcel. That's the way it is. What Keats said, this is “the vale of Soul-making,” with the stress on making.

Is that just a gradual realization, you think, that most people come to?

Well, there's a gradual realization, in plain, literal terms of what the world is. You may continue to have high ideals but you know they are high ideals. A favorite exercise of mine is trying to imagine that you were born, say, in the time of Pope. For one thing, the first imagination is that you would have been Pope. How do you know you wouldn't have been one of the dunces? And second, if you were born in any time, it would be a time of the usual apocalyptic expectations. John Donne, Thomas Browne after him, believed that there wasn't much point in doing much because the world had pretty much run its course. Pessimism of the darkest sort informed their thoughts about everything but the resurrection. But nobody recognizes it as that now because we read them with eyes conditioned to the idea that the universe has a very considerable future and that discovery is proceeding at such an incredible exponential rate of acceleration that, who knows, the place will be transformed tomorrow with results both wonderful and terrible. We're supposed to be learning not to expect that the future will be some kind of steady prolongation of the past. You know the fashionable example of the very respectable physicists around 1890-1900, who said, “Well, we really do know the universe pretty well; there are some details to fill in but we know pretty much how it works in large.” They didn't know relativity and quantum theory were coming in the future. You know, not just little finagles but absolute change in the way people thought.

Are you disturbed by science and technology?

I'm fascinated by it. Talking with Stanley Elkin about it—he said, “Science is marvelous; I wish I'd gotten more of it.” And I said, “Me too, it's such fascinating stuff.” And he said, “It's not fascinating, it's true.” And there is a point there.

So you don't see that traditional division between science and art?

No, the two cultures, I agreed with a physicist once, the two cultures are really the monsters who do the work and the nice guys who talk about it.

The monsters being … ?

People like Einstein, Freud. Geez, if I knew enough I'd want to write a book about the rise and decline of that Freudian business, which transformed the world about as much as Edison did. People were worrying about the Marxist revolution when the Freudian one was going on inside them the whole time, making the world again incalculably different from what it had been. I'd like, if I could write one more book, to write about the nature of theory and fashions in theory. I shall never know enough because I can't read in a scholarly manner consecutively, and I rarely take enough notes or keep them in order if I do. But what a wonderful subject for somebody, to write about fashion in thought, about the rise and fall of the most powerful and influential theories. Much more interesting than the rise and fall of even the British Empire. How people can be taught to teach and think this way for a generation, to make enormous conquests and it all looks like knowledge, finally we've got it, now it's solid, and if some small voice speaks up and says Plato said only geometry was solid, only mathematics because it's entirely self-contained and has no relation to the world, he would be snowed under and told, “You don't know; we've got it, kid. All this before was just theory, but now this is structuralism,” or whatever it's being called this decade. You know, I am reminded of what an awful lot of garbage we all talk. Sometimes it is conspicuous because it pretends to affect the real world, to be a scheme of government, of methodizing knowledge, and so forth, but what we talk in our classrooms, I would say, is probably not fundamentally so different.

Don't you think we grasp sometimes, though, with a certainty, the theory that ties all the loose ends together?

Well, remember that when you're young, if you get into this stuff at all, you're an intellectual. I think that's the only way people do get into teaching, writing, and so forth; they want to know. My favorite book, from 18 on, probably still is, is The Magic Mountain, because while it is a fiction it also teaches much which, incidentally, is probably no longer true. But you are compelled to learn as you get older. Again, this exercise of thinking of yourself as having been born in an earlier time and having long since died without having seen the end of the world after all. But, you know that you're going to be as ignorant on your death-bed as you were in the crib. Well, it may or may not be a happy thought, but it's one I think is a salutary thing once in a while. It needn't stop you from making all the effort to do what you can. But you see, the most enormous effect of literature upon the world is to make people believe, including ourselves, that the world is a story. But so far it's a bedtime story where all the children fall asleep before the end. And probably it will be the same for us, even supposing a shattering series of nuclear explosions in Russia and our country; the rest of the world would say oof and go on about its business. Our apocalypticians are so fond of proclaiming that the end is coming that they scarcely seem to notice how many great things have ended, cities destroyed, great regimes gone down in dust and rubble, the end of ways of thinking. This world is always weaving itself over the ruins. It's sort of like a fountain that flowers in its fall; it's always going on. That doesn't mean that it will always go on, only that we have no reason to suppose otherwise.

So then the whole world is a series of construction/destruction.

Well, now that we've put it so bluntly it seems to be one of the oldest ideas in the world. Hindu mythology is full of it. Most other mythologies appear to have some derivation from it.

Was it Freud who said that the only certain thing is uncertainty?

How could it have taken Freud to think of that? It sounds like something the pta might have got up. I'm sure he said something like it. But it is remarkable, when you read the greatest sayings of the great philosophers, how ordinary they come to seem sometime. There is so much a matter of glamor and fashion, and of course style, in the way of putting things. “Style is the ultimate morality of mind.” Makes you feel about ten foot tall to say it, but it doesn't mean anything identifiable.

Somewhere you have said that style is that fire which consumes what it illuminates.

Well, something very like that.

Would you say that's one of those ornate witticisms?

Well, yes, but I'm not pretending to be an informative philosopher. I think I've always admired statements which were in the last degree uninformative and tautological. The greatest saying in the world is found in Edwin Arlington Robinson's Arthurian poems, in Merlin: “And that was as it was.” Ah, absolute! Well, when they say things like that, that's what snows you about poetry. Imagine inventing a cliché, inventing your own platitude. Now that's what it's about. You've got to have a bit of natural knowledge first, but that's what it comes to. That's the way it is. It's over, kid. Wonderful sayings, we don't use them for information, we use them for some nonsense we call wisdom.

Do you think your poetry is getting simpler; I don't mean to say simpleminded.

I would accept simpleminded. The object, now that I'm nearing my 60th year I can say this, the object is to get dumber not smarter. That's another thing King Lear has to say. Eyes are made for weeping, not seeing. The Chinese, Taoists have a similar saying, “The student of knowledge learning more every day, the student of Tao forgetting more every day.” That's not so much a recommendation as a statement of fact. I certainly forget more all the time.

Have you been consciously working the poetry to touch a broader audience?

Oh, no. I've never thought about that. I'm not a salesman, not a preacher (I hope I'm not a preacher). If people want to read what I write, it's there; it's offered for sale in the usual manner. But about poetry and its turning into truth, you know I was saying to Howard Moss that lines you admired when you were 20, that sounded like beautiful poesy, turned into the most commonplace statements of fact without losing any of their beauty at all. And I saw also the literal truth of that supposedly feeble-minded Platonic doctrine of archetypes, that the idea comes first. And it's easy enough to jeer at it if you use his example, the idea of a chair or table or the good. But it is absolutely the indestructible basis of everything human that we've done with the world. You don't throw a lot of stuff in the corner and expect it to turn into a television set. No, you've got to have the idea of a television set first. You've got to dream about flying for 500 years before anything comes of it: five different kinds of aftershave in the forward cabin of an American Airlines jet. Of course, you lose something when the dream turns into fact, but it's all done on this Platonic basis. The only place where you might question is to ask whether God did in fact found the world on the same basis by having the idea of it first. But for everything that has made the human world rise up out of the natural one, the theory of archetypes, which is still, I believe, believed by most people on the earth, is absolutely sound. There is a logos and it's up here. Well, end of sermon.

Well, we could draw you toward a conclusion here by asking you what you're currently working on. You say you don't plan to publish another book for five years.

Well, it's not a plan. I do, as I've said, write in bursts. It comes in a great rush, and I attend to business with considerable constancy while it's happening. And when it's not there, just no voice speaks, then there's not much good sitting at the desk, so you might as well study, learn a little something, read. I'm afraid most of my access to the world is from reading. At my age, I'm not expected to have radically new experiences except of the disastrous kind. Stanley Elkin said to me, “Howard, do you expect any pleasant surprises?” It's a good question. Well, yes I do. There are still lots of pleasant surprises. So, it's not a plan not to publish for another five years.

Well, what do you see yourself doing in the future?

I hope to win more battles in the losing war.

Mary Kinzie (review date September 1981)

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SOURCE: Kinzie, Mary. “The Judge Is Rue.” Poetry 138 (September 1981): 344-50.

[In the following review, Kinzie expresses disappointment in the general quality of Sentences while praising several of the individual poems.]

The last poem in Howard Nemerov's new Sentences is called “Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry.” It is about rain gradually turning into snow, but still acting like rain (only somehow lighter and thicker), until—there is suddenly snow flying instead of rain falling. The poem rhymes as a quatrain and a couplet and is composed in Howard Nemerov's own pentameter, an organism we recognize by the off-handed inversions of sentence order that sound at once decorous and colloquial; by that studied freedom of address and careful familiarity with old puns (“clearly flew”); and by the chill, dry precision of analogy (“gradient … aslant … random”). To these idiosyncratic marks of character, Nemerov adds the unassuming realism of the plot: you recognize only much later the poet's providence in having put something dark, living, and winged into the background.

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

Formally, the poem is masterful, reassuring in its regularities, disturbing in its hints of chaos—those twin impulses that make up at least the necessary conditions of great verse. In Nemerov's rhymed poems, there is more activity in the final feet than in his unrhymed; the hints of chaos in “Because You Asked …” are whispered by the rhyme-dissonances between “drizzle” (the end of the fifth-foot amphibrach) and “invisible” (whose four syllables make up the two regular iambs of the fourth and fifth feet, with no supernumerary unstressed syllable at the end). Although DRIZ- rhymes with -VIS-, and although both DRIZZLE and INVISIBLE have final Ls, these rhyming sounds fall in different metrical places. We swallow the last two syllables of INVISIBLE—naturally, because the main accent falls on -VIS-, and in Nemerov's lines, because we are half-consciously trying to make the metrically nonparallel words match.

This rhyming on words that are, so to speak, cross-woven metrically, and the swallowing of certain lines (which necessitates the elongation of others) are parts of a larger design in which are also woven sentence and pause. For as the words unfold forward within the abstract metrical frame, they also pick up unaligned threads of grammatical periods and endings, which then hitch back across those lines, and even back across whole stanzas. If the metaphor of fabric-weaving applies to the making of verses, we must imagine either the warp as regular and the shuttle as uneven, or the warp as erratic and the voice of the shuttle as constant. The process in either case must accommodate both glide and tug, both smooth progress and lurching regress. The subject of the sentence that forms the quatrain of Nemerov's poem is “Sparrows,” but the burden of the quatrain's theme is the “drizzle” that turns (for two-and-a-half lines) to “pieces of snow.” A further twist is that, while “drizzle” is technically in command of the syntax for only one-half line, it is still continuing to fall through the ensuing transformations.

Because poetry moves backwards and forwards at once, the bit of cloth you wind up with is irregular, full of holes, yet also peculiarly complete, like a cat's cradle held on one hand by an adult and on the other by a child. Even the “symmetry” of the Popean couplet depends on radical asymmetries in the puns and in their disposition among parts of speech and in non-matching metrical places. In Nemerov's poem the adjectives “aslant” and “slow” do not inhabit the same semantic realm; yet for the moment of their expression, they are parallel in their doubleness: both render both shape and speed. Indirectly, “silver aslant” shows us rain razoring down quickly, while “random, white, and slow” suggests how the snow is starting to coast lethargically, scoot sideways, move anyway but straight down.

Even so bald a device as the choice of poly- over monosyllabic words in a metrical line is an indispensable means of varying speed, sentence structure, and texture. Compare the second line, “That while you watched turned into pieces of snow,” with its commanding monosyllables, and the rhopalic series of polysyllables in the third line, “Riding a gradient invisible,” which is softer, more rapid (because of weak secondary stresses on the last two words), more abstract, and syntactically unfinished.

In support of diction, syntax, and meter, Nemerov also employs a hovering effect, based sometimes on ambiguity, and sometimes on error. For example, I might revise his final couplet to expose the grammatical clumsiness of the final line:

There came a moment when you scarcely knew.
And then instead of fell they clearly flew.

But in Nemerov's couplet, with its authoritative rhyme, the ungrammatical use of “fell” is largely concealed, perceived by us only as a dull after-throb. In addition to softening the awkwardness in the last line, Nemerov also invigorates the meanings in the penultimate. By using “that” instead of “when,” he divides the reference between time and quality: (1) There came a moment during which you could not tell which was which; (2) There came a moment that you couldn't tell about. Of course the poem is about not being able to pinpoint delicate change; but it is also about not being able to describe how something got itself changed from rain into snow, prose into poetry, while watcher and writer know very well what the final state has come to: “And then they clearly flew.”

What clearly flew? Clearly, the pieces of snow, now soft and crowded flakes. But in the poem's updrafts are also borne aloft those feeding sparrows—not literally, rather as part of the suggestive warrant for any kind of flight. In other words (the words of the title), so is the poem launched. Not going straight to its goal—not falling like rain—a poem imperceptibly thickens itself out of the visible stream of prose. It crosses a line, before which it was transparent, following which it is opaque, by being in lines, displaying the words it holds in common with prose so that these are increasingly bracketed, thereby more choice, but also more free.

That poetry holds words in common with prose is a truth for which Howard Nemerov gives especially profound warrant in his poetry (which now numbers roughly 600 pages). He is a master of blank verse in the brief lyric and the middle-length poem, and has molded the unrhymed iambic pentameter line into some of the subtlest formal bodies we have. His forbear in this is Frost, but Nemerov is less heavily stressed and less the rural poseur. Not that Nemerov lacks his poses; on the contrary, he can be most irritating in his roles as watcher-of-broad-casts, man-walking-dog, suburban-stroller, visitor-of-parks. He lets the bourgeois into his satiric poetry, but also in his lyrics, he lets in (in less censored or censorious fashion) the world of solitary privilege. The finest poem in Sentences, “By Al Lebowitz's Pool,” provides a protected bell jar for Nemerov's meditations on time, light, youth, distance, and correspondence. It is a superior poem, but also one that depends on our liking the moneyed reserve of the middle classes.

Al Lebowitz's pool, however, does not represent class so much as reflect season. The owner himself barely appears. The poet observes the untouchable and undesired daughters swerving like fish through the water, on which surface, on other days, float only beach balloons or a wasp. The summer wanes. The speaker usually has a drink in hand. Idly, the poet roves among these details, which seem to provide at last, in each of the poem's five sections, the hypnagogic abstraction necessary for elegy. After a late summer storm,

                                                  The banked furnace of the sun
With reliquary heat returns in splendor
Diminished some with time, but splendid still.
Beside the pool we drink, talk, and are still,
These times of kindness mortality allows.

In such seamless weavings of the poetic tradition with his own personal tone (“With reliquary heat,” “The banked furnace”), Nemerov proves that the line between poetry and prose must be crossed not only by the word but by the heart. He is a poet who, like all of us, lives in the prosaic; and he acknowledges it in order to mine it.

But in contrast to other masters of the typical like Frost, Auden, and Cunningham, Nemerov is not, even in his sublime poems, always able to decide what he should do with the prosaic side of feeling. His worldly poses are often double-jointed—excuses for personal pathos where we expect the satirist's probity. His jokes frequently protest their humor. Since his first poems, The Image and the Law (1947), his books have been marred by gnomes too glib and constructed to be true. He tries to be playful, but sounds grim. And when he wants that grimness to be prophetic, he sounds inward and crotchety. He wants to be “bitter” as Yeats was, but has not Yeats's stake in the culture (perhaps no American has this), nor Yeats's obsessive delusions. Nemerov's temperament and language are not suited to displays of saeva indignatio, although his temperament is also such as to think it is. I do not think we hear in Nemerov that harsh transport of which J. V. Cunningham wrote in 1947 when he characterized the poetic gift:

These the assizes: here the charge, denial,
Proof and disproof: the poem is the trial.
Experience is defendant, and the jury
Peers of tradition, and the judge is fury.

I suspect that Howard Nemerov desires to be viewed as a poet who can range, with indulgence, majesty, or fury, over a broad geography of subjects and moods. This is not the case. His best mood, the one that brings out the tenderest and most credible language, is that mood of pitying praise in the presence of natural law and intellectual construct. In another age, Nemerov would have been bard to the Royal Society or an enclave of Thomists. He was framed to celebrate the edifice of mind from a gargoyle's niche; he depends, that is, on a tradition of shared intellectual achievement to which he can pay orthogonal homage in the form of tears. For that is the heart of his lyricism: astrophysics, syllogism, fluid geometry, and Zeno's paradox fleshed, formal, and full of rue:

Intent upon the target eye
The arrow pierced a garden air
Fragrant with flowers yellow and blue,
It flew beside a shining hedge
And over cobwebs jeweled with dew,
It passed above a still black pool
With a fountain for a heart
Lifting its silver droplets up
So slowly (and the flight so swift)
They stood in air before they fell
Tap tap upon the dark dripstone.
Always, while burrowing in the brain,
Always, and while the victim fell,
The hastening arrow held that still
Moment along its shining shaft.
Its feathers whistled that still air.

In Zeno's World

This lovely lyric is written in the same loose tetrameters Nemerov used for “The Blue Swallows” in 1967, another poem about “finding again the world” by a conscious application of the mind's eye to what is (therefore) “intelligible.” In the protected garden of the mind, Nemerov has made a perfect gazebo.

In another poem, the cerebral and the emotional mingle with more homely point. A little aircraft is guided down by crossing needles, course, and height

Till finally it's funneled in and down
Over the beacons along a narrowing beam,
Perfectly trusting a wisdom not its own,
That breaking out of cloud it may be come
Back to this world and to be born again,
Into the valley of the flarepath, fallen home.

The Little Aircraft

The final consonants in these lines, from the m/n family, form a second kind of instrument panel, guiding the plane, by dark longing moans, down to its home.

During a solar eclipse, the poet considers how the life of one man may be charted even to its end against the rare punctuations by the moon's darkened disc across the second great wanderer among the worlds:

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.

During a Solar Eclipse

The final monosyllabic line is a tour de force of plain-style pathos. Monosyllables serve a different function in “Insomnia I,” that of blunt, noncommittal background for two more elaborate styles. If unable to sleep, you should, says Nemerov, go downstairs, have a bit to drink, read a mystery,

Then, when you know who done it, turn out the light,
And quietly in darkness, in moonlight, or snowlight
Reflective, listen to the whistling earth
In its backspin trajectory around the sun
That makes the planets sometimes retrograde
And brings the cold forgiveness of the dawn
Whose light extinguishes all stars but one.

Nemerov attaches a drag-line to the music of the spheres—the rationalist terminology of Miltonic syntax and Latinate jargon, a vocabulary cancelled by the glistening Anglo-Saxon gray of the phase “cold forgiveness of the dawn” and by the uncodifiable undersong of the “whistling earth.”

A final example of Nemerov's pathos-of-the-intellect, “The Makers.” The first poets, those nameless makers of the consciousness of interval, who made poetry and language possible, are those who felt (as immediately as the odor of a rose) that the ability to form and distinguish vowels and consonants was what made it possible to make metaphors.

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 blank verse both cerebral and melodious, yet what moves us is not that balance, but the frailty of fame and the doomed circularity of poetic endeavor. The breathing shapes and stops, the vowels and consonants, are the foundations of shifting Babels whose magic is ephemeral. Like “The Makers,” all of Nemerov's best poems are strangely sad. Encumbered with habitual self, they rise to plateaus of nostalgic obedience to the world, on which a natural, rich simplicity is flexed by mutability:

… if these moments could not pass away
They could not be, all dapple and delight.

Sentences is a disappointing and self-indulgent volume on the whole, but has some landmark poems. In these serious poems, not only has Nemerov continued to accommodate himself to the literary tradition without falling back on parody; he has also in this handful of poems extended the resources of blank verse beyond what any modern practitioner, himself included, has managed to do. This extension comprises more than a mere prosodic advance; it is a rhetorical and imaginative advance. “By Al Lebowitz's Pool,” “The Makers,” “Monet,” and “A Christmas Storm,” for example, are dazzling in their very naturalness, especially when we take into account that the last two are single, elaborated sentences, each of which encourages all the digressive ribbons and falls of thought, as the poet draws them back into coherent movements of syntax and line. No one since Frost has done as much to move blank verse forward from where Wordsworth and Coleridge had left it. The long sentence that falls variously from clause to clause and line to line in the last verse paragraph of “By Al Lebowitz's Pool” reminds us of the feats of the Romantics, but on a scale at once more thematically restricted and more spiritually daring:

Enchanted afternoon, immune from time,
Illusion's privilege gives me the idea that I
Am not so much writing this verse as reading it
Up out of water and light and shadow and leaf
Doing the dance of their various dependencies—
As if I might daydream my way again
Into the world and be at one with it—
While the shadows of harder, more unyielding things
Edge steadily and stealthily around the pool
To translate the revolving of the world
About itself, the spinning ambit of the seasons
In the simple if adamant equation of time
Around the analemma of the sun.

This final verse paragraph, by turns reserved and gorgeous, yielding and severe, also convinces me that even a limitation, if acknowledged and persisted in, can approach transcendence.

Richard Wertime (review date summer 1985)

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SOURCE: Wertime, Richard. “Poets' Prose.” Yale Review 74 (summer 1985): 605-08.

[In the following excerpt from a review of several collections of criticism, Wertime praises the quality of Nemerov's New and Collected Essays.]

[Nemerov is like] a lover of home improvements who is always building additions to his house, or revising its appearance. The “house” is no less than our conscious effort to come to grips with the human condition: I must say I was surprised by the theoretical vigor and the range of this collection. Nemerov writes well on a whole list of subjects: on metaphor, on meaning in poetry, on imagination in Blake and Wordsworth, on the revelatory basis of jokes and of poems. He writes with extraordinary grace on Lewis Thomas as well as on his friend, Kenneth Burke; and he is brilliant on what it is that centrally characterizes the short novel.

Indeed, there is a great deal to commend in this volume. New and Selected Essays by Howard Nemerov belongs on that shelf of essay collections which can permanently alter a person's way of thinking. I remember how Updike once said of reading Proust that it revealed to him “a whole new use for the human nervous system,” or words to that effect; and while the impact of Nemerov's thinking on me isn't quite that grand, it is of that kind. In a prefatory essay, Kenneth Burke speaks of Nemerov's “plenitude” of thought (he also says that Nemerov is good at “retrieval”). I like Burke's word; it captures Nemerov's extraordinary ability to set thought skating into hitherto-unsuspected richness of implication. The writer who most nearly resembles Nemerov in this, to my mind, is the psychoanalyst Leslie H. Farber, with whose essays, especially in Lying, Despair, Jealousy, Envy, Sex, Suicide, Drugs, and the Good Life, Nemerov's share affinities of tone and approach. Nemerov, like Farber, is a confident and supple prose stylist, idiomatic and informal but very rarely chatty; and again like Farber, Nemerov has an unnerving habit of getting at things with a casual and yet surprisingly well-aimed turn. Both writers are humanists in the largest sense.

The volume leads off with Burke's thirty-page encomium, which I found myself quitting after some dozen pages: I lacked the context which the essays could offer me, so I went on ahead and read Nemerov first, then came back later and finished Burke's essay. It's a good introduction—typically Burkean in its headlong quality, its stylistic irritations, its summarizing power.

It might be best to distinguish the categories into which the essays in this collection fall. There are, first and foremost, the theoretical essays, which constitute the backbone: these include “The Swaying Form: A Problem in Poetry,” “Composition and Fate in the Short Novel,” “Bottom's Dream: The Likeness of Poems and Jokes,” “On Metaphor,” “Poetry and Meaning,” and “On the Measure of Poetry.” Then there are the essays on individual writers, which are all good: two on Wallace Stevens; two on Thomas Mann; an essay on Kenneth Burke; and others on Dante, Blake and Wordsworth, and finally Rainer Maria Rilke.

Next come occasional pieces—a commencement address at Bennington, an offering to a newspaper's centennial celebration, an interview with Nemerov, a whimsical speech made at a Burns Society meeting, the stand-in performance for an ailing Lewis Thomas—and last, the jeux. The jeux and the occasional pieces tend to overlap.

A number of refrains emerge as we read. One of the most central among them has to do with the reciprocity between the reality we experience and the matter of language, which keeps us from pitching into the void. In a manner reminiscent of Erich Kahler's The Inward Turn of Narrative, Nemerov says:

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. Poetry differs from thought in this respect, that thought eats up the language in which it thinks. Thought is proud, and always wants to forget its humble origin in things. … The business of poetry is to bring thought back into relation with the five wits, the five senses which Blake calls “the chief inlets of the soul in this age,” to show how our discontents, as Shakespeare finely says of Timon's, “are unremovably coupled to nature.” So the ivory tower must always be cut from the horn of Behemoth.

… As to the poet himself, one might add this. Writing is a species of askesis, a persevering devotion to the energy passing between self and the world. It is a way of living, a way of being, and though it does produce results in the form of words, these may come to seem of secondary importance to the person so engaged.

Nemerov also insists, in a more assertive vein, that the relations of subject and object, knowledge and meaning, poem and interpretation, the abstract and material are helplessly and necessarily implicated in paradox, the absolute paradox which stands as a motto on a shield in Pericles: “That which nourishes me extinguishes me.” The paradoxical habit of thought leads Nemerov to the gloomy and worrisome speculation that “poetry in English is coming to an end,” and I get irritated at times with his near-relativistic position on the extent to which the symbolic creates our world, since on occasions (in low moods, usually) he appears on the verge of an almost-comfortable if despairing solipsism.

But such outlining does him little justice, for it is the texture of his thinking that is exhilarating, and not the Grand Propositions—though one of the latter (his favorite) is sturdy indeed: “Poetry is getting something right in language.” This aphorism, incidentally, rescues Nemerov from his tilt toward solipsism, for he insists, over and over, that poetic invention is discovery, and hence discrimination between the “in-tune” and “not-in-tune,” the “right” and the “wrong,” the here/there and not-here/there.

Another of the refrains which punctuates Nemerov's thinking is the notion of being “serviceable”: as a poet, teacher, critic, as a citizen of the world. The “serviceable” is chiefly what enlarges people's minds or issues them new methods for contending with unawareness. The theoretical essays and the studies of particular writers are the ones most wealthy in serviceable lore. Here are two examples of the theoretical lore:

When you look at a poem you see that it goes down the page and goes across the page; not quite as prose does, for in prose going across the page is only a way of going down the page. Prose is a way of getting on, poetry a way of lingering. Going across the page, that is, becomes something like an independent dimension. … Poetry shares with prose the phrase, the sentence, and even something which the strophe has to do with the paragraph; only the line, the idea of the line, is distinctive.

And this:

the tradition of the short novel … is a tradition of masterpieces. … The authors of such works are masters in parable and reality simultaneously. … What we may insist is that these works combine with their actions a most explicit awareness of themselves as parables, as philosophic myths, and almost invariably announce and demonstrate the intention of discursive profundity—the intention, it is not too much to say, of becoming sacred books.

Nemerov repeatedly combines close observation with synthesizing vigor to produce surprising insights. In the second of these two essays, the one on the short novel, he also notes, “people read novellas, but they tend to live in novels, and sometimes they live there very comfortably indeed”—and having made this wry comment, he goes on to speak of theme in terms that are cogent and apt.

John F. Skinner (essay date April 1986)

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SOURCE: Skinner, John F. “Semantic Play in the Poetry of Howard Nemerov.” Literature in Performance: A Journal of Literary and Performing Art 6 (April 1986): 44-59.

[In the following essay, Skinner examines the various manifestations of game-playing and word play in Nemerov's poetry.]

In Fear of Flying, Erica Jong has her precocious narrator-protagonist clash at one point with a figure familiar to many readers. Trembling in her purple-suede boots, Isadora Wing confides to Professor Stanton that she wants to write satire rather than criticize it, that she doesn't find criticism very satisfying:

“Satisfying!” he exploded.

I gulped.

“What makes you think that graduate school is supposed to be satisfying? Literature is work, not fun,” he said.

“Yes,” I said meekly.

“You come to graduate school because you love to read, because you love literature—well, literature is hard work! It's not a game!”

Professor Stanton seemed to have found his true subject.1

Despite Stanton's protests, we can without much difficulty support the view that poetic composition is a form of play.2

Experimental literature yields perhaps the most obvious examples of play in literary texts. The computer-generated poem and the short story juggling four simultaneous plots in separate columns are both certainly “playing” with our expectations of what a poem or short story should look like and do. So we are not surprised to find concrete poet Eugen Gomringer describing his poems as “playgrounds” with definite boundaries, as models of “verbal play in action,” and challenging the reader to accept them “in the spirit of play” and to play with them.3 Gomringer's colleague Oyvind Fahlstrom further confirms a play impulse in concrete poetry when he “speaks of the element of ‘play’ in the interaction of the linguistic elements” in his texts.4

Turning from poetry to “new wave fiction” or metafiction, we can nod in agreement when critic Philip Stevick tells us that new fiction “seeks to represent, explicitly or implicitly, the act of writing as an act of play.”5 Even Sigmund Freud once observed, “Every playing child behaves like a poet, in that he creates a world of his own, or more accurately expressed, he transposes things into his own world according to a new arrangement which is to his liking.”6 Yet play is more than novelty or deviation from a norm, and the comments of more “traditional” poets reinforce a tradition conflating literary composition and play.

W. H. Auden, for example, was fond of quoting Thoreau's definition of a poet: “A poet is a person who having nothing to do, finds something to do.”7 Elsewhere, Auden says “there are no doubt natural causes, perhaps very simple ones, behind the wish to write verses, but the chief satisfaction in the creative act is the feeling that it is quite gratuitous.”8 T. S. Eliot termed poetry “a superior form of amusement.”9 Theodore Roethke admonished students in his many college creative writing classes to “play with it—if you know what I don't mean. The language has its cusses and fusses just like us.” His use of the term “play” was not accidental. Roethke cites Gerard Manley Hopkins as an example of a poet who “didn't play enough; dear, sweet, serious man, so full, in spite of all his rigors, of that dangerous pride in his intellectual self.”10 In his recently reprinted Play in Poetry, poet Louis Untermeyer says:

I think it can be maintained that, on the whole, poetry is as playful as it is profound.

By “playful” I do not mean merely the outburst of high spirits or the formal light-heartedness of light verse. I mean the essential spirit which unites and intensifies the figures of speech, the hyperboles and similes, all of which represent the poet's varying use of the invariable impulse to play.11

And finally, in what sounds like a prayer for inspiration and creative energy, Robert Frost once said in an interview, “Give us immedicable woes—woes that nothing can be done for—woes flat and final. And then to play. The play's the thing. Play's the thing.”12

Recent and contemporary critics have also begun to describe and evaluate literature in terms of its play. Helen Vendler criticizes Adrienne Rich for her lack of imaginative play, for being “a stern, even grim, ringmaster” to her poems.13 Citing the poet's inflexible stance and stereotypical treatment of characters, Vendler concludes that “Rich deserves the rebuke of Schiller to Rousseau: ‘No doubt his serious character prevents him from falling into frivolity; but this seriousness does not allow him to rise to poetic play.’”14 In contrast, Mark Lilly offers a wholly positive assessment of Vladimir Nabokov's novels specifically in terms of their play.15 Lilly points to the wealth of surface characteristics (puns, anagrams, acrostics, and other verbal devices) and structural features by which Nabokov makes his novels elaborately artificial games and casts the willing reader into the role of “player.” Among other writers evaluated during the last twenty-five years for the quantity and quality of their play are Francois Rabelais, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Raymond Roussel, Dante Alighieri, Francois de La Rochefoucauld, Max Jacob, Thomas Pynchon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and George Herbert.16 In short, poets and critics invoke play to describe the process and products of poetic composition too frequently for us to dismiss the metaphor as fanciful or accidental.

Though a full discussion of play, its various definitions, and the range of play possible in literature is beyond the scope of this paper, in what follows I will examine a specific type of play in the “work” of poet Howard Nemerov and will focus on the tensions and ambiguities that this type of play establishes. Nemerov's poems abound with play and often take the form of intricate games or puzzles, requiring careful sleuthing of the attentive reader. Because play is significant in Nemerov's poetry, it can inform the individual preparing a Nemerov poem for performance. The discussion of play in his poetry raises larger questions about the implications of play for the theory and practice of performing literature.

In attempting to define play, one can easily get bogged down in conflicting theories as to why people play. In one of the best books on play, Michael J Ellis untangles fifteen distinct play theories, and sifts through the considerable baggage of terminology that they employ.17 Yet most people can readily identify examples of play (children playing in a park or, I assume, writers playing in literary texts), without knowing the clinical or academic vocabulary of play.

Characteristics common to all play include at least the following: (1) It is a free, voluntary activity; it cannot be coerced without losing its essential nature. (2) It is intrinsically motivated and intrinsically rewarding. Play is something we do for the fun of it, and the reward is the enjoyment we derive. (3) Play is materially unproductive, yielding neither goods nor wealth. (4) It is separate, limned from ordinary life, both in time and space. (5) Play is controlled by conventions that suspend ordinary laws and enact temporary, new ones. In play we impose new obstacles for ourselves, just for the fun of it. (6) Play is uncertain; even if a game has a prescribed outcome, players must be allowed a certain latitude for innovation. (7) Finally, play is fictive, “accompanied by a specific awareness of a second reality or of a straightforward unreality in relation to everyday life.”18 Each of these characteristics applies to imaginative writing and also to the performance of literature.


Nemorov seems an obvious choice for closer examination here because he thinks of poetry generally as a form of play: “Whatever is revealed, in poetry, plays at being revealed.”19 Present in all language, Nemerov says, play is most apparent “in expressions which time or custom has set free from the urgencies of exhortation and the immediate claims of life: inscriptions on tombs, the proud dominations of antiquity, Ozymandias in his desert. …”20 That is, play is featured in superfluous language, used freely and gratuitously as the poet does. Nemerov even suggests that

in seeking to identify … the quality of expressiveness called “poetic” you might start, not with the sublime, but down at the humble end of the scale, with such things as … misprints, newspaper items, jokes … working your way up in Horatio Alger style to see how far your descriptions will take you. …21

Given the large number of epigrams and the pervasive wit in Nemerov's poetry, his comparison of poems to jokes is not surprising. Yet many of his poems are quite sophisticated and require a good deal of any reader. How then does he explain the comparison of poems, whose difficulty may vary from reader to reader, to jokes, whose success depends upon their apparent and immediate accessibility to most who hear them? The analogy is central to Nemerov's poetics, and reflects the primary role wit plays in much of his poetry.

The distinguishing characteristics of the joke, Nemerov says, include the following: (1) It uses its materials economically. Something already given reappears in the joke's resolution, so that the punch line seems both surprising and inevitable. We often feel that, given a few seconds more, we should have been able to deliver the punch line ourselves. (2) The joke reverses the relations of the elements introduced. (3) An element of the absurd is introduced, but “the apparent absurdity, introduced into the new context, makes a new and deeper sense.” (4) As the absurd comes to make sense, something hidden in the joke is revealed.22

These same qualities inhere in the poem, according to Nemerov, with puns, metaphors, and other figures of speech demonstrating the economy of poetic form. He continues:

The “purely formal” arrangements of poetry, such as measure, rime, stanza, which it appears not at all to share with the joke, are in fact intensifications of a characteristic we have already noticed in jokes: the compound of expectation with a fulfillment which is simultaneously exact and surprising, giving to the result that quality sometimes thought of as inevitability, or rightness.23

Though Nemerov claims that his poetry has become simpler, less calculatedly ambiguous throughout the years, he retains “a view that does not always sharply divide the funny from the serious and even the sorrowful. …”24 To the charge of some critics that his poems are jokes, even bad jokes, he responds: “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. …”25 As an apostle of the well-crafted poem and as a “wit,” in the many senses of that term, Nemerov fills even his pensive and pessimistic poetry with a variety of play.

Linguist Ernst Cassirer once noted that while “the child plays with things, the artist plays with forms, with lines and designs, rhythms and melodies.”26 To inventory a poet's “toys,” we might discuss his or her phonic play, or play with sounds; syntactic play, both within lines and in the larger syntax of available poetic forms; lexical play, or play with the various registers of language; and role play, that imaginative stepping into other real or fictive roles in order to evoke different personae.27 With Nemerov, one other type of play commands our immediate attention, however. Semantic play, or play with meanings, takes four identifiable forms in Nemerov's poetry: (1) the use of play and games as subjects or motifs; (3) a variety of word play; (3) the intertextual play of poems calculated to recall other poems; and (4) the cultivation of tensiveness through ambiguity.



From his earliest volume to his most recent, Nemerov sustains a thread of poems either about play or with various games in their titles. A quick look at his tables of contents reveals “Warning: Children at Play,” “Instructions for the Use of This Toy,” “The May Day Dancing,” “The Puzzle,” “Hide and Seek,” “Playing the Inventions,” “Gyroscope,” and “Playing Skittles.” Significant too is Nemerov's translation of Rainer Marie Rilke's “Kindheit,” or “Childhood,” where play is the only relief from the stresses and loneliness of growing up.28 The poem is particularly noteworthy because it is one of only two translations Nemerov has published.

Yet the play motif in Nemerov's poetry is not limited to the surfaces, to those poems with play or games titles. For example, in “To D—, Dead by Her Own Hand” (Collected Poems [hereafter abbreviated as CP], 431), addressed to his sister, photographer Diane Arbus, Nemerov compares the young woman's life to a child's courting danger by walking along a narrow garden wall. The poem concludes:

That was a life ago. And now you've gone
Who would no longer play the grown-up's 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.

Then in his poem “A Catch” (Sentences [hereafter abbreviated as S], 55), Nemerov uses the game of catch as a metaphor for the transaction between poet and reader:

Throwing alone wouldn't be fun,
And catching alone can't be done.
The two of them together, though,
                              Are among the very few
                              Things human beings do
That makes us look as if we know
          A world, and are at home in it,
          Where lock and key exactly fit.

Useful as it is for describing writing and reading, though, the metaphor extends beyond these activities, as the concluding lines suggest:

                                        A catch between anyone,
                                        A father and son,
makes visible something unseen
How from the father's hand is hurled
To be held the hard ball of the world.

In short, the poetry is replete with references to play and players. Nemerov turns repeatedly to the play world of children, most often to establish parallels with adult play: the games of poetry, the games of criticism and teaching, even the game of life. Though these metaphors are certainly not new, Nemerov uses them directly, creatively, and unself-consciously, saving them from charges of sentimentality and cliche by his novel treatment and intellectual rigor.


A second level of semantic play in Nemerov's poetry, most easily accommodated under the generic label “word play,” includes his use of puns; his revitalizations of proverbs, gnomic expressions, and familiar quotations; a device typical of much children's speech play, “concatenation”; and a device known as “verbal skidding.” Both the pun and the allusion to a proverb function semantically because they allow Nemerov to make language serve “double duty.” That is, they permit him to exploit the possibilities of text-context relationships, to make words mean more than they ordinarily would in a given context. At the same time, interestingly, both devices reduce Nemerov's responsibility for what he is saying. As Martha Wolfenstein says of the pun in children's speech play, “An allusive formulation insures immunity since nothing objectionable has been said. The teller may disclaim responsibility for what the hearer thinks.”29 Whether the achieved effect is funny, serious, or some combination, these first two types of word play expand the semantic potential of Nemerov's poetic language.

Puns. Many of Nemerov's puns occur in poem titles. In “Lot Later” (CP, 263-267), for example, he puts the words of that Biblical character into the mouth of a contemporary Jewish businessman. Thus, we have “Lot” speaking “a lot later” about his escape from Sodom. Another example of syllepsis, the use of a word with two or more meanings,30 occurs in the title “Polonius Passing through a Stage” (CP, 252-253). This brief, complex poem refers to Polonius's childhood, as well as to his presence on the stage of the Globe Theatre. The pun on “stage” in the title thus alludes to a stage or phase of development, as well as the physical site of the doddering character's performance in Hamlet. Nemerov's “Elegy of the Last Resort” (CP, 75-76) is, as the opening lines indicate, about the “last resort” to close at the end of the tourist season: “The boardwalks are empty, the cafes closed, / The bathchairs in mute squadrons face the sea.” However, the poem is also the utterance of a speaker under pressure of loneliness and ennui. That is, it is his last available means of expression, his “last resort.”

The subject of Nemerov's “A Full Professor” (CP, 375) is “full” in at least three senses. He has achieved the highest active academic level, full professorship. He is also “full” of his own concerns and full in the sense of being sated. These last two meanings coalesce in the following lines:

An organism highly