In honor of the ninetieth anniversary of his birth tomorrow, I offer this appreciation of Howard Nemerov, which was originally published in Commentary in November 1991, shortly after his death.
During a fifty-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 Sciences. For a year he was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and for two more years he was the nation’s Poet Laureate. Nemerov’s career was proof (if proof were needed) of the deference shown to poetry by the culture at large. His career is also a reminder, however, of the way in which such public recognition has all but replaced the actual reading of poetry. It suggests that the prizes and academies and laureateships—an institutionalized belief in poetry—may stand only as monuments to the passing of an art.
If so, Nemerov may also turn out to have been a prophet of its decline. The progress of all human experience, he implies in many of his poems, is from exploration and delight in the conditions of sheer activity to a hemmed-in, by-the-clock, practical concern. A fighter pilot in World War II, he saw this progress of experience in the history of human flight:
Forbidden. Heavy, powerful, and solemn,
Our scheduled transports keep the straight and level.
It’s not the joystick now, but the control column.
By the logic of irony, Nemerov’s own career conformed to the very pattern that dismayed him. Except for the war years, it passed entirely within the central institution of modern poetry, the English departments of American universities. Born in New York in 1920, Nemerov graduated in 1941 from Harvard, where he won the Bowdoin Prize for an essay on Thomas Mann. (Mann himself approvingly cited it in an afterword to a paperback edition of The Magic Mountain.) After the war, without ever intending to, Nemerov found himself committed to the academic life. He wandered into a job at Hamilton College, teaching literature to ex-GI’s no younger than he: “Teacher and pupils were of an age, about twenty-six, and generally either friends or friendly, if only on the ground of deep and base suspicions of what we had got ourselves into.”
Despite the suspicions, Nemerov stuck with it. Two years at Hamilton were followed by a decade at Bennington (where he taught alongside the critics Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman and the novelist Bernard Malamud, among others); then a brief hitch at Brandeis preceded his appointment in 1969 to the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, where he stayed on, eventually being elevated to an endowed chair.
Perhaps what redeemed Nemerov himself from the technological curse was his conviction that the teaching and making of poems were in truth two forms of the same activity. As he wrote about the painter Paul Klee:
Prayer the study of it, as Blake says,
And praise the practice; nor does he divide
Making from teaching, or from theory.
The three are one. . . .
Trying Conclusions (1991) is the fourteenth book of poems in a career that started with The Image and the Law (1947), although the selections from his work begin in the present volume with The Next Room of the Dream (1962). The Howard Nemerov Reader also contains ten poems from the earlier volumes. Together these two books are a convenient introduction to his body of writing.
Nemerov may be at his most characteristic in brief poems in which he wonders about the things of this world which are least wondered about: waiting rooms (aren’t the rooms in which we spend most of our lives the real waiting rooms, in which we wait for death?); people driving fast cars (do they realize that they themselves are sitting still?); pockets (what sense does it make to speak of a hole in a pocket? what is a pocket but a hole?); and the fall of leaves (at what signal?). When he writes autobiographically, as contemporary poets often do, he tends to write about his sons, his students, his colleagues, or his friends. In propria persona he rarely appears, and then only as someone out taking a walk, meditating perhaps on the scene. In his last poems he returns to the war or, carrying out the duties of a poet laureate, pens an ode to the U.S. Congress.
Nemerov’s poems range from four-line epigrams to leisurely essays in verse, and are normally written in decasyllabic blank verse, although he was hardly strict about it. He wrote a great deal, perhaps too much; he never shied away from trying something new, experimenting with forms and subjects; the aim was to keep writing, writing to the end. For him, perfection of the life was in the work.
It should not be surprising, then, that although Nemerov is at his most characteristic in his short poems, he is at his strongest in the longer essayistic ones in which he speculates on the theme of art. At their best, these poems are not so much well-made as they are ruminating and discursive; not so much astonishing as engaging. Although they tend to lack what Nemerov himself valued most in poetry—“the quality of decisiveness and finish, of absolute completion to which nothing need be added nor could be added”—they compensate with a quality no less essential to human conversation: the will to continue thinking. The loss is finish; the gain (now and again) is wisdom.
Nemerov wrote several of these poems to express his response to another artist: Vermeer, Frost, Brueghel, Bach and Casals, Philip Larkin. Even his moving epitaph “To D___, Dead by Her Own Hand” provokes deeper reflection when one realizes that it is about Nemerov’s younger sister Diane Arbus, the photographer who committed suicide in 1971.
When he himself died on July 5, 1991, at the age of seventy-one, Howard Nemerov took his place near the end of a line of writers for whom literature was not only a sacred calling but all-important and perhaps all-sufficient. His ideas, his activities, were almost purely literary—when he was not writing poetry, he was writing criticism or fiction. (Only about 10 percent of A Howard Nemerov Reader is given over to the poetry. The remainder is made up of eight stories, fifteen essays, and a novel, complete and unabridged.) Few literary figures at any time have been so bent upon unifying the diffuse activities of literature into a single career. Today, when the activities of literature are divided up among specialists, the type is rarer still. It is difficult to imagine a young man, an ex-fighter pilot who wishes to make a mark in the world, choosing today to devote himself to a purely literary career.
And so it may happen that Howard Nemerov will come to be remembered more as a historical curiosity, as the end of a line, than as a poet. That would be a pity. “[N]ow on your turning page,” he wrote for Robert Frost, “the lines blaze with a constant light. . . .” Nemerov's lines do not always blaze, but their light is steady and bright enough to see by.