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 on Howard Nemerov

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 Biography Sources

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