By Howard Nemerov 1920–1991 Howard Nemerov

an introductory lecture

This morning we shall spend a few minutes   
Upon the study of symbolism, which is basic   
To the nature of money. I show you this nickel.   
Icons and cryptograms are written all over
The nickel: one side shows a hunchbacked bison   
Bending his head and curling his tail to accommodate   
The circular nature of money. Over him arches
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and, squinched in   
Between that and his rump, E PLURIBUS UNUM,
A Roman reminiscence that appears to mean   
An indeterminately large number of things   
All of which are the same. Under the bison
A straight line giving him a ground to stand on   
Reads FIVE CENTS. And on the other side of our nickel   
There is the profile of a man with long hair   
And a couple of feathers in the hair; we know   
Somehow that he is an American Indian, and   
He wears the number nineteen-thirty-six.
Right in front of his eyes the word LIBERTY, bent   
To conform with the curve of the rim, appears   
To be falling out of the sky Y first; the Indian   
Keeps his eyes downcast and does not notice this;   
To notice it, indeed, would be shortsighted of him.   
So much for the iconography of one of our nickels,   
Which is now becoming a rarity and something of   
A collectors’ item: for as a matter of fact
There is almost nothing you can buy with a nickel,   
The representative American Indian was destroyed   
A hundred years or so ago, and his descendants’   
Relations with liberty are maintained with reservations,   
Or primitive concentration camps; while the bison,   
Except for a few examples kept in cages,
Is now extinct. Something like that, I think,
Is what Keats must have meant in his celebrated   
Ode on a Grecian Urn.
                               Notice, in conclusion,
A number of circumstances sometimes overlooked   
Even by experts: (a) Indian and bison,
Confined to obverse and reverse of the coin,   
Can never see each other; (b) they are looking   
In opposite directions, the bison past
The Indian’s feathers, the Indian past
The bison’s tail; (c) they are upside down
To one another; (d) the bison has a human face   
Somewhat resembling that of Jupiter Ammon.
I hope that our studies today will have shown you   
Something of the import of symbolism
With respect to the understanding of what is symbolized.

Howard Nemerov, “Money” from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977). Copyright © 1977 by Howard Nemerov. Reprinted with the permission of Margaret Nemerov.

Source: The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (The University of Chicago Press, 1977)

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Poet Howard Nemerov 1920–1991

Subjects Money & Economics, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Blank Verse

 Howard  Nemerov


Howard Nemerov was a highly acclaimed poet often cited for the range of his capabilities and subject matter, "from the profound to the poignant to the comic," James Billington remarked in his frequently quoted announcement of Nemerov's appointment to the post of United States poet laureate. A distinguished professor at Washington University in St. Louis from 1969 to 1990, Nemerov wrote poetry and fiction that managed to engage . . .

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SUBJECT Money & Economics, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Blank Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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