Among my very first blog posts here was this one regarding Howard Nemerov. I was reminded of him again by Jim Culleny’s posting of Nemerov’s weary-hearted poem “The Life Cycle of the Common Man,” over at 3 Quarks Daily. It is a fine example of what Captain Ron would call “quietude.” I happen to like it.
Why? Well, at least in part because it is anti-heroic, and for almost a decade we Americans have been operating in Heroic Mode–the jingoistic, charge-up-San-Juan-Hill mentality that not infrequently leads us to elect stupid leaders who lead us into stupid wars. Nemerov was a veteran of The Good War. (See Studs Terkel’s book by that title for a more three-dimensional view of WWII than is dreamt of in our persistent mythology.) As a veteran of that war, in which he’d served as a pilot, Nemerov knew how different heroism is from The Heroic Mode, and while his anti-heroism in this poem is certainly ironic, it strikes me as finally heroic–in a genuine, small-“h” way. Nemerov’s common man, with his cartoon balloon of jabber and his quotidian trail of bottles and bones, is after all not slaughtering other people. He’s not demonizing entire religions or labeling Einstein’s physics a Liberal Plot. He is animated by the Word that remains untold and that forces him to relish a world ruined by what he cannot say.
I called his poem “weary-hearted,” thinking of Yeats and his Gonne moon. I called it an example of “quietude.” Well, we could use more of it. The Heroic Mode, which has covered us in blood and bankrupted us financially and psychically, is a mania.* I wonder how long it will take before we’ll be cured of it, at least for a while.
* We hear the Heroic Mode note in the pronouncements of the avant-garde (its martial metaphor is perhaps a clue). Think, for example, of Basil Bunting’s beautifully written little paean to Pound’s Cantos: “There are the Alps, / fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!” The same trumpet note is often sounded by Captain Ron whenever he mentions, with misty eyes, The New American Poetry—a book he thumps with as much alacrity as Rick Warren thumps his Bible.