Howard Nemerov (1920 – 1991) was an American poet. He graduated from the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldstone School in 1937 and went on to study at Harvard, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1941. Throughout World War II, he served as a pilot, first in the Royal Canadian Air Force and later the U. S. Army Air Forces. He married in 1944, and after the war, having earned the rank of first lieutenant, returned to New York with his wife to complete his first book. Nemerov was first hired to teach literature to World War II veterans at Hamilton College in New York. Later he taught at Bennington College, Brandeis University, and finally Washington University in St. Louis, where he was a University Professor of English and a Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. He was twice Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1988 to 1990. For The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977), he won the National Book Award for Poetry, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and the Bollingen Prize.
Nemerov was brother to photographer Diane Nemerov Arbus and father to art historian Alexander Nemerov, Professor of the History of Art and American Studies at Stanford University.
SOME COMMENTS BY HOWARD NEMEROV
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.
I would talk in iambic pentameter if it were easier.
Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.
I do insist on making what I hope is sense so there’s always a coherent narrative or argument that the reader can follow.
I liked the kid who wrote me that he had to do a term paper on a modern poet and he was doing me because, though they say you have to read poems twice, he found he could handle mine in one try.
SOME COMMENTS ON HOWARD NEMEROV
Nemerov in his poetry shows himself to be clear-headed, unillusioned and affectionate; wry, critical, often funny, and just as often deeply moving. Which is to say that he presents us with a highly intelligent and flexible viewpoint which is busily inspecting what is constantly passing for “civilization” right before our eyes. And there is not much that escapes notice. There is scarcely another poet who can show us so well how futile and ridiculous we are.
Romantic, realist, comedian, satirist, relentless and indefatigable brooder upon the most ancient mysteries—Nemerov is not to be classified.
Joyce Carol Oates
Howard 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.
A hopeless hope is the most attractive quality in his poems, which slowly turn obverse to reverse, seeing the permanence of change, the vices of virtue, and the errors of truth.
Nemerov is one of the wittiest and funniest poets we have. . . . But the enveloping emotion that arises from his writing is helplessness: the helplessness we all feel in the face of the events of our time, and of life itself. . . . And beneath even this feeling is a sort of hopelessly involved acceptance and resignation which has in it more of the truly tragic than most poetry which deliberately sets out in quest of tragedy.
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.
Brief Poems by Howard Nemerov
A Sacrificed Author
‘Father’, he cried, after the critics’ chewing,
‘Forgive them, for they know not what I’m doing.’
A sandwich and a beer may cure these ills
If only boys and girls were Bars and Grills.
The red butterflies are so beautiful!
But they will not stand still to be looked at.
In a sense.
In no sense!
Was that it?
Was that it?
Was that it?
That was it.
The Common Wisdom
Their marriage is a good one. In our eyes
What makes a marriage “good?” Well, that the tether
Fray but not break, and that they stay together.
One should be watching while the other dies.
Creation Myth on a Moebius Band
This world’s just mad enough to have been made
By the Being His beings into Being prayed.
The God of This World
He smiles to see his children, born to sin,
Digging those foxholes there are no atheists in.
Power to the People
Why are the stamps adorned with kings and presidents?
That we may lick their hinder parts and thump their heads.
Formal as minuet or sonnet,
It zeroes in on the guilty one;
But by the time I’m told who done it,
I can’t remember what he done.
How many more this morning are there dead of
The peace I came to bring a sword instead of?
History of Hair from World War II to the Present
Crewcut et Ux. have raised their long-haired pup:
Samson is shorn, and Absalom’s hung up.
Not living for each other’s sake,
Mind and the world will rarely rime;
The raindrops aiming at the lake
Are right on target every time.
A Male Chauvinist Mermaid
Two troubles with the Equal Rights Amendment:
Girls don’t get hard ons and boys don’t get pregnant.
Across the field, above our bulldozed dead,
Their individual crosses stand parade.
Bacon & Eggs
The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.
Epitaph on a School of Fiction
They wrote about what they knew. It didn’t take long.
Bees to the Flowers, Flies to Shit.
A Long Farewell
Goodbye, said the river, I’m going downstream.
A Double Cross
Early in life and late, at both ends cozen’d:
The girls were chaste, when he was young and wasn’t.
The spider does geometry all night
To take the fly, the dewdrop, and the sun’s light.
A large selection of poems by Howard Nemerov on the Poetry Foundation site.
A large selection of poems by Howard Nemerov on the PoemHunter site.
Howard Nemerov talks with Studs Terkel on WFMT in 1960.