Anticipating the Plutzik Series’ 50th Anniversary Exhibition at the U of R, which will open in Fall 2012–over the coming months, we’ll occasionally discuss the work of a Reader from the Series’ roster of nearly 300 acclaimed and award-winning poets, novelists, playwrights, and essayists. This week’s poet is Howard Nemerov, who gave a reading in the Plutzik Series in 1963. Both the Exhibition project AND this blog series are open to creative contributions by UR students and alumni—visit the Exhibition page for more information.
According to many critics, Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) is a prime example of that mid-to-late-century generation of American poets who had to contend with the ecliptic influence of the Moderns.* For much of his early work, wrote Peter Meinke in his study Howard Nemerov, the poet was “writing Eliot, Yeats, and Stevens out of his system” in order to find his own voice, which manifests in the contemplative, quiet lyricism of his later verse. Reviewing his Collected Poems (1977), Helen Vendler wrote that as “the echoes of the grand maitres fade, the poems get steadily better,” and in a review of Nemerov’s third collection, Hayden Carruth declared that “steady improvement, I take it, is one sign of formidable ability.” Nemerov’s ability was well-recognized: The Collected Poems won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and Nemerov served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1988 to 1990.
Some of Nemerov’s early poems strike me as moments of promise for their deadly serious humor, if nothing else. I especially like this one, from his first book, The Image and the Law (1947):
A Chromium-plated Hat: Inlaid with Scenes from Siegfried
Choreography by the New York Times Book Review
Greatness. Warmth, and human insight. Music.
But greatness. The greatness of Socrates
And Dante and Alexander Woollcott, and the
True charm of Horatio Alger, Jr. Also,
The greatness of eighteen-year-old-girls,
The warmth of retired corporation lawyers,
The impossibility of having enough books
About truth. The important thing is
The relation of truth to our time to Kitty Foyle.
In addition, music. It is good to have music,
But not at the expense of greatness:
Better to be truly great and unmusical.
If you are merely musical you are probably
Not one of the great authors. The place
Of the glorious few is in that case
Not for you, but for Thomas B. Costain,
Who is welcome here almost any time.
To sum up, the truth of the matter is,
Quoting William Lyon Phelps, “There is
No masterpiece like Lohengrin, that
Masterpiece,” and it may be better anyhow
To have human warmth than greatness:
Like Grandpa, who sat by the fire all
Winter long, in a buffalo rug with fleas.
Here, in parodying the popular literary critique of his day, Nemerov is playing the terribly serious humorist, a role which he continues to develop throughout his career into late poems such as the incisive “Learning the Trees.” He holds up the vanity of assessments of greatness, when that term can as easily be applied to Dante, the great medieval Italian poet and author of the Divine Comedy; Alexander Woollcott, a vituperative radio personality renowned in the 1920s and 30s; or “eighteen-year-old-girls”–wait, what kind of greatness are we talking about, here?
The opening laundry list of general, abstract terms (“Greatness. Warmth, and human insight. Music”) has no specific context, only the general smorgasbord of Humanities offered by the title and epigraph: decorative arts (an “inlaid,” “chromium-plated hat”), opera (“scenes from Siegfried”), dance (“Choreography”) and literary discourse (“The New York Times Book Review”). After a few lines of random, abstract iteration, the poem shifts into stilted, arbitrary formulations of those abstracts, and further name-dropping: “The place / Of the glorious few is in that case / Not for you, but for Thomas B. Costain, / Who is welcome here almost any time.” The genial tone here is an instance of Nemerov’s early penchant for irony: it is at once honest and inviting in its “welcome,” yet as holier-than-thou as the ivory tower in its deftly qualifying “almost.” His irony is especially acute because Nemerov is a sympathetic satirist, an unabashed participant in the conversation he lampoons.
The line, “The impossibility of having enough books / about truth” reminds me of a line from Moby-Dick: “Though of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty,” which seems a fair account of Nemerov’s view in this poem; the talkers are talking, and what they say is sweeping, redundant, useless: “No masterpiece like Lohengrin, that / Masterpiece.” The poem’s brilliance lies in its sudden turn, in the last two lines, to a deeply human and compelling image: “Like Grandpa, who sat by the fire all / Winter long, in a buffalo rug with fleas.” In this image the poem is looking for the aforementioned “human warmth” which, the poem concedes, “it may be better anyhow / To have…than greatness”. In that image the “human warmth” is again ambiguous—not morally or politically so, as it was of “retired corporation lawyers;” here the ambiguity involves the difference between figurative and literal senses of human warmth. “Grandpa” is a term of endearment: so it is the warmth of human affection, the warmth of love for another; “the fire,” the “buffalo rug,” even the “fleas” convey the second sense, that of actual, bodily warmth as an independent need.
This kind of ambiguity is Nemerov’s forte. Both are meant, and both reinforce the point; in a discussion of what is important, “human warmth” will always win over artistic “greatness,” which by comparison seems an utterly useless and vain conversation. But the finally disturbing and seemingly irremediable dilemma is that the point has been the stuff of a poem, the very thing about whose greatness we are (says Nemerov, the poet himself) being so vain. And that, I think, is precisely why the poem is so damn funny.
Phillip A. Witte
*For an insightful biography and survey of criticism, visit the Poetry Foundation’s Howard Nemerov page.