The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Bread Without Sugar” is a long fifteen-page poem in eight unnumbered parts that function not so much as stanzas as discrete sections (each approximately thirty to sixty lines in length). To further complicate the picture, the poem is written in memory of the poet’s father, contains an epigraph from Grace Paley (“This is what makes justice in the world—to bring these lives into the light”), and, at its conclusion, is dedicated to the writer and editor Ted Solotaroff. It is necessary to keep these three aspects in mind as the poem unfolds.

The setting for “Bread Without Sugar”—and there usually is an external setting for a Gerald Stern poem—is his father’s gravesite in Miami, and it is his father’s life that Stern wants to “bring to light.” Kneeling in wet December sand to see the headstone, the speaker travels through memory to the day of his father’s funeral; he sees the cantor, the boring rabbi, the Jewish businessmen from Newark and Flatbush who, like his father—a retired tailor and buyer—had come to Miami. He then goes back through a cross-section of his father’s life (“born in Kiev, died in Miami”), to a cross-section of his own life (memories of Pittsburgh, the “bread without sugar” he had eaten as a boy, his eventual travels), to a day in “1940 or 1941” when the family had first visited Florida. Simultaneously, the governing sensibility of the poem travels outward, embracing the whole of Jewish...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Over the years Gerald Stern has developed an idiosyncratic voice—one that readers can recognize instantly as belonging to him alone. It is not simply conversational; it is a voice which seems to come from the most visceral center of the man: personal, engaging, spontaneous, often breaking free in impromptu associations. To read Stern is to accompany him on a sort of spiritual autobiography. This voice is not that of a confessional persona pretending to “tell all”—it does not invite or even seem to need the reader. Readers participate fully, but as bystanders. Each poem embodies a thought process—a scattering of real moments and personal connections, a twist of particular synapses, then new observation, new wiring, odd pairings that lead to more memories, more connections.

“Bread Without Sugar” proceeds on just such a circuitous associative route. The sentences seem to spill into one another, a jumble of questions and observations, punctuated by dashes and semicolons, commas linking one fleeting thought to another, one memory to its outlandish extrapolation. A good example is the section in which the speaker is thinking about the people buried near his father:

The skyis streaked tonight; I love the tropics,the orange underneath the blue; green parrotsare flying out of the sun,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1795 words.)