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One of the most significant American poets of the late twentieth century, Howard Nemerov wrote verse that is noted for its technical excellence, intelligence, and wit. Written in a variety of forms and styles—including lyrical, narrative, satirical, and meditative—his poems are, according to critic Phoebe Pettingell, ”concerned less with the nature of things than with how we perceive them.” Nemerov focuses on the individual consciousness and how it is affected by the external, modern world.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Fighter Pilot and Poet
Nemerov was born in New York City in 1920, the son of well-to-do parents heavily involved in the world of art and culture. Both he and his sister, the photographer Diane Arbus, displayed great artistic talent at an early age and were encouraged by their parents to read and create. Nemerov attended the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldston School, one of the most elite preparatory schools in the country. He was an outstanding student and entered Harvard after graduating in 1937. During his years at the university, his interest in literature deepened and he began to write poems.
After graduating from Harvard in 1941, Nemerov served in World War II as a fighter pilot, first with the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1942 to 1944, and later with the U.S. Army Air Force between 1944 and 1945, where he achieved the rank of first lieutenant. Nemerov’s experiences in combat would often inform his later poetry, which emphasized humanity’s alienation and disillusionment with the modern world. As a pilot, Nemerov was keenly sensitive to the role technology played both in warfare and in the experience of the individual; throughout his long literary career he would frequently describe the anxiety that science and new technology create in society. After the war, he taught war veterans at Hamilton College for two years before taking posts at Bennington College, Brandeis University, the University of Minnesota, and Hollins College. Also, from 1946 to 1951 he served as associate editor for Furioso, developing his skills as a keen witted reviewer of contemporary poetry. He served as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress in 19631964. Between 1964 and his death in 1991, Nemerov was a distinguished professor on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis.
Finding a Modern Voice
Nemerov’s early poems, such as those found in The Salt Garden (1955), were praised, though many critics found them lacking in voice, often academic, and derivative of prominent poets from the earlier half of the century, such as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Not until the publication of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov: 1947-1975 (1977) did the poet receive widespread acclaim and a place in American letters. The volume won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and is generally considered by critics to be one of the most important poetry collections published in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Following the success of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov: 1947-1975, Nemerov was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the National Medal of the Arts. Aside from publishing poems, he continued to teach, lecture, and to contribute literary criticism to journals and periodicals. He also served as poet laureate of the United States from 1988 to 1990. Nemerov died of cancer in 1991 in University City, Missouri. Many of the poems upon which he had been working at the time of his death were published in 1991 in the collection Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991, to wide acclaim.
Works in Literary Context
Because of his detached stance and firm grounding in formal verse, Nemerov has frequently been labeled an academic poet. Yet, his poetry is often marked by humor, the occasional use of slang, and everyday objects and events. Critics have noted that Nemerov’s humor provides a counterbalance to the urbanity and intellectual weight of his poems, making his work difficult to categorize.
Duality of Vision
Nemerov’s work characteristically is based on opposed elements and a duality of vision. As critic F. C. Golfing explains in Poetry, ”Mr. Nemerov tells us that he dichotomizes the poetry of the eye’ and the poetry of the mind,’ and that he attempts to exhibit in his verse the ever-present dispute between two ways of looking at the world.”’ Nemerov’s frequent use of opposing elements also has led reviewers to criticize his work for being derivative of earlier modern poets, such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens.
Alienation and the Modern Age
Throughout his work, Nemerov describes the anxiety modern man feels in the face of a world increasingly affected by technology, warfare, globalization, and mass production. Critic Peter Meinke contends that it is Nemerov’s ”modern awareness of contemporary man’s alienation and fragmentation combined with a breadth of wit” that ”sets Nemerov’s writing apart from other modern writers.” Saturday Review contributor I. L. Salomon has claimed that Nemerov combines a classical, formalist ”instinct for perfection” and unity with a modern ”carelessness in expression.”
The Natural World
Beginning with the collection The Salt Garden, Nemerov’s poetry has shown a growing concern with nature. In 1966 Nemerov wrote in Poets on Poetry of the impact of the natural world on his work: ”During the war and since, I have lived in the country, chiefly in Vermont, and while my relation to the landscape has been contemplative rather than practical, the landscape nevertheless has in large part taken over my poetry.” This interest in the landscape has led many critics to compare Nemerov’s work to that of Robert Frost; Nemerov, like Frost, brought philosophical issues into his poetry, while focusing on the natural world.
Paradox and Irony
Many of Nemerov’s critics have pointed out that his poetry combines a witty, ironic manner and a serious, often pessimistic, philosophy. Writer James Dickey observed the seriousness that underlies Nemerov’s wit. Dickey maintains that although Nemerov is witty, ”the enveloping emotion that arises from his writing is helplessness: the helplessness we all feel in the face of the events of our time, and of life itself.” Julia A. Bartholomay argues that Nemerov’s double view is expressed in his poetry through the use of paradox. The paradoxes reflect the ”divisiveness, fragmentation, complexity, and absurdity of modern existence.”
Works in Critical Context
The Salt Garden
Upon its publication in 1955, Nemerov’s The Salt Garden received recognition and praise but also drew criticism for being derivative. ”The accents of Auden and [John Crowe] Ransom,” observes Louis Untermeyer, ”occasionally twist his utterance into a curious poetic patois.” Similarly, the poet Randall Jarrell states that ”he isn’t, as yet, a very individual poet.” Peter Meinke, too, maintains that Nemerov in his early work is ”writing Eliot, Yeats, and Stevens out of his system.” Yet, at the same time that critics faulted Nemerov for his imitation, they were also impressed by his natural talent as a poet. Jarrell comments that ”as you read The Salt Garden you are impressed with how much the poet has learned, how well he has developed,” while Peter Meinke observes that in this volume ”Nemerov has found his most characteristic voice: a quiet intelligent voice brooding lyrically on the strange beauty and tragic loneliness of life.”
The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov
The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov presented verse from all of the earlier volumes, and its publication in 1977 met with widespread acclaim, winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Phoebe Pettingell notes in the New Leader that the book shows ”a gradual intensifying of a unified perspective,” the poet’s obsession with the theme of ”man’s sometimes tragic, sometimes ludicrous relation to history, death and the universe.” Tom Johnson offers this assessment in the Sewanee Review: ”Nemerov has written more incisively of science and its place in our imaginations than anyone else has yet managed to do. . . . The breadth of accomplishment and depth of insight are one’s most striking impressions.” Robert Shaw recommends Collected Poems to readers whose interest in poetry stems more from curiosity than from experience with the genre. ”Such readers,” Shaw states, ”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.”
Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991
Many reviewers found great value in Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 19(51-1991,published the year of Nemerov’s death. This volume collects many of the poems first published in The Blue Swallows (1967) and The Winter Lightning (1968) and also includes newer, previously unpublished poems that Nemerov wrote close to the time of his death. Sidney Burris, writing in the Southern Review, finds the collection significant because, in addition to containing a dozen new poems, it provides an excellent selection of Nemerov’s previous work, thus functioning as a ”companion volume” that encapsulates the poet’s career. Burris goes on to state that ”his poems aim ultimately to dignify the world of our recognizably common experience.” Several reviewers also saw in the collection the humor and versatility frequently associated with Nemerov. Phoebe Pettingell, in Sewanee Review, notes the poet’s ”mean, satirical wit,” and points out that the title, Trying Conclusions, could be interpreted in many ways, in keeping with Nemerov’s penchant for plays on words.
- Bartholomay, Julia A. The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972.
- Dickey, James. Babel to Byzantium: Poets & Poetry Now. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.
- Meinke, Peter. Howard Nemerov. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
- Burris, Sidney. ”A Sort of Memoir, A Sort of Review.” Southern Review 28 (Winter 1992): 184-201.
- Johnson, Tom. ”Ideas and Order.” Sewanee Review 86 (Summer 1978): 445-453.
- Pettingell, Phoebe. ”Knowledge Turning into Dream: Recollections of Howard Nemerov.” Sewanee Review 100, no. 4 (1992): 706-715.
- Shaw, Robert B. ”Making Some Mind of What Was Only Sense.” Nation 226 (February 25, 1968): 213-215.
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