"Nemerov's contribution to our literature--as a gifted writer of fiction and critical prose, but pre-eminently as a poet-- does not seem to me to have received as much celebrity as it deserves. Nemerov's virtues are all in fact unfashionable ones for our time: vivid intelligence, an irreverent sense of humor, a mastery of formal verse, an awareness of mystery" ("Books" 3). Although known primarily as a poet, Howard Nemerov has also distinguished himself as a critic, short story writer, and novelist. With nearly four dozen published works, Howard Nemerov has become one of America's most distinguished men of writing. His subjects range from all parts of the human mind, from war to religion, and death to nature.
Nemerov was born on March 1, 1920, in New York City. Until he moved to Vermont in 1948, New York influenced most of his poems. Nemerov's wealthy and culturally refined parents sent him to Fieldston School. At this private school, Nemerov was an impeccable student and a strong athlete. After graduating in 1937, he went to Harvard, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree. At the start of World War II, Nemerov became attracted to the air force. However, like all poets, this attraction gradually grew into terror at the reality of war ("Nemerov" 249). Nemerov first served as a flying officer with the RAF Coastal Command, attacking German ships over the North Sea. Then in 1944, he was transferred to the Eighth United States Army Air Force, based in Lincolnshire. Later he served in a unit of the Royal Canadian Air Force attached to the United States Air Force. In 1944, he married an English girl, to whom he's still married. After the war, Nemerov and his wife lived in New York for a year. During this time, his first volume of poetry, The Image and the Law, was published. In 1946 he held a position as instructor of English at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York; in 1948 he joined Bennington College in Vermont as a teacher, with which he was associated with until 1966, when he moved to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Nemerov is one of the most productive and proficient writers in the modern era. Nemerov's first book of verse, The Image and the Law, appeared in 1947, followed by The Salt Garden (1955), Mirrors and Windows (1958), New and Selected Poems (1960), The Next Room of the Dream: Poems and Two Plays (1963), Blue Swallows (1967), Gnomes and Occasions (1973), The Western Approaches (1975), and Collected Poems (1977). Besides books of poetry, Nemerov has published three works of fiction (The Melodramatics; Federigo, or, The Power of Love; The Homecoming Game), two collections of short stories (A Commodity of Dreams; Stories, Fables, and Other Diversions), two plays (Cain, Endor), two collections of essays and criticism (Poetry and Fiction: Essays; Reflections on Poetry and Poetics), and "the unclassified literary- psychoanalytical" Journal of the Fictive Life (Donoghue 253). Nemerov has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim in 1968, the Frank O'Hara Memorial Prize in 1971, the National Book Award in 1977, and the famed Pulitzer Prize in 1978. He also edited and introduced poems in the Laurel Poetry Series and is the editor of Poets on Poetry and Poetry and Criticism. In 1965 he was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1966 an associate of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The two main elements in Nemerov's character, poetry and fiction, are reflected in both his life and his work. Nemerov believes that these two elements are opposed and that he must attempt to bring them together. Denis Donoghue states, ". . . this inner division, under constant pressure of Nemerov's poetic discipline and intelligence, accounts for the power of this writer who has become, more than any other contemporary poet, the spokesman for the existential science- oriented . . . , liberal mind of the twentieth century" (250). This deeply divided personality is evident to readers of his poetry and fiction.
In his first published work, The Image and the Law, Nemerov's main theme is death. The title of this book alludes to the two methods humans have a way of looking at things. The first way is realistically through the eye, "image", and the second is imaginatively through the mind, "law" (Donoghue 254). Throughout this book, Nemerov revolves around his realization of death, a realization brought out from years of fighting in World War II. Nemerov writes about the many types of death: "casual, callous, accidental, and inevitable" (Donoghue 254).
Along with death, Nemerov's other main subjects are cities, religion, and wit. Both religion and wit have carried on in his later poetry. With religion, Nemerov has always referred to it directly. Saints and angels are noted throughout his subjects and titles. References to Christ, God, St. Augustine, and Aquinas are frequent. The humor in Nemerov's poetry is also evident. His wit ranges from the outspoken to "the more subtle debunking in "'History of a Literary Movement'" (Nemerov 250). Nemerov once said "the serious and the funny are one" (Nemerov 250). This viewpoint is held in both his poems of wit and of seriousness. Even his poems on death are not always cold and dismal. These poems are frequently marked with irony and wit.
Of all these subjects, religion seems to stand out. Throughout history, man, in fear, has attempted to alter reality into order and theory to define human purpose. Religion models society around its ideas to ensure eternal happiness in heaven, "an escape from the tyrannical fits of nature" (Andrews 126). The human need to understand is depicted in both Nemerov's life and his poems. Nemerov is a Jewish Puritan. In religion, he had an inner conflict, like before with poetry and fiction. As Frederick Andrews put it, Nemerov "felt ambivalent towards his Jewish heritage which, because of his reasoning capabilities, resulted in inner conflict" (126). His "reasoning capabilities" were gained from a privileged upbringing. Throughout history, man, in fear, has attempted to alter reality into order and theory to define human purpose. Religion models society around its ideas to ensure eternal happiness in heaven, "an escape from the tyrannical fits of nature" (Andrews 126). The human need to understand is depicted in many of Nemerov's poems. In the poem "Orphic Scenario," he presents the relationship between order and reality. He uses his knowledge of history to compare religiously historical figures with the current state of man. Nemerov uses literary and religious references to depict order as a man-made concept that has no effect on "the intrinsic passion of reality", leaving man "powerless in the hands of fate" (Andrews 127). The first portion of the poem explores the evil vitality of reality through literary references:
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage
(The World's a stage). And bid the soldiers shoot.
Loud music, drums and guns, the lights go up.
Cheap? Yes, of course it's cheap. Reality
Comes dearer, but reality's much the same
As this dark malodorous box of taken tricks,
Reality's where the hurled light beams and breaks,
Against the solemn wall, a spattered egg,
The seed and food of being. If the seed
And food, spilt open thus, splayed as a blaze
On the blank of limit, focused on the yolk
Resemble the things we think we see and know,
Lips, noses, eyes, the grimaces thereof
Compounded, playing on the fetal night,
That too is enough, if not too much. Order
Is fused of such refuse, eternity
Lusts after the productions of time.
Nemerov contemplates the life of the Shakespearean character, Hamlet, as it relates to humanity. He recalls Fortinbras's last words on lines one and two, "Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage / (The world a stage).", to explain that the struggle Hamlet underwent is the same as the universal questioning of humanity (Andrews 129). Hamlet faces an inner conflict. He must choose between his logical, non-violent nature and his loyalty to his father, which is compelling him to avenge his father's death. Nemerov uses Hamlet to show how humanity, battles with rational thought. Similarly, on line six, Nemerov compares reality to a "dark malodorous box of taken tricks." He is referring to the evil Greek god, Pandora, and her box. Pandora, unable to resist temptation and curiosity, opened a box that released all of the world's vices and troubles. This reference explains that Nemerov feels that reality may disturb order, leaving man dependent on faith. On lines eight and nine, Nemerov writes about a religious reference: "a splattered egg, / The seed and food of being." Today, the egg symbolizes Easter and the resurrection of Christ. Andrews interprets the line as a "metaphor to reveal the importance of reality as it pertains to the interconnectedness of all life, acting as the sustainer, 'the food'" (130). The vital and unmerciful force of reality is what holds life together. Through literary and religious references, Nemerov explains that man attempts to control the course of natural events, but fails because reality acts independently from man. "Orphic Scenario" reveals these efforts. Andrews states, "Nemerov uses his poetry as an outlet for voicing one of his 'chief concerns [which] is that of 'reading' the meaning of the world, of events and phenomena.' (131) The reason behind his malicious is unknown to the reader. Even this poem shows Nemerov's irony. This irony of his poetry "is that the same understanding and questioning that he criticizes, makes his life the lonely confusion that inspires incredible poetry (131). Humanity, like Nemerov, should cope with the reality that: ". . . . Order / Is fused of such refuse, eternity / Lusts after the productions of time" (Lines 20-23)
Andrews, Frederick. Poems of the Modern Era. Detroit: Tristar Publishing, 1972.
"Books by Howard Nemerov." http://www.system.missouri.edu/upress/otherbooks/nemerrea.htm
[email protected] Missouri: University of Missouri Press. 1-20-97. Internet.
Donoghue, Denis, ed. Seven American Poets from MacLeish to Nemerov. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
"Nemerov, Howard." Compton's Encyclopedia. Compton's New Media, Inc., 1996. CD-ROM.
Nemerov, Howard, ed. Poets on Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1966.
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