Looking at his year of birth, one suddenly realizes that Gerald Stern is only a couple of years younger than James Dickey, who came to a “late” prominence in the 1960’s. More striking, he is a year older than Allen Ginsberg, who first pelted readers’ consciousness in the 1950’s and was enshrined with his Collected Poems, 1947-1980 (1984), a volume that reveals how little of Ginsberg’s poetic energy lasted beyond 1970. Then one realizes that this active and fecund poet, Stern, is not even in many anthologies, not in his place between Dickey and Ginsberg, who seem now curiously dead as working poets while Stern goes on and on, getting better and better. Like Robert Peters, he is a late-bloomer, a long-distance runner. Only in the anthologies published in the twenty-first century will Stern find his place among, the important voices of the last half of the twentieth century.
Preeminently Stern is a poet of sentiment and of a qualified nostalgia. Almost single-handedly, he gives a good name to artistic impulses that have been long out of fashion and against which weaker, less mature talents need to be warned. He is, like Saul Bellow’s fictional Herzog, a man of heart, but his sense of humor is healthier than Herzog’s. Stern’s agonizings often end in smiles, or in tears of joy. No less a realist than anyone else, Stern nevertheless conjures redemption. In a poetic style formally reminiscent of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, Stern strikes a tone that has affinities with Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud—the bittersweet cantorial voice of blissful suffering and redemptive faith.
These references to Jewish writers are not meant to suggest that Stern is to be categorized neatly and thus defined by limitation. The Jewish feeling-tones in his poems are the cultural sails of a sprightly, adaptive vessel, not its anchors. Not traditionally religious, but reflecting a schmaltzy humanism, Stern’s works add up to nothing less than the spiritual autobiography of a devout, gentle sensualist, a man whose God is in the juices of indulgence that trickle down our chins as well as in the very mysteries of appetite and deprivation that riddle human history. In his occasional clowning, Stern is no schlemiel. He does not imaginatively transform a situation to survive its pain. Indeed, Stern’s historical sense, his feeling for the past, is rooted in a knowledge that allows for little idealization. His delight in history and memory is not so much a yearning to go back as a refusal or inability to abandon.
There are some standard ways of categorizing poets, ways that Gerald Stern defies. He is a master at evoking, the urban ethos, but he is also a poet of great intimacy with natural processes and the botanical world. Sometimes he seems to be a poet of place, a regionalist, but then the place becomes places and the boundaries of time and geography vanish to leave the reader in a familiar home territory that covers much of the Western world. Most of Stern’s poems begin somewhere and reach out across space and time—the time of one’s life and the larger history that frames one’s actions and being. Poems such as “Those Things” and “Red with Pink” should not make the unified impression that they do, so various in their images and impulses, so inclusive.
One of Stern’s great talents is to give form to openness. He is a great elaborator, a writer who finds a language and cadence for the rhythms of imagination and memory, Some of his most impressive poems risk exhaustion, disintegration, or collapse. They maintain an improvisational quality, a teetering toward chaos, even while they find a permanent shape. The cohesive force is the power of personality, aided at times by the artful handling, of such Whitmanesque devices of song, as inventory, parallelism, and anaphora. Often, a strong narrative thrust is the bonding element. Stern’s poems are not, however, primarily narratives or lyrics. Granting, some leeway for Stern’s protean poem—making, we can perhaps best categorize his work as meditative.
As a meditator, Stern is a questioner. A hallmark of his rhetoric is the interrogative. As a poet of the self, Stern risks an inward-turning examination of the universe and an abrasive egocentricity. In Bread Without Sugar, as in his earlier collections, Stern avoids the uglier excesses of the inward gaze. As Peter A. Siedlecki...