Howard Nemerov

(1920 - 1991)

"Language is remarkable in that, except under the extreme constraints of mathematics and logic, it never can talk only about what it's supposed to talk about." Howard Nemerov

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Select bibliography

  • The Image of the Law 1947 (out of print)
  • The Salt Garden 1955 (out of print)
  • Mirrors and Windows 1958 (out of print)
  • The Blue Swallows 1967 (out of print)
  • The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems 1968 (out of print)
  • Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry and Other Essays David R Godine, 1979
  • Collected Poems The University of Chicago Press, 1981
  • Sentences The University of Chicago Press, 1981
  • Inside the Onion The University of Chicago Press, 1984
  • Oak in the Acorn: On Remembrance of Things Past and on Teaching Proust, Who Will Never Learn Louisiana State Univ Pr, 1987
  • War Stories The University of Chicago Press, 1989
  • Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems 1961-1991 Chicago University Press, 1991
  • The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov Ohio University Press, 2003
Howard Nemerov was born into a wealthy and sophisticated New York family in 1920. His sister was the photographer Diane Arbus, and as children their father who was a painter, art connoisseur and philanthropist greatly influenced their interest in the arts. Nemerov graduated from the Society for Ethical Culture's Fieldstone School in 1937 and went on to study at Harvard, where he earned his BA in 1941.

During the Second World War, he served in the US Army Air Force, rising to the rank of First Lieutenant, and following the war returned to New York to teach literature to war veterans at Hamilton College, and also to complete his first book of poems - The Image of the Law (1947). The effects of his wartime experience would be the basis for his early writing, and he later expressed dissatisfaction in this work, explaining during an interview marking his inauguration as US Poet Laureate in 1988: "When I was starting to write the great influence was T.S. Eliot and after that William Butler Yeats. I got, of course, the idea that what you were supposed to do was be plenty morbid and predict the end of civilization many times but civilization has ended so many times during my brief term on earth that I got a little bored with the theme."

His War Stories: Poems About Long Ago and Now (1987) demonstrates how the passage of time enabled Nemerov to better articulate his personal experiences of war. Karl Shapiro praises these poems: "They speak out in a beautiful unclouded voice of the experience of a flyer in the Second War…they resonate far beyond their history with an arresting immediacy."

Nemerov shared a brief friendship with Robert Frost, in Frost's later years, which Nemerov describes in interview as "a sympathetic vibration of two misanthropes." He goes on to say, using the laconic humor also present in his poetry: "When Robert Frost was alive, I was known as the other New England poet, which is to be barely known at all." Despite such self-deprecations, Nemerov was a recipient of numerous awards and honors for his writing, including fellowships from The Academy of American Poets and The Guggenheim Foundation, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the National Medal of the Arts. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1977 with The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, and he also served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1963 and 1964, as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets beginning in 1976, and as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1988 to 1990.

When his Selected Poems appeared ten years after his death, the New York Times Book Review declared him "a master at renovating antique forms by filling them with modern diction…[he] pulled off the hardest trick of all: he made blank verse…feel like a product of the tongue, not the chisel."

Howard Nemerov's work is intensely aware of eternal mysteries, which can only be glimpsed through the mirror of language. He writes of his uneasy relationship with language in Figures of Thought, a book of essays published in 1978, stating, "All that we think depends upon language, language that already exists before we think", later describing thinking as an "artifice". He goes on to separate poetry from spoken language and idioms, saying more hopefully: "it is the power of poetry…to be somewhat more like a mind than a thought."

'Storm Windows' which you can listen to on this page, alludes to the inadequacy of words to communicate true feeling. Here, the narrator hears something of what he would have liked to articulate in the eloquence of the post-storm rain. Nemerov reads with deliberate clarity on this recording, which emphasizes the finely tuned metrics of his poetry.

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