Nemerov’s Ars

July 5: Howard Nemerov died on this day in 1991. Nemerov was a Poet Laureate, a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, and a vocal opponent to the highbrow, fine art excesses he perceived in modern poetry. The memorial plaque to him at Washington University in St. Louis — he taught there for twenty years — quotes from his “The Blue Swallows”: “O swallows, swallows, poems are not / The point. Finding again the world, / That is the point….”

Nemerov reiterated this position at every opportunity, and often with humor. In “On the Threshold of His Greatness, the Poet Comes Down With a Sore Throat,” for example, he pokes fun at the over-annotated, waste-landish modern poem by incorporating not only a set of its own esoteric footnotes but a “Note on Notes” by their contributor, Cyril Limpkin, M.A. (Oxon.), Fellow in American Literature at the University of Land’s End, England. Noting that interpretations of “On the Threshold” will “differ from one reader to another, and even, perhaps from one minute to the next,” Limpkin’s note hopes that “these Notes will not merely adorn the Poem, but possibly supercede it altogether.” Nemerov’s “Ars Poetica” fires friendly shots at the same sort of target, and at contemporaries who had similarly addressed the Poetic Arts topic:

(apologies to Mr. MacLeish and Miss Moore, but the poet who inspired this one was a real toad with imaginary gardens in him)

Even before his book came out

We knew there wasn’t any doubt

That these was poems forevermore,

Such as the guy wrote the slogan for:

They wuz not mean, they wuz—

Big pear-shaped poems, ready to parse

In the next Creative Writing clarse.

Yeh, he sure fell flat on his ars

Poetica that time, palpable and mute

As an old globed fruit.

Moore’s “Poetry” had famously called for “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”; MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” calls for poems which are “palpable and mute / As a globed fruit,” and which do “not mean / But be.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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