Attending: Howard Nemerov

Howard Nemerov (1920-1991)

Writing poetry requires reading it—otherwise, how will you challenge yourself to reach something original and how will you know if you’ve accomplished it?  Yet, I understand why reading poetry can be intimidating.  Some poetry seems so well written that it’s well out of reach for me.  Some poets shame me with endlessly perfect decisions about diction, syntax, imagery, and metaphor.

Their impossible standards wouldn’t bother me so much if I could call them stupid, but when I meet a poet who’s doing what I’m doing—only much better—it’s disconcerting.

The name of this blog comes from a poem written by such a poet. Howard Nemerov, the careful craftsman, could never accept “good enough” and salts every poem with apt description, tuned phrasing, and illuminating discoveries.  To demonstrate, here’s a short poem called “The Beautiful Lawn Sprinkler”:

What gives it power makes it change its mind
At each extreme, and lean its rising rain
Down low, first one and then the other way;
In which exchange humility and pride
Reverse, forgive, arise, and die again,
Wherefore it holds at both ends of the day
The rainbow in it scattering grains of spray.

Some poets reject Nemerov’s formality—his meter and rhyme, his “in which” and “wherefore,” his inversions and semi-colons.  As in much of his work, however, these elements fit and extend his observations, demonstrating his absolute and deliberate authority. The rigidity of this poem communicates the stiffness of the sprinkler as line breaks serve to move your eye back and forth, starting where they ought to end and ending where they start again.  And the poem isn’t just technically proficient either.  In something as simple—but mesmerizing—as the sprinkler, Nemerov finds familiarity, resonance, and surprise.  He describes the sprinkler vividly enough, but he also leads us to humility, pride, forgiveness, and rebirth.  He finishes with a grace note, the metaphor of water droplets as “grains of spray,” wet and dry all at once, both extremes embodied in a simultaneously novel and recognizable image.

Though “resourceful” is a word many contemporary poets might run from, Nemerov embraces it. If I could write one poem like the one above, I might be satisfied, but Nemerov holds to his standard.  Each poem is good for a few flashes of discovery: bones as “cantilevered,” wet grass beneath a removed storm window “like seaweed on the tide” or “blades of wheat,” and lobsters as “gigantic spiders that spin not.”  He revitalizes every ordinary.  The clouds are “bellied,” and the heart is a web where, as this blog notes, every vibration is a “signal to attend.”  Nemerov seems undaunted by his ambition to awe.  His faith seems unshakable—he will eventually find exactly the right answer.

When I collect my poetry and read it together, I find the same words cropping up everywhere, one soupy serious tone, and habits of composition that seem to me much too obvious. I see the places where I needed something special and satisfied for something serviceable.

Howard Nemerov’s poem “Poetic” centers on an old joke—a housewife doing her wash decides to add the clothes she’s wearing, and, when a leaky pipe starts dripping on her head, she puts on her son’s football helmet.  When the meter reader arrives and sees her there, he says, “Lady, I sure hope your team wins.”  The story is a parable of Nemerov’s poetics and a window into his approach.  “A story many times told in many ways,” he says, is “a set of random accidents redeemed/by one more accident, as though chaos / were the order that was there before creation came.”  Reading his poems, you sense he played around and played around, encountering accident after accident, looking for the one discovery that would redeem all the fumbling and reveal the order in the chaos.

One of the ways children arrest their progress as artists is to rely on conventions that save them the tedium and trouble of finding a fresh way to render what’s there.  A bent “L” will make a nose, a line drawn between the legs of a stick figure creates a skirt.  In a similar sense, poets—myself included—can fall into what has worked before instead of sorting through the endless possibilities and facing the bottomless contingencies of composition.  In contrast, “Poetics” describes a joke—and I think also a poem—as “A disappointment satisfied.”  A writer needs considerable tolerance for disappointment to reach satisfaction. It ‘s fiddling with a stubborn key until you find just right pressure, position, and timing to start the engine.

Style, Nemerov said, “Is the fire that eats what it illuminates,” and pure style can become pure convention, not a sincere response to the difficulty of writing poetry but an antidote for it.  And nothing is more devastating than discovering your own style, the ways you abandoned your standards instead of riding the subject until it’s truly yours.

Nemerov’s secret was understanding process as the thing itself, a series of unforeseen events with their own logic and direction that mysteriously led to something much greater than the difficulties along the way.  He says it best himself—naturally—in a poem called “Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry”:

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

I may have to flap my wings furiously to soar as Nemerov did but still hope to fly.

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1 Comment

Filed under Art, Blogging, Essays, Genius, Howard Nemerov, Laments, life, Meditations, Poetry, Resolutions, Thoughts, Tributes, Work, Writing

One response to “Attending: Howard Nemerov

  1. Peter Newton

    That sprinkler poem from Nemerov . . . what a gift. Great post.
    –Peter

    Thanks, Peter. Nemerov wrote a number of great poems on ordinary objects, but that is one of my favorites. Here’s another. It’s often anthologized, for the best reasons…

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