Gerald Stern Stern, Gerald - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gerald Stern 1925–

American poet.

The following entry presents criticism of Stern's work through 1995. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volume 40.

Stern's poetry is noted for its energetic language, rich imagery, and skillful balance of emotional expressiveness and concrete physical detail. His poems are usually written in a conversational "confessional" style, yet they are also frequently lyrical and sometimes contain traces of surreal imagery. Stern's preoccupation with the self, his use of long, incantory lines, and his characteristically exuberant, celebratory tone have led many reviewers to compare his work to that of Walt Whitman. However, several critics have noted that Whitman's "self" is meant to encompass a broad spectrum of humanity, while Stern's refers to an intensely personal figure or speaker. According to Stern, he's "a Whitmanian who doesn't like to be called a Whitmanian."

Biographical Information

Born February 22, 1925, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stern attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a B.A. in 1947, and Columbia University, where he received an M.A. in 1949. After serving in the United States Army Air Corps, he married Patricia Miller in 1952. During the 1960s and 1970s Stern taught at Temple University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Somerset County College in New Jersey. In 1973 Stern published his first collections of poetry, The Naming of Beasts and Other Poems and Rejoicings; he also was named a consultant in literature to the Pennsylvania Arts Council, which he continues to serve. Lucky Life (1977), his third verse collection, received the Lamont Poetry Selection award and garnered national attention. Other volumes include The Red Coal (1981), Paradise Poems (1984), Lovesick (1987), and Odd Mercy (1995). Stern has been named to several distinguished positions at many American universities, including the Bain Swiggert Chair at Princeton University. Since 1982 he has been a member of the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Major Works

The poems in Lucky Life abound with descriptions of ordinary objects and events of American life. Written in an elegiac style, a concern about the self dominates the collection, as it does throughout Stern's verse. Using biblical references and language patterned on the Old Testament, Lucky Life also focuses on the poet's Jewish heritage, which is expressed by his emphasis on memory and history. The Red Coal features kaleidoscopic renderings of Stern's memory and imagination presented in meticulous detail. This volume is marked by the alternatively exuberant and meditative voice of several personae and by the vivid cataloging of images. Paradise Poems relates the past and present, focusing particularly on the coexistence of pain and joy, loss and redemption, which are portrayed as central to human life. Set mainly on the lower east side of Manhattan, the poems in Odd Mercy consist of narratives, meditation, and pastoral lyrics. Divided into two parts, the second half comprises seventeen sections of a long poem entitled "Hot Dog" after the name of a homeless woman whom Stern observed.

Critical Reception

Stern's first two volumes of poetry received little critical attention, but with Lucky Life he emerged as a significant figure in contemporary literature. Reviewers praised the lively, meaningful language in this volume, hailing the poet's ability to blend commonplace and ethereal elements. Commentators detected a broadening scope in Paradise Poems, citing Stern's gradual move from a highly personal poetry to a concern with more universal implications. Most reviewers have highly recommended Odd Mercy, calling attention to Stern's inexhaustible imagination. Stated Patricia Monaghan in her review of Odd Mercy: "Stern extemporizes from the most ordinary experiences … and lets the experience open out, up, beyond." Critics often have noted Stern's use of repetition and catalogues in his poetry, usually comparing his technique to that of Whitman. Others have commented on the role of memory and nostalgia in his poetry. Jane Somerville claimed that Stern's "obsession is not so much the past itself as the relationship between presence and memory, history and myth, conscious and unconscious, surface and depth." Frank Allen summarized the poet's achievement: "For over two decades, no one has equaled his compassionate, surreal parables about the burden of and the exaltation at being alive."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Naming of Beasts and Other Poems (poetry) 1973
Rejoicings (poetry) 1973
Lucky Life (poetry) 1977
The Red Coal (poetry) 1981
Paradise Poems (poetry) 1984
Lovesick (poetry) 1987
Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems (poetry) 1990
Two Long Poems (poetry) 1990
Odd Mercy (poetry) 1995

Jane Somerville (essay date November/December 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gerald Stern Among the Poets: The Speaker as Meaning," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 17, No. 6, November/December, 1988, pp. 11-19.

[In the essay below, Somerville offers an overview of Stern's poetry, analyzing the variety of roles Stern assumes as narrator of his poems.]

The poetry of Gerald Stern is defined and governed by its flamboyant speaker, a stagey hero whose life story is the poet's, but enlarged and mythicized. This eloquent spokesman holds the line between the unconditional authority of narration and the contingency of character; in these we recognize the two positions we constantly hold as speakers and actors. He is onstage throughout the entire canon and constantly demands our attention. He does not react passively to events; he wrestles with them and shapes, even invents, the world he moves in. He transforms himself endlessly, playing whatever parts appeal to him, yet his identity never changes: whether he takes the mask of a friendly gardener, a wandering hero, a rabbinical figure, a fallen angel, a god—even a tree or bird—he is still the same whimsical guy, a fantastic prophet and favorite uncle who, though full of wisdom, permits himself all manner of weakness, readily admits to his own foolishness, indulges in spates of sentiment, suffers endlessly, and overcomes suffering through imagination. In the gap between his vast proportions and his foolishness we recognize the human condition; in his capacity for transformation he becomes a metaphor for imagination.

This first person narrator can of course be taken for the poet himself. But I prefer to see him as an actor, playing a part like that of a character in fiction who is said to "represent" the author. The distinction is subtle, but crucial. This view encourages us to notice the performative nature of Stern's poems. By focusing on the roles encapsulated in the protean speaker, we gain a framework in which to examine the complexities of the canon. This view also helps us to probe the distinction between the speaker and Stern himself.

Stern's leading character does seem to create an impression somewhat different from that of the typical lyric speaker. We are likely to think of the lyric speaker as sheer voice, as statement devised through certain strategies, in traditional or open form, in tone serious or ironic, in language plain or ornate. Identification tends to be scenic rather than dramatic. We seldom picture the lyric speaker or identify with him as a dramatic character, a "someone" who seems to be physically present and even seems to have an existence beyond the work, as do some fictional characters. When we think of Huckleberry Finn or Gatsby or the Consul in Under the Volcano, for instance, we imagine a person who seems to have a material existence. Such a character dominates the work he's in to such an extent that his entire world seems a function of himself. The meaning of the work is his meaning and cannot be separated from him; in this sense he is meaning itself. It is something of this quality, which combines independence, control, and irreducible meaning, that the Stern speaker conveys.

There are a number of other poets' narrators who share a similar kind of character status or, to put it another way, encourage the reader to invent a "living" character. The reader of Frost, for instance, may do so. But the country philosopher we imagine in Frost is a type, not an individual, a function of the kinds of experience recounted rather than the idiosyncrasies of a unique personality. In some cases, a character emerges in a single poem or poem cycle, but does not persist through the whole canon, as does the Stern speaker. A good example is Alfred J. Prufrock. The Henry of Berryman's Dream Songs is another; like Stern's narrator, he's a shape-shifter, but I'm not convinced that readers can picture him. Both Prufrock and Henry contrast with the Stern narrator in that they are anti-heroic characters controlled by circumstance. The strongest comparison is between Stern's work and Leaves of Grass; the Whitman persona is an imperative figure, magnified, heroized, and mythicized, as is Stern's spokesman. Both are flashy exhibitionists. But Whitman's character is played straight, while Stern's is not. The Stern speaker is comic as well as grand; his heroics are undermined by irreverence, ironies and jestful self-mockery.

The dramatic significance of Stern's speaker is in part a function of sheer presence: his high visibility through the whole course of the work gives the canon a novelistic consistency. Beyond this, significance coheres in the character himself, in a blend of elements that add up to a strong sense of dasein and agency. For one thing, he is odd, quirky, conspicuous. He presents a striking combination of opposites: he is wild yet homey, heroic but clumsy, extreme yet down to earth, intimate yet distant. His lyricism is so overextended that it doubles back on itself, becoming unlyrical. His verbal audacity is surprising, especially when compared with the safe, dull humming that characterizes so much of today's poetry. Our most audacious and startling work is that of the language poets who, inspired by structuralist theory, surprise by trying to deny their own presence in the poem and indeed to deny the purpose of language itself, which is not just to say but to say something. Stern's surprise rests on the opposite assertion, a cocky, half-kidding, rowdy display of idiosyncrasy and a conviction that there is still something to be said about the oldest subjects. Not since Stevens has there been a voice so quirky and original yet large and universal. Stevens, too, used his peculiar voice to reinvigorate classic themes.

Surprise for its own sake is of questionable merit. But the Stern speaker doesn't seem to be straining for effect; he appears really to be that way. At least, he does for many readers; to accept Stern on his own terms, the reader must be willing to identify with this character as an authentic voice. If he does not, he may prefer those poems where the speaker is least himself. Louis Simpson exemplifies this kind of reading. In a review of Lovesick, he faults the poet for oversentimentality and strained emotion, which becomes "a performance." In short poems, he says, Stern "can be very likable." However, the longer poem is Stern's métier, precisely because it provides breathing space for the extremity of his speaker.

The extremity and individuality of the speaker actually enhance his authenticity: we tend to believe that he's sincere because he is so recognizable and distinctive. We are also convinced by his vigor, another quality that is unusual today, among so many slack, attenuated voices. His strength and authenticity rely on one another and are induced by a combination of frank emotion, sincere yet idiosyncratic speech, mixed tone, intimate voice, hyperactive syntax, and largesse. All these are qualities not of a statement alone but of a person, a character we accept as honest because of his oddity, his boldness, his warmth, his admitted weakness, and his robust confidence. We accept him also because he answers a need for strength and authenticity and brings it in a form we can accept; he is not the severe, commanding patriarch but the good father or comforting uncle.

The distinction between this invention and the poet himself is a simplistic and literal one: the speaker is not Gerald Stern because the poet does not do, in real life, what the speaker does, and the things that happen to the speaker don't literally happen to Stern. The life events from which the poems spring are transformed in a manner much more extreme than the usual change when a poet's life becomes a semantic entity. The real Gerald Stern goes down to the store to get a loaf of bread; the speaker embarks on a fabular quest that leaves the loaf of bread behind, that overwhelms, buries, or destroys mundane reality.

Another poet would invest the actual trip to the grocery with significance. Stern's poem rarely insists that Gerald Stern's wanderings on the city streets, his well-known restaurant stops, his backyard gardening or his travels abroad have, in themselves, universal significance. Actual events in the poet's life often become mere vestiges in the enlarged experience of the poem. The distinction between the autobiographical Stern and his spokesman is more extreme in some poems than in others. In his major work, he escapes the limitations of biography through self-mythicization: he invents an ultraself that shares his biography but is able to enact a range of mythic roles. In fact, his entire poetic realm is enveloped by the speaker. The people—even the plants and animals—have the stamp of his personality, which is that of Gerald Stern, but magnified: the corpus is an anthropomorphic universe full of this multiplied presence. The ultraself is at once self-magnifying and self-effacing, egocentric yet possessed of a certain humility that says, "It is not my particular circumstances that warrant attention; I am not a hero in myself but as a representative of human nobility." The hazard is the risk of hybris, acknowledged and countered in Stern's self-deflating foolishness and clumsiness.

In the most literal and obvious sense, it is not the poet who constantly changes form, but his creature: Gerald Stern does not become a tree, a squirrel or a god. Transformation permits the poet to experience himself as if he were another. It allows him to look at things from a range of extreme perspectives. He is able to explore possibilities not of the self alone but of the human. And it provides the opportunity to put himself at risk imaginatively. Transformation is perilous; it always implies the fear of disappearing. But the Stern speaker absorbs the threatening aspects of transformation with gallant confidence. He depicts his potential for regeneration and fruition by describing himself as "a flowering figure." His capacity for transformation is the crux of Stern, the machinery of the poem and also its goal.

The oddity and authority of this spokesman derive in part from Stern's early isolation, his late development as a poet and his lack of quick success. Born in 1925, he grew up in what he has called "inhospitable and merciless Pittsburgh," registered at the University of Pittsburgh almost by accident, was not even an English major:

The idea of going to a school and studying under a poet never occurred to me. I didn't know yet who the poets were, and later, when I did, I had no idea where they worked—or that they did work…. I lived and studied without direction, and if anything was going to be a permanent influence on me it was that.

Through his private study, Stern "pieced together the story of modern poetry." But he did not attach himself to a dominant precursor. He says he did not have "one great influence, one master, but a number, even an endless number…." Among them were Yeats and Auden in the mid-forties, Pound and early Eliot by the late forties, MacLeish, Cummings, Crane, Auden, Marlowe, Thomas and Dickinson in the early fifties. By the mid-fifties, he was "most involved with Wallace Stevens." Lowell was "useful," but early Roethke was more so, because of "the mystery, the strangeness, the loss, the love of small animals and plants, the sense of justice." Williams was important for the way he combined "health and madness, domesticity and wildness." In Emerson, Stern found a source for the poet's role in "the very making of the American vision," though he obviously disputes Emerson's rejection of tradition. He has also identified any number of more distant sources; for instance, in a lengthy poetic tribute he takes Ovid's "books of sorrow" as a model.

Stern is irritated by the tendency of reviewers to link him with Whitman. He says he's "a Whitmanian who doesn't like to be called a Whitmanian." He recognizes his "obsession against the very idea of having someone as a teacher or guide." Though he admits to similarities in style and finds much to admire in "Song of Myself," he dislikes Whitman's "pat optimism," "chest-thumping," "shrill voice," and—most of all—his "preaching." Needless to say, Harold Bloom would call this denial of Whitman a repression of the precursor. Perhaps Peter Stitt does go too far when he calls Stern "almost a spiritual reincarnation of Whitman," but there are strong ties in attitude as well as manner. However, this influence is mixed with others, in particular with that of Stevens. The odd conjunction of Stevensian gaudiness and intricacy with Whitmanian openness and emotionality is one of the sources of Stern's tensile strength.

Stern does not see himself as "accountable," except in very obvious ways, to apparent influences. He is less inclined to identify literary antecedents than aspects of his "personal, accidental history," such as Judaism, the depression, the political Left, the crucial childhood loss of his sister—even being lefthanded. Ultimately, he believes his own loss and failure became his subject. In a sense, his failed self became the master he had to vanquish.

He says he knows nothing about "the psychology of masterhood." It may have been "a certain shyness and a certain secrecy, coupled with a kind of arrogance" that made him "unwilling to submit," to become a protegé like Lowell of Tate or "Allen Ginsberg on W.C.W.'s side porch, or Pound in the Provençal room or Whitman in the Emerson room…." He did make one attempt to connect with the poetry establishment. He showed an early, epic poem called "Ishmael's Dream" to Auden, and was ignored. "In Memory of W. H. Auden" re-imagines this crucial rejection without explaining what happened:

… it was cold and brutal outside on Fourth Street
as I walked back to the Seventh Avenue subway,
knowing, as I reached the crowded stairway,
that I would have to wait for ten more years
or maybe twenty more years for the first riches
to come my way, and knowing that the stick
of that old Prospero would never rest
on my poor head, dear as he was with his robes
and his books of magic, good and wise as he was
in his wrinkled suit and his battered slippers.

The poem is a coming-to-terms wherein in the poet pictures himself "waving goodbye" to "that magician / who could release me now, whom I release and remember."

In another poem, Stern describes what it was like to be an outsider, to hope he wouldn't always be "out there" with only his odd thoughts and his own speech, his "lips alone," to guide him:

hoping I don't have to spend the rest of my life out there
staring through the trees,
hoping that my odd mind will keep me going
if nothing else does
and hoping my lips alone can carry me from place to place
and tremble when they have to, and sing when they have to,
without help, or interference.

He came to see himself as "staking out a place that no one else wanted because it was abandoned or overlooked." Clearly he was aware that he was writing against the grain. His determination to be self-originating, while it stems in part from failure, can be seen as a signal of the strong poet.

The only overarching background for his work, both in terms of style and in a much broader sense, is Biblical literature, in particular the Kabbalistic and Hassidic reinterpretations of the Talmud and the Midrashim. He puts these to his own uses. In fact, the major roles played by his speaker are appropriations of Biblical figures and concepts. Implicit in his thought, for instance, is a usurped or reconstituted concept of Jesus that replaces the typical, Christian image. Thus the Bible—and more importantly the commentaries that readjust and even reverse Biblical material—can be taken as his precursor.

In 1958, Stern began work on a book-length poem called "The Pineys," which was published in 1969 in The Journal of the Rutgers University Library. A treatise on the people of a Southern New Jersey wilderness known as the Pine Barrens, the poem illustrates the experimentation that preceded Stern's realized style. Some parts are written in rather strict iambic pentameter, with formal diction; at its worst, it sounds clogged and pretentious:

… in the one place hylic, in the next
A limp platonic; stony luminous; heartless;
Each a plighting, a plashing, on the ripe occasion,
A raging, of those that rage, and less of it those
That rage less, all with their own inculpable
quavers …

Two sections play on the relationship between metaphors and algebraic formulas, or poetry and logic; they bristle with lines like "And x prevailed only, and always, as z,… Or the state without x since x and z are the same…." Another part consists of a list of 298 numbered items defining "what the starved and beaten Pineys were symbols of …" ("Pineys"). The segment dealing with the actual history of the Pineys (Part Two) is spoken in a voice closer to the one we know in later Stern. There are hints of this voice throughout the mélange of the poem; it also contains many of Stern's themes and displays the tragi-comic flavor that will later be invested in his speaker.

After completing "The Pineys," Stern underwent a crise de quarante: "I realized the poem was a failure…. I had been a practicing poet for almost two decades and I had nothing to show…. I had reached the bottom." His failure became a liberation: "I was able to let go and finally become myself and lose my shame and my pride." His work changed suddenly, "as if I had been preparing for this all my life … and now I was ready." He abandoned formal rhythms and high-flown diction. He relinquished spatiotemporal coherence. He gave up adherence to a comprehensible literal situation in the poem. He began to rely on an idiosyncratic speaker, a voice and personage that would be himself-in-art.

A new Stern poem emerges in Rejoicings, published in 1973. The book got little notice, but it contains several important poems and announces virtually all of Stern's themes and motifs as well as key words and images. His stubborn refusal to follow the rules is also in evidence: unsuppressed emotion, sentimentality, classical allusion, the flaunting of abstractions, the unpopular happy outlook suggested somewhat fallaciously by his titles—all these go against the dogma of poetry writing that has been dominant for decades in the classroom and beyond. Yet he has clung persistently, in the decade-and-a-half since Rejoicings, to his aberrations. If he gets by with all this, it is not because the complex ambivalence of his work have been taken into account. The credit goes to his speaker, who is already clearly defined in Rejoicings, though he is not so consistently at ease as he will be later and sometimes veers off into silliness. The few poems from which he is absent, such as "Goodbye Morbid Bear," "No Succour!" and "The Heat Rises in Gusts," demonstrate how crucial he is to Stern's originality. In the weakest of these, "Two American Haikus," drops of rain fall "like heads / dropping into the waste basket." Without the mediation of the speaker, this surreal image seems lifted from a film by Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren.

It was not until Lucky Life, which won the Lamont Poetry Prize for 1977, that Stern began to succeed: he was fifty-two years old. He later came to value the years of alienation, to believe, as he says in a poem from The Red Coal, that "nothing was wasted, that the freezing nights / were not a waste, that the long dull walks and / the boredom, and the secret pity, were / not a waste." He believes that his poetry resulted from his isolation: "I went where I did go because I didn't have a guide and I became what I am for that reason….

By Lucky Life, most of the fumblings and inconsistencies visible in Rejoicings have gone. Stern is already, with his first widely received book, in the mature period of his work; the radical shifts we often observe in the early part of a poet's career have passed without notice. The eccentricity and strength that grow in isolation are portrayed through the speaker, who can almost be called a stand-in for the master Stern lacked, an Adamic offshot of his own will made to rule in his invented realm.

When the Stern speaker first appeared in Rejoicings, the poetry schools of the fifties, reactions against academicized modernism, were a decade old. Ginsberg, born only a year after Stern, had long since challenged the academy. Stern remembers his reaction to "beat vs. feet" as ambiguous: he cursed the academics, "with their wit and elegance and politeness and forms," yet he could not accept the anti-intellectual posture of the poetic Left or its lack of imagination. His speaker is, on one level, an attempt to reconcile the extremes of intellect and emotion, mind and body. His reverence for learnedness is a strong presence throughout the corpus, but his respect for the physical/emotional is just as serious, as he says in a poem where the squirrel represents body and feeling:

I need a squirrel,
his clawed feet spread, his whole soul quivering,
the hot wind rushing...

(The entire section is 8937 words.)

Jane Somerville (essay date September/October 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gerald Stern and the Return Journey," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 5, September/October, 1989, pp. 39-46.

[In the following essay, Somerville examines the function of nostalgia and memory in Stern's poetry, showing how Stern links them both to time and myth.]

We look before and after
And pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell
Of saddest thoughts.
—[Percy Bysshe] Shelley, "To a Skylark"

Nostalgia once...

(The entire section is 7856 words.)

Patricia Monaghan (review date 15 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Odd Mercy, in Booklist, September 15, 1995, p. 132.

[Below, Monaghan offers a positive review of Odd Mercy.]

Stern writes with enormous authority and intensity of the lot common to humanity—of aging and death, of the tenderness of love, of family and friendship. With the heartbeat of blank verse thrumming almost inaudibly in the background, Stern extemporizes from the most ordinary experiences—seeing a bluebird, sitting in the park near a baby buggy, hearing of a friend's death—and lets the experience open out, up, beyond. For instance, in the magnificent "Did I Say," the poet excavates an early spring flower from its cloak of snow; snow turns to water and the blossom reveals itself. The poet feels "split in two; I opened / because of the water, because of the seed"; the world is illuminated suddenly by a dandelion sun, and all nature is animated by consciousness and love. In his ability to capture such transformative moments, Stern reminds us of one of poetry's primal purposes.

Bruce Murphy (review date December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Odd Mercy, in Poetry, Vol. CLXVII, No. 3, December, 1995, pp. 160-61.

[In the review of Odd Mercy below, Murphy describes Stern's poetic style.]

"I am at last that thing, a stranger in my own life": this incredibly sad statement sums up the tone of Gerald Stern's new book. The title of the poem, "Diary," is appropriate to these informal, loose, and sometimes shapeless poems. If the speaker of the poem is "completely comfortable getting in or getting out of [his] own Honda, / living from five cardboard boxes, two small grips, / and two briefcases," the sense of weightlessness seems to come from bereavement, not liberty. He says "I am...

(The entire section is 592 words.)