Howard Nemerov 29 February 1920 – 5 July 1991

Howard Nemerov was an American poet. He was twice appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1963 to 1964, and again from 1988 to 1990. He received the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bollingen Prize for The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. He was brother to photographer Diane Nemerov Arbus and father to art historian Alexander Nemerov, Professor of the History of Art and American Studies at Yale University.

Biography

Born on leap day in New York City, his parents were David Nemerov and Gertrude. His younger sister was the photographer Diane Arbus. The elder Nemerov's talents and interests extended to art connoisseurship, painting, philanthropy, and photography — 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 Fieldston 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 he received bachelor's degree at this university. 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 then began teaching, first at Hamilton College and later at Bennington College, Brandeis University, and finally Washington University in St. Louis, where he was Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English and Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. Nemerov's numerous collections of poetry include Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 (University of Chicago Press, 1991); The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize; The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems (1968); Mirrors and Windows (1958); The Salt Garden (1955); and The Image of the Law (1947). His novels have also been commended; they include The Homecoming Game (1957), Federigo: Or the Power of Love (1954), and The Melodramatists (1949).

Nemerov received many awards and honors, among them fellowships from The Academy of American Poets and The Guggenheim Foundation, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the National Medal of Arts, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the first Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

Nemerov 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 two terms as poet laureate of the United States from 1988 to 1990. In 1990 he was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Nemerov died of cancer in 1991 in University City, Missouri. The Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award was instituted in 1994 to honor him, and by 2008 about 3000 sonnets were entered annually in the associated competition.

Poetry

Nemerov's work is formalist. He has written almost exclusively in fixed forms and meter. While he is known for his meticulousness and refined technique, his work also has a reputation for being witty and playful. He is compared to John Hollander and Philip Larkin.

"A Primer of the Daily Round" is his most frequently anthologized poem, and highly representative of Nemerov's poetic style. It is an archetypal Elizabethan sonnet, demonstrative of the prosodic creativity for which Nemerov is famous. Another widely appreciated poem is "The War in the Air," which draws on his wartime experience as a pilot.

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Quotes (3)

I've never read a political poem that's accomplished anything. Poetry makes things happen, but rarely what the poet wants.
Howard Nemerov (1920-1991), U.S. poet, novelist, critic. International Herald Tribune (Paris, October 14, 1988).
Both poet and painter want to reach the silence behind the language, the silence within the language. Both painter and poet want their work to shine not only in daylight but (by whatever illusionist magic) from within.
Howard Nemerov (1920-1991), U.S. poet, novelist, critic. "On Poetry and Painting, with a Thought of Music," Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry and Other Essays, Godine (1978).
Religion and science both profess peace (and the sincerity of the professors is not being doubted), but each always turns out to have a dominant part in any war that is going or contemplated.
Howard Nemerov (1920-1991), U.S. poet, novelist, critic. "On the Resemblances Between Science and Religion," Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry and Other Essays, Godine (1978).

Comments (1)

Howard Nemerov IMO is one of the half dozen or so best US poets of my era - the last half of the 20th century. As he himself has said, he moved from the modernistic, academic, Ezra-Poundish works of his early career to a more natural, more authentic, more personal voice from, say, the late 1950s on. His topics often are simply ordinary life, his tone is often wryly ironic and self-deprecating, but usually - even in his lightest, most frivolous-seeming verse, he makes a point - subtly, kindly (I choose that word deliberately) , and carefully. Though I like most of his poems included in PH, I regret to say that none of my favorites are listed here; hence, I have not been able to include them among my favorite poems. And they certainly belong there, for I cherish them, admire them, and have used them in my teaching many years. A wealth of his best work is in the slim little volume, 'new and selected poems, ' originally published in 1960, but also available as a Phoenix paperback from the U of Chicago P,1963. If you can find a copy of it (check used bookstores online) , I recommend you pay special attention to these (all of which would be in my list of favorites) : 'To Lu Chi' (perhaps his masterpiece) , 'The Pond' (which has most amply rewarded my long study) , 'Death and the Maiden, ' 'Angel and Stone, ' 'Deep Woods, ' 'Boom! ' (a satire on religion and the successful modern man, based on a newspaper clipping with the headline 'SEES BOOM IN RELIGION TOO! ') , 'Sparrow in the Zoo' (very brief and VERY hilarious, with a four-letter word that makes you think twice about your audience before reading it aloud in public) , and many others. Another of my favorites from those years did not make it into this collection: 'Santa Claus, ' a satire on the commercialism of Christmas, which I guarantee will bring the house down - on you - if you read it to young people right before the Christmas break: 'Somewhere on his travels the strange Child / Picked up with this overstuffed confidence man, / Affection's inverted thief, who climbed at night / Down chimneys into dreams, with this world's goods.' (See the Collected Poems from the U of Chicago P, which of course includes the others I've mentioned also.) Back to 'To Lu Chi' for a moment - an exquisite poem, in which the poet Nemerov converses at length with the ancient Chinese poet Lu Chi. He summarizes their similarity across the centuries in these lines, which are perhaps the best brief summary one can find of Nemerov's understanding of the nature of poetry: ......... Neither action nor thought, Only the concentration of our speech In fineness and in strength) ....... Till it can carry, in these other minds, A nobler action and a purer thought.