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Howard Nemerov

Howard Nemerov

The American writer Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was recognized for his novels, short stories, criticism, nonfiction, drama, and satiric poetry, as well as for being the third poet laureate of the United States.

Howard Nemerov was born on March 1, 1920, in New York City. His parents were David and Gertrude (Russek) Nemerov. David, his father, served as president and chairman of the board of Russeks, a now defunct but once prestigious retail store, where he earned the reputation of "Merchant Prince." The elder Nemerov's talents and interests extended to art connoisseurship, painting, and philanthropy—talents and interests undoubtedly influential upon his son.

Young Howard was raised in a sophisticated New York City environment where he attended the Society for Ethical Culture's Fieldstone School. Graduated in 1937 as an outstanding student and second string team football fullback, he commenced studies at Harvard University where, in 1940, he was Bowdoin Essayist and, in 1941, earned the Bachelor of Arts degree.

Upon graduation at the age of 21 he joined a Royal Canadian unit of the U.S. Army Airforce, serving as a pilot throughout World War II. After training in both Canada and England, he flew coastal command missions over the North Sea and was discharged in 1945 at the rank of first lieutenant. Prior to discharge he married Margaret Russel, on January 26, 1944.

Returning from the war, he and his wife spent a year in New York where he finished work on his first book of poetry. Nemerov then turned to college teaching—a profession he found compatible with his writing career. He served on the faculties of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York (1946-1948); Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont (1948-1966); Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts (1966-1969); and in 1969 joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. During this time Howard and Margaret parented three sons: David, Alexander, and Jeremy.

During the years 1963 and 1964, Nemerov served as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, where later he held the post of poet laureate of the United States (1988-1990). Nemerov became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1978 he was recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize in Arts and Letters and the National Book Award for his Collected Poems.

The early promise of Nemerov's first book of verse, The Image and the Law (1947), was satisfyingly fulfilled in his later publication of poems, War Stories (1987), which provides a kindly light on the bleak landscape of contemporary American poetry. Nemerov persisted in a gentle irony which satirizes as much through self-deprecation as indictment of others, a kind of collective guilt and redemption exquisitely expressed in his 1980 poem "The Historical Judas," whose name" … shall surely live/To make our meanness look like justice in/All histories commissioned by the winners."

Transcending mere polemic, Nemerov's poetic argument with history captivates, by virtue of his humor and humanism. Composing in narrative, meditative, lyrical, satirical, and a variety of other forms, Nemerov's poems are profoundly concerned with the individual perception of nature, and human history as a part of nature—a concern which might be intellectually ponderous were it not for the comic relief provided by his native wit. But Nemerov is a poet, not a philosopher, and his poetic wit disperses accusations of academic philosophical waxing with a whip woven of puns, slang, and irony.

Nemerov's quarrel with the world resounds with the lesson that humanity does not learn from history, but is seemingly doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. The importance of hope itself becomes ironic at the hands of the poet, as notice is made of the contradictions between the facts of history and the fictions of human aspiration. Sharing the collective guilt of the humorist, Nemerov's irony is sometimes too light an instrument for the dispatch of the sorrows of the human condition. Nemerov was perhaps a bit too accepting of man's inevitable fate; but neither is he a Pangloss (incurable optimist) nor a rager against the night.

Nemerov's poetic vision, his perceptual struggle with illusion and reality through a mysterious roseate but dark glass, never descended from poetic flight to epistemological speculation—not even on that most dangerous killing ground of political poetry. In versatile blank verse, Nemerov was at his best, conjuring the poetic experience out of a sense elusive world.

In spite of his other endeavors as editor, critic, and nonfiction writer, Nemerov was a master at throwing the magic switch between the prose and poetic modes of composition. Facile accusations of academicality, intellectuality, and ideationality against his poetry pale in confrontation with the poetic imagery of his 1967 poem "The May Dancing." Another 1967 poem, "Learning by Doing," mildly reminiscent of Frost's "Birches," is fraught with imagery, as is his 1989 publication "Landscape With Self Portrait."

If, in both his earlier and later works, his historical imagery is mistaken for history per se, the fault is not his. Nemerov pointed out clearly that: "The reason we do not learn from history is/Because we are not the people who learned the last time." Knowledge is not inherited, but must be earned by each new generation. Today's history lesson derives from yesterday's characters; events and ideas become image and metaphor in poetic time; time mellows metaphor into symbol and myth.

All too lazy an age has wrongfully castigated Nemerov for his technical knowledge of poetry, his use of form, and his foundation in tradition. In essence, his versification virtues are mistakenly deemed vices; his own historical poetic derivation is unrecognized by those ignorant of that poetic history; his artistic order is minimized as mere orderliness by the disorderly—and still, a well turned scherzo refreshes, and craft and art are still the best of friends.

On July 5, 1991, Howard Nemerov died of cancer at his home in University City, Missouri.

Further Reading

Additional information on Howard Nemerov and his work can be found in Edward Hungerford, editor, Poets in Progress (1962); Howard Nemerov, Poetry and Fiction: Essays. New Brunswick, N 43. Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics (1972); and Raymond Smith, "Nemerov and Nature: 'The Stillness in Moving Things," SoR (January 1974). Selections from Nemerov's poetry, short fiction, and essays were published by the University of Missouri Press in A Howard Nemerov Reader (1991).

Additional Sources

Nemerov, Howard., Journal of the fictive life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. □

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Nemerov, Howard

Howard Nemerov (nĕm´ĕrôf), 1920–91, American poet, novelist, and critic, b. New York City, grad. Harvard, 1941; brother of photographer Diane Arbus. He taught at Bennington College for many years and was associated with Washington Univ. in St. Louis from 1969 until his death. Nemerov's witty and often gloomy poetry ranges in tone from light to deeply philosophical; collections include The Image and the Law (1947), The Next Room of the Dream (1964), Collected Poems (1977; Pulitzer Prize), By Al Lebowitz's Pool (1979), Inside the Onion (1984), and War Stories (1987). He was poet laureate of the United States (1988–90). His fiction deals largely with moral dilemmas, as in The Melodramatists (1949).

See his Selected Poems (2003), ed. by D. Anderson; studies by B. Duncan, ed. (1971) and J. Bartholomay (1972).

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Nemerov, Howard

NEMEROV, HOWARD

NEMEROV, HOWARD (1920–1991), U.S. poet and novelist. Nemerov was born in New York. His sister was Diane *Arbus, the photographer. He was educated at Harvard and served as a pilot in World War ii. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1978) and was the Poet Laureate from 1988 to 1990. His poetry is marked by a brooding, illuminating intelligence as well as comic irony and wit: for example, in "A Memory of My Friend," a "Jewish atheist stubborn as Freud" says to a departing guest, "… instead of 'Good night,' 'Go with God.'" His Judaism was secular though he did focus on themes drawn from Hebrew Scripture and Jewish history, as, for example, in "To the Babylonians" and "False Solomon's Seal," and in the poetic dramas, "Endor" and "Cain." He also brought Hebrew Scripture into the narrative allusiveness of the poem, as in "Small Moment," with its epigraphic reference to Isaiah 54:7, and in "The First Day." He wrote three novels: The Melodramatists (1949); Federigo; or, The Power of Love (1954); and The Homecoming Game: A Novel (1992). His Collected Poems were published in 1977; A Howard Nemerov Reader, in 1991.

bibliography:

R. Labrie, Howard Nemerov (1980); W. Mills, The Stillness in Moving Things: The World of Howard Nemerov (1975); D. Potts, Howard Nemerov and Objective Idealism: The Influence of Owen Barfield (1994).

[Lewis Fried (2nd ed.)]

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Nemerov, Howard

Nemerov, Howard

(b. 1 March 1920 in New York City; d. 5 July 1991 in University City, Missouri), poet, teacher, novelist, critic, and recipient of numerous major literary prizes; poet laureate of the United States.

The oldest of three children of Gertrude Russek and David Nemerov, Nemerov was raised in a New York environment of servants, private school, and childhood summers in Deal, New Jersey. His mother’s family owned Russek’s, an elegant department store of which his father became president. His parents were also philanthropists. Nemerov’s younger sisters were Diane Arbus, the noted photographer for whom he later wrote a memorial poem (“To D___, Dead by Her Own Hand,” Gnomes and Occasions, 1973), and Renee, a sculptor. Raised in an affluent but sometimes troubled family, Nemerov was a high achiever in academics and sports at Fieldston, a notable Ethical Culture Society school in the Bronx, from which he graduated in 1937. Entering Harvard College, he continued to excel but felt that as a Jew he was not fully accepted. This underlying feeling of estrangement along with depression lingered through most of Nemerov’s life despite his eventual national recognition and many prestigious awards, the first of which was the Bowdoin Prize (1940), for an essay on Thomas Mann that received Mann’s praise. During this same period some of his short stories were published in the Harvard Advocate.

After graduating from Harvard in 1941, Nemerov flew fifty missions with the Royal Canadian Air Force (1941–1944) and another fifty-seven with the Eighth U.S. Army Air Force (1944–1945). He was a fighter pilot who became a “flying officer” in the RCAF, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. These experiences are reflected in numerous poems, including those in “War in the Air,” the second section of War Stories Long Ago and Now (1987), in which the poem “Models” speaks of survivors who “aged decades in a year.” With his nineteen-year-old English bride, Margaret (“Peggy”) Russell, whom he married on 26 January 1944, Nemerov spent a short time writing in New York City. Then from 1946 to 1948, he taught English to returning GIs at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He also became associate editor of the literary magazine Furioso in 1946. Nemerov’s long academic career was centered on small, avant-garde Bennington College in Vermont (1948–1966) and larger, urban Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (1962–1991), where he became Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor (1976–1990). Nemerov was also associated with the University of Minnesota (1958-1959), Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia (1962–1963), Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin (1964), Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts (1963, 1966–1968), Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts (1969), and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut (1983).

Simultaneously, Nemerov’s writing was published in such periodicals as The Virginia Quarterly, Poetry, and Story. Of his more than two dozen book-length publications, about half are poetry. The first of these, The Image and the Law, with its poems of death, appeared in 1947 to the mixed reception that marked most of his early work. Some of Nemerov’s other volumes of poetry are Mirrors and Windows (1958), the winner of the Blumenthal Prize; New and Selected Poems (1960), which contains Nemerov’s favorite and longest poem, “Runes”; The Blue Swallow (1967), which won the first Theodore Roethke Memorial Prize; and The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1978), which was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1978 and the Bollingen Prize in 1981.

Beginning as a poet evocative of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, Nemerov wrote increasingly about nature and was often compared to Robert Frost. Yet he was a sophisticated observer of the contemporary American scene. Known as a superb craftsman able to write in any form and meticulously attentive to language, Nemerov was praised for his intelligence and wit. His writing embodied the apparent contraries of aloofness and romanticism, erudition and simplicity, serious concerns and humor. Calling himself a “writer of fictions in verse and prose,” Nemerov also wrote three novels, The Melodramatists (1949), Federigo; or, The Power of Love (1954), and The Homecoming Game (1960). The last, dramatized as a comedy by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, also served as the basis of the 1960 film Tall Story. Another of his works, the slim autobiographical Journal of the Fictive Life (1965), is a Freudian analysis of himself and the writing of fiction. In it he explains, “My passion is to know. And since I cannot know I must imagine.” Nemerov also authored two short story collections A Commodity of Dreams (1959) and Stories, Fables, and Diversions (1971); two verse plays, Endor (1961) and Cain (1962); many essays; and a considerable amount of criticism.

Among Nemerov’s many prominent awards were a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1961) with election to that body in 1965, a Guggenheim Fellowship (1968-1969), an Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1970) with chancellorship from 1976, as well as election to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and more than a dozen honorary doctorates. Another significant honor was the National Medal of Arts awarded at the White House (1987). A consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress from 1963 to 1964, Nemerov was named poet laureate of the United States for 1988-1990, the third recipient of this office.

A reserved, tall, good-looking man with close-cropped hair (though he sported a mustache as a pilot), Nemerov was considered a demanding yet supportive teacher. He and Peggy were married forty-seven years and had three sons—David, Alexander Michael, and Jeremy Seth. He died of cancer; a private family funeral service followed, with burial in St. Louis. At the memorial service in Graham Chapel of Washington University, the poet Richard Wilbur spoke the eulogy. There are memorial plaques at the University and in the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

A prolific man of letters, Nemerov was a poet whose perceptions, moral concepts, and imagination were expressed with clarity and wit. A teacher and versatile writer who “wore his intellect lightly,” Nemerov received many awards for his contributions to literature.

A collection of Nemerov’s papers is at Washington University in St. Louis. His Journal of a Fictive Life (1965, 1981 with a new preface) is a Freudian self-analysis with reflections on writing and imagination. Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus, a Biography (1984), includes details of Nemerov and his sister’s childhood and family life. Some full-length books are William Mills, The Stillness in Moving Things: The World of Howard Nemerov (1975), an analysis of his themes, vision, language; Ross Labrie, Howard Nemerov (1980), a biocritical study; Diane L. Potts, Howard Nemerov and Objective Realism (1994), a study of “the influence of Owen Bar-field,” a British philosopher with whom Nemerov corresponded for more than twenty years. A chapter by Miriam Marty Clark in Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets: A Biocritical Sourcebook (1999) assesses Nemerov’s family background, literary themes, and critical reception. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 7 July 1991).

Rachel Shor

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