The Red Coal
Lucky Life and The Red Coal confirm that Gerald Stern ranks among the dozen or so most important American poets at work today. Stern’s voice, consistent but varied, bears repetition, for his poems achieve intensity without self-consciousness, generality without moralizing. He shares the anagogical vision of such writers as Joseph Conrad and Flannery O’Connor, for whom objects and images, the things of the world, are significant in themselves, not because the writer has contrived to render them symbolically. Nothing Stern observes appears trivial, for the poems are meditations upon his experience, not raw reportage.
Stern’s meditations in The Red Coal arise from a love affair with the world as enormous as Walt Whitman’s but less self-congratulatory. The “I” of Stern’s poems neither seems to insist upon itself nor to get lost in swirling catalogs, possibly because Stern’s poems effectively integrate the perceiver in the drama of his perception. Invariably, Stern is in his poems, even when the first-person pronoun does not appear. The poet does not use his experience to make poems so much as he dwells upon his experience to see what he may learn from it about the business of living and dying.
For Gerald Stern, what the world judges success came late; hence, his two major books reflect a maturing and distilling process. The poems lack the anger, despair, and ecstasy characteristic of youth; they give instead reflection and the kind of cautious introspection of a man who long ago learned that telling everything obscures what matters. Stern no more wishes to impress with a tour de force performance than he wishes to titillate with confession or awe with erudition. With such a poet, one can no more point to mistakes of judgment, lapses of power, than one can plot stages of development. One can only enjoy and single out the best poems for praise.
Stern’s title poem recalls his friendship with fellow poet Jack Gilbert (Views of Jeopardy, 1962), particularly their stay in Paris in 1950. Gilbert might well have been thinking of a poet such as Stern in the final lines of a poem called “The Abnormal Is Not Courage,” for he speaks of “The beauty/ That is of many days. Steady and clear.” Courage, he says, “is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”
Several of Stern’s poems celebrate past periods in the poet’s life, but perhaps none so tellingly as “The Red Coal,” which looks back to the spring of 1950 when Stern walked “with Jack Gilbert down the wide sidewalks” of Paris, “thinking of Hart Crane and Apollinaire.” The poem tells that Stern saved a photograph “of the two of us” from a time “before the burning coal entered my life” and “put it beside the one of Pound and Williams” because he “wanted to see what coals had done/ to their lives too.” Now, apparently, “the coal has taken over” and “we are at its mercy.” What Stern and his friend Gilbert needed was knowledge, “and now,” Stern writes, “we have that knowledge. We have that knowledge.” Still, the knowledge brings no joy but tears, and the tears are “what we bring back to the/ darkness . . ./ what, all along, the red coal had/ in store for us. . . .”
Like most of Stern’s poems, “The Red Coal” involves continuity, for Stern places himself and Gilbert in a succession of modern poets—Guillaume Apollinaire and Hart Crane, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, the circumstances of whose lives enrich the poem. Apollinaire and Crane died young, the one a victim of World War I, the other a suicide. Perhaps no two persons did so much to shape the literary sensibilities of the present as Pound and Williams, whom Stern imagines as aging men “looking into the sun,/ 40,000 wrinkles between them,/ the suffering finally taking over their lives.” Although Stern recognizes that the tears “are what we bring back to the darkness,” he continues to think life is lucky. He remarks how lucky he and Gilbert were to live in New York, and he thinks “how we carry the future with us.”
That theme, too, seems central to Stern, whose poems regularly imply the extent to which the past still lives. If the red coal signifies a burning out, that burning arises from living meaningfully and it leaves traces for the future. Just as Stern ended Lucky Life with a poem called “Something New,” thus suggesting that the end of the book was also a beginning, so The Red Coal ends with a poem which emphasizes the on-goingness of life. “Here I am Walking” is one of the poems in The Red Coal which involves looking back, taking stock. “This is something different,” Stern writes, “than it was even five years ago”—the time Lucky Life appeared. “I have a second past to rake over,” he continues, “. . . another 2,000 miles of seashore/ to account for,” an allusion to images in the earlier book. Stern ends the poem and the book with the prediction that he will be just where he was twenty-five years ago, doing various things including “breathing in salt” and “living in dreams,/ finding a way to change, or sweeten my clumsy life.” The idea may not be new, but few poets have expressed it at once so familiarly and so evocatively. Life changes, but not from failure to success; rather, as circumstances...
(The entire section is 2196 words.)