Nims, John Frederick 1913-1999

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NIMS, John Frederick 1913-1999

PERSONAL: Born November 20, 1913, in Muskegon, MI; died January 19, 1999, in Chicago, IL; son of Frank McReynolds and Anne (McDonald) Nims; married Bonnie Larkin, September 11, 1947; children: John (deceased), Frank, George (deceased), Sarah, Emily. Education: Attended DePaul University for two years; University of Notre Dame, A.B., 1937, A.M., 1939; University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1945. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic.

CAREER: Teacher of English and Latin in a preparatory school in Portland, OR, 1936; University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, 1939-45, 1946-62, began as instructor, became professor of English, 1955-62; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1961-64, at Chicago Circle, professor of English, 1965-73, 1977-85; University of Florida, Gainesville, professor of English, 1973-77. Poetry, editor, 1978-84. Visiting professor, University of Toronto, 1945-46, Bocconi University (Milan), 1952-53, University of Florence, 1953-54, University of Madrid, 1958-1960, Harvard University, 1964, 1968-69, 1974, Breadloaf School of English, 1965-69, Williams College, 1975, and University of Missouri, 1986; visiting writer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1961-62, and University of Chicago, 1982. Poetry judge at the National Book Awards, 1969, American Book Awards, 1970 and 1971, and Bollingen Prize, 1987.

AWARDS, HONORS: Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, 1942; Friends of Literature award, 1947, for The Iron Pastoral; National Book Award nomination, 1960, for Knowledge of the Evening; National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities grant, 1967; American Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1968; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, 1973, citation for poetry, 1974; Phi Beta Kappa Poet, Harvard University, 1978; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1982; Institute of the Humanities fellowship, University of Illinois, 1983; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986-87; Aiken Taylor Award, 1991. The John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize was established in Nims's honor, Modern Poetry Association, 1999.


(Contributor) Five Young American Poets: Third Series, New Directions (New York, NY), 1944.

The Iron Pastoral (poems), Sloane (New York, NY), 1947.

A Fountain in Kentucky (poems), Sloane (New York, NY), 1950.

(Translator) Euripides: Four Tragedies, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1958.

(Translator) Poems of St. John of the Cross, Grove, 1959, 3rd edition, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1979.

(Contributor of translations) Complete Greek Tragedies, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1959.

Knowledge of the Evening (poems), Rutgers University Press (Piscataway, NJ), 1960.

(Associate editor and contributor) The Poem Itself, Holt (New York, NY), 1960.

(Editor) Ovid, Metamorphoses (Arthur Holding edition), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1965, Dry Books (Philadelphia, PA), 2000.

Of Flesh and Bone (poems), Rutgers University Press (Piscataway, NJ), 1967.

(Translator) Sappho to Valery: Poems in Translation, Rutgers University Press (Piscataway, NJ), 1971, 3rd edition, Arkansas University Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1990.

(Editor) James Shirley, James Shirley's Love's Cruelty:A Critical Edition, Garland Publishers (New York, NY), 1980.

(Editor) The Harper Anthology of Poetry, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.

The Kiss: A Jambalaya (poems), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1982.

Selected Poems, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1982.

Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, 2nd edition, Random House (New York, NY), 1983, McGraw-Hill (Boston, MA), 2002.

A Local Habitation: Essays on Poetry, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1985.

The Six-Cornered Snowflake, New Directions (New York, NY), 1990.

Zany in Denim, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1990.

(Translator) The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1998.

The Powers of Heaven and Earth: New and SelectedPoems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2002.

Contributor to periodicals, including Poetry, Accent, Partisan Review, Saturday Review, Harper's, Sewanee Review, Atlantic, Georgia Review, Grand Street, Mademoiselle, New Republic, American Scholar, and Kenyon Review. Poetry, member of editorial board, 1945-48, visiting editor, 1960-61.

SIDELIGHTS: A long-time editor and translator of poetry collections, John Frederick Nims, who died in 1999, was "known for his generosity and careful attention to contributors' work," observed Christina Pugh in Poetry. Yet Nims was in addition "a celebrated poet in his own right," Pugh added. Since his first book appeared in 1947, many reviewers have praised the intelligence and wit exhibited in his poems and translations. M. L. Rosenthal, reviewing The Iron Pastoral for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote: "Nims's first book of poetry reveals sprightly wit combined with social and moral integrity, sensuous responsiveness combined with an inquisitive intellect. He is capable of being very light and playful." Horace Gregory in the New York Times lauded Nims for writing The Iron Pastoral in "a new language—often witty and brilliant," while William Rose Benet, reviewing the book for the Saturday Review of Literature, said: "The work of John Frederick Nims seems to me to rank high among modern verse. . . . Ordinarily his sense of balance and sense of humor do not fail him." J. P. Clancy, in a review of Knowledge of the Evening for Commonweal, observed that Nims had "a very real gift for irony, for colloquial wit," and Walker Gibson of Nation attributed the author's success to his "craftsmanship and wit and educated sensibility."

Other critics have found Nims's style to be, at times, overly intellectual and disruptive of the emotional impact of his verse. "Sharp-sighted and keen-witted though he is, Nims does not release us, as he should, into the world of imagination," wrote Louise Bogan in a New Yorker review of The Iron Pastoral. "He continually hampers that escape not only with his artfulness, his involutions, and his studied grotesquerie but by a fundamental lack of humility of motive." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer called Of Flesh and Bone "an uneasy mixture of neat antiquarianism and roguish modernity," but Chad Walsh, writing in theWashington Post Book World, admired Nims's ability to blend traditional style with a modern perspective, concluding, "This is verse that should be carved in simple but elegant lettering on small blocks of marble." Finally, John Holmes in the New York Times Book Review, noting that Nims's style in Knowledge of the Evening "combines a colloquial and contemporary voice with wide-ranging classical reference," described the book as a "substantial addition to today's poetry."

The Kiss: A Jambalaya, "glitters with wit and erudite tomfoolery," remarked Paul Gray in Time. In the New York Times Book Review, William Pritchard commented that "almost 40 years after some of his first poems were published by New Directions in Five Young American Poets, one realizes how long John Frederick Nims has been taken for granted." Nims, Pritchard said, "has been identified as a formalist," and The Kiss is a "quiet elegist of perfect measure and impeccable tone." Gray concluded that "A kiss, under ideal conditions, combines technical expertise with passion: The Kiss reproduces and preserves both."

Nims's work as a translator, specifically in Sappho to Valery, a collection of poems translated from nine languages, has been widely acclaimed. Nims's renditions, according to Philip Murray in Poetry, are "absolute miracles . . . [and his] introductory remarks on Sappho are particularly sensible. He cuts through jungles of nonsense with a sharp and witty pen. . . . Rarely in the translators' art have such knowledge, skill, sensitivity and breadth of interest coincided so felicitously in a single hand." Vernon Young called Sappho to Valery "one of those books I would not willingly live without, once having made its acquaintance." In the Hudson Review, Young expressed "pure delight with Nims's craftsmanship; his wit, his common sense and his resolve to convey a poem's form as accurately as possible, or, where accuracy is plainly impossible to render, to invent, with spectacular result, an incredible paraphrase which you feel must be more inspired than the original." Brewster Ghiselin found that "in reading the translation, it is as if the scene and mood of the original were re-experienced under almost identical conditions of place and time." Writing in the Sewanee Review, Ghiselin cited one reason for the success of Nims's translations: "He constantly feels the allurement and excitement of the original poetry, and answers it as a poet, with poetry."

Another translation of note, The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, appeared in 1998, the year before Nims's death. Though often translated before, the several hundred poems of Michelangelo receive a unique treatment at the hands of Nims, for, as James M. Saslow noted in the Renaissance Quarterly, "unlike most other Michelangelo translators, Nims was a poet in his own right, whose English renderings are generally fluid and clear despite the discipline of elaborate rhyme schemes." Saslow went on to note that Nims was unafraid to update the language in these poems, "eschewing formality to nudge, and sometimes shove, Michelangelo's vocabulary toward the slangy, abrupt, and colorful." Neither does Nims shy away from the artist's "homoerotic feelings," as Charles Cagle noted in the Midwest Quarterly. According to Cagle, "translator Nims does not avoid the obvious," and includes in his edition "a series of pulsatingly romantic poems to a wildly attractive, twenty-three-year-old aristocrat." For Ronald L. Martinez, reviewing the collection in Insight on the News, Nims's is a "liberal translation of the poetry of Michelangelo &lsbq;that&rsbq; gives the artist's voice a contemporary, if often rather brusque, quality." Martinez went on to note that Nims "often seems to posit a Michelangelo capable of a wry, ironic stance before his troubles," and concluded, "Two cheers, then, for Nims' vivid reinventions. These surely are the most compelling translations of Michelangelo available in English." Daniel Kunitz, reviewing the collection in the Times Literary Supplement, felt that Nims's poems were "not meant as literal translations but as versions of Michelangelo's compositions." Kunitz also felt such renditions were true to the spirit of the originals: "Happily, John Nims's efforts do not break free of their parent poems. Like strong-gened offspring, they have inherited the noble and distinctive features of their progenitors."

In 2002 a collection of verses from Nims's eight previous poetry books as well as thirty new poems were published in The Powers of Heaven and Earth: New and Selected Poems. Reviewing the anthology in Poetry, Pugh recalled that Nims was a "wizard of epigrams, a genre practiced too infrequently today; and this book affords the rare poetic 'laugh out loud.'" For Pugh, this posthumous volume "shows Nims's long journey in his own voice and to his own voice." Gathered here are some of Nims's earliest work, such as "Dollar Bill," and some of his last works, including "Freight," a sonnet sequence. Booklist's Ray Olson, in a starred review, called the work—selected by Nims before his death—a "brilliant valedictory collection."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: AmericanPoets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.


Booklist, October 15, 2002, Ray Olson, review of The Powers of Heaven and Earth, p. 381.

Commonweal, November 11, 1960, J. P. Clancy, review of Knowledge of the Evening.

Hudson Review, winter, 1974-75, Vernon Young, review of Sappho to Valery.

Insight on the News, February 15, 1999, review of TheComplete Poems of Michelangelo, p. 36.

Kenyon Reviews, summer-fall, 2001, Mark Jarman, review of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, pp. 222-230.

Midwest Quarterly, summer, 1999, Charles Cagle, review of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, p. 513.

Nation, November 26, 1960, Walker Gibson, review of Knowledge of the Evening.

New Yorker, April 5, 1947, Louise Bogan, review of The Iron Pastoral.

New York Times, May 25, 1947, Horace Gregory, review of The Iron Pastoral.

New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1960, John Holmes, review of Knowledge of the Evening; November 7, 1982, William Pritchard, review of The Kiss.

Poetry, August, 2003, Christian Pugh, review of ThePowers of Heaven and Earth, pp. 294-297.

Renaissance Quarterly, autumn, 1999, James M. Saslow, review of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, p. 871.

Saturday Review of Literature, March 22, 1947, William Rose Benet, review of The Iron Pastoral.

Sewanee Review, spring, 1973, Brewster Ghiselin, review of Sappho to Valery.

Time, March 15, 1982, Paul Gray, review of The Kiss.

Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 1967, review of Of Flesh and Bone; December 4, 1998, Daniel Kunitz, review of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo.

Washington Post Book World, September 10, 1967, Chad Walsh, review of Of Flesh and Bone.


Academy of American Poets Web site, (February 11, 2004).

Louisiana State University Press Web site, Heaven_Earth.html/ (February 11, 2004).



Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1999, p. A16.

New York Times, January 22, 1999, p. B11.


Poetry Online, (February 11, 2003).*