Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Perfect as soap bubbles

An alert to today's poem came from Greg Coxson, a University of Wisconsin-educated, Silver Spring-based, radar engineer who loves mathematics and poetry.  The poem is by Howard Nemerov  (1920-1991) and it builds to a presentation of its perfect mathematical image near its end.  

     Lion and Honeycomb     by Howard Nemerov

     He didn't want to do it with skill,
     He'd had enough of skill.  If he never saw
     Another villanelle, it would be too soon;
     And the same went for sonnets.  If it had been
     Hard work learning to rime, it would be much
     Harder learning not to.  The time came
     He had to ask himself, what did he want?
     What did he want when he began
     That idiot fiddling with the sounds of things?

     He asked himself, poor moron, because he had
     Nobody else to ask.  The others went right on
     Talking about form, talking about myth
     And the (so help us) need for a modern idiom;
     The verseballs among them kept counting syllables.

     So there he was, this forty-year-old teen-ager
     Dreaming preposterous mergers and divisions
     Of vowels like water, consonants like rock
     (While everybody kept discussing values
     And the need for values), for words that would
     Enter the silence and be there as a light.
     So much coffee and so many cigarettes
     Gone down the drain, gone up in smoke,
     Just for the sake of getting something right
     Once in a while, something that could stand
     On its own flat feet to keep out windy time
     And the worm, something that might simply be,
     Not as the monument in the smoky rain
     Grimly endures, but that would be
     The moment before disaster, before the storm,
     In its peculiar silence, an integer
     Fixed in the middle of the fall of things,
     Perfected and casual as to a child's eye
     Soap bubbles are, and skipping stones.

I found "Lion and Honeycomb" in A Howard Nemerov Reader (University of Missouri Press, 1991). Nemerov (1920– 1991) was a US Air Force combat pilot during World War II and had a continuing interest in the stars and navigation. He served twice as US Poet Laureate. Novelist as well as poet, Nemerov was a Distinguished Professor of English at Washington University.  Nemerov's wife permits her late husband's poems to be reprinted without royalty fee, but asks that his World War II Air Force service be identified.   Previous postings of poems by Howard Nemerov may be found on 24 March 2010, 16 August 2010, and 26 August 2010.

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