Gerald Stern

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Date: 1991
Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 4,863 words

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About this Person
Born: February 22, 1925 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Stern, Gerald Daniel (American poet); Stern, Gerald
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

  • The Naming of Beasts, and Other Poems (West Branch, La.:Cummington, 1973).
  • Rejoicings (Fredericton, N.B.: Fiddlehead, 1973); republished as Rejoicings: Poems 1966-1972 (Los Angeles: Metro, 1984).
  • Lucky Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977).
  • The Red Coal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981).
  • Paradise Poems (New York: Random House, 1984).
  • Lovesick (New York: Perennial Library, 1987).
  • Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).
  • Two Long Poems: The Pineys and Father Guzman, edited by Jerry Costanza (Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1990).
  • Bread Without Sugar: Poems(New York: Norton, 1992).
  • Odd Mercy: Poems(New York: Norton, 1995).

Other

  • "Some Secrets," in In Praise of What Persists, edited by Stephen Berg (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 256-266.
  • "What Is This Poet?," in What Is a Poet?, edited by Hank Lazar (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987), pp. 145-146.

Selected Periodical Publications--Uncollected

  • "Notes From the River," American Poetry Review, 12 (September/October 1983): 36-38.
  • "What Is the Sabbath?," American Poetry Review, 13 (January/February 1984): 17-19.
  • "Rebuilding the Ruined and Fallen," American Poetry Review, 14 (September/October 1985): 9-12.
  • "A Few Words on Form," Poetry East, 20-21 (1986): 146.
  • "The Bombing of Libya," American Poetry Review, 15 (September/October 1986): 21-24.
  • "Life Is Not a River: Some Thoughts on Teaching Poetry," AWP Newsletter, 20, no. 2 (1987): 6-9.
  • "Caves," American Poetry Review, 16 (May/June 1987): 41-46.

 
BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY:

Gerald Stern has set out to exorcise sadness and guilt by undertaking large poem after large poem, evoking the ironic power of pathos. He rejects decoration as poetic dishonesty. Stern is less concerned with changing from book to book, or even from poem to poem, than he is with continuing to express himself in the only way he knows, by letting his feelings take over. With a sense of mission that obviates art for its own sake, he distinguishes nostalgia from bathos as "not merely something tender and sad but [having] great psychic roots with true and terrifying aspects of rupture and separation" ("Notes from the River," American Poetry Review, September/October 1983). This sentiment conjures an image of the biblical fall. Stern continues to plumb the past, maintaining that "we live in grief and ecstasy," that "it is our justice" ("The Goons Are Leaving," in Rejoicings, 1973).

Stern educated himself on the city streets, in the public library, and along the river in Pittsburgh. He was born on 22 February 1925 into a second-generation Jewish family, which originally had the Russian name Dogipyat. His Pittsburgh neighborhood was rife with gangs and anti-Semitism, prompting him into brutal fights. His maternal grandfather, perhaps his strongest childhood influence, was a rabbi and shachat (a kosher butcher or "chicken killer") in Byalostok, Poland, and in Pittsburgh. Stern's father, Harry, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, was a clothing retailer; Stern's mother was Ida Barach Stern. Clearly, the chances for the young Stern to develop into a renowned American poet seemed slim. The only Jewish poets of any repute during his youth were Delmore Schwartz and Karl Shapiro . Many American universities, including Ivy League schools, were still blacklisting Jews from both their undergraduate and graduate programs. Despite his dim prospects for a literary career,Stern spent his college years at the University of Pittsburgh studying literature. Although he had begun to write poetry at this time, he had no friends who were poets, much less mentors. He carried around Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry (1942), wrote some poetry, and began reading Thomas Wolfe 's novels, but that was the extent of his literary pursuits.

After graduating with a B.A. in English in 1947 from the University of Pittsburgh, Stern took a year off to read. He had spent a year in the army from 1946 to early 1947, specializing in counterintelligence, and thus had some savings from the GI Bill.

The notion of going to school to study poetry never occurred to him. He was consuming literature in his own way without the selfconsciousness of academia. Recalling these early days, Stern wrote in any essay entitled "Some Secrets" (1983): "I'm a little proud of my terrible isolation, and even delight a little in its mystery, as if it were the result of some master plan, and certainly my poetry has resulted from it." Yet he also wishes he had had a little "nourishment somewhere." He read Poetry, along with the other little magazines in the University of Pittsburgh library. Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats were his favorite contemporary poets. His classical favorites included Christopher Marlowe , John Donne , John Keats , Samuel Taylor Coleridge , and Robert Browning .

Stern entered Columbia's graduate school of English in 1949 and earned an M.A. the following year. After a year in Europe with two college friends, Jack Gilbert and Dick Hazley, Stern returned to Columbia to earn a Ph.D. in literature. He studied for a year with Lionel Trilling , but then dropped out of the program, having grown impatient with the unemotional rigors of academia. During his last year at Columbia, Stern supported himself by teaching English and serving as interim headmaster at the Lake Grove School in Long Island.

Stern married Patricia Miller on 12 September 1952. (They were later to have a son, David, and a daughter, Rachel, but eventually, in the late 1980s, were divorced.) With his bride, Stern went back to Europe in 1953 and remained for three years, traveling around but settling in Glasgow for a year to teach high-school English. This period in Europe was a frustrating but romantic interlude for Stern. He wrote an epic entitled "Ishmael's Dream" while staying in a fifth-floor Parisian walk-up on Rue Boucherie. He had prepared for this ambitious poem by reading Hart Crane 's The Bridge (1930), John Milton 's Paradise Lost (1667), and the biblical Book of Isaiah. Stern later sent his poem to W.H. Auden , who responded by inviting the young poet to his Manhattan apartment for tea, but Stern never managed to arrange for the poem's publication.

Upon his return from Europe, Stern secured his first college teaching job, at Temple University in 1956. For the next twenty years (until the publication of Lucky Life in 1977) he balanced a virtually unrecognized writing career with teaching English at various colleges and universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, and Somerset Community College. From 1982 to the present, he has held a tenured position at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, teaching poetry. In 1990 Stern returned briefly to the New York area as a visiting professor at Princeton and New York University.

Slowly, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, he shifted from tendentious emulation to self-discovery. Allen Ginsberg 's Howl (1956) had been written, deafening the New Critics. Stern would work on one last ambitious, long poem, "The Pineys" (1969; collected in Two Long Poems, 1990), before breaking into his mature pace. Although "The Pineys" contains the same style as his later poems, it is, he says in the essay "Some Secrets," "indulgent and tedious." From this nadir, his real voice arose. He began writing shorter poems that unleashed his pent-up feelings of loss and failure. His poetic ambition had diminished enough, perhaps out of exhaustion, to allow for a relaxed embrace of his own kind of joyous grief. He speculates that it might have been something as trivial and banal as a trip to the doctor--and hearing he was overweight--that triggered his slight change in perspective, permitting him "to tap into material that was formerly warded off or ignored .... Was it my lot to speak for the second half of life and not the first?" ("Some Secrets").

Rejoicings marked the beginning of his mature voice. As the title indicates, he adopted an ecstatic spoken style that forsook epic ambition for desultory utterance, as in "This Is Lord Herbert Moaning": "My whole life is centered now in my lips / and their irruptions." These irruptions dictated their own poetic form, an associative flexibility that contains sinuous lines with natural pauses for end-stops. Stern's abrupt shift in outlook and poetic purpose seemed to result from a revelation; he suddenly realized that he had been treating poetry like a parlor game, despite his dedication to it, as he claims in "The Bite":

I didn't start taking myself seriously as a poet
until the white began to appear in my cheek.
All before was amusement and affection--
now, like a hare, like a hare, like a hare,
I watch the turtle lift one horrible leg
over the last remaining stile and head
for home, practically roaring with virtue.
Everything, suddenly everything is up there in the mind
all beauty of the race gone
and my life merely an allegory.

Like Walt Whitman , Stern made the rather late discovery that he could not write about himself without some notion of persona overriding his lyricized experience. This realization--which continued full force into Lucky Life (the 1977 Lamont Poetry Selection)--hinged on Stern's awareness that his personal experiences were only glorious when depicted in a larger glory, and unveiled as a series of oxymorons. Earthly paradise, beautiful weeds, and compassionate animals fill his poems, transporting the banality of his urban background into a wild landscape. Stern embraced his ordinary surroundings and nostalgic past with clear yet secular devotion. It is unsurprising, then, that he would, in this worldly mind-set, choose luck over grace. He writes in "Lucky Life": "Lucky you can be purified again. / Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone. / Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life. / Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life."

Stern wrote now out of a personal need that adopted poetry for its emotional shorthand; that is, he was no longer trying to write poetry: he was trusting implicitly in his passions. He was ending poems roughly, with emotionally logical conclusions. With this new license, a confident solitary voice, Stern recognized an irony in T.S. Eliot 's famous antiromantic criterion for the poet as stated in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": by subverting the exigencies of Stern's own personality with universal images, thus creating a mythology of the self, Stern could also succeed at "seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together."

Stern attacked the page with romantic fervor, as in "Rejoicings": "I have come back one more time to the shore, / like an old prisoner--like a believer--/ to squeeze the last poetry out of the rubbish." An authority had settled into his poetry, banishing conventionalism and awe of goyish and Ivy League criteria. Stern felt suddenly compelled to create his own ecstatic cabala, as seen in "Burst of Wind Between Broadway and the River" (in Rejoicings):

There at the little chairs and the round tables
the rebbes read and eat.
I walk between them like a learned soul,
nodding my head and smiling,
doing the secret steps and making the signs,
following the path of authority and silence,
I and the dust, in the black soup and the herring.

The poems in Rejoicings and Lucky Life seem both native and foreign, free of the academy's auspices. They have similarities to the work of Whitman, Vladimir Mayakovski, Nazim Hikmet, and Pablo Neruda. The poems are expansive, democratic,and lyrical--an immigrant's revenge on crusty eloquence, a bohemian celebration. This new voice was proudly shameless, for its heritage of persecution and displacement was too deep for reticence. Stern was transforming the American landscape into his own dioramas, as in "Psalms" (in Lucky Life):

When I drove through the little bald hills of Tennessee
I thought of the rabbis of Brooklyn bent over their psalms
I thought of the tufts of hair and the bones and ridges
and the small cows eating peacefully
out on the open slope or the shadows
while the forehead wrinkled and the gigantic lips moved
through the five books of ecstasy, grief and anger.

Abraham Heschel writes in The Prophets (1962), "Authentic utterance derives from a moment of identification of a person and a word; its significance depends upon the urgency and magnitude of its theme .... This is the secret of the prophet's style: his life and soul are at stake in what he says. It is an involvement that echoes." The passion that continues to rage through Stern's poems with prophetic urgency seems largely inherent. But Stern is careful to underscore the impetus of his harsh experiences. A key event to which he returns often in discussing the provenance of his inspiration is the early death of his only sibling, Sylvia, who died at the age of nine of spinal meningitis. Stern was eight at the time. When his mother refused to accept her daughter's death after a prolonged period of grieving, Stern became the outlet for her transferred affection. He recounts his mother's taking him to bed with her while she wept, crying "Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia." As painful as this role must have been for him as a child, Stern did not ultimately reject it. Rather, he embraced it, assuming the embodiment of her loss, while finding a way to grieve himself. He writes in "Joseph's Pockets" (The Red Coal, 1981):

I borrow a book from the bleak office and open
to the page to be read at the graveside of a sister.
I ask her first to remember her shocking death
and all the clumsiness and sadness of her leaving.
I ask her to describe--as she remembers it--
how I stood in front of her white coffin
and stared at the mourners in our small living room.
I ask her to think again about the two peach trees,
how close together they were, how tiny their fruit was,
forty years ago in the light rain,
wherever she is, whatever sweet wing she's under.

This death planted in Stern's childhood the fact of a sacred synergism between all things, especially those things that stay in one's memory. Two peach trees become universal, not by virtue of Stern's lyricized experience but because he invites readers into a world of loss where particular trees, perhaps Sylvia's favorites, are chosen as natural metaphors; the peach trees suddenly become poles for all grief. From this one experience of critical loss, Stern has extended his empathy beyond familial boundaries to the afflicted family at large, whether they be Holocaust victims, dead possums, or weeds. "I think I have a bone somewhere in my spine," he confesses, "or a wire somewhere in my system, or a feather, that attracts me endlessly to the ruined and fallen" ("Rebuilding the Ruined and Fallen," American Poetry Review, September/October 1985).

Because of his accurate empathy, Stern is frequently compared to Keats. Interestingly, both poets lost beloved siblings early in life. For both, the spirit of the lost loved one assumes the identity of foreign objects--urns, squirrels, trees--allowing for negative capability. Both poets had the courage to accept the onus of loss, to become its voice, to resist the temptation of opiates, decoration, and distraction when melancholy descended upon them. Stern's only fear is that he will turn his subjects into symbols, thus losing their real identity. He wrote in "Notes from the River": "when I allow my own prejudice and my own sentimentality to enter; when ... I forget I am converting a real person, I find myself in a slippery place. Not only do I dehumanize the woman, not only do I not allow her her humanity, but I do the same thing to the man, wherever he is. It is as if, by concentrating so much on the symbol, it is as if, by forcing the real man to become a symbol, and remain only that, that I also do an injustice to him, that I don't ever allow him tears, or regret, or change of heart, that I don't let him break away, and that I don't make distinctions between one man and another, any more than I did between one woman and another, and this has too much to do with Hegel, and too little to do with Keats. I do it for both reasons, but I deny them both life."

Such worry is a healthy sign of sympathy. But it is important to remember that Stern most often begins his poems with himself rather than with another, proceeding from the convex borders of his own experience into the "rough zone" of vulnerability. He believes that his thought process and feelings are a kind of metaphysical key for understanding the nature of things. Stern aspires to a close relationship with the inanimate, plant, and animal world. Immediate examples of such Taoist and Aristotelian devotion leap off his pages: "Today it was just a dry leaf that told me / I should live for love" ("Today a Leaf," in Paradise Poems, 1984); "Dear mole I have forgotten you!" ("Dear Mole," in The Red Coal). These lines show a deep belief in the distinct sovereignty of objects. Stern claims that people have the unique attribute of vivifying the world, but not for the sake of making it universally human. Rather, people are most human, his poems argue, when they are least self-referential. Stern's persona is thus a poetic vehicle for demonstrating the irony that the more passive one's creative aggression is, the more real the world becomes. This scheme does not de-emphasize the individual in an Eastern way. On the contrary, Stern's individuality remains firmly intact within his personality. He forces readers to see that they have made too automatic a connection between national identity and the natural majesty of the land, that they are, in reality, all too often ugly Americans. For the reader to believe this message, Stern must write with authority, being careful not to preach. So he lets the world speak through him.

In each book following Lucky Life , Stern has expanded his voice in both volume and length. In The Red Coal he hearkens to Isaiah's calling, a transforming personal event that spawns exhortation out of self-effacement. The biblical passage from which Stern chose his title reads: "Then one of the seraphim flew to me carrying in his hand a glowing coal which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs" (Isaiah 6:9). After Isaiah has volunteered to deliver the divine message, whatever it may be, Yahweh entrusts him with the dark irony. "Go and tell this people," he says. "You may listen and listen, but you will never understand. / You may look and look again, but you will never understand."

Despite this vain tradition of uttering truth to deaf ears, Stern has willfully chosen to follow it. In so doing, he preserves the integrity of the entire scripture, bridging any canonical distinction between old and new. He reiterates with abandon from his wilderness post the importance of immediacy, the ambiguity of the present, and the terror of hesitating. Like a prophet, old or new, Stern understands grief. His implosive litanies announce that agape, justice, and authority transcend ecclesiastical boundaries with fundamental human precepts, that the Sabbath, for instance, as a day for man, is a "dream ... a work of art ... a poem" ("What Is the Sabbath?," American Poetry Review, January/February 1984). This human inclination has compelled him to be devoutly irreverent, as in "Good Friday, 1977" (in Lucky Life):

Suddenly there are hundreds of fishermen on the road,
wearing hats and waders and thick shirts and badges.
Their cars and trucks are lined up on the lawns and ditches.
Dozens are in the water already,
side by side, casting and reeling in the foam,
ending Christianity once and for all on this small river.

Although Stern views his declarations mythologically, he does so with ironic savvy, parodying narcissism: "Everyone is into my myth! / The whole countryside / is studying weeds, collecting sadness, dreaming / of odd connections ..." ("This Is It," in Lucky Life). But he ultimately holds firm to his mission of witnessing, using humor in its most responsible role as criticism. This is his Judaic compulsion, to write amusingly, rhapsodically, apocryphally, like a Hassidic story-teller. Stern takes his wildness from nature. But he is not as wild as what he reveals. Otherwise he would merely be sensational, and he is not that.

Stern uses continuous clarification: neither ecstasy, nor grief, nor anger are ever static. He recalls the past with fastidious reverence, zeroing in on events, emotions, and thoughts, in telescopic fashion, until they appear in vivid detail on the page. These constitute the quotidian data, as well as historical horrors and contemporary injustices, substantiating his emotions, allowing, as Theodore Roethke once wrote, "the nobility of the soul to be at odds with circumstance" ("In a Dark Time," in The Far Field, 1964). Although sane, Stern often employs the reverie and rhetoric of madness before concluding clearly, marshaling a beguiling ambiguity between the burning insight of craziness and cool objectivity. Themes of persecution, mystery, biography, and law emerge in all his books on a common ground. Animals abound throughout his poems--monkeys, possums, apes, dogs, cows, and squirrels--along with numerous plants. Stern's landscape is a burgeoning one, a wild garden.

Paradise Poems marked a significant increase in Stern's ambition as he risked turning directly toward charged themes of personal and public loss, as opposed to his more random subjects of everyday minutiae. In such poems as "The Expulsion," "Kissing Stieglitz Goodbye," "Groundhog Lock," "One Bird to Love Forever,""John's Mysteries," "The Same Moon Above Us," and "Sycamore," Stern carries on elegiac monologues with a largeness of spirit and metaphoric craze: "I lie alone / waiting for sweetness and light .... / I am a drop of white paint, I am a prow of a ship. / I am the timbers, I am the earthquake--/ in eighty or ninety years / someone will dream of Crete again and see me / sitting under this tree" ("John's Mysteries" ). In "The Expulsion" and "Kissing Stieglitz Goodbye," Stern confronts, respectively, the loss of his father and his beloved city (New York) in a style that adds mythical allusion, narrative, and sustained emotional honesty to his already established lyricism. These poems announce the poet's mature readiness to effect full catharsis in both the reader and himself. Although Stern had already successfully done this in "Joseph's Pockets," one must recall that the origin of that poem's grief--his sister's death--preceded the death of his father and his move to the Midwest by up to fifty years. No longer content to cast his sorrow in primarily short lyrics, Stern extends himself narratively, in concert with his imaginative flights and extended metaphors, to write consistently beyond minutiae, chronicling the adult "sadness" and "secrets" he had known would take time to discover: "It will take us time / to remember each other's secrets .... It will take us time to find our sadness" ("I Am So Exhausted," in Lucky Life). Stern finds this sadness in Paradise Poems by writing empathic litanies: "Lament, lament for the underlayer / of wallpaper, circa 1935. / Lament for the Cretans .... Lament for Hannibal" ("The Expulsion").

In the public poems of this volume, Stern writes of the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust ("Soap"), the Jewish actor Adler ("Adler"), the dear poets of Perigord ("Near Perigord"), and the homeless ("The Same Moon Above Us"). These poems show deep affection, anger, and startling empathy: "I write this poem, for my little brother, if I / should call him that--maybe he is the ghost that lives in the place I have forgotten, that dear one / that died instead of me--oh ghost, forgive me!" ("Soap"); "I see him lying there watching, the wind cleaning / the blue sky, pulling a piece of sock / over his raw ankle, asking himself / what he was punished for" ("The Same Moon Above Use"); "They will look at him / with hatred reminiscent of the Plains / of Auschwitz--Buchenwald--and drive him mad / an inch at a time" ("Adler").

While Stern does not forsake shorter forms in Paradise Poems, continuing to evoke signature scenes of pathos and ecstasy (as in "Singing," "Huzza," "Moses," "May 15," "Moscow," and "The Dancing"), he does undertake the welcome new step of opening doors to secret rooms.

In Lovesick (1987), with the awareness that silence is the poet's last choice, Stern writes instead with elaborate urgency, focusing unblinkingly on death in such poems as "The Dog," "No Longer the Terror," "Bob Summer's Body," "Neither English Nor Spanish," "The Blink of an Eye," and "It Was a Rising." There are a few outright celebratory poems in Lovesick, such as "Grapefruit" and "A Garden," but they are harder won, set as they are amid Stern's Orphean impulse to descend into the underworld and gaze back in defiance. The numerous extended narratives in this book rebuke both silence and the specter of death with imaginative forays into the underworld, where spirits are "nodding and smiling in the plush darkness" ("Bob Summers' Body"). Stern walks despair's edge in these poems, writing "between one long-faced birthday and another" ("The Blink of an Eye"), surviving another year with oblivious glee: "I don't have birthdays anymore ... / I just go on, although I hardly feel / the sadness, / there is so much joy being there on the small bench, / watching the sycamores, / looking for birds in the snow ..." ("This Was a Wonderful Night"). Stern's broad recognition of beatitude in creation saves him from morbidity, but Lovesick is less overtly about love than death. Lovesickness, as Stern shows in poem after poem, is a dance with death to the music of paradise. In this tension between erosive time and earthly beauty, Stern concludes: "I look at the clock again, I chew my flower" ("Steps").

John Keats wrote that the poet has scant personality of his own since he must constantly assume the identity of other things, but the poet's personality can also be transcendent. Gerald Stern preserves and sharpens his identity, continuing to make the discovery that the self is large enough to embrace the world without becoming awash in it. He ascends into the light of his own ecstatic vision. This journey embraces a proud atavism, "so we can watch the stars together, / like the good souls we are, / a hairy man and a beast / hugging each other in the white grass" ("For Night to Come," in The Red Coal).

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Sanford Pinsker, "The Poetry of Constant Renewal and Celebration, an Afternoon Chat with Gerald Stern," Missouri Review (Winter 1981/1982): 53-60.
  • Mark Hillringhouse, "An Interview," American Poetry Review, 13 (March/April 1984): 19-31.
  • David Hamilton, "An Interview with Gerald Stern," Iowa Review, 19 (Spring/Summer 1989): 33-65.
  • Frederick Garber, "Pockets of Secrecy, Places of Occasion," American Poetry Review, 15 (July/August 1986): 38-48.
  • Jane Miller, "Working Time," American Poetry Review, 17 (May/June 1988): 14-16.
  • "The Poetry of Gerald Stern," special issue, Poetry East, 26 (Fall 1988).
  • Jane Somerville, Gerald Stern: The Speaker as Meaning (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988).
  • Somerville, Making the Light (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990).
  • Somerville, Come: The Poetry of Gerald Stern(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200002079