Born on February 29, 1920 in New York, New York, Howard Nemerov displayed an early interest in the arts, as did his younger sister, the photographer Diane Arbus. He graduated from the Society for Ethical Culture's Fieldston School in 1937 and went on to study at Harvard, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1941.
Throughout World War II, he served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian unit of the U. S. Army Air Force. He married in 1944, and after the war, having earned the rank of first lieutenant, returned to New York with his wife to complete his first book.
Nemerov was first hired to teach literature to World War II veterans at Hamilton College in New York. His teaching career flourished, and he went on to teach at Bennington College, Brandeis University, and Washington University in St. Louis, where he was Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death.
His numerous collections of poetry include Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 (University of Chicago Press, 1991); War Stories: Poems About Long Ago and Now (1987); Inside the Onion (1984); Sentences (1980); The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize; Gnomes and Occasions (1973); The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems (1968); The Blue Swallows (1967); Mirrors and Windows (1958); The Salt Garden (1955); Guide to the Ruins (1950); and The Image and the Law (1947).
Nemerov was also an accomplished prose writer. His essay collections include The Oak in the Acorn (1987); Figures of Thought (1978); Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics (1972); Journal of the Fictive Life (1965); and Poetry and Fiction (1963). His fiction titles include Stories, Fables and Other Diversions (1971); The Commodity of Dreams and Other Stories (1959); The Homecoming Game (1957); Federigo: Or the Power of Love (1954); and The Melodramatists (1949).
Nemerov was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and The Guggenheim Foundation, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the National Medal of the Arts. He also served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1963 and 1964, as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets beginning in 1976, and as poet laureate of the United States from 1988 to 1990. Nemerov died of cancer in 1991 in University City, Missouri.