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A Virtuoso Versifier

ISSUE:  Spring 1978
The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. Chicago. $20.00.

Howard Nemerov is surely one of the most accomplished and distinguished poets of his generation. Sceptical, erudite, speculative, he has a broad range and highly polished craft, writing mostly in iambics and in a low-key, discursive tone. Nemerov writes disarmingly simple poems, often beginning with an unpromising topic—something as mundane as pockets, hats, elevators, storm windows, the dial tone, gingko leaves—and spirals it into meditations which may involve the four dimensions of the universe. His forte is terse quips, neat, surprising-but-just phrases, and especially paradox, that much-observed favorite of the metaphysical poets.

Of the nine collections, the first three, The Image and the Law, Guide to the Ruins, and The Salt Garden are dense, ponderous, and marred by stiff posturing and awkward, tangled syntax. They focus largely on war, death, decay, the ruins of a postwar world. His ingenuity and wit are not yet well-integrated; there is little of the clarity and simplicity achieved in later work, though he begins the many fine poems based on classical, Biblical, or mythic motifs. Formal and conventional in tone, meter, and attitude, the mood is usually dry scepticism; there is, however, also a slowly growing sense of the proper weight to give his symbols, as in the much-anthologized “Goose Fish.” Mirrors and Windows is more skillful and sophisticated: several notable pieces in this collection include “Storm Windows” and “Statues in the Public Gardens.” He comments on all the arts, establishing himself as an academic poet.

New Poems attains elegance, dexterity of language, sharp wit, and more warmth of feeling though still urbane and pedantic. Rhetoric becomes his most effective instrument; he is equally at ease with epigram, narrative, meditation, lyric. His style has solidified, turning to ever more abstract and esthetic themes, as in “Runes:” “That is my theme, of thought and the defeat / Of thought before its object . . .” His favorite ploy is to combine the most disparate ideas as in “Angel and Stone,” with the result that some comparisons are too strained, as if the poet is content merely to display the elasticity of his intellect.

The Next Room of the Dream is one of his strongest collections; moving, lucid, graceful. Poems containing vivid imagery and a wonderful comprehension of myth appear side by side with epigrams and satirical or protest verse, the latter less successful. In this volume also are two verse dramas, “Endor” and “Cain,” Biblical interpretations of compelling energy and integrity, both concerned with the lonely, perverse power of the will, Nemerov is perfectly at home with Old Testament themes and gives them new meaning and impact.

As an example of Nemerov’s lyric power in this book—an attribute which is sometimes overlooked—a poem entitled “De Anima” presents a timeless paradigm of romance: a girl brooding in a high room, seeing her reflected image in the window, and a young man watching from the cold and dark below, both helplessly desiring. Moving to an objective observer’s meditation on romantic love as it exists in tradition, the poem keeps in play both possibilities of anima as soul and as animal spirit. The language is tender, poignant, capturing the essential problem inherent in romance and ending with the adroit description of Cupid as “the blind embryo with his bow of bees, / His candied arrows tipped with flower heads / Refusing to be, refusing to die.”

Nemerov also is capable of parodying his own style in pieces such as “On the Threshold of His Greatness, the Poet Comes Down with a Sore Throat,” which includes pretentious scholarly notes and such quips as “Those days, I burned with a hard, gem-like phlegm.”

The Blue Swallows explores the bewilderment of a sober, urbane philosopher, seeing man as confused and over-whelmed from without and within. Clearly Nemerov is fascinated with Einstein’s universe, but also with the awesome power of language, as in “The Creation of Anguish,” and in the title poem, containing the lines “Thus helplessly the mind in its brain / Weaves up relations’ spindrift web . . .” The poems have a calm surface, clarity, and with irony rather than passion, a delicate blend of ironic wit and serious melancholy.

Gnomes & Occasions attempts to deal with contemporary problems in concise, biting epigrams, ranging from neat and whimsical to too cute or on the verge of cliché The cynicism is strident, the humor scathing at times, as he reports gloomily on the state of his generation, seeing man as thoughtless consumer, monster, fool. Nemerov is a great lover of puns, sometimes stretching them beyond their limits with a kind of perverse schoolboy impudence. The epigrams go from the ridiculous to the sublime and back, linking the minuscule with the majestic. The best poems in this collection are those on art, music, and the natural world. In two, he shows a strong affinity for Brueghel, and in “The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar’s House,” he meditates on the relation between language, world, and vision, though it seems rather the scholar-poet dreaming in the painter’s house.”September, the First Day of School” is another fine exception to the epigrammatic tone of the book—a wise, tender reflection of a father leaving his young son at school.

The Western Approaches, perhaps Nemerov’s finest book, is quieter, more generous and compassionate than Gnomes & Occasions, which is soured by snarls and icy putdowns. In this final volume he reaffirms previous attitudes, brooding on patterns in earth—weather, growth, decay—and in art. The observations are solemn, stately, witty, but also humble, acknowledging his debts, as expressed in “Figures of Thought:”

. . . how privileged
One feels to find the same necessity
Ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise

Without kinship—that is the beautiful
In Nature as in art, not obvious,
Not inaccessible, but just between.

Landscape, seasonal change never cease to inspire him; he preserves nature’s mystery even while cataloging and analyzing it in “Learning the Trees,” and he finds haunting omens in the sudden fall of leaves: “What use to learn the lessons taught by time, / If a star at any time may tell us: now.” (“The Consent”).

From volume to volume Nemerov turns more from the world to study the image of his own art; his ideal seems to be pure abstraction, the mind contemplating its own motions; a state he locates in poems on visual art, nature, and especially music.”Playing the Inventions” celebrates music for its non-representational aspect; kin to the mind reflecting only on itself:

And only being uninformative
Will be the highest reach of wisdom known
In the perfect courtesy of music, where
The question answers only to itself
And the completed round excludes the world.

Orderly, symmetrical, Bach’s compositions lift him to his greatest heights of rhetoric: “Still the moment of this music is / Whether in merry or in melancholy mode, / A happiness implacable and austere.” And he ends on a humble note: “Dear Bach, It’s a great privilege./ It always is.” Nemerov seems to set the other arts above poetry, perhaps suggesting a basic mistrust of words, as language is so capable of ambiguity—the very doubleness the poet delights in and exploits.

As usual, in this collection he finds emblems everywhere, as in “Gyroscope,” “Playing Skittles,” even daylight-saving time. We are constantly struck by Nemerov’s odd perspectives, strange angles of perception, unexpected twists of thought—always surprising in idea, though seldom in form.

The prose poems here draw out his analogies to a tiresome degree, lapsing into a dry academic voice, getting too carried away with technological data. And there are some playful little allegories with grim undertones for which the reader can admit only grudging admiration, such as the poems on American culture, for example “Watching Football on TV”—a depressing picture of middle-class spectators. Since a pedantic voice and cynical stance seem to be his only response to politics, gadgets, and current preoccupations, one almost wishes he would dispense with these topics altogether.

One of the most compact, forceful poems, “Einstein & Freud & Jack” puts down science, even knowledge of any kind, in strong terms, ending with the lines,

Of making many books there is no end,
And like it saith in the book before that one,
What God wants, don’t you forget it, Jack
Is your contrite spirit, Jack, your broken heart.

“The Western Approaches” is another of the best, reflecting on man’s absurd destiny, the conclusion haunting:

How a long life grows ghostly towards the close
As any man dissolves in Everyman
Of whom the story, as it always did, begins
In a far country, once upon a time,
There lived a certain man and he had three sons . . . .

Nemerov handles tragedy and comedy with equal ease, and his poems range from the expansive to the tightly compressed. Critics have accused him of too much ironic detachment, an unwillingness to commit himself, a too-professorial or too-flippant tone. What we do grow tired of is formal trifles, incongruous mixtures of colloquial and urbane language, or a style too dominated by convention. These drawbacks are greatly outweighed by his intellectual virtuosity and dazzling mental gymnastics which constantly explore the intricacies of the mind, in measured, restrained verse.


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