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date: 19 October 2017

Stern, Gerald

Gerald Stern was born in Pittsburgh in 1925. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1947 with a degree in English, and moved on to get a master's degree at Columbia University and to attend the University of Paris. He spent the next twenty years teaching high school and college, while writing but not publishing. He published his first poem, The Pineys, in 1969, long after all of the literary movements of his own generation. It was not until 1977, however, with the award-winning Lucky Life, that Stern finally emerged onto the scene of American poetry. He has since received numerous awards and recognitions, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Book Award for Poetry for his more recent This Time: New and Selected Poems (1998).

Movement and Transformation

Stern is often compared to Walt Whitman, whose present-tense quest for self-definition, tone of exhilaration, and tendency to write primarily in the first person he shares. Unlike his critics, however, Stern prefers to associate his work with the enigmatic and metaphysical lyrics of Emily Dickinson. As Jane Somerville rightfully points out in Making the Light Come (1990), the voice of his first-person narrator is close to that of a fictional character or a performer, taking his reader along on his search for an understanding of himself and the world around him. This narrator is ever capable of transformation, during the course of a poem, into the objects in that world, into animals and trees, and into the role of beings with whom he so deeply relates as to share their experience. Love for the Dog illustrates this blurring transformation, as well as the humor that characteristically enlivens many of Stern's musings: “In the middle of his exhausted brain there rose a metaphor / of an animal, a dog with a broken spine sliding around / helplessly in the center of the slippery floor.… / He sat there proud of his metaphor, tears of mercy in his eyes, / unable in his dumbness to explain his pleasure, / unable now even to rise because of the spine.” This sort of intimate interaction with the world around him is a key element in Stern's movement toward the exhilaration and the truth he seeks. He most often finds it in solitary interaction with the natural world. It is in the country, “sitting in Raubsville, / the only Jew on the river, counting my poems” that he frequently wanders and speaks to his reader, while he imagines the rest of the literary universe convening in the cafés of the big city. Even in the poems that are set in the city (most frequently in New York), he remains with “one foot on 72nd Street, one foot in the river,” dreaming and isolated from the crowds around him.

In both the city and the country, however, he is rarely still. Instead he moves constantly, walking through his transformations and his thoughts, in search of those “pockets” in the concrete universe where something unexpected may be revealed. “I'm back in Pittsburgh now,” says the traveler, “it's only here / and maybe Detroit and maybe a little Chicago / that there are Joseph pockets where you can see / the dream turned around and the darkness illuminated, / some of the joy explained, some of the madness.” He walks with his reader into such moments, presenting us not with the formal analysis of a discovery already made and digested, but rather with the enactment of thought, with the experience of encounters (more frequently human in later volumes) that redefine him. His voice tends to address us in informal and conversational tones. Inventive but rarely dwelling in convolutions of language for the sake of language, he balances on a thin line between lyric poetry and prose, reconciling the intellectual and the emotional extremes of the movements into which much of his generation of poets had polarized themselves.

Memory, Judaism, and Exile

Although the immediacy of experience is fundamental in Stern's poetry, his later work, in particular, attempts to bring the past, even a quotidian past, into the light of the present. He also makes numerous references to a more eternal history: that of the Bible, of the Holocaust, of his own Jewish upbringing, and of his sometimes-guilty distance from it. Featured in various collections of Jewish-American poets, Stern shies away from harsh classifications. Yet, with explicit sorrow and fraternity along with confusion, he addresses his Judaism most explicitly in poems like Soap: “My counterpart was born in 1925 / in a city in Poland—I don't like to see him born / in a little village fifty miles from Kiev / and have to fight so wildly just for access / to books.… / I loved how he dreamed, how he almost / disappeared when he was in thought. For him / I write this poem, for my little brother, if I / should call him that.… ” The artist, especially one like Stern who, in his “Self Portrait” likens himself to Van Gogh, sees himself sharing exile with the Jewish victims of the time of his adolescence.

In Stern's poetry, the wanderer seeking truth envisions himself more than once as a rabbi, living in the timeless margins of the world. In those margins, the chain of relation is elongated to include all manner of the exiled and the rejected, but specifically returns to images of animals and of the downtrodden. In his longest poem, Hot Dog, he takes us with him into his life around Tompkins Square in Manhattan. A torrent of musings on religion, politics, and his own life accompany the descriptions of his surroundings, including Hot Dog, a homeless woman with whom he relates but cannot communicate. He finds her passed out in a cellar entrance one day, and in watching her he finds a religiousness that he has been seeking throughout the poem, perhaps throughout all of his poems. “I waited for some dark light / to turn bright in front of the Odessa, / I wanted to feel the light; I did it by stages, / with one eye then the other, I almost threw myself down on their bed.… / it was a kind of altar, half / cement, half steel; / … I couldn't tell whose mind they were in besides my own.”


Rejoicings (1973)Find this resource:

The Naming of Beasts (1973)Find this resource:

Lucky Life (1977)Find this resource:

The Red Coal (1981)Find this resource:

Paradise Poems (1984)Find this resource:

Lovesick (1987)Find this resource:

Two Long Poems (1990)Find this resource:

Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems (1990)Find this resource:

Bread without Sugar (1992)Find this resource:

Odd Mercy (1995)Find this resource:

This Time: New and Selected Poems (1998)Find this resource:

Last Blue (2000)Find this resource:

American Sonnets (2002)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Moyers, Bill, and James Haba, eds. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. New York, 1995. Contains an interesting interview with Stern, addressing mainly the poems of Lucky Life.Find this resource:

Pacernick, Gary. Meaning and Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets. Columbus, Ohio, 2001.Find this resource:

Somerville, Jane. Making the Light Come: The Poetry of Gerald Stern. Detroit, 1990. A great book, and the only one devoted exclusively to Stern's work.Find this resource: