Remembering the life of the author and poet

In memory of Howard Nemerov

Not all writers are created equal. A few have ridiculous amounts of talent. Poet Howard Nemerov was one of those happy few. Author of 27 books, Nemerov rejected the idea that writers must specialize. Novels, stories, plays, essays, and poems flowed from his pen in awesome abundance. Internationally known as a poet, he excelled in every literary genre. Had he never published a line of verse, he would still have been a celebrated writer.

On July 5, Nemerov died at 71 in a St. Louis suburb. Although he modestly described himself as a ”respected minor poet,” the reverential obituaries confirmed Nemerov’s status as a major literary figure. He had won every important honor America offers a poet — the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Bollingen. Ronald Reagan gave Nemerov (who once wrote a poem satirizing the President) the National Medal of the Arts. The Library of Congress appointed him America’s third poet laureate.

Despite his St. Louis address and Washington connections, Nemerov was born a New Yorker. The son of a wealthy businessman, he attended prep school and then Harvard. When World War II erupted, however, he abandoned academia to become a pilot — first for the Canadian RAF and later for the U.S. Air Force. Eventually Nemerov became a professor, but his perspective on literature was grounded in the grim reality of having seen many talented fellow pilots die in their youth.

Nemerov’s poetry never indulged in romantic illusions, and he usually mixed his hard lessons with humor. His most quoted line of verse aptly sums up his dark wit: ”The light at the end of the tunnel is the train.” Humor also characterized his personal life. He could never resist a joke, even those at his own expense. His press conferences as poet laureate were sheer stand-up comedy. Asked to describe his prestigious position, he replied, ”I’m sort of a combination emcee and doorman. Maybe I’ll have a uniform made.”

To discover the late laureate’s delightful diversity, pick up A Howard Nemerov Reader, just published by the University of Missouri. Selecting his most memorable poems, stories, and essays, the Reader also reprints his comic novel, Federigo, a delicious sexual satire. Did one man really write everything in this dazzling volume? Yes, one whose absence leaves American literature a duller place. But let the poet have the final word:

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.