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Smitten With Life: Poet Gerald Stern

This article by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

February 24, 1999. All rights reserved.

It could be that a true poet is something of an alchemist

— distilling everyday items and moments of our lives and creating

out of them something more. Using only words, a poet can jar us, make

sense of difficult things, illuminate, challenge, and entertain. E.B.

White said that "writing itself is an act of faith, and nothing

else," but reading requires its own constancy. Can you trust a

given poet to inspire you? In an already overcrowded life, is it worth

taking the time to explore a poet’s work? In the case of the prominent

American poet Gerald Stern, now a resident of Lambertville, the answer

is a unqualified "Yes."

Stern, winner of the 1998 National Book Award in Poetry for his collection

"This Time: New and Selected Poems" (W.W. Norton, 1998), will

read from his work on Friday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. at Lambertville’s

Rivergate Books. The reading will be followed by discussion, refreshments,

and a book-signing.

Visiting with Stern is like being in the steady, centered presence

of a force of nature. Like his poems, his person seems to have absorbed

and assimilated the colors of a life well observed. Even in a well-worn

flannel shirt and blue jeans, juggling a white portable phone as he

answers the door to his home, he makes an immediate impression. He

settles me into his living room with a cup of good, strong coffee

and goes off to the kitchen to finish his call.

The room is simple, elegant, very neat. Like Stern’s most recent poems,

it feels as if it contains exactly what should be there and no more.

There is a book shelf (at a quick glance, containing mostly well-read

fiction and philosophy paperbacks), comfortable chairs and sofa, a

few small end tables. Some original art work and a copy of his poem

"The First Lewd Offering" are on the wall. This poem begins:

I am one of the squirrels — I have a dogwood

in my breast pocket. I am smitten

It serves as a good introduction to a complex, passionate man.

Stern takes a seat in an antique chair of carved wood and deep red

velvet. He is polite, but short on time. Friends are driving down

from New York City and he’s getting ready for a trip to California

where he will be doing a series of readings. On a low table towards

the back of the room sits the crystal sculpture that is given, along

with a $10,000 cash prize, to the winners of the National Book Award.

He joins past winners William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Howard

Nemerov, Adrienne Rich, and Allen Ginsberg.

Asked how it feels to have won one of the preeminent literary awards

in this country, Stern opens his hands expressively. "Naturally,

it is a tremendous honor, and it means a great deal to me," he

says. He adds with some amusement, "Then again I had my friends

— supporters — who called me to say: It’s about time!"

Vivid recollections of Stern’s childhood in the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh

are woven throughout his poems. They evoke all the reader’s senses

as the poet offers (in "A Song for Kenneth Burke"):

A slice of life! Ah, shades of some school

or other, the girls are walking back

to their sewing machines, the miners are digging

by purple light.

I stand by a tree

in the rear of my garden, it is surrounded

by lilacs, yet the blossoms are large

and lovely; I feel like a mother in awe

of her baby…

Stern was born in Pittsburgh in 1925, the only son of Jewish

immigrants who came to the U.S. after the Russian revolution of 1917.

His mother was from Poland. His father, a Ukrainian, was "…a

buyer, a merchandise manager,/ and he had fifty wide ties; it was/

a pleasure to see him get dressed" (we learn in "Bread Without

Sugar"). His one, much-loved sister, a year older than Stern,

died when he was about nine years old.

Pittsburgh, a city which for years was infamous for

its steel factories and pollution, seems a strange breeding ground

for a poet whose work often explodes with closely observed details

of nature. Apple trees, opossums. spruce, mourning doves, lavender,

insects, catawba blossoms, grasses advise and populate his work. In

"Hinglish" a female cardinal, diving into a bush, speaks to

him and for him: "I love simplicity. I hate rank." Asked about

the recurring imagery of the cardinal, Stern muses, "I’m don’t

think there is a particular symbolism there, but nature is very important

to me." He explains that there may have been, at the beginning,

a certain defiance in his cultivation of this imagery in his work.

"There was a sense that urban writers couldn’t legitimately use

those images in their writing, which I thoroughly disagreed with.

For one thing, when I grew up in Pittsburgh we still had the woods

right there." Stern worked . . .

. . . at the Union Station in Pittsburgh pulling

wagons, unloading boxcars; we breathed

the filthiest air in history; there was

a yellow cloud hanging over the steam

and there were cinders — clinkers — free-floating

in the grand hall; I loved it

I even loved the disgusting smell…"

He graduated from Columbia University where he majored in philosophy

and economics, and went on to the University of Paris to continue

his studies in literature.

Stern can offer no single explanation for how he became a poet. With

a slight, expressive shrug he observes that it did not come from any

childhood influence in his home. "I didn’t come from a background

of letters. There were no books in my home. My parents weren’t readers,

and I never really read myself until later when I was in college,"

he says. There was something of a literary tradition going back a

generation. One of his grandfathers had been an essayist who wrote

in Yiddish about contemporary Russian authors of his time, including

Chekhov and Tolstoy.

In his poem "Behaving Like A Jew," Stern describes finding

a dead opossum in the road.

I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything

that joy in death, that philosophical

understanding of carnage, that

concentration on the species.

— I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death

— I am going to behave like a Jew

and touch his face, and stare into his eyes

and pull him off the road.

When asked how much his Jewish heritage informs his poetry,

Stern says that although he is not a practicing Jew, "I find that

I grow more Jewish as I grow older." The Talmud and Old Testament

Psalms are included in his current reading.

In talking about the impact of other writers in the evolution of his

own poetry, Stern says that some of the great classic poets naturally

influenced his work. His poetry gracefully references Yeats, Homer,

Cavafy, Shelley, DeCampos alongside uncles, friends, Stalin, Stieglitz,

Schubert, Ginsberg.

In its many forms and explorations, Stern’s work is

always passionate, mournful, exultant, and funny. In a recent poem

"Grapefruit," for example, he transforms the solitary, intensely

lonely act of eating breakfast over the sink into to a wry, ecstatic

psalm. And he brings the reader along for the ride.

I am back again at the sink;

oh loneliness. I stand at the sink, my garden

is dry and blooming. I love my lettuce, I love

my cornflowers…

Blessed art thou oh grapefruit King of the universe,

Blessed art Thou my sink.

Stern is one of the fortunate writers who has been able to earn

his living as a poet and a teacher. Until his recent move to Lambertville,

he had made Pennsylvania his home state. For many years he lived just

outside of Easton, considering the Delaware to be "his river."

Thus, when choosing a new home, he gravitated naturally to Lambertville,

a town he had always enjoyed visiting. He has a son and a daughter

from an early marriage, and is presently in love with "a wonderful


Stern has taught poetry and literature at New York University, Sarah

Lawrence College, Bucknell College, and the University of Pittsburgh.

For 13 years he was also on the faculty at the University of Iowa’s

Writer’s Workshop — one of the most influential workshops in the

country for aspiring authors. He enjoys teaching, but mentions in

passing that he had some concerns with the workshop approach to instruction.

In many cases, he notes, these represent an increasingly corporate

approach to churning out saleable authors.

Although Stern’s fans may feel that the National Book Award was some

time coming, this author of 10 books of poetry has won many awards

and recognitions over the years. The first was the Lamont Poetry Selection

of the Academy of American Poets which he received in 1977 for Lucky

Life. "That was very special for me, my first official recognition

by my peers," he says. Other awards include the Ruth Lilly Poetry

Prize, the Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Award, the Bess Hokin

Award from Poetry, the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from American

Poetry Review, and, in 1993, the Paterson Poetry Prize for "Bread

Without Sugar."

Although some of his books are presently out of print, his current

anthology, "This Time: New and Selected Poems" includes work

from seven prior books, along with some new poems. Poetry lovers might

also hope that the National Book Award might influence publishers

to re-issue Stern’s works. A re-issue of his 1981 volume, "The

Red Coal," is already scheduled for March.

Stern reveals that he has a new book of his poetry almost ready. "The

tentative title is `The Last Blue,’" he says. How appropriate

that would be for a poet whose color as a child was lavender, who

writes in the full spectrum of light, and who defines a flower as


blue with the dust of the universe, a blue

more like lavender — I would call it purple

if I were extreme — I would say the edges

are white from gripping the sky, or they are drained

from so much thought. I call it the thought of heaven,

not too disgraceful for the chicory. ("The Thought of Heaven")

Our time is almost up, Stern’s visitors have arrived. We are

talking about poetry readings. Asked about poets who truly breathe

life into their work when they read for an audience, Stern notes briskly,

"It’s the mark of a truly great poet." Commenting on the current

popularity of poetry, he says it can be good for the art form, if

only in getting more people reading poetry. He is cautious, though,

when considering the overall impact of today’s `pop culture’ of poetry

readings and slams. "I suppose there are benefits," he begins

tentatively, "but there can be a tendency in popularizing…to

undervalue excellence in poetry. After all…" He lets his thought

trail off. "After all," I finish the thought, "not everyone

is truly a great poet." Stern inclines his head slightly. So be

it. On Friday, February 26, don’t miss an opportunity to hear from

a truly great poet.

— Tricia Fagan

Gerald Stern, Rivergate Books, 7 Lambert Lane, Lambertville,

609-397-1920. Friday, February 26, 7:30 p.m.

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