An Afterword to The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov

A few last words before I leave The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. First, as you probably realize if you’re a regular visitor, I tend to be fond of lyrical poems rather than long, epic poems. I got sucked into reading Robinson Jeffers’long poems by Dana Gioia’s argument that they were the best long poems written in the modern era. I can assure you that after reading all of Jeffers’ long poems and Nemerov’s “Endor” and “Cain” that Nemerov’s are far superior to Jeffers’.

That said, I wasn’t as impressed with “The Western Approaches (1975),” the last section in the collected poems, as I was with the sections that directly preceded it, which is not to say that there weren’t a few very good poems in it, like:

AGAIN

Again, great season, sing it through again
Before we fall asleep, sing the slow change
That makes October burn out red and gold
And color bleed into the world and die,
And butterflies among the fluttering leaves
Disguise themselves until the few last leaves
Spin to the ground or to the skimming streams
That carry them along until they sink,
And through the muted land, the nevergreen
Needles and mull and duff of the forest floor,
The wind go ashen, till one afternoon
The cold snow cloud comes down the intervale
Above the river on whose slow black flood
The few first flakes come hurrying in to drown.

Of course, I may have been more receptive to this poem because that’s precisely what’s happening around us. Still, it captures the transition between fall and winter nearly as beautifully as any poem I can remember, though he appears to be writing about more than just the transition between seasons of the year.

There is a joy in the Now that transcends the inevitable winter that awaits us all.

Nemerov’s “Beginner’s Guide”

I’ve usually decided long before I finish a section of poetry which poem I’m going to end up discussing, but I almost always finish an entire section before I start to write so I don’t end up missing something that I’d rather write about.

As I read Nemerov’s “Gnomes and Occasions” 1973, I was sure that I would discuss a poem about butterflies that tied in beautifully with recent posts and my recent obsession. However, on the last page of the section I discovered:

BEGINNER’S GUIDE

They stand in the corner, on a shadowy shelf,
Field Books of This, Beginner’s Guide to That,
Remainders of an abdicated self
That wanted knowledge of no matter what.

Of flowers, was it? Every spring he’d tear
From their hiding-places, press and memorize
A dozen pale beginners of the year
That open almost among the melting snows,

And for a month thereafter rule his realm
Of small and few and homey in such minds
As his, until full summer came to whelm
Him under the flood and number of her kinds.

Or birds? At least the flowers would stand still
For amateurs, but these flighty alightings
Would not; and as he still refused to kill
In confirmation of his rarer sightings

The ornithologists were not his dish,
And he made do with sedentary birds
Who watched his watching as it were their wish
To check with Peterson, pictures and words.

And even so, before he got them straight
As like as not they’d not be there at all.
On the wings and wits God gave ’em they’d migrate;
“Confusing Fall Warblers” were, each Fall, his fall.

The world would not, nor he could not, stand still.
The longest life might be too short a one
To get by heart, in all its fine detail,
Earth’s billion changes swinging on the sun.

His last attempt he made upon the stars,
And was appalled, so many more of them
There were since boyhood that astronomers
Preferred a number to an ancient name.

And if, as The Beginner was advised
To do, he bought himself a telescope,
The host of stars that must be memorized
So mightily increased, he’d lose all hope.

Was it a waste, the time and the expense,
Buying the books, going into the field
To make some mind of what was only sense,
And show a profit on the year’s rich yield?

Though no authority on this theme either,
He would depose upon the whole that it
Was not. The world was always being wider
And deeper and wiser than his little wit,

But it felt good to know the hundred names
And say them, in the warm room, in the winter,
Drowsing and dozing over his trying times,
Still to this world its wondering beginner.

and knew that this poem had been waiting there since 1977 for me to discover it. Of course it was written for me. It describes my life to a “T.” It’s almost as if Nemerov had discovered my bookshelf and written a poem based on what he’d seen.

Even though I haven’t gotten to the astronomy books yet, I’ve glanced at the computer software more than once. I’ve covered everything else in the same order Nemerov discusses it in his poem. I can only assume that Nemerov must have been an INTP, as I am.

I even consider myself a “Beginner” in nearly everything I do; even when I know birds others don’t, I always point out I’m a “beginner,” not an expert on the topic. “The world was always being wider/ And deeper and wiser than his little wit.”

And I love it that way, can’t imagine it ever being any other way.

Even in the end, I look for beginnings.

Nemerov’s “The Blue Swallows”

I wouldn’t classify Howard Nemerov as a nature poet because only a small percentage of his poems are about nature, but I bought his Collected Poems because I liked the poems I read in The Blue Swallows (1967), and my favorite poem in that collection is the title poem, which may very well turn out to be my favorite poem in the entire book, though I have another hundred pages to read:

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,
While gazing down upon those birds—
How strange, to be above the birds!—
Thus helplessly the mind in its brain
Weaves up relation’s spindrift web,
Seeing the swallows’ tails as nibs
Dipped in invisible ink, writing…

Poor mind, what would you have them write?
Some cabalistic history
Whose authorship you might ascribe
To God? to Nature? Ah, poor ghost,
You’ve capitalized your Self enough.
That villainous William of Occam
Cut out the feet from under that dream
Some seven centuries ago.
It’s taken that long for the mind
To waken, yawn and stretch, to see
With opened eyes emptied of speech
The real world where the spelling mind
Imposes with its grammar book
Unreal relations on the blue
Swallows. Perhaps when you will have
Fully awakened, I shall show you
A new thing: even the water
Flowing away beneath those birds
Will fail to reflect their flying forms,
And the eyes that see become as stones
Whence never tears shall fall again.

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.

Animal metaphors are so deeply ingrained in not only our literature but our very language that it is far too easy to think of them metaphorically, “Seeing the swallows’ tails as nibs/ Dipped in invisible ink, writing.”

There’s also a natural tendency to see ourselves reflected in nature, or at the very least, like the Puritans, to think that God reveals himself to us through nature, “Poor mind, what would you have them write?/ Some cabalistic history/ Whose authorship you might ascribe/ To God?”

You’d be forgiven if you thought that this was my favorite poem simply because blue-colored tree swallows are one of my favorite photographic subjects:

Tree Swallow

but, like Nemerov, I’d argue that photographs are not

The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.

Nemerov’s “Elegy for a Nature Poet”

If the previous volume saw a sudden introduction of poems about nature, the early ‘60’s saw a sudden increase in humorous poems. In fact, humor, bordering on sarcasm and cynicism become prominent in The Next Room of the Dream (1962).

This one is probably my favorite for rather obvious reasons:

ELEGY FOR A NATURE POET

It was in October, a favorite season,
He went for his last walk. The covered bridge,
Most natural of all the works of reason,
Received him, let him go. Along the hedge

He rattled his stick; observed the blackening bushes
In his familiar field; thought he espied
Late meadow larks; considered picking rushes
For a dry arrangement; returned home, and died

of a catarrh caught in the autumn rains
And let go on uncared for. He was too rapt
In contemplation to recall that brains
Like his should not be kept too long uncapped

In the wet and cold weather. While we mourned,
We thought of his imprudence, and how Nature,
Whom he’d done so much for, had finally turned
Against her creature.

His gift was daily his delight, he peeled
The landscape back to show it was a story;
Any old bird or burning bush revealed
At his hands just another allegory.

Nothing too great, nothing too trivial
For him; from mountain range or humble vermin
He could extract the hidden parable-
If need be, crack the stone to get the sermon.

And now, poor man, he’s gone. Without his name
The field reverts to wilderness again,
The rocks are silent, woods don’t seem the same;
Demoralized small birds will fly insane.

Rude Nature, whom he loved to idealize
And would have wed, pretends she never heard
His voice at all, as, taken by surprise
At last, he goes to her without a word.

It’s easy to forget in your admiration of nature’s beauty that there’s always a darker side to that beauty. If you only see wolves or tigers in the zoo, you’re liable to forget that they survive by killing all those other animals you find so beautiful.

The heart of the poem seems to be found in the lines, “He was too rapt/ In contemplation to recall that brains/ Like his should not be kept too long uncapped.” The pun carries the humor, though it’s definitely a dark humor to fit the subject matter of the poem. Those who romanticize nature do so at their own risk.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of seeing nature as we would like it to be, rather than seeing it in its fullness, which turns out to be awesomely beautiful in its own right.

Nemerov’s “Trees”

If I were writing a formal paper on Howard Nemerov, and thank goodness I’m not, I would be very curious to see if any dramatic events took place in his life just prior to 1958, when Mirrors and Windows was published.

For the first time, nature poems become prominent in his work and Chinese themes suddenly appear. Of course, I knew that he wrote some excellent nature poems because that’s the reason why I bought the collected works. No the nature poems didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the lack of such poems in his early works.

For instance, I can’t remember anything like this poem which is the second poem in the collection, appearing right after the title poem, where a branch seems to mirror his inner thoughts:

TREES

To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word-
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also-though there has never been
A critical tree-about the nature of things.

This poem stands as a silent, meditative force amidst all the sturm und drang of modern life. There’s almost something Taoist about the poem, with it’s emphasis on ying and yang, “To be steady as a rock and always trembling” and “Having the hard appearance of death/ With the soft, fluent nature of growth.” Unlike people, trees “exemplify/ What they believe themselves to be about,” rather than tell you what they are about. Of course, Nemerov hasn’t abandoned his more typical themes, but even they seem strangely relevant to our own times, as in this poem about a government worker whose “death has been cited as one of the few murders attributable to McCarthyism.” :

THE MURDER OF WILLIAM REMINGTON

It is true, that even in the best-run state
Such things will happen; it is true,
What's done is done. The law, whereby we hate
Our hatred, sees no fire in the flue
But by the smoke, and not for thought alone
It punishes, but for the thing that's done.

And yet there is the horror of the fact,
Though we knew not the man. To die in jail,
To be beaten to death, to know the act
Of personal fury before the eyes can fail
And the man die against the cold last wall
Of the lonely world-and neither is that all:

There is the terror too of each man's thought,
That knows not, but must quietly suspect
His neighbor, friend, or self of being taught
To take an attitude merely correct;
Being frightened of his own cold image in
The glass of government, and his own sin,

Frightened lest senate house and prison wall
Be quarried of one stone, lest righteous and high
Look faintly smiling down and seem to call
A crime the welcome chance of liberty,
And any man an outlaw who aggrieves
The patriotism of a pair of thieves.

What made the crime so heinous was that he was beaten to death in jail by prisoners who “hated commies.” Strangely enough, it doesn’t seem nearly as reassuring as in the first poem to discover that some things never seem to change, that some government officials seem more than ready to foment hatred to promote their own aims, to condone the killing of the “other” because it suits their purposes.

Nemerov’s “The Snow Globe”

I’ll have to admit that I find it difficult to identify with much of Nemerov’s rather dark vision in his early poems, at least those before 1960. Even the title Salt Garden suggests a bareness I’ve seldom felt in my life.

Even though I don’t share his vision, I can identify with poems like this one:

THE SNOW GLOBE
A long time ago, when I was a child,
They left my light on while I went to sleep,
As though they would have wanted me beguiled
By brightness if at all; dark was too deep.
And they left me one toy, a village white
With the fresh snow and silently in glass
Frozen forever. But if you shook it,
The snow would rise up in the rounded space
And from the limits of the universe
Snow itself down again. 0 world of white,
First home of dreams! Now that I have my dead,
I want so cold an emblem to rehearse
How many of them have gone from the world's light,
As I have gone, too, from my snowy bed.

I’m old enough to have been fascinated with snow globes as a child, probably because I identify them with Christmas and because my family never owned one, a deficiency I’ve more than remedied in the last few years.

Unfortunately, like Nemerov, I’ve never recaptured the innocent joy they used to bring, and I keep them around more in hopes that they will inspire similar hopes in my grandchildren than any hope they will rekindle my own.

Though I fear it’s not true, I’d like to believe this is a universal feeling, that all children share this ability to dream bright dreams. I’m sure my happy childhood has helped me to get through some rough times and made it possible to believe that there is always hope for better times ahead.

Nemerov’s “Sonnet at Easter”

Though I still haven’t found a particular poem that I like enough to want to memorize, it is interesting to read Nemerov’s viewpoint of the the world in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I didn’t really realize until today that Nemerov was Jewish, though I’m sure that must have given him a unique viewpoint of World War II.

Perhaps it helps to explain why many of his poems about Europe remind me of Henry James’ novels, watching the intellectual and moral decay that slowly ate away at European culture. It’s the anti-Victorianism that Pirsig noted in Lila.

I doubt many Christian poets could have written this poem:

SONNET AT EASTER

You splice together two broomsticks, then reef
A tie (a Christmas present) at the throat.
A hat must rattle on the knob, a coat
Keep warm the chest (for he has little beef).
You set this person up disguised as you
And let him flap. He hangs lonely as grief.
His wraithless hull, no blood and no belief,
Your children don’t despise but your crows do.

He is a habit now, perennial,
One of your pieties. You plant him deep,
And though you have no earthly use for him
You dress him in your father’s coat, and call
Good Evening sometimes when the light is dim,
Seeing he stands for you in upright sleep.

On the literal level, of course, this is simply a poem about a scarecrow. The poet begins by telling you how to create one. The title, though, suggests it’s about more than a scarecrow. Even though many people put scarecrows up to keep crows away from their garden seeds in Spring, I’ve never heard anyone call it their “Easter scarecrow.”

In what sense is he “disguised as you?” And why is he as “lonely as grief?” Is it true that “He is a habit now, perennial, One of your pieties?” Ever wonder why Easter Sunday draws such huge crowds?

Is it true that we have “no earthly use for him?” Do you suppose the Nazis had “a use for him?”