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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…
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…
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…"
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.
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,
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
Blessed art thou oh grapefruit King of the universe,
Blessed art Thou my sink.
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
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")
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
609-397-1920. Friday, February 26, 7:30 p.m.
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