Howard Nemerov

Poems featured on The Gladdest Thing

A Primer of the Daily Round

A peels an apple, while B kneels to God,
C telephones to D, who has a hand
On E’s knee, F coughs, G turns up the sod
For H’s grave, I do not understand
But J is bringing one clay pigeon down
While K brings down a nightstick on L’s head,
And M takes mustard, N drives into town,
O goes to bed with P, and Q drops dead,
R lies to S, but happens to be heard
By T, who tells U not to fire V
For having to give W the word
That X is now deceiving Y with Z,
     Who happens just now to remember A
     Peeling an apple somewhere far away.

— Howard Nemerov 


September, the First Day of School


My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.


A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare’s plays,
As from the integers comes Euler’s Law,
As from the whole, inseparably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.

— Howard Nemerov



Theirs is a trade for egomaniacs,
People whose parents did not love them well.
It’s done by wasps and women, Jews and Blacks,
In every isolation ward in Hell.

They spend their workadays imagining
What never happened and what never will
To people who are not and whose non-being
Always depends on the next syllable.

It’s strange, and little wonder it makes them so
Whose lives are spun out talking to themselves
In allegories of themselves that go
Down on the paper like dividing cells

That form in communes and make colonies
And do each other in by love and hate
And generally enact the ceremonies
Intended to harmonize freedom and fate

Among the creatures and in the writer’s soul.
The writer’s soul? It’s as if one abyss
Primps at the other’s mirror and the whole
Shebang hangs fire while the lovers kiss.

– Howard Nemerov