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Howard Nemerov's "A Primer of the Daily Round"

Updated on January 23, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Howard Nemerov

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "A Primer of the Daily Round"

Howard Nemerov's "A Primer of the Daily Round" uses the alphabet to make a generalized statement about what might be happening in the world of humanity in any given time frame. The speaker personifies each letter of the alphabet, giving each human qualities and the capability to act. All of the activities are ones that people actually do, in fact, perform in the daily round.

"A Primer of the Daily Round" is an English sonnet, with the traditional form of three quatrains and a couplet, with the rime scheme, ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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 to 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.

Reading of Nemerov's "A Primer of the Daily Round"

Commentary

This piece plays out in an English sonnet form. The clever idea of the poem is somewhat marred by the questionable shift to first person for the letter "I" while all of the others express in third person.

First Quatrain: An "I" Conundrum

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

In the first Elizabethan style sonnet quatrain, the alphabet characters A through I appear: A is peeling an apple, while B is praying. C places a phone call to D, and D is placing his hand on the knees of E. Unrelatedly, F coughs. G digs the grave for H's burial. At this point, the speaker of the narrative seems to insert himself to proclaim, "I do not understand."

Yet it seems that the grammar should indicate, "I" "does" not understand, because one would expect "I" to be a character in the same sense as all the others letters. Thus, the reader is left with a conundrum.

Second Quatrain: Interspersed Violence

But J is bringing one clay pigeon down
While K brings down a nightstick on L’s head,
And M takes mustard, N drives to town,
O goes to bed with P, and Q drops dead,

The next set of letter-characters continues with their various activities: J is shooting at clay pigeons, while K is rapping L over the head with a nightstick. M prefers mustard on his sandwich. N travels to town by car. O and P retire to bed, and Q dies.

There is nothing unique or especially disturbing in this set of activities, except for perhaps the juxtaposition of the two acts of violence interspersed with the two very ordinary acts of taking mustard and driving to town, and then having a couple go to bed while another individual dies.

Third Quatrain: All Players Interconnected

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,

Unlike many of the disparate characters in the first and second quatrains, in the third quatrain, all the players are interconnected: R prevaricates and deceives S, and T overhears the lie; then T admonishes U against sacking V, who told W about X's deception of Y and Z.

The interconnection of activities attempts to show that as in real life many characters act and respond to other characters, while many other acts may be performed in relative isolation.

Couplet: The Round Completed

Who happens, just now to remember A
Peeling an apple somewhere far away.

The narrative comes full circle, being a primer of the daily round, in that Z is acquainted with and remembers A, who is peeling the apple, though he is peeling the fruit somewhere far away.

Clever but Trivial

On the one hand, Nemerov's piece is quite trivial although rather clever, while on the other hand, by placing the movement in the highly formalized Elizabethan sonnet, the poet bestows on the piece an air of sophistication that the recitation of the alphabet would not ordinarily deserve. But by making a fundamentally universal comment on the widespread and varied activities of humanity, the piece is saved from being a mere trifling.

I suggest that one correction should be made on this piece: The line, "I do not understand, should be changed to "I does not understand." "I" refers to the letter, not the first person singular speaker. Thus third person is required. Notice third personal singular is correctly employed with the other letters: A "peels" an apple, B "kneels" to God, etc.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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