Ed note: The following essay originally appeared in the journal Gradiva. We reprint it here on the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Frederick Nims. A substantial selection from Nims' work, The Powers of Heaven and Earth: New and Selected Poems, was published by LSU Press in 2002.
JOHN FREDERICK NIMS (1913-1999) by Michael Palma
We might even describe him as he described Matthew Arnold: “in some respects the most satisfactory man of letters of his age.”
—John Frederick Nims on T. S. Eliot
The death of John Frederick Nims in January of this year came as something of a shock. Although we had exchanged some letters in the fall of 1979, it was in Charleston in October 1997 that I met him for the first and, unfortunately, the only time. We were there for the first annual conference of the Italian Poetry Society of America, at which he was the honored guest and featured speaker. With his youthful appearance and animated good humor, he seemed much more my image of the sixtyish editor with whom I had corresponded than what he actually he was, a man less than a month away from his eighty-fourth birthday With his death, many people have lost one of their dearest and most devoted friends. So too, in light of the many services that he rendered to it with such sparkling excellence, has poetry itself.
It was principally for his translations that he was celebrated at the IPSA conference. His contributions to the dissemination of twentieth-century Italian poetry, while small in number, were solid and significant. In 1975, when I began to translate Guido Gozzano, I found that the only substantial piece on Gozzano to appear in English in the previous fifty years was Nims’s excellent essay in Stanley Burnshaw’s The Poem Itself. His participation is all the more remarkable in that the principles of translation which informed that volume were so different from his own. As an example of Nims’s practice, look at the last four lines of Dino Campana’s Giardino Autunnale and at his English version of them:
E in aroma d’alloro,
In aroma d’alloro acre languente,
Tra le statue immortali nel tramonto
Ella m’appar, presente.
And in redolence of laurel,
Of laurel languorous, laurel piercing, where
Those statues in the sunset loom immortal,
She appears, present there.
Notice Nims’s reproduction not only of the rhyme and meter of the original, but even of its alliteration, with his l’s reinforcing the content. In the English as well as in the Italian, one sees a master craftsman turning his gifts to a unified effect. Nims presents the basis of his approach in this passage from “Poetry: Lost in Translation?,” the superb twenty-page introduction to From Sappho to Valery, his classic gathering of his translations from twenty poets in seven different languages: “If I am to show this reader how the poem goes, I have to show him first of all a poem. The greatest infidelity is to pass off a bad poem in English as representing a good one in another language.” He restated this guiding principle in his presentation at the IPSA conference, alluding with characteristic self-effacement to “what some of us involved in the translation of poetry have been trying to do.” He has certainly been the principal model for all that I have tried to do in the translation of poetry, an example I have absorbed even more thoroughly than I had realized: while writing a piece on translation several years ago, I hastily located and copied out for quotation a remembered passage from “Poetry: Lost in Translation?”; recently rereading the entire essay for the first time in many years, I was taken aback at how much of what I had to say had been anticipated by him.
This is only one of sixteen essays collected in A Local Habitation, Nims’s volume in the University of Michigan’s Poets on Poetry series. A glance at its contents page, with such titles as “The Classicism of Robert Frost” and “Daedalus on Crete: James Joyce and Ovid,” gives some sense of his profound interest in comparative literature, but hardly suggests the liveliness and depth of the intelligence at work in these essays, or of the incredible range of information and familiarity with a vast body of poetry that are displayed, but never flaunted, on virtually every page—in pointed contrast to the kind of heavy-handed exegesis that he so delightfully spoofs in “The Greatest English Lyric?—A New Reading of Joe E. Skilmer’s ‘Therese.’” While I may dissent from some of his conclusions—I think he somewhat undervalues Eliot, especially as a metrist—those conclusions are always clearly laid out and buttressed with instances. And at times he can stimulate an unexpected conversion through the reader’s own awareness of examples beyond his pages. After reading “The Topless Muse,” a 1968 plea for letting at least some of it not hang out, I was reminded of a revision which would no doubt have delighted him. In Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man, a Trumanesque elder statesman distinguishes between his own instincts and his willingness to sling mud at a dangerous opponent, saying “I personally do not care if Joe Cantwell enjoys deflowering sheep by the light of a full moon.” For the film version, made in the dying days of the Production Code, this was euphemized—and improved—into “has carnal knowledge of a McCormick reaper.”
In all likelihood, Nims achieved his widest fame and most enduring impact in his two books intended for a college market, The Harper Anthology of Poetry and especially Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, a textbook of such consistent brilliance that X. J. Kennedy assigned it in his classes even though he had his own competing volume in the field. And Nims will be fondly remembered for his editorship of Poetry (Chicago) from 1978 to 1983. Although he never wrote free verse himself, as an editor he was receptive to good work in all forms, and his choices have held up better than most; of twelve poets he chose for a “First Appearances” issue, five have gone on to substantial careers. While he was criticized by some for running the same cover, Thurber’s Pegasus cartoon, on virtually every issue, the drawing signaled a welcome lack of solemnity, and he certainly did some imaginative things with the insides of those issues, such as giving twenty-five pages to Anthony Hecht’s “The Venetian Vespers” or printing a long, shaped poem as a foldout broadside. The November 1979 issue, a memorial to Allen Tate, was a model of its kind: a preface by the editor, worksheets of “The Swimmers” side by side with its final version, a half dozen poetic tributes to Tate, an essay by Tate and one about him, and (perhaps uniquely in Poetry’s pages) several photographs—all in less than fifty pages. The issue is a reminder that, as rigorous as were the standards that Nims set and adhered to, he was often at his finest in acts of celebration.
Anyone who is serious about writing poetry, whatever else he or she may do, wants to be perceived as a poet above all. In his generosity to other poets, giving so much of his time and energy to translating, teaching, printing, and analyzing their work, Nims was perhaps ungenerous to himself. And he had the further misfortune of having one of his poems turn into an anthology piece. “Love Poem” is a wonderful achievement, both clever and moving, easily the best thing of its kind since Shakespeare’s “My mistress’ eyes”; and it was, via a high-school anthology forty years ago, my own introduction to John Frederick Nims; but we should not let it block our view of the rest of his poetry. Although the broad poetry-reading public (if that is not an oxymoron) will never take up so complex and demanding a body of work, there is much in his eight collections of verse that should speak to all true lovers of the art. As a modern American writer of epigrams, he is the only peer of J. V. Cunningham; unlike Cunningham, he is tender at least as often as he is tart. There are some very fine things among his lyrics, such as “A Frieze of Cupids,” about the ruins of Pompeii, and “Adam’s Ballad.” Perhaps his very finest poem is “The Evergreen,” an elegy inspired by a great personal grief, which moves the reader as much by the beauty and delicacy of the treatment as by the raw power of the subject. And then there is “The Powers of Heaven and Earth” (Hudson Review, Winter 1992, as yet uncollected), a rare excursion into childhood reminiscence, whose hundred lines show as much organization and control, as much vivid description and thematic precision, as anything he wrote. It is a remarkable poem by any standard, an amazing one for someone nearly eighty years old. That his powers remained undiminished to the very end is shown by his translation of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, published only weeks before his death. In addition to the quality of the work, he provides an innovation in the rhyme scheme of the sonnet, one especially adapted to the needs of English, which should intrigue and inspire poets for generations to come.
Among the daydreams of my youth, one particularly idle fancy involved the editor of Poetry writing to me out of nowhere to solicit work for the magazine. Even I could recognize its absurdity. Poetry received thousands of unrequested and mostly unusable submissions a month; there was no need to go looking for more, especially among unknown writers. And yet, one day in 1979 I received a letter out of the blue in which John Frederick Nims told me he had, as a reader for Princeton University Press, evaluated my Gozzano manuscript, and asked me if he might consider several of the poems for an upcoming all-translation issue of Poetry. The excitement of that letter was outdone only by the arrival of the issue itself, on whose cover, right under Thurber’s Pegasus, I found my name given equal billing with, among others, Robert Fitzgerald, Richard Wilbur, and my undergraduate idol John Berryman. I am sure that, over the course of a long and splendid career, John Frederick Nims made the dreams of many young poets come true. I’m glad that I had the chance to tell him about mine.