In the mid-sixties, while I was teaching freshman composition part-time at Tufts University, Howard Nemerov unexpectedly came into my life. Because the university’s senior poet, X.J. Kennedy, was away on leave, it fell to me to introduce the visiting bard to his audience. This was to happen at 4 pm on a cold December afternoon. I was told to meet him in the parking lot thirty minutes before his reading and accompany him to the auditorium.
It never occurred to me that someone who was a full professor and had already published three books—all of which I owned—could be anxious about giving a reading. I was nervous about how to introduce myself, but he was so visibly agitated that I simply said who I was and asked him what he would like to do.
Tufts sits atop a drumlin. The lot where we met lies at the bottom. What Howard wanted to do was walk away his pre-reading jitters. It was windy and cold. Snow was predicted by nightfall. We walked up the hill, then down. Then up and down again. I think we did this three times until on the stroke of four we entered the auditorium. I said a few words and a masterful Howard Nemerov took the podium.
We shared that story a few times over the years, meeting serendipitously at writers’ conferences and symposia. I remember one event at the Library of Congress where the matter under discussion was how to make poetry more accessible to the public. Howard leaned across the table and offered sotto voce, “I say let’s not. Let’s keep it a secret.”
But of course he didn’t favor opacity. His style was meditative, witty, often ironic, sometimes acerbic but always intelligible. He was offended by the sprawl and brawl of Allen Ginsberg’s poems. I shudder to think what comments he might have offered if he had lived long enough to encounter the Language poets.
Here he is, in a wry six-liner from The Western Approaches (1975) titled “Strange Metamorphosis of Poets”:
From epigram to epic is the course
For riders of the American wingéd horse.
They change both size and sex over the years,
The voice grows deeper and the beard appears;
Running for greatness they sweat away their salt,
They start out Emily and end up Walt.
Another passage, from “Make Love Not War” in The Blue Swallows (1967), is even more pertinent today. Written in a relaxed, more-or-less pentameter line, it showcases Howard’s wry, mordant wit:
Treasury officials have expressed grave concern about
The unauthorized entry of stateless babies without
Passports and knowing no English: these “wetbacks,”
As they are called from the circumstance of their swimming
Into this country, are to be reported to the proper
Authority wherever they occur and put through channels
For deportation to Abysmo the equatorial paradise
Believed to be their country of origin.
In 1978 I served as a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where Howard had been a faculty member since 1961. (In 1999, eight years after his death, a new residential building on the campus was named after him.) Howard took me to see the avenue of gingko trees on campus, famous for dropping their leaves all in one night. He took me to the zoo. I came often to supper, before which Howard savored his extra dry martinis (and highballs after). Peggy, his English wwii bride, was horrified to learn that I had never eaten Yorkshire pudding. She promptly mounted a large dinner party featuring the traditional menu: roast beef, the famous pudding, and Brussels sprouts. Dessert was trifle, which I did not dare confess I had also never tasted.
Howard died of esophageal cancer in 1991. No dying friend had ever phoned me before to say goodbye. He had just had his vocal cords sprayed with a Teflon-like substance, he told me, so that he could keep a final speaking engagement. I was too stunned to do more than utter platitudes.
After he was gone I found that he had made many farewell calls, including one to Julia Randall. “Hard to get a tan here,” he told her, “in the valley of the shadow.”
Could anyone muster a riposte to that?