Gerald Stern Essay - Critical Essays


Unlike the poems of many of his contemporaries, those of Gerald Stern explode upon the reader’s attention with high and impassioned rhetoric. The poems seem to tumble forward like trees in a flood, snaring, collecting, and finally sweeping subject matter one would have thought only peripherally connected to the main thrust. By using an engaging conversational tone, combined with the frequent use of repetition to sweep together myriad details, Stern’s poems display a direct link to the poetics of Walt Whitman. Moreover, a psalmist’s zest for parallelism and anaphora discloses a debt to biblical poetry and reinforces the pervasively spiritual, specifically Jewish, sensibility of Stern’s work. His frequent use of surrealistic images, meanwhile, reveals a debt to twentieth century Spanish poets, and his love of humble specifics shows him to be a descendant of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. The poems are, among other things, evidence of an immense curiosity about life set against the depersonalizing matrix of twentieth century history.

Eschewing the drift toward, on one hand, hermeticism, and, on the other, the poetry of confession, Stern’s poems, by capitalizing on many of the features of “open” poetry (in various of its historical incarnations), have shown a way for poetry to become equal to the task of transforming both memory and modern history into art. Stern’s poetic is both stimulating and eminently suitable for representing and interpreting the variety of American life in a way that encompasses both the tragic and the humorous in its fabric.


Rejoicings announces most of the themes and much of the style of Stern’s subsequent, better-known work. Already present are the tutelary spirits who people his later poems and the tension between his love of “high” culture as represented by various philosophers and poets, all heroes of the intellect and art, and his yearning for spontaneity and the “natural,” represented by home-grown resources, as in “Immanuel Kant and the Hopi”:

I am going to write twenty poems about my ruined country, Please forgive me, my old friends,I am walking in the direction of the Hopi!I am walking in the direction of Immanuel Kant!I am learning to save my thoughts—likeone of the Dravidians—so that nothing willbe lost, nothing I tramp upon, nothing Ichew, nothing I remember.

While holding most of the Western intellectual tradition in high respect, Stern equally holds its neglect of emotion, intuition, and experience to be responsible for much of the misery to which human beings are taught to accommodate themselves. Thus, many of the poems in the collection have an aspect of unlearning about them, even as they continue to extol the finer mentors of Western tradition. Others look for a “third” way somehow to be negotiated between the mind/body dichotomy, as in “By Coming to New Jersey”:

By coming to New Jersey I have discovered the third worldthat hangs between Woodbridge Avenue and Victory Bridge.It is a temporary world,full of construction and water holes,full of barriers and isolated hydrants . . .

The “third world” of experience is one to which he will return again and again, finding it populated with all the things that are of little consequence to the heave of civilization: birds, flowers, weeds, bugs, and the like, as well as human detritus—the junkyards of America, superseded and yet everywhere visible as testimonials to other dimensions of life.

Lucky Life

Although Stern had been publishing steadily for many years, the publication in 1977 of Lucky Life proved to be a watershed in his career. Expansive and ebullient, slyly melodramatic and hyperbolic (whether depicting the tragic, the nostalgic, or the mundane) but always wonderfully readable, the poems appeared during a period when the loose aesthetic of the 1960’s had been exhausted, and the predictable return to formalism was just getting under way. The book seemed in some ways to partake of neither, though this is only a partial truth, for the poems are certainly more informed by the openness of the 1960’s than by the subsequent swing the other way. By reaching back, through Whitman, to the psalmists, and imbuing the various techniques of poetic repetition with a dizzying parade of disjunctive images, emotional outbursts, jeremiads, and tender soliloquies, Lucky Life seemed to point the way to a new kind of democratic poetry, a kind of Whitman modernized and extended: “I am going to carry my bed into New York City tonight/ complete with dangling sheets and ripped blankets;/ I am going to push it across three dark highways/ or coast along under 600,000 faint stars.”

Just as Whitman found American possibility teeming in New York, Stern, a century and a half later, locates it in the moral imperative to preserve its authentic and unrepeatable artifacts (as well as the national character that went into making them), as in “Straus Park”:

if you yourself go crazy when you walk through the old shellon Stout’s Valley Road,then you must know how I felt when I saw Stanley’s Cafeteriaboarded up and the sale sign out

To this he opposes “California,” that state of mind “with its big rotting sun”: “—Don’t go to California yet!/ Come with me to Stanley’s and spend your life/ weeping in the small park on 106th Street.” California is not a state of mind but a fact of life—to some, an ideal (to the poet, the wrong one). Still, it is possible to carry some of Stanley’s memories even to California: “Take the iron fence with you/ when you go into the desert./ . . . / Do not burn again for nothing./ Do not cry out again in clumsiness and shame.”

The feeling for nostalgic way stations, for what, in a more somber locution, is sometimes called tradition, informs the poet’s subject matter in a personal but dynamic way that is nevertheless always under threat by the rise of anonymity, conformity, and the pervasiveness of substitutes. These poems, then, are atavistic expressions of grief and longing for the return of the authentic: “What would you give for your dream/ to be as clear and simple as it was then/ in the dark afternoons, at the old scarred tables?” (from “Stepping Out of Poetry”). Characteristically, the poet often identifies this longing and grief with his Jewishness, as when he stops to examine road kill in “Behaving Like a Jew”: “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.” Led by a detour to a dilapidated coffeehouse called (the poem’s title) “This Is It” (“the first condemned building in the United States”), the poet talks to its owner, a “coughing lady,” and commiserates with her over the collapse of the neighborhood. He listens to the stories of her youth, about her dog “and its monotonous existence,” and proclaims, “Everyone is into my myth! The whole countryside/ is studying weeds, collecting sadness, dreaming/ of odd connections.”

Sometimes, Stern begins his nostalgia on an ironic note before devolving into seriousness, as in “If You Forget the Germans”:

If you forget the Germans climbing up and down the Acropolis,then I will forget the poet falling through his rotten floor in New Brunswick;and if you stop telling me about your civilization in 1400 b.c.,then I will stop telling you about mine in 1750 and 1820 and 1935.

After such playful give-and-take, the poet shifts key: “Here are the thoughts I have had;/ here are the people I have talked to and worn out;/ here are the stops in my throat.” The real theme—the search for happiness amid the ubiquity of details and through the murderous lurch of time—is discovered in a journey into the poet’s own typically broken past, narrated in a mock travelogue (“If you go by bus . . .”). However, after a series of perplexing directions, he admonishes, “Do not bury yourself outright in the litter.” Instead, he says, in an ending that finds echoes in Christian liturgy:

Sing and cry and kiss in the ruined dining roomin front of the mirror, in the plush car seat,a 1949 or ’50, still clean and perfectunder the black dust and the newspapers,as it was when we cruised back and forth all night looking for happiness;as it was when we lay down and loved in the old darkness.

Happiness is the subject of the title poem: “Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors/ and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows.” With age and the accretions of scars and memories, happiness becomes more problematic: “Each year I go down to the island I add/ one more year to the darkness;/ and though I sit up with my dear friends . . ./ after a while they all get lumped together.” Announcing that “This year was a crisis,” the poet lumbers through memories of past vacations, through dreams of getting lost on South Main Street in a town in New Jersey, of looking for a particular statue of Christopher Columbus, of sitting at a bar listening to World War II veterans, then dreams of himself sitting on a porch “with a whole new set of friends, mostly old and humorless.” There follows a burst of apostrophes: “Dear Waves, what will you do for me this year?/ Will you drown out my scream?/ Will you let me rise through the fog?” The poem ends:

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.Lucky the waves are cold enough to wash out the meanness.Lucky you can be purified over and over again.

The Red Coal

With the publication of The Red Coal in 1981, some critics believed that Stern had fallen into self-imitation and saw the poems as mannered in their style and sometimes bombastic in their treatment of subject matter. For example, the critic for The New York Times Book Review asserted, “In poem after poem he sets up for himself some temptation over which he wins a lyrical triumph. The invariability with which he clears those hurdles makes one suspect that the fences have been lowered.” A dissenting view, however, would simply note that, in a poem, all triumphs are “lyrical,” for in what sense could they be “actual”? Perhaps the insinuation of repetition is the more damaging. Although it is true that Stern’s poems offer little in the way of stylistic variation, their range is impressive.

Simply to list the place-names and people who gather to Stern’s poems like flocking birds is to suggest the presence of a poet with wide cultural affinities and concerns. Although all the figures and places could, with skepticism, be seen as a form of name-dropping, it is more likely that they play a totemic role, suggesting whole ranges of other experience anterior to the specific subject matter. Nicolaus Copernicus, Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz, Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Casimir Pulaski, Galileo, Albert Einstein, Fyodor Dostoevski, Guillaume Apollinaire, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, Thomas Jefferson, Gustave Flaubert, Wyndham Lewis, Maurice Ravel, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Scriabin, Antonio Vivaldi, Eugene O’Neill, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—all these and many more haunt the poems like figures in a pantheon.

As for the kind of mind necessary for the poet’s—and, by extrapolation, modern humanity’s—survival, Stern compares a model of Galileo’s to one of his own in a poem intriguingly titled “I Remember Galileo”: “I remember Galileo describing the mind/ as a piece of paper blown around by the wind,/ and I loved the sight of it sticking to a tree/ or jumping into the back seat of a car.” At first, he says he watched paper “for years,” as if to test the adequacy of the metaphor, but “yesterday I saw the mind was a squirrel caught crossing/ Route 60 between the wheels of a giant truck.” The squirrel escapes, but not before “his life [was] shortened by all that terror.” The poet decides that “Paper will do in theory,” but the alert, capable squirrel, “his whole soul quivering,” finishes his mad scramble across the highway and escapes up his “green ungoverned hillside.”

Such seizures and terror, often encountered in retrospect, are usually made over to the poet’s advantage, as in “The Red Coal,” the title poem, whose central image (most likely derived from the biblical story of the infant Moses, who chose Pharaoh’s tray of burning embers over a tray of rubies) presides like a second sun over the poet’s difficult but intellectually and spiritually formative years traveling with his friend, the poet Jack Gilbert:

I didn’t live in Paris for nothing and walkwith Jack Gilbert down the wide sidewalksthinking of Hart Crane and Apollinaireand I didn’t save the picture of the two of usmoving through a crowd of stiff Frenchmenand put it beside the one of Pound and Williamsunless I wanted to see what coals had doneto their lives too . . .

The incandescent coal represents the yearning for knowledge, “as if knowledge is what we needed and now/ we have that knowledge.” On the other hand, the coal almost certainly guarantees pain for those who would be its avatars: “The tears are . . . what, all along, the red coal had/ in store for us.” However, the tears are not the result of futility or disappointment; they are the liquid registers of experience as it imposes itself on time, the baffling sea change of the body and mind that puts even the most familiar past at a strange remove: “Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember/ what it was like in the spring of 1950/ before the burning coal entered my life.”

Many of the poems in The Red Coal cast a backward look over the poet’s life, coming to terms with the effects of his commitment, “getting rid of baggage,/ . . . finding a way to change, or salvage, my clumsy life” (from “Here I Am Waiting”). That clumsiness, that self-estrangement, appropriately finds an equivalence, and hence an inward dialogue, with the lowly and dishonored things of the world, from weeds and animals (including insects and spiders) to Emma Goldman inveighing against the tyranny of property and the injustice toward winos whose lives the bright and aggressive world has cast aside. Such pity and commiseration are particularly strong in Stern and at times take on a marked spiritual coloring. In “The Poem of Liberation,” the poet observes a large “vegetable garden planted in the rubble/ of a wrecked apartment house, as if to claim/ the spirit back before it could be buried/ in another investment of glass and cement.” In “Dear Mole,” the title animal is compared to John Ruskin, “always cramming and ramming, spluttering in disgust/ . . . always starting over,/ his head down, his poor soul warbling and wailing.” A monkey appears in “For Night to Come”:

All morning we lieon our backs, holding hands, listening to birds,and making little ant hills in the sand.He shakes a little, maybe from the cold,maybe a little from memory,maybe from...

(The entire section is 7029 words.)