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 the reader's mind without becoming academic, many reviewers reported. Though his works showed a consistent emphasis on thought—the process of thinking and ideas themselves—his poems related a broad spectrum of emotion and a variety of concerns. As Joyce Carol Oates remarked in the New Republic, "Romantic, realist, comedian, satirist, relentless and indefatigable brooder upon the most ancient mysteries—Nemerov is not to be classified." Writing in the study Howard Nemerov, Peter Meinke stated that these contrasting qualities are due to Nemerov's "deeply divided personality." Meinke pointed out that Nemerov himself spoke of a duality in his nature in Journal of the Fictive Life in which he said that "it has seemed to me that I must attempt to bring together the opposed elements of my character represented by poetry and fiction." Commented Meinke, "These 'opposed elements' in Howard Nemerov's character are reflected in his life and work: in the tensions between his romantic and realistic visions, his belief and unbelief, his heart and mind."
If Nemerov harbored impulses toward both poetry and fiction, he expressed them as opposites suspended in balanced co-existence rather than dissonance. A direct expression of this equilibrium is his poem "Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry." Wrote Poetry contributor Mary Kinzie, "It is about rain gradually turning into snow, but still acting like rain (only somehow lighter and thicker), until—there is suddenly snow flying instead of rain falling." As the poem states, "There came a moment that you couldn't tell. / And then they clearly flew instead of fell." Kinzie continued, "What clearly flew? Clearly, the pieces of snow, now soft and crowded flakes," but these words also leave room to suggest the sudden upward flight of some dark swallows Nemerov had mentioned earlier in the poem. These birds, Kinzie said, are "the suggestive warrant for any kind of flight. . . . So is the poem launched. Not going straight to its goal—not falling like rain—a poem imperceptibly thickens itself out of the visible stream of prose." The choice—the crossing of the line that separates opposing impulses—is not consciously traceable, Nemerov told Melinda Miller of the Washington Post: "It's like a fairy tale. You're allowed to do it as long as you don't know too much about it."
The Harvard graduate's first book of poems, The Image and the Law, characteristically is based on opposed elements, on a duality of vision. As F. C. Golffing explained in Poetry, "Mr. Nemerov tells us that he dichotomizes the 'poetry of the eye' and the 'poetry of the mind,' and that he attempts to exhibit in his verse the 'ever-present dispute between two ways of looking at the world.'" Some reviewers have found that this dichotomy leads to a lack of coherence in the verse. New York Times writer Milton Crane, for example, felt that the poems "unfortunately show no unity of conception such as their author attributes to them." The book was also criticized for being derivative of earlier modern poets such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens.
After reading Guide to the Ruins, Nemerov's second book of verse, Saturday Review contributor I. L. Salomon asserted that Nemerov "suffers from a dichotomy of personality." Within Nemerov, Salomon claimed, an "instinct for perfection" and unity contends with a modern "carelessness in expression." Yet Crane noticed not so much modern "carelessness" as praiseworthy modern sensibility; he believed that Ruins "is the work of an original and sensitive mind, alive to the thousand anxieties and agonies of our age." And Meinke contended that it is Nemerov's "modern awareness of contemporary man's alienation and fragmentation combined with a breadth of wit in the eighteenth century sense of the word" which "sets Nemerov's writing apart from other modern writers."
Like Image and the Law and Guide to the Ruins, The Salt Garden, when published, drew criticism for being derivative. "The accents of Auden and [John Crowe] Ransom," observed Louis Untermeyer, "occasionally twist his utterance into a curious poetic patois." Similarly, Randall Jarrell found that "you can see where he found out how to do some of the things he does—he isn't, as yet, a very individual poet." Years later, when asked if his work had changed in character or style, Nemerov replied in Poets on Poetry, "In style,. . . for I began and for a long time remained imitative, and poems in my first books . . . show more than traces of admired modern masters—Eliot, Auden, Stevens, [E. E.] Cummings, Yeats." Meinke, too, maintained that Nemerov in his early work was "writing Eliot, Yeats, and Stevens out of his system." Yet at the same time that Untermeyer and Jarrell faulted Nemerov for his imitation, like other readers, they were impressed by his growth as a poet. Jarrell commented that "as you read The Salt Garden you are impressed with how much the poet has learned, how well he has developed," while Hayden Carruth remarked, "Nemerov's new book is his third . . . and his best; steady improvement, I take it, is one sign of formidable ability."
The Salt Garden, many critics felt, marked the beginning of other changes in Nemerov's work, as well. Meinke observed that in this volume "Nemerov has found his most characteristic voice: a quiet intelligent voice brooding lyrically on the strange beauty and tragic loneliness of life." In a review of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, Willard Spiegelman, like Meinke, discovered in the poems from The Salt Garden "Nemerov's characteristic manner and tone." Spiegelman still found opposed elements, but in balance; he described Nemerov's manner as "genuinely Horatian according to Auden's marvelous definition of looking at 'this world with a happy eye / but from a sober perspective.' Nemerov's aurea mediocritas [golden mean] sails between philosophical skepticism . . . and social satire on one side, and, on the other, an open-eyed, child-like appreciation of the world's miracles."
Another change that began with The Salt Garden and continued in Mirrors and Windows, The Next Room of the Dream, and The Blue Swallows was Nemerov's growing concern with nature. In 1966, Nemerov wrote in Poets on Poetry of the impact of the natural world on his work: "During the war and since, I have lived in the country, chiefly in Vermont, and while my relation to the landscape has been contemplative rather than practical, the landscape nevertheless has in large part taken over my poetry." This interest in the landscape has led Chad Walsh to say of The Blue Swallows that "in its quiet lyricism and sensitivity to nature it suggests Robert Frost." The comparison to Frost, suggested by many other critics, was also made on the grounds that Nemerov, like Frost, brought philosophical issues into his poetry. As he said in Poets on Poetry, he was not so much an observer of nature as its medium, bringing into speech "an unknowably large part of a material world whose independent existence might be likened to that of the human unconscious, a sleep of causes, a chaos of the possible-impossible." Phrasing it differently in the poem "A Spell before Winter," Nemerov wrote, "And I speak to you now with the land's voice, / It is the cold, wild land that says to you / A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things: / The old hills hunch before the north wind blows."
A feature of the poems more frequently pointed out by critics is a witty, ironic manner and a serious, perhaps pessimistic, philosophy. James Dickey observed the seriousness that underlies Nemerov's wit. Nemerov, Dickey maintained, "is one of the wittiest and funniest poets we have. . . . But the enveloping emotion that arises from his writing is helplessness: the helplessness we all feel in the face of the events of our time, and of life itself. . . . And beneath even this feeling is a sort of hopelessly involved acceptance and resignation which has in it more of the truly tragic than most poetry which deliberately sets out in quest of tragedy." At the same time, Julia A. Bartholomay detected a somewhat different dichotomy. She contended that in Nemerov's poetry a basic dualism "underlies the two different . . . attitudes which appear consistently in the poet's work. On the one hand, he is very much the witty, sophisticated man of his time. . . . Nemerov often views life with a humorous but bitter irony. . . . On the other hand, the poet perceives the world ontologically. His experience may be philosophical, subjective, lyrical, or even mystical." Bartholomay argued that Nemerov's double view was expressed in his poetry through the use of paradox. The paradoxes reflect the "divisiveness, fragmentation, complexity, and absurdity of modern existence."
Not all critics applauded the tragic irony which Dickey and many others have found in Nemerov's poetry. Carruth, for example, commented: "No one would deny that famous and marvelous poems have been written in the manner of poetic irony. . . . But today this manner is an exceedingly tired poetic attitude. . . . And Nemerov's tired attitude is revealed in tired poetry: spent meters, predictable rhymes, and metaphors haggard with use." New York Times critic Thomas Lask also objected to Nemerov's irony, but for different reasons. He believed that in The Blue Swallows it has turned bitter, expressing "loathing and contempt for man and his work." In contrast to both these views, Laurence Lieberman, writing in the Yale Review, felt that "Howard Nemerov has perfected the poem as an instrument for exercising brilliance of wit. Searching, discursive, clear-sighted, he has learned to make the poem serve his relaxed manner and humane insights so expertly, I can only admire the clean purposefulness of his statements, his thoughtful care, the measure and grace of his lines."
However strong his ironic voice, Nemerov mellowed with age, according to many reviewers. Meinke claimed that "Nemerov has progressed steadily in his poetry to a broader, more tolerant view, less bitter and more sad." Likewise, Harvey Gilman found in a review of Gnomes and Occasions that "Nemerov's tone modulates as saving wit gives way to wistful contemplation, reminiscence, and prayer. The mask of irony is lowered and Nemerov writes a more sustained elegiac verse. . . . True, the epigrammatic manner remains in evidence . . . but the wit is here tinged with whimsy and warmth." Similarly, Spiegelman observed: "Nemerov, growing old, becomes younger as he adopts the manner of an ancient sage. Cynicism barely touches his voice; the occasional sardonic moments are offset by feeling and sympathy. . . . In the 40's and 50's Nemerov was rabbinically fixated on sin and redemption. What was, early on, a source of prophetic despair . . ., becomes in the poems of his middle age the cause of poetic variety and energy, metaphysical delight, and emotional equilibrium." And Helen Vendler discerned in a critique of Collected Poems that as "the echoes of the grand maitres fade, the poems get steadily better. The severity of attitude is itself chastened by a growing humanity, and the forms of the earth grow ever more distinct."
Gnomes and Occasions indulged Nemerov's penchant for short, aphoristic verses in which the images carry the burden of persuasion. In these "gnomes," Nemerov achieved a "Biblical resonance," said Kenneth Burke in his introduction to Nemerov's early poems, which are still ranked with the best postwar American poetry. More than one critic has referred to Nemerov's writings as wisdom literature. For example, Helen Vendler reported in Part of Nature, Part of Us that Nemerov's "mind plays with epigram, gnome, riddle, rune, advice, meditation, notes, dialectic, prophecy, reflection, views, knowledge, questions, speculation—all the forms of thought. His wishes go homing to origins and ends." Scholars linked this stylistic tendency to the poet's Jewish heritage. Meinke described the early Nemerov as a "non-practicing Jew engaged in a continual dialogue with Christianity . . . testing its relevance in the modern world." In addition to the influence of Dante and St. Augustine, that of W. B. Yeats left its mark on the poems, said Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Robert W. Hill, "not so much in form or style as in subject matter and in a decidedly religious quality of the language." For instance, one of Nemerov's definitions of poetry given in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Skylark" stated: "In the highest range the theory of poetry would be the theory of the Incarnation, which seeks to explain how the Word became Flesh."
Nemerov, however, did not reconstruct the world with imagination as other poets have done. Explained Hill, "While Yeats went about his way inventing new religion and culling the cabala for hints and signs, Nemerov's poems show him to be a critic of the secularizers: coming from the Jewish tradition, his sense of the decline of religion is not so easily pacified by new contrivances as Yeats's was. But the connections Nemerov feels with the seers of the past are clearly modern, clearly attached with the threads of the naturalistic modes, the beliefs in touchable things rather than in the untouchable." Thus Nemerov used acts of the imagination not to alter the world but to make it known. To the extent that this process is magical, "Our proper magic is the magic of language," claimed the poet, according to Contemporary Authors Bibliography Series contributor Gloria Young.
Poetry as a link between the material and spiritual worlds emerged as the theme of Sentences. In this volume, Nemerov achieved thematic coherence by organizing the poems into three sections, "Beneath," "Above," and "Beyond." Bonnie Costello, writing in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, related that the sections "mark off, respectively, poems of low diction and subject (our social sphere of sex and power), poems of higher diction and subject (metaphysics and poetry), and those of middle diction and subject (our origin and fate)." Critics approved the last two sections more than the first, which they claimed was beneath the level of quality they had come to expect from Nemerov. The section castigated the purveyors of low artistic, social and political values, related Ronald Baughman in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1983: "The reviewers damn the writer for accomplishing the goal which he has set for himself—the portrayal of man acting beneath dignity." Looking over the entire book, Baughman offered, " Sentences contains a wide range of poems, extending from the mocking, bitter verse of section one to the interesting but restrained appraisals of section two to the deeply moving contemplations of section three. The volume's theme—the order art gives to the randomness of life—develops with this movement from beginning to end. Nemerov's title is reminiscent of Stephen Spender's poem 'Subject: Object: Sentence,' in which Spender states, 'A sentence is condemned to stay as stated—/ As in life-sentence, death-sentence,' for example. As Howard Nemerov dramatizes his life and death sentences, he reveals his attempts to connect, through the power of his art, with the world below, nature above, and the spirit beyond."
The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov presented verse from all of the earlier volumes and its publication in 1977 spurred a re-evaluation of Nemerov's work. Phoebe Pettingell noted in the New Leader that the book showed "a gradual intensifying of a unified perspective," the poet's obsession with the theme of "man's sometimes tragic, sometimes ludicrous relation to history, death and the universe." Robert B. Shaw, writing in the Nation, related, "To what extent, he repeatedly wonders, is the world we see our own creation? . . . Is the poem a mirror reflecting the appearances of the world in responsible detail, or is it a window, a transparent medium through which we may see . . .? Or might it begin in one and with care and luck become the other? Nemerov never fully unravels these aesthetic and metaphysical knots. They provide him the material for endless reflection." Tom Johnson offered this assessment in the Sewanee Review: "Nemerov has written more incisively of science and its place in our imaginations than anyone else has yet managed to do in good (or even readable) poems. . . . The breadth of accomplishment and depth of insight are one's most striking impressions from first readings of the Collected Poems, enriched later by the humor, in intricacy, the grace." Shaw recommended Collected Poems to readers whose interest in poetry stems more from curiosity than from experience with the genre. "Such readers," Shaw said, "can expect to be charmed by the easy flow of Nemerov's reasoned discourse, and moved by those fine moments in his poems in which reason is overcome by awe."
Several reviewers also found much of value in Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991, published the year of Nemerov's death. Sidney Burris, writing in the Southern Review, found the collection significant because, in addition to containing a dozen new poems, it provided an excellent selection of Nemerov's work beginning with The Next Room of the Dream, with Collected Poems containing much of the poet's earlier output and therefore functioning as a "companion volume." Burris went on, "The poetry selected for Trying Conclusions issues from what Nemerov continually described as a simple respect for an audience who has—or at least ought to have, he always added—more pressing things to do than read his poems. . . . The deepest wish of Nemerov's poetry, particularly of the poems gathered together in Trying Conclusions, is that his poems aim ultimately to dignify the world of our recognizably common experience." D. G. Myers, in a review for Commentary, deemed the volume's short poems, "in which [Nemerov] wonders about the things in this world which are least wondered about: waiting rooms . . . people driving fast cars . . . pockets," to be the "most characteristic" of the poet's work, while the most powerful poems were "the longer essayistic ones in which he speculates on the theme of art." Christopher Benfey, writing in Partisan Review, found something to appreciate in all the poems—"even the slacker, longer ones"—and expressed a "special gratitude for the ten or fifteen that one promises oneself to remember and return to." Several reviewers also saw in the collection the humor and versatility frequently associated with Nemerov. Phoebe Pettingell, in Sewanee Review, noted the poet's "mean, satirical wit," and pointed out that the title, Trying Conclusions, could be interpreted in many ways, in keeping with Nemerov's penchant for plays on words. Myers commented that Nemerov "never shied away from trying something new, experimenting with forms and subjects."
Nemerov's prose has also been commended, especially for displaying an irony and wit similar to that of his poems. His novels, as Meinke remarked, "like his poems,. . . are basically pessimistic. The condition of man is not an enviable one: we act foolishly and understand imperfectly. Nemerov's dark viewpoint, which in his poetry is redeemed by beauty,. . . in his fiction is redeemed by humor." Meinke termed The Melodramatists "a highly successful first novel," and in the Nation Diana Trilling seconded him, commenting that after a slow start, it is "a considerable first novel—literate and entertaining, with a nice satiric barb." Federigo: Or the Power of Love and The Homecoming Game were also well received. For example, Richard Sullivan called the latter book a "beautifully controlled satire" with characters "rendered with authentic irony," and Atlantic Monthly reviewer C. J. Rolo found that it has "wit, dash, and point."
Through the characters in these novels, Nemerov explored "the consequences of the overactive imagination," wrote Carl Rapp in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Novelists since World War II. Characters with romantic expectations of finding meaningful action and self-realization amid the social pressures of their times instead realize that they are the victims of their own fantasies. Thus, the novels, like the poetry, comment on the relationship between imagination and reality.
Nemerov published his last novel, The Homecoming Game (about a professor who discovers his limits when faced with opposing groups on campus), in 1957. Rapp suggested, "Nemerov has perhaps come to feel that the novelist himself, with his own incorrigible tendency to fantasize melodramatic scenes and situations, presents a spectacle as ridiculous as that of his own characters. In recent poems such as 'Novelists' and 'Reflexions of a Novelist,' he observes that it is, of course, the novelist who is preeminently the man with the overactive imagination, the egomaniac, the voyeur." Nemerov told Robert Boyers in a Salmagundi interview that he left off being a novelist when Bennington College chose to retain him as its poet and hired Bernard Malamud to be its novelist.
Though through with the novel form, Nemerov continued to work with prose in short stories and literary criticism. Like his poetry and fiction, Nemerov's essays won him the respect of many well-known writers and critics. To Figures of Thought: Speculations on the Meaning of Poetry and Other Essays, Benjamin DeMott responded: "Taken as a whole . . . these 'speculations' are uncommonly stimulating and persuasive. . . . [This book] communicates throughout a vivid sense of the possibility of a richer kind of knowing in all areas than we're in the process of settling for. . . . Like the high art it salutes, it hums with the life of things." Moreover, Joyce Carol Oates added: "The book is a marvelous one, rewarding not only for what it tells us about poetry in general . . ., but for what it tells us about the processes of the imagination. Nemerov is, quite simply, a brilliant mind."
New and Selected Essays, a later collection of essays spanning thirty years of Nemerov's criticism, was also considered valuable upon publication. "It is the texture of [Nemerov's] thinking that is exhilarating, and not the Grand Propositions—though one of the latter (his favorite) is sturdy indeed: 'Poetry is getting something right in language.'. . . The theoretical essays and the studies of particular writers are the ones most wealthy in serviceable lore," offered Richard Wertime in the Yale Review. Deborah S. Murphy and Gloria Young stated in the Contemporary Authors Bibliography Series that since "Nemerov is a poet who is continually changing and growing, becoming more complex in subject matter and apparently simpler in style," the body of his work has only begun to receive the serious critical attention it merits.
Several of Nemerov's essays and works of fiction, along with a smattering of poems, were collected in 1991 into A Howard Nemerov Reader. Southern Review's Sidney Burris found the volume important chiefly because of its reprint of Federigo: Or the Power of Love as the rest of its contents could be found in other collections; he added, however, that the book served as a testament to Nemerov's ability "to provide poetry, criticism, and fiction, all of an extraordinarily high degree of sophistication." Doug Anderson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said the book would be valuable to those who know Nemerov only as a poet, as "his fiction . . . allows him a much wider emotional and imaginative range than do his poems, and his essays . . . reveal Mr. Nemerov as brilliantly incisive, if occasionally curmudgeonly." And in Poetry, Robert B. Shaw pronounced, "This volume amply serves its purpose as an introduction to the spectrum of Nemerov's writing in its several forms."
Nemerov's books brought him many major awards for poetry, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, and the Bollingen Prize in 1981, all for The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. Regarding his fame, he told Jake Thompson of the Chicago Tribune, "You do the best you can and really don't worry about immortality all that much, especially as you have to be dead to achieve it. . . . Oh, you want praise and recognition and above all money. But if that was your true motive, you would have done something else. All this fame and honor is a very nice thing, as long as you don't believe it."