Southern Bookman and its companion blog Chasing the Blues have been moribund in recent weeks as I've been cosumed with my news site Buckhead Patch. At last, on a cold, bright and windy Saturday, I find some time to return.
I'm inspired by the memory of Howard Nemerov at Sewanee. The other night, needing a garmet for sleep, I pulled out from the back of a drawer the tattered, torn T-shirt of the first Sewanee Writers Conference, with a quote from Howard, in a poem about walking a dog, "To show who's master, I write the poem."
Like Proust's madeleine, the T-shirt summoned my first memory of Howard. He stood in short purple shorts, a sweatshirt or jacket, and wore sandals with socks. With his gray hair, large beaked nose and craggy features, he looked like a member of some exotic bird species. His deep, voluminous voice was unforgettable; it still plays in my mind.
The poor man was already battling the cancer that would kill him. I struck up a friendship with him; he was warm and friendly, although his criticism of fledgling poets' work was cutting and brutal. I was thankful I hadn't submitted my poor earnest work to him for individual criticism, but rather to the kind Emily Grosholz.
The next year, he was too ill to appear at Sewanee. I'd sent him a letter or two, and he responded with postcards with his flowing signature. His place was taken by John Hollander, who rather deftly cut up my poems, with one sentence stll stinging "This line is egregious."
I believe it was at that second Sewanee session that I learned that Howard was the brother of Diane Arbus. As a young man, I'd seen an exhibition of Arbus' work at the New Orleans art museum. Her black and white portraits of freaks, giants, and regular people in moments of anger or turmoil changed my aesthetic perceptions. I quickly hurried to read Howard's eulogy to his sister, who committed suicide.
It's hard to say how World War II era poets like Howard and John will fare in history. One or two of their poems show up in anthologies. I think Howard's poems about the war should be remembered. along with several of his others. The work of that era has a stern formalism, an academic dryness, the quality of being locked behind museum glass. Some of the subject matter, such as with the poem on walking the dog, can be incidental and inconsequential. Still, I value those poets, especially when they strive to break away toward more freedom of technique and subject.
After my second summer at Sewanee, I heard that Howard had passed away in St. Louis. Now, 20 years later, his memory is evoked by a T-shirt. I hope it survives one more washing. This time, I'll leave it in the drawer forever.