Mike’s posting of the Masters poem “Silence” made up my mind to post this Nemerov poem that I just encountered.
Life Cycle of Common Man
by Howard Nemerov
Roughly figured, this man of moderate habits,
This average consumer of the middle class,
Consumed in the course of his average life span
Just under half a million cigarettes,
Four thousand fifths of gin and about
A quarter as much vermouth; he drank
Maybe a hundred thousand cups of coffee,
And counting his parents’ share it cost
Something like half a million dollars
To put him through life. How many beasts
Died to provide him with meat, belt and shoes
Cannot be certainly said.
It is in this way that a man travels through time,
Leaving behind him a lengthening trail
Of empty bottles and bones, of broken shoes,
Frayed collars and worn out or outgrown
Diapers and dinnerjackets, silk ties and slickers.
Given the energy and security thus achieved,
He did…? What? The usual things, of course,
The eating, dreaming, drinking and begetting,
And he worked for the money which was to pay
For the eating, et cetera, which were necessary
If he were to go on working for the money, et cetera,
But chiefly he talked. As the bottles and bones
Accumulated behind him, the words proceeded
Steadily from the front of his face as he
Advanced into the silence and made it verbal.
Who can tally the tale of his words? A lifetime
Would barely suffice for their repetition;
If you merely printed all his commas the result
Would be a very large volume, and the number of times
He said “thank you” or “very little sugar, please,”
Would stagger the imagination. There were also
Witticisms, platitudes, and statements beginning
“It seems to me” or “As I always say.”
Consider the courage in all that, and behold the man
Walking into deep silence, with the ectoplastic
Cartoon’s balloon of speech proceeding
Steadily out of the front of his face, the words
Borne along on the breath which is his spirit
Telling the numberless tale of his untold Word
Which makes the world his apple, and forces him to eat.
I love the part about the commas. A book of commas… that would be a very quiet book.
Heidi and I had a discussion when I read this poem to her about whether commas indicate silence. I insisted that they do—what else?—but, as I look again at the poem, it seems that Nemerov may think otherwise: the commas are one of the chief players in the long, noisy babbling of life. I suppose the fact that one needed to take a breath during speech that many times (assuming this roughly as the function of the comma) indicates that one did a lot of yaking. Talking gives over, in fact, to breathing, as the poem closes.
20 responses to “Long Winded”
The poem is reasonably rhythmic, and reads rather well. One might quibble with the details (one hundred thousand cups of coffee works out to somewhere near four cups a day, every single day from birth to death, for a man of average lifespan (in the US, I mean—most of the world does not enjoy our longevity)), one might question whether dreaming and begetting are necessary to continue working, and one might point out that practical necessity and final cause are not quite so closely linked as Nemerov seems to suggest (one might have to eat to continue working, but needn’t eat for the purpose of working more), but then one would be taking the trees for the forest, so to speak, or perhaps the words for the poem. We do do quite a bit of yakking in our lives, even we quiet ones, who try to avoid the more superfluous instances when we can. We do, indeed, fill a lifetime with words. I’m not sure I follow the inversion at the end, though: the words that initially proceed steadily from our faces later become our apples, which we eat. Are these, too, spoken to gain us sustenance, so that we can go on speaking, et cetera? [Editor’s note: the poem was originally posted with a spelling error—“world” was posted as “word”.]
As for commas: I would disagree that they simply provide a pause in sound or an opportunity to breathe. Again, they may do that, but that is, to some extent, accidental. One could easily pronounce a comma without loss of sense, and many a long sentence without commas would be uninterpretable, regardless of how many times the speaker stopped to breathe. Commas provide structure: they separate items in lists and signify dependent clauses, among other rôles. Were they there merely for the breathing convenience of the speaker, a considerate author might distribute them much more evenly throughout a passage. We do sometimes use them as an occasion to breathe, but we do the same with dashes, ellipses, colons, question marks, exclamation points and periods, and we sometimes breathe where there is no punctuation to give us pause. How many of the commas in the previous sentence do you pause over long enough to notice?
Of course, even disputing your take on the rôle of the comma, I have to agree: a large volume of commas does indeed indicate quite a lot of talking.
Initially, I thought Nemerov’s common man was the object of pity. Breaking down a life into facts and figures is a dehumanizing thing to do. Repetition is unavoidable, each day varies only slightly from the day before, but I don’t want to be reminded of the hamster wheel on which I’m running.
But I think speaking changes the dynamic of the poem and life. With the mundane sums of consumption still in mind, I entered the speaking phase thinking this common man’s words must have been meaningless, too; that speaking into the silence was destroying something worth preserving. Maybe that’s not true. (What about silence is transcendent? Every poem breaks nature’s silence.) Though Nemerov again stresses repetition and triviality with his example phrases, he next calls it courageous of the man to enter the silence and turn it into words.
Words are the only way we can make nature our own. We create a narrative from something silent and unremitting. This narrative is very large and unique to the individual. (“A lifetime/ Would barely suffice for their repetition”.) Thus, from a common pile of bottles and bones emerges the man, creating the apple of his existence; the apple being not merely sustenance to keep speaking, but the delicious reward for turning the silence into a life.
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
I rather like your interpretation, but I am having trouble squaring it with the text of the poem. The word “forces” near the end is a difficult apple to swallow. I’m not sure if it is the tale or the breath (which is his spirit) that is turning words to apples and forcing our common man to eat them, but he is being forced to eat—not a concept I commonly associate with rewards.
As an aside, I should mention that I am a big fan of the ever-so-briefly fashionable rigid distinction between the usage of that and which. Being careful with the word choice can help to disambiguate meaning. Careful punctuation, of course, also helps. The Chicago Manual of Style has said as much in opining on the use of commas. I wish, just a tiny bit, that Nemerov had been a tad more selective, careful or otherwise clear…
I think the whichs are whichs here, viz. — they’re not restrictive. I’m sort of with you on the commas, but expecting standard punctuation in verse is asking for frustration.
Being forced to eat… I think there is a way to conceive of this that spares it from sounding so torturous. The fact that we must eat is both our burden as living beings and the essence of our freedom. Rocks don’t have to metabolize in order to maintain their identity as what they are… nor do they _get_ to do so. Plants don’t have to move (much) in order to get their sustenance. They don’t have to feel hunger either– some internal state of unrest that would force them to seek out their sustenance. Their sustenance is always received from the immediately contiguous surrounding environment. Again, they don’t have to experience hunger and its satisfaction nor do they _get_ to. It is clear to me that the burden of needing to do these things is payed off by the freedom (or, the more full life) that getting to do them affords.
So this dual aspect of necessity/opportunity or (more dialectical even) necessity/freedom is at the core of the experience of life. Nemerov bring all this to mind for me and points to the human expansion of it… the necessity of human life is what is so tedious. We are dependent on our society for survival, thus we kill our souls with the drudgery of dailiness. But in these chains are new wings, since society is born of articulate speech illuminating the dark silences of a world where there is nothing but appetite and instinct.
Alan: I am perfectly inclined toward just such a Nietzschean reading—particularly in light of the ecce homo near the end—but it seems I am thus invited subconsciously to replace “and forces” with “inviting” or “enticing” or something similar. It may well be that we can sublimate our necessity into a joyful freedom (how I hope someday to do this!), but can one sensibly read the force (and hence the resistance) right out of the word “forces”? I’m stuck with the word, that silly word, which suggests to me an unwillingness to eat, only a burden, a failure of the sense of freedom you so eloquently suggest.
Brian: I fear you’ve taken the cause for the effect. The frustration forms first; the wish follows after. I certainly don’t expect poets, who are artists, to be grammarians or syntacticians, who must not be. Emily Brontë, one of my favorites, almost never puctuated her poems at all, and it usually doesn’t detract from the reading. However, it does on occasion leave a phrase or sentence ambiguous in sense. Maybe some poets drop in such ambiguities intentionally, wanting their readers to struggle with a poem, but I suspect that a good deal of the time they are simply unaware of an alternate reading, being as they subconsciously supply the appropriate punctuation when they compose or read their own work. Authors who wish to convey a particular sense might be more successful by taking care to punctuate systematically, or by hiring an editor. Of course, we’re stuck with the text before us. I merely note the ambiguities that are present, and the ease with which they could be resolved.
Also, I did really mean my that/which comment as an aside. The rigid distinction has never been widely observed, and was certainly not a common practice when Nemerov was writing. That is the chief objection to the rule among grammarians now (the principal role of the grammarian being the recording of common practices to keep the language static, rather than the elucidation of new principles that would improve its effectiveness). I think that urging observance of the distinction could help improve the transmission of meaning, but I thought I could figure out Nemerov’s clauses well enough. It turns out I was wrong. I read the last which in a restrictive sense. Leave the last line off, and one is left with a question: which tale is being told? Ah, the one that makes the word his apple…. After your suggestion I’m not so sure. Perhaps it was the lack of a comma that threw me?
I read the last which in a restrictive sense. Leave the last line off, and one is left with a question: which tale is being told? Ah, the one that makes the word his apple…. After your suggestion I’m not so sure.
Oh! This is exciting. Is it the telling or the tale making the world his apple? I took it to be the telling. As though we were talking about damning a river, which forms a reservoir and generates power.
And is the man or his spirit the agent of the telling? Is there a difference? Are we meant not to be able to tell? Or the breath?
Y’know, maybe it’s better that there are no commas where we want them to be here. As it stands, it seems to me possible to attribute the telling to the breath, to the spirit, or to the man. And I feel like it’s consistent with the poem not to be able to distinguish those. Or rather, to acknowledge that it doesn’t make sense to attibrute the telling to one of those exclusively.
I am curious about this possibility that it’s the tale that makes the world his apple. That there are other tales he might tell. Tales with different fruits, or fruitless tales perhaps.
So here’s another wrinkle. I have a hard copy of this poem, and it has a slightly different ending. It ends
My hard copy also has the ending Brian supplies. I am afraid I grabbed the copy that I originally posted from a website without checking it carefully. I should be more cautious… This is how an error turns into a cancer with the web, I suppose. And it was the damn Unitarians. I’ll change the original post, and check it over for other mistakes…. there….
There were no other changes to make, except to break up the stanzas. It is pretty clear that the Madison Unitarian minister who posted the poem (see the link) butchered the “his untold Word” line for dogmatic reasons. Ealier in the poem, the minister cut out the lines about the cigarettes and gin but left an ellipsis. Apparently cutting lines for prudish reasons is something to leave a trace of. Cutting a part of a line because it suggests a Christian reading is something to do with subterfuge. Ah well. Sorry I was careless.
Regarding Nemerov’s invocation of the Gospel of John (that’s what this line is, right?), I will say more when I get a chance to think about it. But I can tell you that
A) there is a lot of religiously suggestive language in Nemerov’s work
B) He was a Jew
C) Here is something to look at, though I have not yet.
The book of commas is a bit of a strange thing because commas are a mark of punctuation. They’re an aspect of writing, not an aspect of speech. Commas are also among the most common marks of punctuation. I suspect that, as a matter of frequency, use of commas and periods dwarfs the use of all other marks of punctuation. Now, the period, elegant as it may be, is not particularly versatile. It can abbreviate things, but mostly it just ends sentences. Indeed, it simply says “that’s enough”: that’s enough letters, that’s enough words. The comma, on the other hand, has many talents. The comma directly addresses. It says “you, gentle reader, have something on the side of your mouth.” And then it says “No, the other side”, for it knows the art of introduction. Because it knows this art, it can reorder clauses. Thankfully, it enables the sentence adverb. The comma can bring together independent clauses, and it does. The comma, like parentheses, can cast a comment aside; it, the comma, knows the mysteries of apposition. The comma does many things. However, there is something a comma never does: a comma never ends a sentence. There’s quiet after a period, but not in the same way that there’s quiet after a comma. The comma means that something else is coming. Where there’s a comma, there’s more to come. A semicolon is but a period undercut by the comma: “that’s enough, but there’s more to come.” So the book of commas might be quiet, but it would be a certain kind of quiet. It would be quiet promising sound.
Alan, why stop with John? We also seem to be playing with Genesis: dust + breath = man, the naming of animals, the tower of Babel. Of course, what’s John without Genesis anyway? And it’s not like the Tower of Babel isn’t playing with Genesis Chapter 1. You guys have had the bricking bricks conversation. That seems like it’s relevenat to Lee’s point about “turning the silence into a life.”
Man: paragon of prattle, tower of babble.
Anyway, it’s far from obvious that there’s anything especially religious about this. It’s not His untold word. It’s his untold Word, this common man’s untold Word. We’re reading in the shadow of John and Genesis, but just the shadow.
… and behold the man is also from John.
That’s not a wrinkle—it’s a rending of the cloth! Now I’m even more confused; I fear I shall never learn to read with any confidence. [BTW: I don’t have a hard copy—is it the word or the world that is his apple?] I was evidently quite wrong about the restrictiveness of the last clause, but given my mistrust of Nemerov’s punctuation, I am still uncertain what is making the wor(l)d into apples: is it the walking, the silence, the balloon, face, breath, spirit, telling, tale or untold Word? And just what does it mean for something to be turned into apples, which one is forced to eat? I can’t decipher the metaphor. Why is the tale numberless? Why is the Word untold? Had the poem ended with the simple instruction to behold the man, I doubt my understanding of what Nemerov is saying would have been diminished in the slightest.
I certainly can see a nod to (though not an invocation of) the evangel’s gospel. I am not a biblical scholar by any means—most of my familiarity with the anthology comes from reading Voltaire—but my KJV capitalizes the Word, and not the deific pronouns. Pilate’s words also stand out quite obviously. The shadows of Genesis are more difficult to see. Except for possibly identifying breath with spirit (is his breath “his spirit telling the numberless tale” or just “his spirit”?), I don’t see them at all. Of course, I don’t recall any conversation about bricking bricks, and again, most of my biblical “knowledge” was filtered through the Philosophical Dictionary. Perhaps that explains many of my reading difficulties generally…
Brian – wonderful riff on the comma.
All – “word” was changed to “world.” Was it wrong from the beginning of all this? More apologies… Lesson learned: copy the poem by hand, don’t google and grab.
Considering the new text, the apple is no reward. As has been pointed out, allusions to John and Genesis are all over this poem. Am I stating the obvious then by saying the apple is the fruit Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil. I am not sure what how to intrepret the “Word”, (which I think is Jesus in John). Perhaps it is the man’s god-figure sitting off in the shadows. But the telling, making verbal the world, creates the fruit of knowledge. Death was the consequence of Adam & Eve’s eating of the fruit, & knowledge of sin. Our words eventual do build up a sad world that we must accept or reject. This knowledge is forced on us through the act of living, speaking & being a common man. With it comes feelings of mortality, etc…
Two off-topic questions, as an aside (recall my comment about Voltaire):
The apple, I believe, is usually attributed to Milton.
From Paradise Lost, Book X, Lines 460-493:
Milton has Satan enter the serpent in Paradise Lost. From Book 9, lines 74-96:
I can’t say whether Milton was the originator of either of these. I’d be surprised if no one had Satanized the serpent prior to Miton. But the apple I can believe no one had bothered with previous.
Well, I should have seen this coming. Apparently, the whole apple thing is a Latin pun. So it would predate Milton.
I love and hate the article that Brian linked too. Cool observations but far too matter of fact.
– Perhaps you have wondered my the innocent suffer in God’s world? Well, the Swahili for “innocent” is “moogaboog” which is a play on “mookapoog,” which means “ouch.” That settles that.
Back to Nemerov, though. I think the movement at the end of the poem is toward linking the ‘blabbing-ness’ of man’s speech to something more eternal and profound. Nemerov plays with the idea that all the controlled exhalation of speech is linked to the mysterious source of breath. The allusion to John is there because Nemerov wants to import that very poetic and powerful notion of the Evangelist that God is the Word… that somehow words (or words + all the other senses of logos) are deserving of the supreme elevation that “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God” affords them.
Let me go even further with this– man is caught up in the eternal act of God creating the world. I believe it was Augustine who had the idea that the Word mentioned in John is something that is still, ever, being uttered; the utterance is the unfolding of time. Mankind participates in this unfolding creation because his words are also the Word. But, of course, the unfolding of creation is not working out so well in many ways. Man’s role is not, as it might have been in Eden, just to be the vessel of God’s word but to suffer… to some end one can hope. So, man, by his privileged participation in the work of the Word must fall, must eat the apple, must live with the world as it is. I still contend that this is both burden and opportunity.
Brian – kudos again, this time on your Miltonian syntax.
The depreciation toward life, on the grand scale, is very dominating; that is, until attention is redirected by the closing lines. The ideas presented are well lit by a flicker of hope between commas. A sense of worth and courage is given to the Common Man’s image, but to some extent, the virtues can only be true if the knowledge of this poem is applied to the individual. The individual then feeds into the masses, which in turn changes the course of, the more generalized, Common Man; a macrocosmic character.
So, is it outright in the poem’s language and style that this represents a Marxist approach, or is it merely a forebearing message?