The War in the Air

Howard Nemerov

Howard Nemerov (1920 - 1991)

Howard Nemerov was born in New York City, and attended the society for ethical culture’s Fieldstone School and Harvard University, where he graduated in 1941. He then served as a pilot in World War II were he was a flying officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force and a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force. After the war, he completed his first book of poems and began teaching at Hamilton College, his first of many teaching positions. Among his many honors were a Guggenheim fellowship in 1968 and the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1978. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees.

The War in the Air

For a saving grace, we didn't see our dead,

Who rarely bothered coming home to die

But simply stayed away out there

In the clean war, the war in the air.

Seldom the ghosts come back bearing their tales

Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,

But stayed up there in the relative wind,

Shades fading in the mind,

Who had no graves but only epitaphs

Where never so many spoke for never so few:

Per ardua, said the partisans of Mars,

Per aspera, to the stars.

That was the good war, the war we won

As if there was no death, for goodness's sake.

With the help of the losers we left out there

In the air, in the empty air.


The poem talks of air combat, specifically that in world war II. This is supported in Nemerov's biography that he served with both the royal canadian air force, and the U.S. air force. The poem's over arching theme is death, and how in the air, as apposed to on land you never see the corpse s of your fallen friends and allies, "For a saving grace, we didn't see our dead,"; yet in that most of their bodies/remains will be lost forever, "...rarely bothered coming home to die ...Who had no graves but only epitaphs"

Historical Representaion

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