AT A RECENT dinner party attended primarily by writers and artists of various kinds, someone proposed this question: If you could have fame now but know that your work would sink into obscurity after your death, or go unrecognized now but know that after your death you would come to be considered a great artist, which would you choose? Although the answers and the reasons given for them varied, most of those present seemed slightly uncomfortable with the question. It is something most artists don't want to contemplate because, I suspect, no matter how modestly they insist that it doesn't matter that they create because it is simply what they do, like breathing, there is always present a secret desire for recognition, for fame, even for immortality. I suppose that is why I'm also made slightly uncomfortable by a poet's publishing his collected poems before his death - that threat of mortality, the hint of finality about it, of a somehow final judgment made necessary. A poet deserves to be remembered for his best work, and the question becomes whether the publication of a book of collected poems will serve to imprress us with that best work or to lessen the achievement through the sheer volume of poems which must be considered inferior.
The publication of The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov is, then, something of a mixing blessing. One comes away with a renewed appreciation for how very good indeed he is at his best: yet one is also reminded of the unevenness that has always marked Nemerov's work, of how often wit and irony become mere devices for evasion, suppressing his exceptional lyric and meditative voice.
Perhaps that is inevitable for a poet so prolific as he. Since 1947 Nemerov has published nine volumes of poems, five volumes of fiction, and several collections of criticism, and has received numerous literary awards, including his recent induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In the postwar decades characterized by several higly visible "schools" of poetic thought, Nemerov remained largely independent of those alliances, rooted in the more formal tradition of rhyme and meter, though writing poems with an extraordinary variety of style and subject matter, from light satire to the brilliant dream record "The Scales of the Eyes." In fact, within any given volume of his work one can isolate a number of particular kinds of Nemerov poems: political poems, satires, dramatic or dialogue poems, proverb poems, brief lyrics which take as their subject an event in nature, meditative poems,and so on.
This variety is, in reality, a weakness in Nemerov's work: it becomes a means of avoiding emotion, true feeling, of refusing to set his imaginatioin free. I suspect this is a product of Nemerov's psyche, of a divided spirit who tries to hide a profound uncertainty behind a mask of reason and the polished surfact of metaphysical wit.
When, however, Nemerov allows his creative mind a moment of freedom from the tyranny of his rational mind, he rises to heights of freshness and lyricism equal to anything in contemporary poetry, whether in poems of lucid meditation or ecstatic celebration. What moves us in these poems is the tensioin of the divided spirit he too often tries to hide, a tensioin in the evanescent identity of work and spirit. One thinks of such poems as "The Clio, Muse of History," "The Beekeeper Speaks - And Is Silent," "Deep Woods," "The Mud Turtle," "Beginner's Guide," "The Breaking of Rainbows," and "The Blue Swallows," for example.
Nemerov seems to have reached the height of his poetic powers in the 60s with The Next Room of the Dream (1962) and The Blue Swallows (1967) . The books which followed, Gnomes and Occasions (1973) and The Western Approaches (1975), seemed weighted down with a kind of weariness, a desire to back off from further experience, that leads the poet to conclude, in "Thirtieth Anniversary Report to the Class of '41": "What is there to discuss?/There's nothing left for us to say of us." One can only hope that no final judgment is necessary, that Nemerov will find more to say and will again find the world as he did in "The Blue Swallows":
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.