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New and Selected Poems by Howard Nemerov
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New and Selected Poems

by Howard Nemerov

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James Dickey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Howard Nemerov were representatives of their generation of USAmerican poets whom I identify with and admire. In poetic form, subject matter, and style, both Dickey and Ferlinghetti moved poetry in new directions. Dickey (q.v.) explored extremes of human experience, the outlandish, the macabre, or he plumbed the depths of ordinary experiences. Ferlinghetti identified with the Beats, using language and imagery of the San Francisco streets, of the outsider in society, the satirist of conventional culture. Not Nemerov. His poetry is quiet, steady, serene, at its best the most Wordsworthian of his era. His New and Selected Poems (U of Chicago P, 1960) established him, in my mind, as a laureate of the century.

Granted, there are at least two strains of his poetry that are definitely not Wordsworthian. He has a wry sense of humor and obviously enjoyed writing gentle Horatian satires. Examples in this volume are “Boom!” (taking off from a newspaper article touting a boom in religion), “Life Cycle of the Common Man” (“. . . Just under half a million cigarettes”), “Absent-Minded Professor,” and “Reflexions on the Seizure of the Suez, and on a Proposal to Line the Banks of That Canal with Billboard Advertisements.” His masterpiece in this genre, to my way of thinking, is regrettably not included in this collection. Entitled “Santa Claus,” it begins,

Somewhere on his travels the strange Child
Picked up with this overstuffed confidence man . . . .

Definitely non-Wordsworthian.

Occasionally, he still was also writing some very oblique poetry, playing with language as language. “The Scales of the Eyes” begins,

To fleece the Fleece from golden sheep,
Or prey, or get—is it not lewd
That we be eaten by our food
And slept by sleepers in our sleep?

Not Wordsworthian.

But the majority of his poems, especially in this volume, begin with the simplest of natural images in simple, direct language and move on to a quiet elegance, a thoughtful reflectiveness, even the sublime. Just listen to the opening lines of a few of my favorites:

People are putting up storm windows now,
Or were, this morning, until the heavy rain
Drove them indoors.
“Storm Windows”

This is about the stillness in moving things,
In running water, also in the sleep
Of winter seeds . . . .
“Runes” (a sequence of unrhymed sonnets)

Among the high-branching, leafless boughs
Above the roof-peaks of the town,
Snowflakes unnumberably come down.
“The View from an Attic Window”

Once I saw a grown man fall from a tree
and die. That’s years ago, I was a girl.
“Death and the Maiden” (a soliloquy)

But the most profound, the ones I return to again and again, are “Deep Woods” (“This / Place is too old for history to know / Beans about . . . .”), “The Pond” (an elegiac reflection on nature and the death of a child: “. . . immortality / Is ours until we have no use for it / And live anonymous in nature’s name / Though named in human memory and art”), and “To Lu Chi.”

The last one is a poem on poetry. Profound in its simplicity, it addresses the author of Wen Fu, a prose poem on the art of letters, A. D. 302. But it, too, begins (and will conclude) with unpretentious natural imagery:

Old sir, I think of you in this tardy spring,
Think of you for, maybe, no better reason
Than that the apple branches in the orchard
Bear snow, not blossoms . . . .

But the body of the poem is a reflection on the role of poetry in an age in which poetry is said, by certain scientists and philosophers, to be dead.

In letters as in many other trades
The active man and the contemplative
May both engage, and both in different ways
Succeed. The alphabet, the gift of god
Or of the gods (and modern as we are,
We have no better theory yet), was not
Devised to one use only, but to all
The work that human wit could find for it.

Nevertheless, the message that the speaker hears from Lu Chi is that he should “Continue.” And continue he does, not only reflecting on the role of poetry, but demonstrating its quiet assurance in his own lines, and in his return to the image of the apple trees in the tardy spring.

In “Deep Woods,” he refers to the “calligraphy” of vines overtaking bare limbs of trees. This is at the heart of Nemerov’s recurring theme. In the solemnity of nature, in language that reflects that solemnity, one sees written the message that otherwise one cannot hear or speak—“the joy of elevated thoughts,” “of something far more deeply interfused.”

In his poetic form, his subject matter, his imagery, his reflective style, one hears Wordsworth once again. Oh, yes, he speaks in another language for another century, but his heritage is apparent. From his forebears, he has learned—as he says in his poem called “Writing”—the miracle of language: “out there / at the pen’s point or brush’s tip, do world / and spirit wed.” Of course, he steps back immediately and admits the impermanence of writing and the “fission” of our imperfect world. But couched among the disclaimers is this statement of faith:

Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing.
  bfrank | Jul 27, 2007 |
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