PhD, delivered the following address during his installation ceremony as the first Howard Nemerov Professor in the Humanities in Arts
& Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Sherry, chair and professor of English in Arts & Sciences, acknowledged the literary great for
whom the professorship is named during his Jan. 24 talk in Holmes Lounge, Ridgley Hall.
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and Barbara A. Schaal, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, presided over the installation ceremony.
‘By Degrees’: Howard Nemerov, Poetry, and the English Department
I’d like to express my most sincere thanks to Chancellor Mark Wrighton for those kind words, and also for this event, which is magnificent. To Gary Wihl, our former dean, for advancing this possibility. And to Dean Barbara Schaal, for her generous words and, among other things, for her generosity in taking up the deanship in all its various roles. And to all of you for coming today.
I have to say, when I walked into this room and got a sense of the number of people present, I thought — I’m in the last year of my term as chair of the English department — I thought, well, my colleagues must think there’s at least one more round of salary increases at stake here, so why not?
But then, just in conversation with some of you ahead of this, I realized that it’s got a great deal to do with the legend, for most of us, but for some of you the personal memory, of Howard Nemerov. And I want to try to reclaim some of that on this occasion — for myself, for our department, for literary study, and also for the college and university.
When I learned of this honor and its title, I committed myself to a course in reading the poetry of Howard Nemerov, for the sake of saying something appropriate today. That “course” includes poems of major length and high importance. But I admit that what first came into my head, or came back into my head, was a little poem I’ve always thought of in relation to an adage by the modern American poet Ezra Pound.
This Pound, in his somewhat cantankerous fashion, remarked that it is better for a writer to have turned out one good line of verse than a library of serious prose. I always thought of Nemerov in this connection because he faces that test — I think he passes it — with his one-liner, the poem “Ham and Eggs”: “The chicken contributed, but the pig gave his all.”
So, when I went to The Collected Poems, I was looking for pieces of quotable wisdom like that, which I might string together in a way befitting the ceremonial occasion. And as I made my way I remembered that I’d been reading Howard Nemerov since the time I was an undergraduate, as a member of the generation he watched disporting its way into history.
We were a generation that he chronicled in a poetic mood of tolerant, perhaps even fond, comedy. He could be wisely ironic about what was going on. But he was utterly undeceived by platitude or aphorism, from any side. I know that that poetic temper wasn’t formed as a response to me and my friends, he certainly wasn’t adjusting his poetry to register our presence on the scene.
But what I recognized soon enough in reading him again is that one of the most wonderful qualities in Howard Nemerov’s poetry is something that makes him a tad difficult to wrestle into occasions of high state like this. I mean, his resistance, it’s a splendid resistance, to the contentment, the satisfaction, of ceremony. To the ceremony of poetry first of all, for no poet takes himself with less self-satisfaction as “the bard.” It’s a resistance to pose of any kind. This is a temperament that is alive line by line to all the turns that verse can take, so as to give us surprises, line-turn by line-turn, sometimes quiet surprises, but most of the time disquieting ones. That was my challenge.
So I realized that I should just let Howard Nemerov invoke the emotion appropriate to this occasion with a poem he wrote about ceremony, called “After Commencement.” “After” is the operative word, it emphasizes the leftovers of the event, it puts “commencing” already, ironically, in the past tense. Some of this is vintage detail, but it strikes a note in closing that I’d like to amplify for now.
“By degrees”: little by little, yes, but also diploma by diploma. A double-entendre, but a quiet irony — befitting the occasion, after all. And it’s this kind of quiet irony that works in Howard Nemerov’s poetry like a tuning fork, it composes the language of his poems, so that, as we move through them, word by word, we have this premonition, this suspicion, this expectation, always of something more, by degrees.
And that’s the note I want to expand and vary. Another way of putting this sense of the subtle wonder of discovery in poetry comes in the understanding that it moves, as the most structured form of language, in a rhythm of pattern and surprise, of rule and misrule. Or, to put it less threateningly to our deans and the parents of our undergraduates, it owns the confidence of its forms, it possesses the authority of its offices, so that it enjoys the liberty of breaking the limits it otherwise establishes — so as to get to something really new.
Now, if that is a formula for poetry, it is also a way of describing, ideally at least, what we do as educators. To get at something really new by breaking through the rules that have defined the lines of inquiry so far. Ideally, at least. Or, at most. For it is no easy thing. But it is also a possibility that lives as the function, the custom, of a culture, of a way of doing things in a particular place; of a lived expectation.
And I have to say that I have found it to be in place here at Wash U. I have been elsewhere in this way of the world. What initially surprised and constantly delights me about our department, in the words I just used to talk about the offices of poetry, is that it owns the confidence of its forms, its authority is easy, and it opens to the curiosity it stimulates in our students, undergraduate and graduate students alike.
So, poetry opens up not just as a subject to be taught but as a sensibility to teach through; poetry is a way of happening that is intellectual as well as imaginative. How well we realize this possibility here at Wash U might be appreciated a bit better if I put this activity in its larger context.
Poetry and the academy: if these two words have merged increasingly over the last century, we have also come to think of poetry increasingly as something which requires academic study. How this situation evolved is a complicated story, I’m not sure we can fix a beginning, it has certainly not ended. But it shows most notably I think in the generation of poets that I mainly work on, the “modernists,” which includes that adage-maker Pound and also his great friend T. S. Eliot.
These are poets who, in the words of a later versifier, always have by their sides the “myth-kitty.” Their poetry is heavily allusive, some of it is footnoted, it sends us to sources, it often bristles with difficulty, even willful difficulty. These poets are taking on the role of educating their readers in the great traditions which, they feel, have been lost even — or especially — as the readership of literature has increased. This is poetry as a vehicle of content, which needs to be unpacked, repackaged, delivered. So, this is poetry that keeps many of us academics employed.
But there is an interesting and significant difference to this precedent in the temperament I am appreciating in Howard Nemerov and the department that lives his legacy forward. For our students are rather unimpressed when I unpack the goods under a line of Eliot. They don’t care especially about that stuff, anybody can look it up, it’s neutral, a sort of inert content. They want to know how it works, how it comes together on the page and how it lives in the ear and grows in the mind. It’s a way of happening, it goes on opening up “by degrees,” it responds to the curiosity it also stimulates, it’s the educational ideal we all serve.
I have not been here long enough to explain just why this is so here, I think it must have something to do with the distant traditions of the place and with some of the great people who have been part of it, but it is absolutely true of our department and, I know, of the college and university.
So, as I turn toward closing here, I want to acknowledge this honor of the Howard Nemerov Professorship in the Humanities in itself but also, and especially, because Howard Nemerov, and the art of poetry that he represents at its very best, encapsulates a value that is fundamental to our work as educators. I want to express my sense of the importance of this in another way, too. I’d like the name of Howard Nemerov to be connected especially to the art he practiced. I’ve been talking with the good people in Development, and I’m establishing a fund that will provide for an annual prize, in his name, for poetry written by an undergraduate and a graduate student, so two prizes, in our department.
I don’t know if this qualifies, Chancellor Wrighton, as “leading together,” it may be more like me bringing up the rear on my own, but I want to make this personal gesture so as to claim his name as part of the permanent legacy in our department, which includes such an extraordinarily strong tradition of poetry, of poets.
In the meanwhile, we have to think about something appropriate to recognize in this student verse, something Nemerovian (anyone who uses a term like this will be disqualified). So I was looking around in the archives of reviews of his books to see what a consensus appreciation of his accomplishment might sound like. I came upon this tribute by James Dickey, writing about the Collected Poems: “He is the most unboring poet I know.”
That’s an odd way of putting it, admittedly, it’s as though Dickey were trying at least, or at most, to be not uncomplimentary. But it does get at something closely relevant to this poetry, perhaps to poetry in general. By this I mean a quality of curiosity about the world that comes, somewhat paradoxically, from working so closely and deeply with words. Any strength is a limitation. And a great strength in language may create an awareness, an appreciation, perhaps even a hunger, for what lies beyond the page, for other ways of knowing the world.
That’s also something particularly distinctive about the way our disciplines work here at Wash U, certainly in the Humanities, which is what I know best, where there is so much inter-departmental energy. So I’ll end today by acknowledging that kind of interaction in relation to this Professorship in the Humanities, by reading a poem Howard Nemerov wrote about the attractions of knowing the world otherwise, here, as a visual artist might, through paint: