A Reading of “A Picture” By Howard Nemerov

I began teaching Howard Nemerov’s “A Picture” in AY 2002-2003 as part of my First-Year Poetry class. As a novice teacher, I wanted to teach Nemerov’s poem of racialized terror under Jim Crow to my students. In 2014, I decided to add Nemerov’s poem to my Third-year Postcolonial Poetry Course. Teaching the poem in this particular course took on another layer of significance for me and my more advanced students as we paid close attention to the notion of “the other” and to how racism operates in particular local and international contexts.

As a teacher of English literature working within the institutions of Tunisian Higher Education, my task resides in being a moderator of ideas and experiences. I try to create a free space for my students where they can approach difficult texts and make meaning collectively. In order to achieve this, I leave the floor open for them to share their reading with their classmates or to write down their own analyses of literary texts. Experience on the ground has demonstrated the crucial importance of open communication. As long as students feel free to express themselves, they will interact with each other and thereby enrich their interpretations of the poem. Encouraging them to make connections between real world events and works of literature helps keep my students up-to-date on contemporary issues, and it demonstrates how the interpretation and criticism of literary texts can be open to multiple readings.

By reading a poem like “A Picture” and responding to its poetic complexities, my students recognize how otherness can be represented in literary form. They soon come to understand how postcolonial poetry examines historical stereotypes of marginalized people, its ability to connect the poetic with the political, and the fact that all linguistic expression is ideological and politicized. Ultimately, most of my students since 2014 have been persuaded that the postcolonial poetic text is open to apparently limitless interpretations. They have grown to maturity in terms of their interpretative and critical abilities as they compare the American context to the Tunisian local context. 

In teaching Nemerov’s “A Picture,” my students are required to understand the context from which the poem emerge—Jim Crow-era America––and the hopes and frustrations of the people writing it/ represented in it. I approach this lesson by emphasizing a postcolonial/ postmodernist/ multicultural theoretical framework which includes new voices previously silenced. 

 It is important for me to link the poems I teach to broader theories of postcolonial poetics. As a revolutionary mode of thinking that has emerged to give voice to the repressed, postcolonial poetics seek out the common characteristics shared by poems from different geographical and historical contexts. One of the main objectives of my courses is to provide students with the tools that will help them interpret the texts that have a direct bearing upon such issues as the conflict between the “same” and the “other,” the poetics of cultural resistance, identity politics, and the position of the poet in culture. Like Nemerov’s “A Picture,” all of the poems I teach deal explicitly or implicitly with the aesthetic dilemma that faces any poet who wishes to “aestheticize” the struggle by masking his or her ideological beliefs behind the rhetorical facets of language. Equally, like in other poems in the syllabus, the strategies of postcolonial writing embrace the unmasking of the hegemonic structures of power, the concern with dislocation and displacement, the reconstruction of history, universalizing the struggle, a belief in the power of the word to change the material conditions of people, the search for identity, albeit split, and the social and political function of art. 

“A Picture” is full of enjambments that reflect the poet’s desire to make connections through words and lines of verse; inter-racial relations in the poem are either absent or violent. The speaker dreams of conflict-free relationships between different races in literature if not in life. It is important to note here how the title itself “runs on” into the opening line. Indeed, the title, which summarizes the whole poem, compels the reader to think of different expectations, for it contains multiple allusions. Although the title confirms what is in the text, it deceives the reader’s (positive) expectations and achieves a defamiliarizing effect especially for students who are both shocked and angry at the same time.  

Eventually, this postcolonial text serves to highlight the role of poetry in foregrounding the racial terror that plagued the Jim Crow-era America (if not today). The troubling scene portrayed in the text identifies oppression but also explains its operation and its effect on the victim owing to his marginal identity and on the readers for they may also be oppressed, marginalized, powerless, or they may at least sympathize with these categories/ minorities. In brief, “A Picture” is the poet’s reaction/ resistance to racism, oppression, and marginalization. Therefore, one could assert that poetry has become a mode of resistance as postcolonial/ resistance poetry bears witness.