Literary Treasures: Howard Nemerov Memorial Reading, 1991

The following is a guest post by Joyce Hida, a summer intern in the Poetry and Literature Center. It is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Howard Nemerov, 1920-1991.

In my last “Literary Treasures” blog post, I commented on Joseph Brodsky’s acute ability to build the culture of a poetry reading. Here, I’d like to explore the inverse: how a poetry reading builds a poet—or rather, rebuilds him—in the collective memory. The reading in question is the Howard Nemerov Memorial Reading at the Library of Congress in October 1991. Nemerov, a former Consultant in Poetry (a position now known as Poet Laureate), had passed away July 5th of that same year to cancer.

Nemerov was a WWII veteran. This was often an inspiration for his poetry, which even culminated in a collection titled War Stories: Poems About Long Ago and Now. Yet, the readers who gathered to memorialize Nemerov—Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Reed Whittemore, and Alexander Nemerov—chose not to share the poet’s poems explicitly about war; in selecting their poems for the event, they instead seem to trade the overtly political for the deeply personal. The sliding scale of the readers’ intimacy with Nemerov—ranging from colleagues (Kumin and Brooks), to his best friend (Whittemore), to his son (Alexander Nemerov)—only serves to strengthen the emphasis on personal poems. Perhaps these personal poems were chosen because, just like war, if we focus solely on the general events that surround Nemerov’s poetry, we miss the local tensions, the desperate infighting, and the messy intimacies that fuel so much of it.

The reading begins with Maxine Kumin, Consultant in Poetry from 1981 to 1982. While her connection with Howard Nemerov was mostly professional, she shares a few tender moments—including the moment that inspired Nemerov’s incredibly successful poem “The Consent.” She describes taking a walk with Nemerov after being invited to his St. Louis house for a traditional English roast: “He took me down the campus walk lined with Ginkgo trees. Here’s his poem about the Ginkos, ‘The Consent’.” (10:07) As Gwendolyn Brooks (Consultant in Poetry 1985 to 1986) continues the reading, she spends her time describing Nemerov’s nature. She shares an anecdote of a long drive to the airport with Nemerov during which they shared their genuine thoughts on other writers; upon recounting her encounters with Nemerov, she characterizes him as “essentially kind.” During her time on stage, Brooks also reads one of her own poems, “He Grew Up Being Curious” (30:39), which she had originally written about a friend who died in WWII with Brooks’s poems in his pocket—but, as she admits, the poem “serves Howard Nemerov amazingly well.” There is something wonderful about this moment, proving that it’s not only the poems written by the poet in question that can build the memory of the poet, but the ones that are written about or simply applied to him as well.

Reed Whittemore, the third former Consultant in Poetry in the reading and Nemerov’s closest friend, expands upon and tackles the messiness of Nemerov’s personality—how he could be both inspiring and constantly irked by the mundanity of daily life. Says Whittemore, “On the one hand he could be very kind, generous, warm … and on the other hand he could be quite the opposite. I think this poem represents the opposite.” (34:15). He then chooses poems by Nemerov that illustrate this conflict: “Life Cycle of Common Man” (34:40) and “A Primer of the Daily Round” (37:42). It’s interesting, too, that while Nemerov gripes in those poems—“He did . . . ? What? The usual things, of course / The eating, dreaming, drinking and begetting” (34:40)—Whittemore later points out the more detailed perspectives Nemerov often took. “What he did was abandon looking at all those old ruins in the desert… the sort of thing I was interested in… He was not so much concerned with all those old ruins as he was with the ruins right around him… what he called ‘familiar ruins’.” (43:47) Nemerov himself became more and more concerned in his work with the personal over the external, especially after writing several novels that were, in Whittemore’s words, “almost autobiographical.” Perhaps Whittemore says it best in the reading when he ends his tribute with, “Do you see how he did it? He had to go all the way back into himself, not to Ozymandias or the wastes of the desert.” It only makes sense, then, that Whittemore too would choose to memorialize the “familiar ruins” of Nemerov’s poems over any external desert wastelands.

The final reader of the memorial event is Nemerov’s son, Alexander. The reading’s focus on the personal and the intimate quite literally materializes in front of the audience as Alexander Nemerov begins to read, as he is quite often the subject of his father’s poems. The first poem Alexander Nemerov reads, “September, The First Day of School” (53:23), is about his first day of school. The second, “Big Red ‘79” (1:00:09), is a rather unknown poem Howard Nemerov wrote about their shared love for the St. Louis Cardinals football team. Though this is the actual subject of the poem, Alexander acknowledges that it always reminds him of another instance in his life in which he copied down his father’s opinions on Robert Browning for a paper, and received a C on it for being “too pretentious.” Says Alexander, “My father was at times too kind to me in matters academic… and the upshot of it was that he didn’t think too much of this particular poem.” The evolving dynamic of Nemerov as father as represented in the poems Alexander chooses to elaborate upon reveal much about Nemerov’s personality and, in the case of the Browning story, how large of a role poetry played in his family life.

Perhaps, though, it is Alexander Nemerov’s reading of one of Howard Nemerov’s last published poems, “The End of the Opera” (1:07:05), that best sums up why the event’s readers selected such personal, intimate poems. The poem begins, “Knowing that what he witnessed was only art / He never wept while the show was going on / But the curtain call could always make him cry.” A Poet Laureate is the face of poetry for a nation’s people, but they are not actors. They are to be, above all, unequivocally human, and, as Gwendolyn Brooks says, “essentially kind.” Howard Nemerov was Poet Laureate. Nemerov was a WWII veteran. Nemerov did not look too long at ancient ruins. Nemerov had too much to say about Robert Browning. Nemerov was “essentially kind.”

Below is the full timestamped index of the Howard Nemerov Memorial Reading. All poems read during the recording were written by Howard Nemerov, except where indicated otherwise:

Read by Maxine Kumin:

  • “Storm Windows” (6:03)
  • “At the Airport” (8:42)
  • “The Consent” (10:20)
  • “Answering Back” (11:29)
  • “To the Congress of the United States Upon Entering its Third Century” (12:50)
  • “By Al Lebowitz’s pool, pt. 5” (15:21)

Read by Gwendolyn Brooks:

  • “The Map-Maker on His Art” (18:49)
  • “Writing” (21:09)
  • “The Remorse for Time” (24:22)
  • “Ozymandias” (25:45)
  • “Ozymandias II” (26:17)
  • “He Grew Up Being Curious” by Gwendolyn Brooks (30:39)

Read by Reed Whittemore:

  • “Life Cycle of Common Man” (34:40)
  • “A Primer of the Daily Round” (37:42)
  • “The View from the Attic Window, pt. II” (40:30)
  • “The Mud Turtle” (48:30)

Read by Alexander Nemerov:

  • “September, the First Day of School” (53:23)
  • “Big Red ’79” (1:00:09)
  • “The Goosefish” (1:02:25)
  • “Elegy” (1:05:34)
  • “The End of the Opera” (1:07:05)
  • “Trying Conclusions” (1:08:57)

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