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The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov

By Howard Nemerov

Original and Current Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Ross Gay writes:

Preparing these entries has been an interesting opportunity to think about prizes, and how the winners of those prizes get chosen.  Howard Nemerov’s Collected Poems won the National Book Award in 1978 over the individual volumes of Marvin Bell, Michael Harper, Barbara Howes, and Charles Simic.  I’m curious, I think, how often someone’s collected poems is determined “the best” of that year’s books, and maybe further, I’m interested in what “the best” means.  Obviously, the prize-granting institutions are in the business of defining “the best,” so perhaps this is the place to consider this, at least a little.

The books that have most often been considered “best” by the National Book Foundation are, not surprisingly, written by white men.  (Only 13 of the nearly 60 winners are not white men.)  Additionally, a good percentage of the winners (not quite half) have been the Collected or Selected of so-and-so (between 1950-1955 all but one winner was a collected or selected, for example).  Does this actually mean that, say, Howard Nemerov’s Collected was the best book of poems that year?  Or does it mean that Howard Nemerov’s life-long contribution to the art was so substantial that the Collected, a kind of symbol of that work (which at 516 pages, sometimes more than a poem a page, constitutes a good bit of it) rather than an individual volume of poems, deserves the honor?  And if it means the latter, how ought we feel about the award?  In other words, do we really believe that the book itself—how it moves us, how it travels from page to page, its individual great poems, the innovations or perfections or explorations, or struggles, its deepest questions, and all the things we often think about when writing the poems that will become a book—was the best book of the year?  Do we?  I’m guessing that most often readers don’t feel that a collected is the best book of the year, but rather the most important, or even the most useful: “at last, we have them all in one place,” or, “yes, they’ve earned it.”  Maybe the test would be this: how often is a collected more valuable (by which I mean you’ve read it to shreds and could barely part with it) to you than an individual volume or two of the same poet’s?  I know my answer.  Not often. 

There is another function of the collected, which is its literary historical utility—with the collected you can walk right through the poet’s many volumes, referring back and forth easily, witnessing the development and change all in one big book.  And that’s precisely what Howard Nemerov’s Collected afforded me: the opportunity to hold the whole body of his poetry at once.  Nemerov was prodigiously productive, writing dozens of books of poetry, fiction, and criticism.  Additionally, during his life he won nearly every major literary prize there was to win, including the Theodore Roethke Award, the Pulitzer, the Bollingen, the National Medal for the Arts, and, of course, the National Book Award.  Additionally, he served a term as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, and another as Poet Laureate (the spruced up title of the same position).  This is all to say that during his life he was a bit of a giant. 

The first book included in the Collected, The Image and the Law, is from 1947, and the last, The Western Approaches, from 1975.  There are seven books in between.  The earliest poems that are most moving to me are ones that seem to derive from Nemerov’s experience as a pilot in World War II.  They tend to veer away from grand poetic ideas of some of the earlier work and land more on particular, individual experience or perception, like the following: 

For the Squadron

236th Coastal, Royal Air Force

A salt weather on the East River
Where it runs with bristling spine
Between the towns.
                                       An ocean day,
And they are taking the guns
Off the ships.
                        We fought the war
From places called North Coates and
Skegness, and saw the Danish coast
And Heligoland like a gunboat
On the shallow sea.  That time
Is gone, they repaint the ships
Gay colors.
                          Yet here the sea
floods in among us, black, silent,
Moving ever its continual cover.

The water in every ocean, like
The blood in one body, ever
Equalizing pressure and level.

Of Middlemas and Prince, then…
Resting forever behind their
Four smashed and rusting guns.

In this same water.

That subtle and moving stanza in which the “sea / floods in,” and the poem as a whole, is such a potent reminder of how the violence that a war enacts on its participants does not simply disappear, even if the war ships are gussied up.  Lest we forget as we send our young people to die.  A recent Harper’s Index reports that while 455 American soldiers died in combat last year, at least 407 committed suicide.  Another poem that moves me similarly is “Grand Central, With Soldiers, In Early Morning”: 

These secretly are going to some place,
Packing their belted, serviceable hearts.
It is the earnest wish of this command
That they may go in stealth and leave no trace,
In early morning before business starts.

But Nemerov is by no means simply a war poet.  He is a poet deeply entrenched in history, literary and otherwise.  His is also an intellectual poetry that can be purely playful, as in “Mystery Story”:

Formal as minuet or sonnet,
It zeroes in on the guilty one;
But by the time I’m told who done it,
I can’t remember what he done.

Or sharply ironic, as in “Morning Sun”:

How many more this morning are there dead of
The peace I came to bring a sword instead of? 

Additionally, the kind of formal meticulousness for which Nemerov was known feels most interesting when he’s using it to pull more taut the rhythms of common speech, as in the poem, “The Beekeeper Speaks,” the first section of which concludes:

…The best of them
Will last out maybe six weeks of the season,
Doing the apple’s business for his drink,
Until, exhausted, or with a broken wing,
He falls; and when he falls his fellow workers
Team up in tandem to bear him from the hive
And drop him in a field to starve to death:
There’s that much nonsense to a hive of bees.

In Howard Nemerov’s Collected Poems is the better part of a productive life of poetry.  And this is part of the great benefit of the collected.  While it might not actually be the best book of poetry published in a given year, and likely is not the individual’s best book of poetry either, it does allow you to hold a whole literary life in your hands, to watch that life as it begins, evolves, and as it comes closer to an end.   

Ross Gay’s books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming January 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists’ books, including The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT, and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue. Gay received his MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his PhD in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University’s English department. (Photo credit: Zach Hetrick)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Marvin Bell for Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See
  • Michael S. Harper for Images of Kin
  • Barbara Howes for A Private Signal
  • Charles Simic for Charon's Cosmology

Poetry Judges that Year: Daniel Halpern, Grace Schulman, Theodore Weiss

The Year in Literature:

  • The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • William Meredith was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was born in New York, NY.
  • Photographer Diane Arbus was Nemerov’s sister.

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