I remember hearing him read on the University of Denver campus in the early 1980s, I believe—an occasion that made me realize that a poet’s writing voice and physical voice could be essentially the same. I mean that poems which had seemed to be “verse” on the page emerged from Nemerov’s living mouth as “speech,” an almost-everyday kind of talk. His “talk,” of course, was inspired talk, moving gracefully among observations, contained emotions, philosophical ponderings, and sly humor. There is a melancholy at the root of Nemerov’s poetry, a nostalgia for … what? We’re never sure. Probably Nemerov was never sure. But he wrote consistently and compellingly from that root.
Nemerov is at his best, it seems to me, when writing at length (“The Pond,” “Deep Woods,” “Lightning Storm on Fuji,” “A Day on the Big Branch,” “To Lu Chi,” “The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar’s House”), but here is one of his shorter poems, from his Collected Poems, which seems to be characteristic of his voice:
The bearded goldfish move about the bowl
Waving disheveled rags of elegant fin
Languidly in the light; their mandarin
Manner of life, weary and cynical,
Rebukes the round world that has kept them in
Glass bubbles with a mythological
Decor of Rhineland castles on a shoal
Of pebbles pink and green. Like light in gin,
Viscous as ice first forming on a stream,
Their refined feathers fan them on to no
Remarkable purpose; they close their eyes
As, mouths reopening in a new surprise
About their long imprisonment in O,
They cruise the ocean of an alien dream.
Finally, on the subject of this poet’s forgottenness: After the reading I mentioned above, a number of us gathered at Bill Zaranka’s house to drink and talk with Nemerov, where I found myself asking one of the characteristically silly questions I would stammer out in my younger days, when confronted with such an eminence (literally gray).
“Are your books selling better since The Collected Poems came out?”
He had won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for the volume, a copy of which I had just handed him for signing. The book had been issued five or six years earlier.
Nemerov gave a smile both impish and world-weary as he finished signing my copy. “This book,” he said as he handed it to me, “has sold four hundred and thirty-seven copies.”
It might be worth exploring why our capacity for forgetting our best writers seems to be almost infinite.