Howard Nemerov (NEHM-eh-rawf), a quiet and little-heralded poet throughout much of his life, was born to wealthy Jewish parents who were interested in the arts. Later Nemerov developed an ambivalent attitude toward his relatively protected and privileged childhood. He attended Fieldston School, a preparatory school, and after his graduation in 1937 went on to Harvard University, where he received his B.A. in 1941. After Pearl Harbor, Nemerov enlisted, serving as a pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force Coastal Command and then joining the Eighth United States Army Air Corps. He served in England in 1944 and 1945, and his experience of World War II’s destruction left enduring impressions that colored his first books of poetry. During this time, he fell in love with an Englishwoman, Margaret Russell, and they married in 1944. Nemerov began his academic career in 1946, teaching English at Hamilton College in upstate New York. His first book of poetry, The Image and the Law, was published in 1947, and the following year he moved to Bennington College in Vermont, where he remained for eighteen years. From 1963 to 1964, he was the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, and after leaving Bennington he taught in a variety of schools, including Washington University in St. Louis.
Nemerov was slow to gain renown. In his first two collections of poetry, his early influences–the views of the New Criticism and the work of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens–are clearly apparent. It was with his third book of poetry, The Salt Garden, that he established his own voice. A widely anthologized poem, the wryly humorous “The Goose Fish,” is from this volume. Nemerov’s ability to use humor in his poetry was one of his particular gifts; he deftly combined the serious and the comic, the simple and the ironic. Nemerov developed an individual style, in which he showed an affinity for well-established metrical patterns and the careful use of rhyme. His subject was often nature–trees, water, autumn, and animals–and he balanced the simple joy of clear description with a Symbolist’s desire to ascribe meaning to the world. He wrote of childhood, the passage of time, and the relationships among the world, art, and language itself. “The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar’s House,” for example, stemmed from his admiration for Paul Klee’s art. He also addressed current events, as in The Blue Swallows; Nemerov was at Brandeis University, near Boston, during the period of protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s. Three phases of Nemerov’s life contributed to the creation of his poetic voice: his childhood in New York City, his World War II experiences, and his discovery of nature as an adult, during the years he taught in rural Vermont.
Nemerov received many prizes and accolades during his career, among them the Theodore Roethke Memorial Award in 1968 and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1970. The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov earned for him both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and in May, 1988, Nemerov was named poet laureate of the United States. He was the third person (succeeding Robert Penn Warren and Richard Wilbur) to be named to the post, which was created in 1986. In addition to poetry, Nemerov wrote short stories, essays, and three novels, one of which, the satirical The Homecoming Game, was subsequently made into a play and a film. Critics and other poets have written admiringly of his work and praised him for being an expert craftsman and a writer with wit, intelligence, and humor. Nemerov died in 1991 at the age of seventy-one.