Thursday, May 6, 2010


I've been thinking about Howard Nemerov, and how big a fan of his poetry I was as a graduate student in the 1980s, when my friend Laura and I attended a poetry conference downtown at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. There were all kinds of big names there--including Katha Pollitt, Carolyn Forche, and Andrei Codrescue--and then there was Howard, skulking out at the same time as the graduate students to walk the downtown streets towards the Metro stop, and giving us paranoid looks over his shoulder as we seemed to follow him. I would have loved to have gone up to him and expressed my undying admiration, but clearly that wasn't an option.

Why have I been thinking about that conference? Because of an article in this month's Writer's Chronicle entitled "Darth Howard, Ashurbanipal & a Defense of Poetry," in which the author, David Wojohn, recounts the experience of acting as Nemerov's assistant at a Breadloaf Writer's Conference in the mid-1990s: "the Nemerov that I saw during those weeks was embittered and misanthropic. The charitable characterization would be curmudgeonly, and in some respects, Nemerov was expected to act this way--he was the conference's elder poet, trying to fill the shoes of Frost, that most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons, and his great Breadloaf predecessor." Wojohn sees how "it pained him to see students so wrong-headed and so ill-read, to have to teach people who had no knowledge of poetry written before about 1970." In short, he paints a portrait of Nemerov as an embittered human being.

I like to think that Nemerov's old-fashioned manners would have kept him from publicly expressing his disdain for naive readings of his poems preserved in the comments section of blog posts, but he was certainly capable of spewing vitriol. Wojohn observes that "the sorts of gestures that might have worked in one of Howard's satirical epigrams came across as boorish when practiced on human subjects."

Here is a satirical poem in which all the gestures seem to me to work perfectly. You don't have to be a genius to "get" this poem, but it took a certain kind of genius to be able to articulate this in the late 1950s:


Oliver wanted to write about reality.
He sat before a wooden table,
He poised his wooden pencil
Above his pad of wooden paper,
And attempted to think about agony
and history, and the meaning of history,
And all stuff like that there.

Suddenly this wooden thought got in his head:
A Tree. That's all, no more than that,
Just one tree, not even a note
As to whether it was deciduous
Or evergreen, or even where it stood.
Still, because it came unbidden,
It was inspiration, and had to be dealt with.

Oliver hoped that this particular tree
Would turn out to be fashionable,
The axle of the universe, maybe,
Or some other mythologically
Respectable tree-contraption
With dryads, or having to do
With the knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Fall.

"A Tree," he wrote down with his wooden pencil
Upon his pad of wooden paper
Supported by the wooden table.
And while he sat there waiting
For what would come next to come next,
The whole wooden house began to become
Silent, particularly silent, sinisterly so.

We can admire the seeming carelessness of the line "And all stuff like that there," and the brilliance of the oblique reference to Joyce Kilmer's most famous poem, and the cruel humor of the ending, in which the would-be poet starts to perceive he has been played by what he regarded as his instruments.

And we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we never came across this poet's field of vision for long enough that he actually turned his burning gaze our way and made an Example of Us.


Harriet said...

Oh, that's fabulous.

Lass said...

I second Harriet. What a great poem!

FreshHell said...

Yep. :)

PAJ said...

I've been waiting for this post. Well done, my friend.

lemming said...

I have only oozed my deep admiration to one writer, and I am deeply fortunate that she was kind, gracious and humble.

That's it; I'm done! :-)

(for the record: historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich)

Jenny said...

Oo, I love it. It's very simple all the way through and then the last line is really quite chilling.

Lauras said...

I still remember him, tall, a white crew cut, a long multi-colored scarf wrapped around his neck in summer. He couldn't get away from us fast enough. We surmised it was in search of a drink.

"The same dream that then flared before intelligence
When light first went forth looking for the eye."

Anonymous said...

I like this.

Cschu said...

Great poem! And I liked your comments about Nemerov and about the poem. Thanks.