Authors: John Frederick Nims

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


Five Young American Poets: Third Series, 1944 (with others)

The Iron Pastoral, 1947

A Fountain in Kentucky, and Other Poems, 1950

Knowledge of the Evening: Poems, 1950-1960, 1960

Of Flesh and Bone, 1967

Selected Poems, 1982

The Kiss: A Jambalaya, 1982

The Six-Cornered Snowflake, and Other Poems, 1990

Zany in Denim, 1990

The Powers of Heaven and Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2002


Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, 1974, 1983

A Local Habitation: Essays on Poetry, 1985


Andromache in The Complete Greek Tragedies, 1959

The Poems of St. John of the Cross, 1959, 1968, 1979

Sappho to Valéry: Poems in Translation, 1971, 1980, 1990

The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, 1998

Edited Texts:

The Poem Itself, 1960 (with Stanley Burnshaw and others)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation 1567, 1965

James Shirley’s “Love’s Cruelty,” 1980

The Harper Anthology of Poetry, 1981


John Frederick Nims will be remembered primarily for his stint as editor of the influential Poetry magazine, the longest-running uninterrupted poetry magazine in the world. In addition, Nims established himself as at least a partial proponent of the formalist school of poetry, together with such poets as Dana Gioia and John Hollander. Nims taught in the graduate program of the University of Illinois, Chicago, for many years, but he was also visiting professor at the universities of Milan, Florida, and South Carolina, Williams College, and Harvard University. His teaching was related to his editing and writing, and he taught graduate students the elements of poetry in translation. Nims was one of the chief American translators of poetry; quite versatile, he translated works from Greek, German, French, Italian, and other languages.{$I[AN]9810001743}{$I[A]Nims, John Frederick}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Nims, John Frederick}{$I[tim]1913;Nims, John Frederick}

Though a recipient of the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize in 1942 and a nominee for a National Book Award in 1960, Nims was recognized for his contributions to the world of poetry late in his career, mostly after his retirement from teaching, after his editing of The Harper Anthology of Poetry, and after his departure from Poetry. On several occasions, the urbane and witty poet noted the ironies of his career, and most of The Kiss is meant to be ironic.

The Nims family can be traced at least as far back as seventeenth century Massachusetts; in the eighteenth century, five of the six children of Godfrey Nims were slaughtered by French-led Indians from Canada. The sole survivor was taken to Canada. Nims himself was born in Muskegon, Michigan, and attended a private school in Chicago. He went to De Paul University for two years and then to Notre Dame, graduating with degrees in English and Latin in 1937. Nims completed his graduate work at the University of Chicago in 1945, earning a Ph.D. in comparative literature.

Nims was an adept teacher of poetry and leader of workshops, often noting the problems with entire schools of contemporary poetry. He was also a hardy successor to Henry Rago at the helm of Poetry (Nims started there in 1945), often eschewing his own personal politics to present a full range of poetry in the magazine. The Harper anthology presents a similarly wide-ranging selection, and its introduction allows one a glimpse into Nims’s world. Nims’s first exposure to poetry occurred when he was about four, listening to his father singing. Years later, he studied Emily Dickinson’s actual manuscripts at Harvard’s Widener Library “as much out of devotion as scholarship.” It took Nims fifteen years to finish editing the Harper anthology.

Nims’s own poetry is wrapped in urbane and witty argument and irony, all the while utilizing formalist techniques in most of the poems. A Fountain in Kentucky suggested, upon publication, an able new poetic voice. An interesting aspect of Nims’s growth is that the early poems resemble the later poems in The Kiss and The Six-Cornered Snowflake, in form if not in thesis. Selected Poems is probably the volume to which students and scholars should first turn to understand the complexity of Nims’s poetry. Formal poems abound in the collection, but also represented are a number of free-verse poems.

However, the poems in The Kiss show Nims continuing to use poetry as a riposte regarding current concerns and issues. The long poem with which that book opens, “The Observatory Ode,” was the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Poem of 1978. It is concerned with the relations between reason and imagination, between science and poetry, and it uses the format of the conventional ode.

Nims was very interested in translating poetry and plays (translating Greek plays is essentially the same as translating poetry). Long into his retirement, he continued his translation work. Nims’s most interesting translations were of the Provençal medieval languages and of Greek and Latin. His work with French poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Valéry, and Paul Éluard remain the standard for scholars. Nims selected the poems for The Powers of Heaven and Earth shortly before his death at eighty-five in 1999.

BibliographyCiardi, John. Mid-Century American Poets. New York: Twayne, 1950. Ciardi sets his article on Nims among fourteen others describing the lives and work of Ciardi’s contemporaries in the mid-twentieth century. One of the few biographical sketches of Nims.Epstein, Joseph. “John Frederick Nims and the Divine Silliness of Words.” Sewanee Review 107, no. 3 (Summer, 1999): 476-478. In an article written shortly after Nims’s death, Epstein describes how Nims gloried in the beauteous oddity of words and took great pleasure in food, friends, and quotidian pleasures.Fulton, Alice. “On the Plains of Fancy.” Poetry 159, no. 1 (October, 1991): 32. American plain style, by definition valuing the language of least resistance, has a rich tradition. Fulton examines the plain style in “The Six-Cornered Snowflake” and “Zany in Denim” by Nims.Kennedy, X. J. “John Nims and His Multitudes.” Harvard Review, Spring, 1994. Poet Kennedy examines Nims’s poetics from a temporal vantage point affording a perspective on the poet’s oeuvre.Nims, John Frederick. A Local Habitation: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985. Nims builds a clear picture of his philosophy of poetry in this collection of sixteen essays. He addresses both ancient and modern poets, from Ovid to Robert Frost. Very helpful to any student of Nims’s work.
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