As John Frederick Nims acknowledges in his preface to this book, meter is as natural to verse as feet are to many of nature’s creatures, including man. From 1944 to 1967, the period covered in his Selected Poems, Nims has followed this premise, and for the most part used rhyme, assonance, and consonance as major techniques in his prosody, and often a complex, if not forced, syntax. Where much of today’s poetry favors idiom and informality, Nims aims to be cultivated and formal, taking pride in classical allusions and intellectual finesse. He does not abandon this overall tone when his subjects are personal, and when they are not, he focuses on those aspects of them which have an enduring interest. Thus, his poems are mostly about love, death, and man’s relationship to nature.
Nims’s selections from the anthology Five Young American Poets: Third Series (1944) concentrate on the darker features of desire as the poet sees them in a period close to the Depression and plunged in war. Power and sex are degraded into mindless games in “Penny Arcade,” where the players trade responsibility for illusion, and in “Magazine Stand,” the magazines offer cheap, sentimentalized versions of human longing. “Madrigal in Time of War” and “Parting: 1940” dwell on the sorrow of the separation imposed on lovers, which leads Nims to infer that death is part of this process, saying, “The blood flows one imposed way, and no other.”
The parts that man and nature play opposite each other, often with death as their common ground, are the focus of the poems from Nims’s collection The Iron Pastoral (1947). “Swords in the ankle of the victim tree” (“Christmas Tree”) point to the irony of man killing an object in nature to celebrate one of his myths of life—an irony complicated by the death in war of a soldier who is one of the people for whom the celebration is being staged. Nature, however, has always brought death to man in the guise of accidents, as “Airport: In Fog” shows, while on the other hand, “in a lucid interval sobering here,” it produced him (“Midwest”). Nature, which is harsh and makes “Schooners go down among the summer islands” (“Foto-Sonnets”), also allows man to soften and shrink it to the size of postcards and souvenirs, to pretend it is static rather than dynamic.
In the framework of sexual love, Nims pairs nature and death in A Fountain in Kentucky and Other Poems (1950). The sonnet sequence “The Masque of Blackness” shows how love causes perception to romanticize nature: “Moons (a trick of tears) are bobbing in tens;/ Each star is twenty stars! What a wild lens!” The baby born to the lovers perceives objects with a similar wonder as he “Goggles for days at his elate right hand,” but the baby dies, proving the insubstantiality of love’s view of things and of those things themselves, which are “irrelevance and flummery.” The dog that the lovers adopt to console themselves becomes an image of nature’s inability to console them, of its thoughtlessness, and of the kindlier truth that vitality for its own sake is good (“Dance Dance was all the answer”). In a darker mood, nature is downright unsympathetic to the lovers’ grief, which tries to personify it with bright memories: “The clouds’ scrawl,” Nims asserts, “Means no if it means anything at all.”
In the same group of poems, before he ends it with an analysis of the forms of death (often through images borrowed from nature), Nims explores one of his favorite general themes—how man romanticizes nature. Some aspects of nature support this human habit; the “Breath of dawn, that corroborates all fable ,” is a time in nature when human dreams create “a joy that is not quite lost all day” (“City Dawn”). Sometimes nature will allow man to personify it happily, as in “The Indolent Day,” where the voice plays “Variations in the key of rain,” but at other times, it allows man to make a frightening distortion...
(The entire section is 1,585 words.)