Nemerov, Howard 1920–1991

views updated

Nemerov, Howard 1920–1991

(Howard Stanley Nemerov)

PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1920, in New York, NY; died of cancer of the esophagus, July 5, 1991, in University City, MO; son of David and Gertrude (Russek) Nemerov; married Margaret Russell, January 26, 1944; children: David, Alexander Michael, Jeremy Seth. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1941.

CAREER: Hamilton College, Clinton, NY, instructor, 1946–48; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, member of faculty in literature, 1948–66; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, professor of English, 1966–69; Washington University, St. Louis, MO, visiting Hurst Professor of English, 1969–70, professor of English, 1970–76, Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English, 1976–90. Visiting lecturer in English, University of Minnesota, 1958–59; writer-in-residence, Hollins College, 1962–64; consultant in poetry, Library of Congress, 1963–64; chancellor, American Academy of Poets, beginning 1976. Military service: Royal Canadian Air Force, 1942–44; became flying officer; U.S. Army Air Forces, 1944–45; became first lieutenant.

AWARDS, HONORS: Bowdoin Prize, Harvard University, 1940; Kenyon Review fellowship in fiction, 1955; Oscar Blumenthal Prize, 1958, Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, 1959, Frank O'Hara Memorial Prize, 1971, Levinson Prize, 1975, all from Poetry magazine; second prize, Virginia Quarterly Review short story competition, 1958; National Institute of Arts and Letters Grant, 1961; Golden Rose Trophy, New England Poetry Club, 1962; Brandeis Creative Arts Award, 1963; D.L., Lawrence University, 1964, and Tufts University, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966–67; First Theodore Roethke Memorial Award, 1968, for The Blue Swallows; St. Botolph's Club (Boston) Prize for Poetry, 1968; Guggenheim fellow, 1968–69; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1970; O'Hara Prize, 1971; Pulitzer Prize and National Book award, 1978, and Bollingen Prize, Yale University, 1981, all for The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov; National Book Award, Translation, 1978, for In the Deserts of This Earth; Aiken Taylor Award for Modern Poetry, Sewanee Review and University of the South, 1987; National Medal of the Arts, 1987, for promoting "excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States"; poet laureate of the United States, 1988–90; honorary degree from Washington and Lee University.


The Melodramatists (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1949.

Federigo; or, The Power of Love (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1954.

The Homecoming Game (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1957.

A Commodity of Dreams and Other Stories, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1959.

(Editor and author of introduction) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Selected Poetry, Dell (New York, NY), 1959.

Poetry and Fiction: Essays, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1963.

Journal of the Fictive Life (autobiography), Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1965, with a new preface, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1981.

(Editor and contributor) Poets on Poetry, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1965.

(Editor) Marianne Moore, Poetry and Criticism, Adams House & Lowell House Printers, 1965.

Stories, Fables, and Other Diversions, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1971.

Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1972.

Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry and Other Essays, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1978.

New and Selected Essays, with foreword by Kenneth Burke, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1985.

The Oak in the Acorn: On Remembrance of Things Past and on Teaching Proust, Who Will Never Learn, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1987.

A Howard Nemerov Reader, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1991.

Contributor to books, including: Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn, editors, Five American Poets, Faber (London, England), 1963; Sheldon Norman Grebstein, editor, Perspectives in Contemporary Criticism, Harper (New York, NY), 1968; A. Cheuse and R. Koffler, editors, The Rarer Action: Essays in Honor of Francis Fergusson, Rutgers University Press, 1971; Shirley Sugarman, editor, Evolution of Consciousness: Studies in Polarity, Wesleyan University Press, 1976; and Arthur Edelstein, editor, Images and Ideas in American Culture: The Functions of Criticism, Essays in Memory of Philip Rahv, Brandeis University Press, 1979. Contributor of essays, articles and reviews to literary journals, includ-ing Hudson Review, Poetry, Atlantic, Partisan Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Contributor of short fiction to Harvard Advocate, Story, Esquire, Carleton Miscellany, Reporter, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Associate editor of Furioso, 1946–51.


The Image and the Law, Holt (New York, NY), 1947.

Guide to the Ruins, Random House (New York, NY), 1950.

The Salt Garden, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1955.

Small Moment, Ward Ritchie Press, 1957.

Mirrors and Windows, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1958.

New and Selected Poems, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1960.

Endor: Drama in One Act (verse play; also see below), Abingdon (Nashville, TN), 1961.

The Next Room of the Dream: Poems and Two Plays (includes plays "Endor" and "Cain"), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1962.

The Blue Swallows, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1967.

A Sequence of Seven with a Drawing by Ron Slaughter, Tinker Press, 1967.

The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems, Rapp & Whiting, 1968.

The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House (limited edition), Phoenix Book Shop (New York, NY), 1968.

Gnomes and Occasions, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1973.

The Western Approaches: Poems, 1973–75, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1975.

The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1977.

Sentences, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1980.

Inside the Onion, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1984.

Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961–1991, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.

The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov, Swallow Press (Athens, OH), 2003.

Also author of War Stories: Poems about Long Ago and Now, 1987. Contributor of poems to numerous periodicals, including Harvard Advocate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, New Yorker, Nation and Polemic.


The Poetry of Howard Nemerov (two audio cassettes), Jeffrey Norton, 1962.

Howard Nemerov, 2 volumes, Tapes for Readers, 1978, 1979.

(Contributor of introduction) Surly Verses for the Holidays: From D.H. Lawrence to e. e. cummings and Far Beyond, read by Reed Whittemore, Library of Congress, 1989.

Science and Stories: A Lecture, Library of Congress, 1989.

Language, Nonsense, and Poetry, Library of Congress, 1989.

Prosser Gifford Interviews Howard Nemerov, Library of Congress, 1990.

The Poet and the Poem, Library of Congress, 1990.

Howard Nemerov Reading from His Work, Library of Congress, 1990.

ADAPTATIONS: The Homecoming Game was adapted for film as Tall Story, Warner Bros., 1959. "The Junction on a Warm Afternoon" was set to music by William Bolcom, E.B. Marks, 1990.

SIDELIGHTS: Howard Nemerov was a highly acclaimed poet often cited for the range of his capabilities and subject matter, "from the profound to the poignant to the comic," James Billington remarked in his frequently quoted announcement of Nemerov's appointment to the post of United States poet laureate. A distinguished professor at Washington University in St. Louis from 1969 to 1990, Nemerov wrote poetry and fiction that manages to engage the reader's mind without becoming academic, many reviewers reported. Though his works show a consistent emphasis on thought—the process of thinking and ideas themselves—his poems relate a broad spectrum of emotion and a variety of concerns. Writing in the study Howard Nemerov, Peter Meinke stated that these contrasting qualities are due to Nemerov's "deeply divided personality." Meinke pointed out that Nemerov himself spoke of a duality in his nature; in the Journal of the Fictive Life the poet was quoted as noting that "it has seemed to me that I must attempt to bring together the opposed elements of my character represented by poetry and fiction." Commented Meinke, "These 'opposed elements' in Howard Nemerov's character are reflected in his life and work: in the tensions between his romantic and realistic visions, his belief and unbelief, his heart and mind." If Nemerov harbored impulses toward both poetry and fiction, he expressed them as opposites suspended in balanced co-existence rather than dissonance. A direct expression of this equilibrium is his poem "Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry."

The Harvard graduate's first book of poems, The Image and the Law, characteristically is based on opposed elements, on a duality of vision. Some reviewers have found that this dichotomy leads to a lack of coherence in the verse. New York Times Book Review writer Milton Crane, for example, felt that the poems "unfortunately show no unity of conception such as their author attributes to them." The book was also criticized for being derivative of earlier modern poets such as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. However, Meinke contended that it is Nemerov's "modern awareness of contemporary man's alienation and fragmentation combined with a breadth of wit in the eighteenth century sense of the word" which "sets Nemerov's writing apart from other modern writers."

Like Image and the Law and Guide to the Ruins, The Salt Garden, when published, drew criticism for being derivative. Years later, when asked if his work had changed in character or style, Nemerov replied in Poets on Poetry, "In style,… for I began and for a long time remained imitative, and poems in my first books … show more than traces of admired modern masters—Eliot, Auden, Stevens, [E. E.] Cummings, Yeats." Meinke, too, maintained that Nemerov in his early work was "writing Eliot, Yeats, and Stevens out of his system." Yet at the same time that some critics faulted Nemerov for his imitation, they were impressed by his growth as a poet.

The Salt Garden, many critics felt, marks the beginning of other changes in Nemerov's work, as well. Meinke observed 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." In a review of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov included in The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov, Willard Spiegelman, like Meinke, discovered in the poems from The Salt Garden "Nemerov's characteristic manner and tone." Spiegelman still found opposed elements, but in balance; he described Nemerov's manner as "genuinely Horatian according to Auden's marvelous definition of looking at 'this world with a happy eye / but from a sober perspective.' Nemerov's aurea mediocritas [golden mean] sails between philosophical skepticism … and social satire on one side, and, on the other, an open-eyed, child-like appreciation of the world's miracles."

Another change that began with The Salt Garden and continued in Mirrors and Windows, The Next Room of the Dream, and The Blue Swallows was Nemerov's growing concern with nature. He 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 some poets to find echos of the poetry of Robert Frost. The comparison to Frost is also made on the grounds that Nemerov, like Frost, brought philosophical issues into his poetry. As he said in Poets on Poetry, he was not so much an observer of nature as its medium, bringing into speech "an unknowably large part of a material world whose independent existence might be likened to that of the human unconscious, a sleep of causes, a chaos of the possible-impossible." Phrasing it differently in the poem "A Spell before Winter," Nemerov wrote, "And I speak to you now with the land's voice, / It is the cold, wild land that says to you / A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things: / The old hills hunch before the north wind blows."

A feature of the poems more frequently pointed out by critics is a witty, ironic manner and a serious, perhaps pessimistic, philosophy. Not all critics applauded the tragic irony that can be found in Nemerov's poetry. New York Times critic Thomas Lask believed that in The Blue Swallows the poet's irony has turned bitter, expressing "loathing and contempt for man and his work." In contrast to both these views, Laurence Lie-berman, writing in the Yale Review, felt that "Nemerov has perfected the poem as an instrument for exercising brilliance of wit. Searching, discursive, clear-sighted, he has learned to make the poem serve his relaxed manner and humane insights so expertly, I can only admire the clean purposefulness of his statements, his thoughtful care, the measure and grace of his lines."

However strong his ironic voice, Nemerov mellowed with age, according to many reviewers. Meinke claimed that "Nemerov has progressed steadily in his poetry to a broader, more tolerant view, less bitter and more sad." Similarly, Spiegelman observed: "Nemerov, growing old, becomes younger as he adopts the manner of an ancient sage. Cynicism barely touches his voice; the occasional sardonic moments are offset by feeling and sympathy…. In the 40's and 50's Nemerov was rabbinically fixated on sin and redemption. What was, early on, a source of prophetic despair …, becomes in the poems of his middle age the cause of poetic variety and energy, metaphysical delight, and emotional equilibrium." And in her Part of Nature, Part of Us, Helen Vendler discerned in a critique of Collected Poems that as "the echoes of the grand maitres fade, the poems get steadily better. The severity of attitude is itself chastened by a growing humanity, and the forms of the earth grow ever more distinct."

Gnomes and Occasions indulged Nemerov's penchant for short, aphoristic verses in which the images carry the burden of persuasion. In these "gnomes," Nemerov achieves a "Biblical resonance," said Kenneth Burke in his introduction to Nemerov's early poems, which rank with the best postwar American poetry. More than one critic has referred to Nemerov's writings as wisdom literature. For example, Vendler reported in Part of Nature, Part of Us that Nemerov's "mind plays with epigram, gnome, riddle, rune, advice, meditation, notes, dialectic, prophecy, reflection, views, knowledge, questions, speculation—all the forms of thought. His wishes go homing to origins and ends." Scholars have linked this stylistic tendency to the poet's Jewish heritage. Meinke described the early Nemerov as a "nonpracticing Jew engaged in a continual dialogue with Christianity … testing its relevance in the modern world." In addition to the influence of Dante and St. Augustine, that of W.B. Yeats left its mark on the poems, said Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Robert W. Hill, "not so much in form or style as in subject matter and in a decidedly religious quality of the language." For instance, one of Nemerov's definitions of poetry given in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Skylark" stated: "In the highest range the theory of poetry would be the theory of the Incarnation, which seeks to explain how the Word became Flesh."

Nemerov, however, did not reconstruct the world with imagination as other poets have done. Explained Hill, "While Yeats went about his way inventing new religion and culling the cabala for hints and signs, Nemerov's poems show him to be a critic of the secularizers: coming from the Jewish tradition, his sense of the decline of religion is not so easily pacified by new contrivances as Yeats's was. But the connections Nemerov feels with the seers of the past are clearly modern, clearly attached with the threads of the naturalistic modes, the beliefs in touchable things rather than in the untouchable." Thus Nemerov used acts of the imagination not to alter the world but to make it known. To the extent that this process is magical, "Our proper magic is the magic of language," claimed the poet.

Poetry as a link between the material and spiritual worlds emerged as the theme of Sentences. In this volume, Nemerov achieved thematic coherence by organizing the poems into three sections, "Beneath," "Above," and "Beyond." Bonnie Costello, writing in Parnassus, related that the sections "mark off, respectively, poems of low diction and subject (our social sphere of sex and power), poems of higher diction and subject (metaphysics and poetry), and those of middle diction and subject (our origin and fate)." Critics approved the last two sections more than the first, which they claimed was beneath the level of quality they had come to expect from Nemerov. The section castigated the purveyors of low artistic, social and political values, related Ronald Baughman in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1983: "The reviewers damn the writer for accomplishing the goal which he has set for himself—the portrayal of man acting beneath dignity." Looking over the entire book, Baughman offered, "Sentences contains a wide range of poems, extending from the mocking, bitter verse of section one to the interesting but restrained appraisals of section two to the deeply moving contemplations of section three. The volume's theme—the order art gives to the randomness of life—develops with this movement from beginning to end. Nemerov's title is reminiscent of Stephen Spender's poem 'Subject: Object: Sentence,' in which Spender states, 'A sentence is condemned to stay as stated—/As in life-sentence, death-sentence,' for example. As Howard Nemerov dramatizes his life and death sentences, he reveals his attempts to connect, through the power of his art, with the world below, nature above, and the spirit beyond."

The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov gathers verse from all of the earlier volumes and its publication in 1977 spurred a re-evaluation of Nemerov's work. Phoebe Pettingell noted 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."

Several reviewers also found much of value in Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961–1991, published the year of Nemerov's death. Sidney Burris, writing in the Southern Review, found the collection significant because, in addition to containing a dozen new poems, it provided an excellent selection of Nemerov's work beginning with The Next Room of the Dream, with Collected Poems containing much of the poet's earlier output and therefore functioning as a "companion volume." Burris went on, "The poetry selected for Trying Conclusions issues from what Nemerov continually described as a simple respect for an audience who has—or at least ought to have, he always added—more pressing things to do than read his poems…. The deepest wish of Nemerov's poetry, particularly of the poems gathered together in Trying Conclusions, is that his poems aim ultimately to dignify the world of our recognizably common experience." Pettingell, in the New Leader, noted the poet's "mean, satirical wit," and pointed out that the title, Trying Conclusions, could be interpreted in many ways, in keeping with the poet's penchant for plays on words. Myers commented that Nemerov "never shied away from trying something new, experimenting with forms and subjects."

Nemerov's prose has also been commended, especially for displaying an irony and wit similar to that of his poems. His novels, as Meinke remarked, "like his poems,… are basically pessimistic. The condition of man is not an enviable one: we act foolishly and understand imperfectly. Nemerov's dark viewpoint, which in his poetry is redeemed by beauty,… in his fiction is redeemed by humor." Meinke termed The Melodramatists "a highly successful first novel," and in the Nation Diana Trilling seconded him, commenting that after a slow start, it is "a considerable first novel—literate and entertaining, with a nice satiric barb." Federigo; or, The Power of Love and The Homecoming Game were also well received, Atlantic Monthly reviewer C.J. Rolo noting that the latter novel has "wit, dash, and point." Through the characters in these novels, Nemerov explores "the consequences of the overactive imagination," wrote Carl Rapp in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Characters with romantic expectations of finding meaningful action and self-realization amid the social pressures of their times instead realize that they are the victims of their own fantasies. Thus, the novels, like the poetry, comment on the relationship between imagination and reality.

Nemerov published his last novel, The Homecoming Game—about a professor who discovers his limits when faced with opposing groups on campus—in 1957. Rapp suggested, "Nemerov has perhaps come to feel that the novelist himself, with his own incorrigible tendency to fantasize melodramatic scenes and situations, presents a spectacle as ridiculous as that of his own characters. In [later] … poems such as 'Novelists' and 'Reflexions of a Novelist,' he observes that it is, of course, the novelist who is preeminently the man with the overactive imagination, the egomaniac." Nemerov once told Robert Boyers in a Salmagundi interview that he left off being a novelist when Bennington College chose to retain him as its poet and hired Bernard Malamud to be its novelist.

Though through with the novel form, Nemerov continued to work with prose in short stories and literary criticism. Like his poetry and fiction, his essays won him the respect of many well-known writers and critics. To Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry and Other Essays, Benjamin DeMott responded in the New York Times: "Taken as a whole … these 'speculations' are uncommonly stimulating and persuasive…. [This book] communicates throughout a vivid sense of the possibility of a richer kind of knowing in all areas than we're in the process of settling for…. Like the high art it salutes, it hums with the life of things."

New and Selected Essays, a collection of essays spanning thirty years of Nemerov's criticism, was published in 1985, and prompted critics to give serious attention to the author's prose works. Another collection of Nemerov's essays and works of fiction, along with a smattering of poems, was published in 1991 as A Howard Nemerov Reader. Southern Review contributor Sidney Burris found the latter volume important chiefly because of its reprint of Federigo; or, The Power of Love, as the rest of its contents could be found in other collections; he added, however, that the book serves as a testament to Nemerov's ability "to provide poetry, criticism, and fiction, all of an extraordinarily high degree of sophistication." Doug Anderson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said the book would be valuable to those who know Nemerov only as a poet, as "his fiction … allows him a much wider emotional and imaginative range than do his poems, and his essays … reveal Mr. Nemerov as brilliantly incisive, if occasionally curmudgeonly." And in Poetry, Robert B. Shaw pronounced, "This volume amply serves its purpose as an introduction to the spectrum of Nemerov's writing in its several forms."

Nemerov's books brought him many major awards for poetry, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, and the Bollingen Prize in 1981, all for The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov.



Bartholomay, Julia, The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov, University of Florida Press (Gainesville, FL), 1972.

Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, First Series, 1967, Volume 6: American Poets since World War II, Second Series, 1980.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Duncan, Bowie, editor, The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov: A Selection of Essays and a Bibliography, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1971.

Labrie, Ross, Howard Nemerov, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1980.

Meinke, Peter, Howard Nemerov, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1968.

Mills, William, The Stillness in Moving Things: The World of Howard Nemerov, Memphis State University Press (Memphis, TN), 1975.

Potts, Donna L., Howard Nemerov and Objective Idealism, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1994.

Vendler, Helen, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1980.


American Poetry Review, May-June, 1975, pp. 4-9.

Atlantic Monthly, June, 1957.

Book World, December 24, 1967, p. 6.

Carleton Miscellany, summer, 1968, pp. 110-114.

Hudson Review, spring, 1968, pp. 207-217.

New Leader, December 30, 1991, p. 27.

New York Times, April 16, 1978, p. 264; December 26, 1978, p. C14.

New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1968, p. 7.

Parnassus, fall-winter, 1973, pp. 153-163; spring-summer, 1975, pp. 27-34; Volume 4, number 2, 1976, pp. 130-138; fall-winter, 1977, pp. 1-57.

Poetry, December, 2003, p. 163.

Poetry Review, spring, 1991, pp. 10-12.

Salmagundi, spring-summer, 1973, pp. 234-257.

Southern Review, Volume 10, 1974, pp. 153-169; autumn, 1976, pp. 891-894.

Trace, January, 1960, pp. 22-25.

Webster Review, Volume 1, number 1, 1974, pp. 34-39.


One on One (filmed interview), Kent State University Television Center, 1979.



Boston Globe, July 7, 1991, p. 63.

Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1991.

New York Times, July 7, 1991, section 1, p. 18.

Time, July 15, 1991, p. 61.

USA Today, July 8, 1991, p. A2.

Washington Post, July 7, 1991, p. C5.