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:


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.

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