Gerald Stern 1925–
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."
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.
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.
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."