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March 14, 2011

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Neil Goldstein

I was a student of his. Not a good one, but his words, face and voice have stuck with me these many years, particularly his statement to me that a poem is a riddle and to write them well, I should learn to like riddles.

His words crop up in unexpected places and moments. When, in Newtown PA, at the welcoming to new students to George School, 13 years ago, the Headmaster read a poem about leaving one's child at school. As he started, I turned to my wife and child and said "I think that's a poem by Howard Nemerov." (It was,) and went on, "I was once a rotten student of his. He had such a wonderful command of language and made me realize how much I had to work to write well."

I will miss him. He taught me to love language. Like all good teachers, he is not gone but will remain a part of me for as long as I have memory and can write.

suzanne cleary

I was a student in the first graduating class of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University,1979, and Howard Nemerov--along with Donald Finkel and John Morris--was on the panel that critiqued my thesis, a collection of poems; that day, the three poets listened to me read a few poems, and they asked me questions. Howard Nemerov did not teach graduate students, because he preferred to teach undergraduates, but he had agreed to be on the panel out of collegial support for the new CW program, and his kindness extended to me, as well. After I read, when it was time for the questions, he took from his suit coat a small stack of index cards, on which he had written "favorite lines" from my poems. Looking back, I don't think any of the lines were worthy of that attention, let alone that praise, but I have never forgotten that sweetness.

Also, I should add that, in my second year in the Creative Writing program, I worked in the Rare Book Collection, with Holly and, more closely, Ida, who taught me how to mix the special wheat paste. With my small paychecks I bought the first volumes of what has, over the years, become quite a nice collection of contemporary poetry--Howard Nemerov's volumes especially precious to me.

After one of his readings, someone asked Howard Nemerov, "How do you write your poems?" and he gave the best answer I've ever heard to this question: "Well," he said, "it's either easy or it's impossible."

Thank you so much for prompting me to remember this fine poet.

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