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Howard Nemerov

(29 February 1920 – 5 July 1991 / New York City, New York)

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  • Bronze Star - 5,986 Points Frank Avon (10/28/2014 2:21:00 AM)

    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.

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The Blue Swallows

Across the millstream below the bridge
Seven blue swallows divide the air
In shapes invisible and evanescent,
Kaleidoscopic beyond the mind’s
Or memory’s power to keep them there.

“History is where tensions were,”
“Form is the diagram of forces.”
Thus, helplessly, there on the bridge,

[Hata Bildir]