Howard Nemerov Nemerov, Howard (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Howard Nemerov 1920-1991

(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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Howard (review date March 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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”,...

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M. S. Rosenthal (essay date 1967)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Davison (review date February 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Lask (review date 30 March 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”...

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Anthony Hecht (review date spring 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hayden Carruth (review date 28 July 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Meinke (essay date 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julia Randall (essay date June 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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New Republic (review date 24 June 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julia A. Bartholomay (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Mills (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Mills (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Gloria L. Young (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Bromwich (review date winter 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richmond Lattimore (review date spring 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Helen Vendler (review date 7 December 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Benjamin DeMott (review date 16 April 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Johnson (review date summer 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Willard Spiegelman (essay date summer/fall 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Lask (review date 16 December 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

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Thomas Lask (essay date 14 January 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


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Wyatt Prunty (essay date January 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John T. Gage (review date spring 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ross Labrie (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ross Labrie (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Howard Nemerov and Neal Bowers and Charles L. P. Silet (interview date spring 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Kinzie (review date September 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2788 words.)

Richard Wertime (review date summer 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1291 words.)

John F. Skinner (essay date April 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ejner J. Jensen (essay date spring 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jensen, Ejner J. “Howard Nemerov and the Tyranny of Shakespeare.” Centennial Review 32 (spring 1988): 130-49.

[In the following essay, Jensen notes the ways in which Nemerov owes a debt to Shakespeare in his themes, allusions, and use of language.]

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

was the key to the whole of English literature, the mastermind that determined its course...

(The entire section is 6037 words.)

Doug Anderson (review date 28 April 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Anderson, Doug. “Poet in Prose.” New York Times Book Review (28 April 1991): 15.

[In the following review of A Howard Nemerov Reader, Anderson says that the volume points to Nemerov as a teacher and reiterates the poet's notion of the interplay of the mind with the universe.]

This fine, labyrinthine collection will delight readers who are familiar only with Howard Nemerov's poetry. Here we have his fiction, which allows him a much wider emotional and imaginative range than do his poems, and his essays, which reveal Mr. Nemerov as brilliantly incisive, if occasionally curmudgeonly. There is also a selection of his poetry from 1947 to the present,...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

James Wood (essay date spring 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, James. “Howard Nemerov: A Thoughtful Mildness.” Poetry Review 81 (spring 1991): 10-12.

[In the following essay, Wood laments the neglect of Nemerov's work in British publications and praises the poet's ironic vision.]

Randall Jarrell had a famous quip about poetic status: ‘The poet has a peculiar relation to the public. It is unaware of his existence’. In this country, Howard Nemerov certainly has a peculiar relation to the public: he hasn't been published by a British publisher since 19681. Nemerov's work is civilized, lenient, ruminative. His voice combines irony and lyricism—the democratic tones of post-war America, heard also in...

(The entire section is 1664 words.)

D. G. Myers (review date November 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Myers, D. G. “A Career in Literature.” Commentary 92 (November 1991): 60-62.

[In the following review of Trying Conclusions and A Howard Nemerov Reader, Myers summarizes Nemerov's poetic career as an almost-sacred calling.]

During a 50-year career, Howard Nemerov, who died this past July, became one of the most widely honored poets in America. His Collected Poems (1977) received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Later volumes won the Bollingen Prize and a National Medal for the Arts in Poetry. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy of American Poets, and the American Academy of Arts and...

(The entire section is 1453 words.)

Monroe K. Spears (essay date fall 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Spears, Monroe K. “Howard Nemerov's Best Book.” Sewanee Review 99 (fall 1991): 669-73.

[In the following essay, Spears speaks of Nemerov's longtime association with the Sewanee Review and praises the selections in A Howard Nemerov Reader.]

In opening the Sewanee Writers' Conference in July, Wyatt Prunty read an eloquent tribute to Howard Nemerov, who had been so prominent and benign a presence at the 1990 conference and had been scheduled to teach again at this one. The most dramatic moment of the conference occurred when Mona Van Duyn, Howard's close friend and neighbor, closed her reading by telling how her own fine poem, “Endings,” provoked...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)

Sidney Burris (essay date winter 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burris, Sidney. “A Sort of Memoir, A Sort of Review.” Southern Review 28 (winter 1992): 184-201.

[In the following essay, Burris presents a memoir of Nemerov as well as critiques of A Howard Nemerov Reader and Trying Conclusions.]

I was sitting on the front porch of Rebel's Rest, the watering hole for the faculty and fellows of the Sewanee Writers Conference, when Howard Nemerov told me that there were only two levels of diction available to the American poet: the plain and the not-so-plain. Long familiar with Nemerov's poetry and criticism, I had never spent an extended amount of time with him, but during the first few days at Sewanee I learned...

(The entire section is 7441 words.)

William Pratt (review date summer 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pratt, William. A review of Trying Conclusions. World Literature Today 66 (summer 1992): 518-19.

[In the following review, Pratt praises Nemerov's last volume of poetry and his mastery of his craft.]

Howard Nemerov personally selected the contents of his fourteenth and final volume of poetry, Trying Conclusions, including over a hundred poems from earlier collections published during a career of thirty years, along with twenty-four new poems written during the period 1988-91, the last three years of his life—two of them as poet laureate of the United States. It was a distinguished career, and readers now have the opportunity of appraising...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Samuel Maio (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Maio, Samuel. “Howard Nemerov, Blank Verse, and ‘The Amateurs of Heaven.’” Formalist 3, no. 1 (1992): 85-88.

[In the following essay, Maio explicates Nemerov's “The Amateurs of Heaven,” finding in its blank verse a suggestion of an ordered universe.]

“The Amateurs of Heaven,” one of the new poems collected in Howard Nemerov's posthumous Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems 1961-1991, ranks among the very best of the Nemerov oeuvre. This poem, written within the final years of his life, also exemplifies Nemerov's particular and characteristic use of blank verse. Much as Wordsworth and Frost made special use of this...

(The entire section is 1228 words.)

Phoebe Pettingell (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Knowledge Turning into Dream: Recollections of Howard Nemerov.” Sewanee Review 100, no. 4 (1992): 706-15.

[In the following essay, Pettingell, a former student of Nemerov's and the wife of his colleague Stanley Hyman, offers both a review of Trying Conclusions and personal recollections of Nemerov.]

We stand now in the place and limit of time
Where hardest knowledge is turning into dream,
And nightmares still contained in sleeping dark
Seem on the point of bringing into day
The sweating panic that starts the sleeper up.

—“Magnitudes,” Trying Conclusions (1991)

As with a dream...

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Henry W. Russell (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Russell, Henry W. “Howard Nemerov and the Poetry of Mysterious Order.” Formalist 3, no. 1 (1992): 53-57.

[In the following essay, Russell says that Nemerov embraced the idea of an ordered universe bound by natural law.]

Throughout the body of his poetic works Howard Nemerov charted the way out of a world which modernists claim has fallen into fragments and which “post-modernists” chortle has always and only been fragmentary. In his own way Nemerov was as much ahead of his time, yet based in ancient insights, as the new science of chaos that looks at apparently random elements of the world and finds within them a persistent and ineluctable order. Not...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)

Donna L. Potts (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Potts, Donna L. “‘The Mind's Eye Lit the Sun’: Imagination as the Agent of Reality.” In Howard Nemerov and Objective Idealism: The Influence of Owen Barfield, pp. 7-37. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

[In the following chapter from her full-length study of the influence of objective idealist Owen Barfield on Nemerov, Potts discusses the inseparability of human consciousness from the creation of reality in Nemerov's work.]

The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which...

(The entire section is 11413 words.)

Holly Schindler (review date summer 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schindler, Holly. A review of Nemerov's “Acorn, Yom Kippur.” Explicator 57 (summer 1999): 233-35.

[In the following review, Schindler analyzes the poem “Acorn, Yom Kippur” in detail.]

The acorn in Howard Nemerov's poem [“Acorn, Yom Kippur”] is described as a “fallen thing,” with “its yarmulka still on” (lines 1-2) and symbolizes Nemerov himself. Nemerov has fallen away from Judaism but remains aware of the influence and importance of his faith in the development of his art.

The poet expresses a sense of guilt for having lost what was once so central to the development of his “[l]anguage and thought” (5). According to...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bartholomay, Julie A. “Selected Bibliography.” In The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov, pp. 161-63. Gainesville, Fla.: University of Florida Press, 1972.

Brief bibliography of sources used by Bartholomay in her study of Nemerov's poetic imagery.

Bowie, Duncan. “Howard Nemerov: A Bibliography.” In The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov: A Selection of Essays and a Bibliography, pp. 145-211. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1971.

Extensive annotated bibliography, to the late 1960s, of works by and about Nemerov.

Labrie, Ross. “Selected...

(The entire section is 609 words.)