A REFLECTION ON THE POETRY OF GERALD STERN
On November 3, New Jersey poet and National Book Award Winner
When Gerald Stern writes about Paris, he is not going to tell you
about the Eiffel Tower and probably not about shopping for bargains in the Marais, but he will
tell you about being able to live for two months off the sale of his Underwood typewriter to a
Polish archetect "whose teeth the Germans had smashed at Auschwitz." He calls the money "my first
grant," an amount that "made it easier to practice / deprivation.... I was so stubborn I did it /
ten years too long, maybe twenty, it was / my only belief, what I went there for."
I am reading Gerald Stern's poems in a sunny chair with the leaves
turning outside and I remember my days of semi-intentional deprivation and the good things that can be
found probably only that way, but today I am
drinking home-ground French roast from my favorite mug, the one with Seurat's painting, "The Models,"
wrapped around it. In the painting, women in bustles and men with top hats and canes and pipes pose
and recline on the lawn of a lakeside park in elegant postures, and even the rompings of children and
animals seem caught in a timeless moment, like the figures on Keat's Grecian urn. A
few years ago, we saw "The Models" in Philadelphia, when the great show of impressionist works was
brought over from Paris. The painting appears twice in our house, once on the mug and once in
a framed and glassed print above a bookcase. The mug was a wedding gift from my daughter, and so
this painting has become for me a symbol of a life in which I have far more comfort than ever before,
and can read poetry in a sunny chair. The rug is a shade of green, although there is no Sunday
morning cockatoo upon it.
See, this is what Stern's poetry can do to you. You read along innocently enough, as though you are listening to a friend tell a story, and then all of a sudden a line halts you in your tracks. You stop, you reminisce, remembering when you shared a place or a feeling with the poet. When Stern writes of Paris, if you have been there, you remember your own Paris, which for me was San Francisco; when Stern writes of a man "who carried a leather bag of small red Bibles" and sang on the street, for some reason I'm reminded here of little toothless old Millie, who wore a bonnet like a child's and sold roses from a tray in the bars of Northbeach. Among dozens of other places, Stern sets his poetry in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Newark, Princeton, New Brunswick, New York City, and so if you are here in New Jersey he is on your turf.
Following an opening reading by Stephen Dunn, Stern walked to center stage in front of an audience of a few hundred, which did not quite fill the small auditorium. He was a roundish, not very tall man, with a smile and a bald crown with wisps of hair sticking out to the sides. He wore baggy dark corduroy pants and a loose pale green shirt, and off and on a spiffy gray felt hat. He had big, rich voice that sometimes moved into Yiddish or French, and he had a story to go with every poem; he
spoke of his wife as though she were his best pal, and when he was done he blew a kiss and turned
and gave a short wave of dismissal, as if to say, "Well, that was that-- don't make too much
of it." But it was quite easy to make very much of it, because it was hard to tell which
was more enjoyable, the man or the poems.
It is a poetry of tremendous specifics. As he moves about the world, in and out of places and memories, there are few tourist snapshots: "It is the madness of Northern New Jersey I'm describing, / a sulphur day and night, a cloud of gas / always hanging above us. We drifted down / to Newark, there were clusters of people in front of / every bar and drug store.... I looked at the dawn / behind the A&P and the pizzeria.... I climbed / over a sled, a tire and an ironing board...."
Sometimes Stern's references--to music, myth, art, poetry, friends and places-- will lose you, but I never mind much being lost in his poetry; in fact, I am usually quite willing to be lost in it, because he gives so freely and plentifully of his life, and then pretty soon he is back and I know what he's talking about. It is possible to get comfortable with him, but then all of a sudden he will knock you out: In the poem "Adler," concerning an actor he refers to as "The Jewish King Lear," Stern writes, "I thank God they were able to weep / and wring their hands for Lear, and sweet Cordelia, / that it happened almost forty years / before our hell, that there was still time then / to walk out of the theater in the sunlight / and discuss tragedy on the bright sidewalk...."
There are many poems in which Stern worships light and happiness. In "Elaine Comparone," he writes, "If I could do exactly what I wanted / I would move a harpsicord into my back yard / and ask Elaine Comparone to play for me all morning...." But I think to really get him, the key is in knowing what it is like to feel at home with bitter sweetness: "When I have reached the point of suffocation, / then I go back to the railroad ties / and the mound of refuse. / Then I can have sorrow and repentance, / I can relax in the broken glass...."
Read Gerald Stern because he is here. He is not far away, living in Lambertville. Read him because he is a great poet living here. Read him because his poetry and his mind are endless and filled with detail after detail. Read him because he is so comfortable in his skin as a poet, a thinker, a traveller; because he is seventy years old and still very much alive in a way that is not quick and ironic and moving on the surface, but is openly in love with life, ideas, literature, the world. Go into it. You won't get all of it, and that's good. How could you? Read Gerald Stern because, "It is beautiful letting the brain move in and out of its own cloudbank."
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