John Frederick Nims’s formidable academic credentials might suggest a poet literary to the point of pedantry, but literary expertise and scholarship were only a part of the equipment Nims brought to his poetry. In a review of Nims’s second collection, A Fountain in Kentucky, and Other Poems, Richard Wilbur described the “I” in Nims’s poetry as “no disembodied spirit” and surely no celebrant of the erudite and esoteric. On the contrary, says Wilbur, hisadventures are not extraordinary, and he lays claim to no out-of-the-way emotions. . . . He is a family man, and owns a cat and a dog. . . . Few poets so frankly exploit their day-by-day experiences. Few poets so cheerfully present us with a world so thoroughly mundane.
Wilbur’s sketch is a good likeness of Nims the poet, husband, scholar, and father. Nims’s poems make it plain that Bonnie, his wife of thirty-five years, and their children were as much a source of inspiration as any of the considerable number of great authors in whose work he was so well versed. When, in “Love Poem,” he pays playful tribute to “My clumsiest dear, whose hands shipwreck vases,/ At whose quick touch all glasses chip and ring,” he addresses no Helen, but a flesh-and-blood woman. When, in “The Masque of Blackness,” Nims deals with the untimely death of a child, the death of his own son George is a haunting presence between the lines. In joy or sorrow, the sensitive father, the grateful husband, the wry and unpretentious teacher in Nims’s poetry is, more often than not, Nims himself, trying to give words to that life—sweet, bitter, and salty—that he shared with his family, his students, and his readers.
“A poem,” said Nims (with help from Dylan Thomas), “should sing in its chains like the sea!” In an age that has witnessed a broadly based rejection of the apparent restrictions of traditional poetic forms and conventions, Nims made a career of “singing in his chains,” of asserting that a poet can be both traditional and contemporary and that modern experience can find expression within the conventions of the past.
In a preface to his first published collection of poems in the 1944 anthology Five Young American Poets, Nims laid down some rules for himself. The poem, he insists, is “no mere meringue of sentiment. The emotion it holds is like blood in a man’s body, hot and throbbing throughout, but fastened in tight channels, never seen.” Imagery should be “sudden, true, and daring,” diction “simple and intense,” making use of whatever word best serves the poem, be it “from cathedral service or tavern riot.” As to structure, the poem requires something “Mozartean . . . something stronger and shapelier than the Debussy tinkle and Wagnerian yowl to which the freer forms of poetry incline.” Overseeing the whole delightful, demanding procedure is “a prodding ’Why?’ . . . the poet’s angel.”
The Iron Pastoral
A survey of Nims’s long career reveals these rules consistently at work; and, across all that time, the presence of that same angel of wonder at his side. His first book-length collection proclaimed something of his intentions in its very title, The Iron Pastoral—a dull gleam of a word, suggestive of hardness and of subways, beside a graceful, comfortable word, evocative of ordered wilderness, of forest and field a bit greener than life. The book provides ample introduction to Nims’s skill at ordering contemporary experience within traditional forms. In “Movie,” the neon marquees of movie theaters blink on in iambic pentameter:
Making a stately crossword of the nightNew stars are rising, Gem and Regent. SoonGreat Tivoli takes the heaven, rose and white,Blanching Orion and the dappled moon.
In “Elevated,” commuter trains run “Among the badland brick, the domes of tar,/ The mica prairie wheeling in the sun,” gondolas in a town that “three stories up . . . is Venice,” where “Flowers of the wash in highland vineyards shine.” There is something at first a bit unsettling in hearing heroic quatrains and Alexandrines singing in this context, something a little startling in the final image of “Colt Automatic”: “at the belt a rare and terrible angel.” Once one realizes, however, that William Shakespeare and John Milton would, no doubt, have gotten around to “crossword” and “quarterback,” “fluoroscope” and “Florida,” had they lived on a few centuries more, one can delight in Nims’s rare devices.
Nims also employs the traditional sonnet in The Iron Pastoral, and includes a brief sonnet sequence entitled “Foto-Sonnets.” Once again, Nims’s title earns its keep: “Sonnet” in the verbal “snapshot” of another age, wed to a coy misspelling typical in a city of “ALL-NITE” diners and “WILE-U-WAIT” oil changes. In a skillful blend of Shakespeare, Petrarch, and Nims, these sonnets, like pictures in an album, preserve moments from a summer vacation in New England, mementos of Provincetown, of Cape Cod, and finally, of the return to the city, the tired travelers “wrapped in tatters of salt memory.” There is a density to the poems of The Iron Pastoral, a weight of words that, at times, overburdens the line, squeezing out articles in the bargain. More often than not, though, rereading reveals a richness that, at first reading, the eye might have taken for overindulgence and a careful flexing of the meter that first struck the ear as strain.
A Fountain in Kentucky
In his next book, A Fountain in Kentucky, Nims worked further with the sonnet sequence. The result, “The Masque of Blackness,” is one of his finest and most admired poems. Taking as its controlling metaphor the Shakespearean adage that “all the world’s a stage,” this narrative sequence of ten sonnets deals with the birth, brief life, and death of a child, as experienced by his parents. As the story unfolds, “in very dead of winter:/ A rumor of new breathing by late spring” places the parents in a world suddenly unreal, “since not yet real to the child,” a world in which “Whether they shifted vases, turned a page/ All seemed last-minute touches on a stage.” The child is born to the exultant cry, “Up with the drowsy curtain”; but the exultation is short-lived. This play, for all its glad beginnings, unfolds as tragedy. “One day they learned that sorrow wore old tweed,/ That lounging disaster spoke a soft hello.” The doctors are all polite pessimism; it is their role. The mother must play hers as well, “her tight fingers round a rubber lamb/ She brought to show them all: See he can play.” Perhaps the most poignant sonnet in the sequence is the eighth:
Because someone was gone, they bought a dog,A collie pup, black, orange, flashy white.He gnawed on table legs, troubled the rug;His growls and pokings varied the empty night.
The sadness here is not so much in the new pet’s inadequacy to the task of filling the void left in the bereaved couple’s life, as in their awareness of that inadequacy. What could this creature do “in that house, with that shadow there?/ Oh nothing. They knew that.” By the end of the elegy, they have learned hard lessons about this play, this life, and learned “from many-roped backstage.” They have been no mere observers, however much they may wish they had been no more than that.
Throughout, “The Masque of Blackness” is marked by intensity, quantitative keenness of rhythm, and an effective use of momentum and pause within and between the lines. Like many of Nims’s poems, it is preceded by an epigraph. Nims is accused by some critics of being too scholarly, too literary, in his poems, and this particular epigraph, an unidentified quotation from the opening stage directions of one of Ben Jonson’s...
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