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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."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
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
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8937
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
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 through his hair,
the loud noise shaking him from head to tail.
O philosophical mind, O mind of paper, I need a squirrel
finishing his wild dash across the highway,
rushing up his green ungoverned hillside.
Throughout his career, Stern has never participated in the shared aesthetic of any cluster of poets; he cannot be placed in any school or group. But he does share common ground with various modes, and I hope to clarify his position through comparison. Needless to say, such comparisons are inherently sketchy and generic; they overlook the extreme differences between poets in any group, not to mention the differences within the canon of a single poet. My purpose is only to propose some similarities and distinctions between Stern and certain modes; hopefully, this brief discussion will set the stage for closer comparisons.
Stern has something in common with both sides of a broad yet significant dichotomy in postmodern poetry between the sincere and the ironic. In the first case, he has similar goals but a different style; in the second, his style is similar but his goals are quite distinct.
The sincere poem, or the "scenic style" as Altieri calls it, blurs into the "deep image poem" and is seen in major poets as different as Kunitz, Merwin, Stafford and Bly. It is often said to be the dominant mode of recent decades. The sincere poem presents a resolutely quotidian world invested in some cases with surreal and archetypal significance. It is serious, direct and unaffected, quietly emotional, often passive. Paul Hoover labels it "moral poetry." Its chief ingredients, he says, are ecstasy and grief, its role prophetic. At its best, it achieves a severe clairvoyance. At its worst, it takes itself too seriously. Stern shares the ecstatic and grieving postures of this mode and its impulse toward prophecy, but in an opposite style. His speaker is much too flamboyant and comic a fellow—and too much a trickster—to appear in the sincere poem. And the adventures of this speaker are anything but quotidian. They range out into history:
I am in a certain century again
going from city to city. I am in a window
with Berlioz on my left and Czerny on my right;
Liszt is looking into the clouds, his wrists
seem to be waiting.
His adventures also become mythic, enlarged by ancestral memory: "Always I am in the middle of everything. / My voice is in the woods; / my hands are in the water; / my face is in the clouds, like a hot sun."
The ironic poem has aristocratic roots; it is seen in the New York School and epitomized by Ashbery. We think of it as witty, subtle and cool. Stern's ardent humanism seems quite at odds with its brittle, disconnected posture, though his respect for high culture and intellect can be called aristocratic. Stylistically, Stern has much in common with Ashbery: a whimsical air, playfulness, elision, a combination of abstractness and conversational directness, accessible moments dissolved in convoluted syntax, rejection of logic, invention of an alternative realm. Stern is more emotional, Ashbery more detached. The surface similarities between these poets tend to go unnoticed because they are so different at heart. Ashbery's stance toward meaning is definitively ironic in its rejection of wholeness, but Stern's is not. Stern's irony is occasional, soft, often hidden and ambivalent: the Stern speaker is wildly sincere; at the same time, he smiles at the irony of his own seriousness, recognizing the finitude of his experience. Stern has remarked on his attitude toward irony versus seriousness:
… though I love irony and playfulness and roles and symbolic behavior and indirect action and irony itself (and lying and concealing and masquerie and buffoonerie)—at bottom I believe my life and the life of the universe is deeply serious, even unforgettable.
Overriding irony doesn't suit Stern, because it denies the reconciliation of real and ideal that is one of his goals. Occasional, playful irony, however, is a way out of the impasse that irony creates; it is a way of being ironic and naive at almost the same time. It avoids both the self-absorption of romantic irony, which aims to distance and reverse alienation, and the pretensions of hand-over-heart seriousness.
Stern is most often associated with the accumulative or discursive poem that comes out of Whitman, through Ginsberg, and, in modified form, into poets like Pinsky or Dorn. His long, profuse lines, parallel structures, and digressive strategies identify him with this full kind of poem. The main difference here is a subtle distinction in subject and purpose. These poets are ordinarily thought of as representatives of American society or prophets of American experience. Stern can certainly be read in this vein, and reviewers often do so. However, he places American issues in distant and mythic contexts. He is concerned with explication of social realities, but his central goal rests on creating a certain kind of experience in the poem, which may be called the apprehension of archetypes.
In this he resembles the version of sincere poetry called deep image; what is the deep image if not an archetype? But he encounters the archetype as drama, not image; his impulse is verbal, not adjectival. He has noted his attraction to the deep image, which he says is central to all poetry, but not to the bare, minimal work that we think of in connection with deep image poets: "I want the poem to have resonance in several places at once…. I want it to be arduous, yet simple…. I don't want to say the 'gray gray' and let it go at that. I want to live in a number of worlds." He accomplishes this multiform poem through his speaker, whose dramatized sensibility pulls in and unifies diverse elements.
Stern has a tangential relationship with the kind of poem we call confessional, a kind hard to discuss because it is not a style but an impulse that appears widely. Obviously, the confessional tendency of Lowell assumes a vastly different form from that of Berryman, Plath or Bishop. Yet they all share an unprecedented overt expression of obsessive self-fascination. Historically, we can point to a reaction against modernist impersonality, a renewed, radicalized and inward-facing romanticism wherein self-expression and emotionality focus not on the response of self to world but on the psychology of self. In the most general terms, we can speak of a poetry in which self-expression becomes self-exposure. We might go so far as to call the confessional poem an endgame of the self as subject. Stern questions the prevailing emphasis on the self in poetry as a whole; he posits a time when "perhaps the pain in the life of the poet will stop being the main subject…." Yet he sees the stress on self as an inevitable consequence of the fact that "we don't have a common history in this country, a common culture." It reflects "the fact that we're all separate from each other."
There's a surface resemblance between Stern's work and the confessional stance that turns out to be false. The Stern speaker displays himself flagrantly, almost shamelessly. We feel that we know not only his personality but his character; yet, like a person we see often around town, we know him from the outside in—not from the inside out. This is the opposite of our response to the psychological emphasis that typifies the confessional poem. At one point Stern offers a half-mocking confession that may be taken partly as a joke on confessional poets and partly as a joke on himself:
I ate my sandwich
and waited for a signal, then I began
my own confession; I walked on the stones, I sighed
under a hemlock, I whistled under a pine,
and reached my own house almost out of breath
from walking too fast—from talking too loud—
from waving my arms and beating my palms; I was,
for five or ten minutes, one of those madmen you see
forcing their way down Broadway, reasoning with themselves
the way a squirrel does….
If there is a poet among the diverse group of confessionals with whom Stern has an affinity, it is Berryman. Both use a strained syntax, though Berryman's is jumpy while Stern's is evasive, so smooth and flowing that its transmutations tend to go unnoticed. More central is the relationship between Stern's multiplied speaker and Berryman's Henry, "a human American man" with many names who enacts a multiplicity of "sad wild riffs." Both are suffering yet comic. But Henry's world is diminished, etiolated, finally unredeemable; he sums it up when he says, "All human pleas / are headed for the night."
The concept of the confessional poem is undermined by the fact that the word itself is a misnomer. The word confession implies admission of guilt and need for forgiveness. The confessional poem, on the other hand, has strong roots in Freudian blame: "Look what they've done to me." Stern's poem is closer to the word confess than the misnamed confessional poem, because he makes a habit of pleading for forgiveness. He does so, often comically, throughout the corpus: "Please forgive me, my old friends" (R 40); "Forgive me ten times, but this is what I did;" "… dreaming of my weaknesses / and praying to the ducks for forgiveness;" "forgive me / for turning into a tree, forgive me, you lovers / of life for leaving you suddenly;" "I sit in the sun forgiving myself;" "I have to be forgiven." These entreaties sound like lighthearted, formal courtesies, yet they surely point to the unreasonable childhood guilt Stern felt at his sister's early death. If we want to take guilt as a psychological motive in the confessional poem, we can propose a similar possibility in Stern, though not as a crucial element.
A major distinction between Stern and the confessionals is one of tone. For one thing, the rage that typifies some of these poets, notably Plath and Bishop, is missing from his work. So is the overriding negativity, not just an acknowledgment of suffering but an embrace of it, a sometimes potent one: If Lowell can say, at one point, "I myself am hell," Stern is more likely to see his projected self as the potential for paradise. Suffering is a central concept in Stern; however, it is the transformative suffering of the hero. And, like other "high" aspects of Stern's work, it is leavened by comedy.
Stern's acknowledged self-pity does seem to find an echo in confessional poetry, but here too there's a tonal difference. Confessional poets, though they sometimes seem absorbed by self pity, don't state it directly. Stern, on the other hand, kids openly about it, acknowledging human weakness. At one point, the speaker is looking for his kidney along the road:
I want to see it
weeping with pure self-pity, wringing its hands
the way a kidney wrings its hands, much better
than the liver, much better than the heart….
In the largest sense, his self-pity is part of the encompassing tragic pity central in his work.
Stern shares the intense emotionality of the typical confessional poem, but not its frank disclosure. In Stern, sources of effusive feeling are often eclipsed. Crucial personal material is visible here and there his early failure, the central incident of his sister's death, his relationship with his father. But the poem is never imprisoned by its fact. He never writes a poem about these subjects; references to them are immersed in historic, mythic or fantastic encounters. Often, only an embedded nugget of the literal situation which instigated a poem is left in, as if one were to recall a passionate sexual interlude, for instance, or a scene of anguish, but write down only one or two details of the scene. At one point, he denies such hidden meaning:
here is my yellow tablet, there are no
magic thumb prints, nothing that is not there,
only the hum, and I have buried that
on the piece of paper.
A few lines later, he almost takes back this denial when he says his words are made to be hidden away in a hip pocket or wallet, "and there are broken words, / or torn, hanging onto the threads, the deep ones / underneath the flap, the dark ones forever creased." These "dark ones" may be remnants of private material; they also point to Stern's interest in mystical Judaism and in what he calls "the secret text." References to secrets appear throughout Stern. This stealthiness plays against the overt, passionate outbursts that mark the canon. The opposition between concealment and disclosure, inside and outside, subconscious and conscious, is one of many dualisms in Stern.
Secrecy is at odds with the whole religio-Freudian workings of confession, which requires laying bare of the most intimate problems—problems which may seem trivial or infantile when seen in the shadow of the killing grounds. It is also at odds with the postmodern preference for openness. A secretive poem is inaccessible and therefore undemocratic. Concealed meaning does have value, though: it creates a substratum that puts pressure on the poem's compressed surface; the surface is intensified beyond its apparent meaning, as ordinary events are intensified by hidden meanings in dreams.
Secrecy encourages the old-fashioned, formalist approach to reading, which may be called the quest reading: initial impenetrability or confusion, an engagement like wrestling with an angel, and final illumination. This reading style is out of favor, because it traditionally looked for a single meaning supported by every aspect of the text. Stern's canon does not answer this demand for consistency. There are even irreducibles in the text whose presence must be accepted on its own terms, or on faith. But the quest reading can be used to open multiple possibilities. Formalism is out of favor also because it seems to value the poem's surface only for what it conceals. But in fact the process itself, like any quest, is valuable. In Stern's case, the poem has an equally strong tendency to pull the reader in the other direction, away from interpretation, to keep her poised on the poem's gaudy surface.
Though we don't see a lot of private material in Stern, we are constantly looking at the speaker as he moves about on the stage of the poem and listening to his distinctive descriptions of his own actions. The speaker often says I am here or here I am again, insisting in present tense that we acknowledge the physicality of his presence. And as scene-setter, he often begins a poem with this is, asserting the actuality of the setting as well. His continual self-description creates the effect of dramatic presence. It works to establish the kind of sympathy or identification we give to a fictional character, not, on the surface at least, the kind demanded by confessional. Yet it cannot be denied that Stern's early need for recognition survives under the surface; the speaker says, in effect, here I am, please accept me. He wants to be seen: detailed descriptions of his movements and gestures as well as what he sees—or will see or might see-from his exact perspective serve to make him visible:
In my left hand is a bottle of Tango.
In my right hand are the old weeds and power lines.
I can relax in the broken glass
and the old pile of chair legs.
I am so exhausted I can barely lift my arms over my head
to pull the vines down.
Today I am sitting outside the Dutch Castle
on Route 30 near Bird in Hand and Blue Ball …
One arm I'll hold up in the snake position above my head
and one arm I'll hold out like a hairy fox waiting to spring.
I bend my face and cock my head. My eyes are open wide listening to the sound.
My hand goes up and down like a hummingbird.
I hold my arm out straight like a dirty drunk,
I walk the plank between the rhododendron and the little pear.
I'm eating breakfast even if it means standing
in front of the sink and tearing at the grapefruit …
I bend my lips to the moon,
I wait for the tide, I touch myself with mud,
the forehead first, the armpits, behind the knees,
clothes or no clothes; now I walk on my face,
I had to do that, now I walk on the wires,
now I am on the moon …
As seen in these typical selections, gestural notations are present as early as Rejoicings. But they become more profuse and unusual later. They are never superficial. Themes and ideas are bound up in the very gestures of the speaker, as they are in the theater. For instance, the major theme of waste and ruin is embodied in the first two quotations above. These gestures seem irreducible; they insist on a collaboration between signifier and signified, a reunion of word and world. Structuralist thinking sometimes calls such union a romantic delusion, and so it is; it's the kind of belief we used to innocently hold about art. It is experienced and, therefore, though it can be dismissed in meta-discourse, it is true on its own level. It is in this sense that Stern's oddball character with his funny, often ritualized behavior is not just a speaker of meaning but meaning itself.
The confessional poem, in its self-absorbed focus on one life, tends to differentiate that life, to set it off from others, in spite of the fact that it may stand as an example. In Stern, on the other hand, the poet's experience is not the main subject of the work. Stern's invented self is, in spite of its oddness, a representative figure: the poet or the man. In Stern, it is not, finally, "look how I have suffered" but "look how we suffer." The underlying impulse is the longing to connect, to make oneself part of the whole—a need fostered in Stern by alienation. This movement toward union is an ancient function of literature, often lost in contemporary writing that is centered in the effort to separate, to distinguish between rather than unite.
The intimacy of confessional poetry led inevitably to a reaction against self-portrayal seen in the so-called persona poem, a recent mode where the subject—at least ostensibly—is an historical figure. In another, related reaction, private life is still the subject, but the poet disavows the I, distancing himself as a he, a she or even a you. Stern's relationship to these kinds of poems is complicated.
In his predominant first-person poems, the speaker often creates an impression like that of poems where the self is pushed into third person. The speaker makes himself an object of scrutiny: "I will look at my greenish eyes in the mirror / and touch my graying hair and twist my hat;" "I study my red hand under the faucet, the left one." Stern's preoccupation with hands stems from his being left-handed, which labeled him early on as an alien, and also from Biblical influence. Continual reference to right and left hands manifests the text's bipolar or dualistic nature. The two hands also have to do with two kinds of gesturing and two selves: the right is potent and magisterial, the left has implications of imperfection and insincerity. In the mirror, the speaker becomes whole, "a mirror right-hander, / not a crazy twisted left-handed cripple, / trying to live in this world…." In this sense, the speaker is a reflected self, perfected in the mirror of the work. "I stare at myself," he says: "the trick is finally to do it / without a mirror."
The closest Stern comes to the persona poem is "Father Guzman," a book-length dramatic piece which appeared in Paris Review but has not been collected. Here he gives up first person, focuses on fictional characters, and even sacrifices the evasions of narration. The priest Guzman and Boy, his ephebe, are self-projections who both sound much like Stern's first-person speaker, but they are onstage without the convolutions of tense and syntax that mystify his usual appearance.
Stern often writes poems that are ostensibly about or addressed to historic figures, especially in The Red Coal and Paradise Poems: "Magritte Dancing," "Thinking about Shelley," "The Picasso Poem," "Villa-Lobos," "Kissing Stieglitz Goodbye" and others. But these are nominal or partial subjects, or taking-off points; the poems are really about the speaker's thoughts, and he often says so: "My mind is on Hobbes;" "I started … thinking about Shelley." When he praises Villa Lobos or imagines Spinoza "saying something perfect and sweet and exact / as always," it sounds as if he's really talking about himself but wants to avoid self-aggrandizement. These can't really be called persona poems, since the speaker doesn't stay out of them.
In fact, he often gets right into the imagined scene. "Bela," for instance, starts off as a "version" of Bartók composing his last concerto on his deathbed. In a typical Sternian double-scene, the speaker is also playing a record of the music. A rehearsal is pictured—or rather, the speaker recalls a photograph of a rehearsal—and he begins to participate: "I lift / my own right hand, naturally I do that; / I listen to my blood, I touch my wrist." By the end of the poem, the speaker has forced his way into a sentence with Bartók's wife: "… she waits in agony, / she goes to the telephone; I turn to the window, / I stare at my palm, I draw a heart in the dust, / I put the arrow through it, I place the letters / one inside the other." The I asserts his authority as controlling consciousness and maker of the poem, the one who "places the letters." He also asserts his right to make sentimental gestures.
In other poems, Stern merges with the subject figure in complex, nested scenarios. In "The Same Moon Above Us," the speaker sees a vagrant "sleeping over the grilles" and thinks "he must be Ovid dreaming / again of Rome." The I goes on to describe the thoughts of he, an Ovid metamorphosed on Prince Street "at the long bar / across the street from New York Kitchen." The bum becomes Ovid, Ovid becomes Stern, Stern assumes the role of the representative poet, all are distanced by the voice of the speaker, who is also Stern. In this typical pattern, it seems that the speaker absorbs various roles, rather than to change into them; all remain simultaneously present. At the end of the poem, the speaker leaves Ovid and finds himself "in the middle of nowhere," as Stern was in his early career, with no audience for his virtuoso performance: "no one to see / his gorgeous retrieval, no one to shake the air / with loud applause and no one to turn and bow to…."
Another Sternian strategy that bears some resemblance to use of persona is his identification with a plant or animal. Sometimes he takes the form of a bird: "I am just that one pigeon / limping over towards that one sycamore tree / with my left leg swollen and my left claw bent;" "I move thoughtfully from branch to branch, / … I think of my own legs as breaking off / or my wings coming loose in the wind / or my blossoms dropping onto the ground." Here he drops the bird to become the tree in bloom.
The speaker usually winds into and out of these masks briefly and with such a display of legerdemain that he's hard to catch. In one atypical poem, the narrator throughout is a dead dog who waits for the "lover of dead things" to "come back / with his pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper." He's waiting for Stern—that is, for the Stern speaker, who is seen in many poems with a stub of pencil and who often professes his love for dead things. The dog observes him: "his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping." The ironic relationship between the dog and this "great loving stranger" is like the one between an unfortunate and a tyrant—or between man and god. The dog hopes he won't be kicked aside; he cries for pity. He has traded his "wildness"; he waits for "the cookie," snaps his teeth "as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely." Like all Stern's characters, the dog sounds like his master; he isn't a foil for the speaker but an extension of him. The poem isn't about the dog, it's about the man—or Man.
Stern's use of persona is more like that of the high moderns than that of the recent persona poem. A similar pantheon of shifting and merging personae is definitive in Joyce, Eliot, Stevens and others. The conventional notion is that it stems from loss of identity and reflects the fragmented modern self. This rings true for Eliot and Joyce, where characters without strong boundaries merge into other characters and, as Leopold Bloom says, "no one is anything." It does not ring true for Stevens, where the personae are enchanting and heroic. And it does not ring true for Stern. We don't feel ennui in Stern, or absence of will. Instead, we sense an expansive self that swells to fill robustly all its presences, each of which is added to the possibilities for enactment of a willed destiny. In a Whitmanesque passage where he addresses himself in the second person, the Stern speaker becomes everyone: "… you see yourself out there, you are a swimmer / in an old wool suit, you are an angry cabbie, / you are a jeweler, you are a whore…." The passage continues in a tour de force chain of associations that levels and connects virtually everything: "when nothing is lost, when I can go forth and forth, / when the chain does not break off, that is paradise." The experience of metamorphosis at the heart of Stern acts as a signal not of division but of connection.
Though Stern doesn't fit easily into any of the schools or groups of poets that have waxed and waned during his career, he can be placed in the broad, diffuse category of the neo-romantic: a modern or postmodern poet who shares certain motives of the romantics, not innocently but from a retrospective distance. Sanford Pinsker suggests the romantic label in a Missouri Review interview taped in 1979; he calls Stern "that rarest of creatures-a likeable Romantic," and compounds his sins, as he says, by suggesting "Jewish Romantic" and "Semi-Urban Romantic." He points to Stern's "high intensities" and his "prophetic quality." Many of the preferences we associate with textbook concepts of romanticism are evident in Stern: subjectivity, improbability, emotionality, spontaneity, the dynamic, the infinite. His boldness underlined by melancholy is typically romantic, as is his reverence for a natural world infused with feeling and spirit. The most obvious distinction between Stern and the broad concept of romanticism is the high value he places on history, civilization and culture.
His relationship with nature—or the world—can be defined in traditional romantic terms as a reunion, or in the later view epitomized by Harold Bloom, where nature is usurped by imagination. Or it can be examined in relation to a more complex view of romanticism as the paradox of consciousness. This view is still most convincingly put by Robert Pinsky. He sees Keats's relationship with the nightingale as an approach-avoidance mechanism that regrets the burden of consciousness, yet recognizes that without it we do not exist. The paradox of consciousness and the effort to overcome it through willful imagination is in Stern serious, comic, ironic, and ultimately tragic, a romanticism conditioned by the modern.
Two distinctions between Stern's performance and the romantic plot combine to establish his genre: the comic and the tragic. Stern's own definition of tragicomedy is "going through the motions of prayer without prayer." He might have said "going through the emotions of prayer without an object of belief," a response to the modern dilemma that Stevens described by substituting the verb believe for the noun belief. Modern tragedy always has comic undertones because it is heroism cut off from absolutes. The hero whose tragic fall is not from some great height but from a curbstone is ludicrous; this is the basis of the absurd.
Stern's speaker-hero is a tragicomic character whose closest relatives can be found in drama and fiction rather than among the poets. He sometimes calls to mind Chaplin's resourceful tramp, a forerunner of the absurd hero, whose life is accidental yet hopeful. His zany jeremiad comes closer to Beckett or Pinter, and even closer to Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King.
Like those of the Stern speaker, Henderson's lavish adventures are fabular and fantastic. Both characters have the same kind of bizarre vitality. Both are rambling and impulsive. Both contain charged opposites; they are pathetic and heroic, serious and ironic, comic and godlike. Both are obsessed by suffering and transcendence. And their voices are strikingly similar. Here's Henderson:
The left hand shakes with the right hand,… the hands play patty-cake, and the feet dance with each other. And the seasons. And the stars, and all of that.
As he waited to achieve his heart's desire, he was telling me that suffering was the closest thing to worship that I knew anything about…. I was monstrously proud of my suffering. I thought there was nobody in the world that could suffer quite like me.
Here's the Stern speaker, talking about himself:
The truth is he has become his own sad poem,
he walks and eats and sleeps in total sadness,
sadness is even what he calls his life, he is the teacher of sadness….
and [it is] his own sorrow that saves him—he is saved
by his own sorrow—it is his victory—
two great masters of suffering and sadness
singing songs about love and regeneration.
The similarity between Stern and Bellow is partly a function of their similar responses to Jewish tradition. Jewish and Biblical influence is apparent in the joyful sadness of both writers, in their language and phrasing, their emphasis on suffering, and their respect for tradition and learning. Rabbinical tendencies can be seen in both; in fact, the Stern speaker often assumes a rabbinical mask.
Behind all the masks and ruses of Stern's spokesman stands a single character who, like the traditional tragicomic protagonist, is known for his passionate outbursts and the surprising turns of plot in which he is immersed. He reminds us of the buffoon, an archetypal character defined by Suzanne Langer as "the indomitable living creature fending for itself, tumbling and stumbling" like a clown, caught up in "absurd expectations and disappointments," living through "an improvised existence."
Though his outlandish performance sometimes borders on burlesque, he enacts all the characteristics of the tragic hero. He sometimes becomes almost godlike; with overweening pride, he imagines himself as the creator: "I put the clouds in their place and start the ocean / on its daily journey up the sand…." He crowns himself with the garland of the classical hero: "I make a garland for my head, it is / a garland of pity—I won't say glory … it is the terror." The experience he embodies and creates is suffused with tragic terror and pity:
pity is for this life, pity is the worm
inside the meat, pity is the meat, pity
is the shaking pencil, pity is the shaking voice—
not enough money, not enough love—pity
for all of us—it is our grace, walking
down the ramp or on the moving sidewalk,
sitting in a chair, reading the paper, pity,
turning a leaf to the light, arranging a thorn.
Stern's goal, like that of tragedy, is to "convert / death and sadness into beautiful singing." "There is a point," he writes, "where even Yiddish / becomes a tragic tongue." Suffering opens into catharsis, spiritual enlargement, and the encounter with transcendence.
The Stern speaker is at once a comedian and a hero: a clumsy uncle full of pranks and hocus-pocus whose glasses are always falling off and a figure of mythic dimensions who, like an old god, changes form at will. In all his guises, he is a "man of the heart":
all alone in the darkness, a man of the heart
making plans to the end, a screen for the terror,
a dish for the blood, a little love for strangers,
a little kindness for insects, a little pity for the dead.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7856
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 had the status of a real disease; it was diagnosed two hundred years ago as an ailment that "leaves its victims solitary, musing, and full of sighs and moans…." During the Civil War, five thousand cases had to be hospitalized; fifty-eight died. Today's popular culture has tamed the ailment by overexposure to old clothes and old songs. Record stores now have a section called "nostalgia"; it contains the old records we think are camp or silly. Those we still take seriously go in other categories such as jazz or rock. The emotion lost credit partly because it became difficult to separate the feeling itself from phrases such as "pine for." The poet compelled to express nostalgia often feels he must sneak it in under the guise of irony, or through a persona, or in a web of diverting strategy.
Our distaste for nostalgia is a remnant of modernism, but the "make it new" dictum fixed on recent progenitors; it was not a denial of pastness but of continuity. The modern artist hoped to leap back across centuries, claiming an ancient and valid past. We tend to see this impulse as a continuation of the romantic embrace of primitivity. But rejection of the immediate past in favor of more distant ancestry is a feature of every period: the Renaissance rejected the medieval in favor of the classical, and the classical age itself enjoyed an imagined recollection of the golden age. The backwards quest leads ultimately to Edenic preconsciousness, that is, to Paradise.
Longing to recover the lost past is inevitable in the life and art of any age, no matter how it is denied. And artists cannot escape inherited forms, which are always nostalgic; even the severe rejection of a form is a reminder of it. Writers in particular are past-bound: as Seamus Heaney notes, language is "time-charged"; it draws us into the "backward and abysm" of history. Jeffrey M. Perl, in The Tradition of the Return, treats nostos as a containing framework for all literature, from Homer to Joyce.
Gerald Stern has made a more extreme assertion: "Maybe the subject of the poem is always nostalgia." He decides that "conventional nostalgia fits" are echoes of the real thing, "soothing little alarums" that help us fend off serious feelings. In contrast, authentic nostalgia is "the essential memory." Its vibrance rests on a synergy of opposed yet simultaneous emotions: the pain of separation and the sweetness of remembered—or imagined—union. His assertion is made viable when we consider nostalgia as a recognition of the paradox of consciousness. In this framework, poetry is the consequence of the Fall and always seeks to reverse it. Thus, poetry wants, ultimately, to deny itself—or exceed itself in a transforming retrieval.
Stern's emphasis on nostalgia is shared by Bachelard; in The Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard places the emotion in a Jungian atmosphere. He calls it "smiling regret"; in popular talk we call it "bittersweet." This "strange synthesis of loss and consolation" is central for Bachelard because it provides access to the pure, dateless memory of a "total season" that is not "of history" but "of the cosmos." It lets us "pardon a very ancient grief."
For Stern, nostalgia has "great psychic roots with true and terrifying aspects of rupture and separation." We are "not just 'remembering' animals but nostalgic animals"; nostalgia is "endemic to the soul":
I see it as an intense desire to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off. I see it as a search for the permanent. As a celebration of lost values. As a reaction to war, and crisis. As a reaction to disenchantment. As an escape from faceless society. As a reaching out for life. As a hatred of estrangement. As a quest for that "other place." As a response to non-recognition. As a response to bourgeois indifference and lying, to totalitarianism, to complexity. As a dream of justice and happiness. As a product of slavery, of the orphanage, and the jail. As a smell from another world. As a combination of absence and presence, the far and the near, the lost and the found.
In Stern's view, nostalgia is not unprogressive. It doesn't prevent change. It has been appropriated by rightists who put it to "monstrous" uses, but it does not, in itself, have a moral or political dimension. Nor is it necessarily effete; it can be empowering or irresolute, depending on its form and the purposes it serves. He makes a similar distinction between trivial and strong nostalgia in the art work. Art that presents "unconverted, unrendered, nostalgia" is weaker than art with a nostalgic subtext under the apparent subject. The best poets, Stern says, are able to make "those terrifying links between their personal loss and the great public loss" which is exaggerated in America by "the absence of a past."
In his own poems, Stern is drawn back endlessly into memory. For him, a crucial aspect of the poet's role is to rescue and reimagine the past: "going over the past a little, / changing a thing or two, / making a few connections, / doing it all with balance…." His nostalgia is distanced and tempered by the extravagant antics of his speaker.
The speaker frets about his addiction to memory in "I Need Help from the Philosophers." "I am still attacked by memory," he complains, "I am losing Blake and his action." He need only close his eyes "for one second" to be overwhelmed by images from the past: "I see Bobby / Wiseman stuttering through his father's old jokes; / I see Olive Oyl sobbing behind a fence in Brutus' thick arms…." He denounces nostalgia: "I don't want to grab Dante by the finger and ask him about my lost woods." He determines to focus on the visible: he will lie on the beach "one more time" to "encounter the jellyfish and the fleas," to "lie in the middle of the egg capsules and the lettuce." But his attention is drawn away from these emblems of life and birth to signals of death, to "the skeletons," seashells that are reminders of the past and of death. He notices especially "the crab's thin shell."
The poem ends in longing undercut by metaphor and irony, a blend found in a number of Stern poems. The last few lines read easily, but they are a syntactical impasse:
With all my heart I study the crab's thin shell—
like a prostrate rabbi studying his own markings—
so I can rise for one good hour like him
into a second existence, old and unchanging.
The speaker is prostrate in that he's lying on the sand; the word also suggests prayerful submission. While looking at the crab, the speaker becomes a metaphorical rabbi who studies only his own "markings," his life and also his writings. The word "markings," however, doesn't sit well on the rabbi; it fits in an anatomical description of the crab. This is one of Stern's tricky, ingathering metaphors: speaker, rabbi, and crab are blurred through word association. Whoever he is, the speaker is caught in a solipsistic gesture brought on by memory. As the poem closes, he justifies his behavior: his motive is to achieve a brief rebirth, to rise "like him / into a second existence, old and unchanging." The syntax continues to kid us here, since we can't be sure whether "like him" refers to the rabbi or the crab. This kind of unresolved syntax is part of Stern's signature; it challenges our faith in the substantiality of language and thereby calls into question meaning itself.
The mixed tone of the poem is also typical; we can't decide whether the longing to rise, after lying prostrate on the beach, is genuine or mocking. And in any case, the whole poem is halfway tongue-in-cheek; the speaker was never completely in earnest about his distaste for memory. If he rebukes himself, it is for relishing the trivial, personal, even comic book memories he chooses in the opening of the poem as compared to the primordial and racial memories suggested by the crab and rabbi. Yet he doesn't admire the self-centered rabbi. The attitude toward nostalgia in this poem remains mixed; it is associated with death and also with rebirth. When we palpate a Stern poem, syntactically or tonally, it becomes unstable and dubious in a way that suggests Stevens, in spite of the very different speaker and mood. Like Stevens, Stern is dynamic rather than pictorial; both present an enactment of thought, a meditation or rumination, rather than an argument.
Throughout the canon, the Stern speaker unabashedly celebrates the blessing of nostalgic recollection, when "the heart breaks in two to the words of old songs / and the memory of other small radios in other gardens." On close inspection, however, his sentimental avowals are complicated by gentle ironies, comic self awareness, and narrative complexity. In this case, the heart that "breaks in two" is not that of the speaker but of a man who lives near him:
On my poor road a man lives like a slug;
he rides along the soil like an old wheel,
leaving a trail of silver,
and makes his home in the wet grass and the flowers.
He is finally free of all the other mysteries he had accepted
and sees himself lying there warm and happy.
This neighbor of the speaker, also one "on the same path," is of course, Gerald Stern. The poem illustrates how narrative mirroring distances statement in the text: the speaker sees the poet as one who "sees himself." At this point, he is immersed in nature, free of the "other mysteries." In a sense, then, he is free of consciousness and its abstractions. Yet he isn't, since it is only through consciousness that he envisions its absence. Here, Stern presents the romantic quandary of consciousness, but he does so in a poem of such apparent simplicity that the reader may not notice its duplicity. This "not noticing" or setting aside of recursive patterns is, says the poem, the only way we can have such easeful moments, and they are necessary for survival.
Stern's sentimental avowals are often paradoxical: utterly sincere and dubious at the same time. Even when they seem most pure, they are contextually undermined, within the poem and by other statements in the corpus. "The Faces I Love" is a typical pattern in which negative imagery precedes a moment of nostalgic sentiment. The poem has to overcome its disavowals to achieve the good moment; it does so through shifts in diction and tone and by images of death and life. As the poem opens, the speaker is in the same position as the "prostrate rabbi" discussed above. He imagines he will lie down "like a dead man," passive, unresisting, "helpless and exhausted." His attacker will take him for dead: "the leopard will walk away from me in boredom / and trot after something living, something violent and warm…." The last lines of the poem are so appealing that we set aside these negations:
I will pull the blinds down and watch my nose and mouth
in the blistered glass.
I will look back in amazement at what I did
and cry aloud for two more years, for four more years,
just to remember the faces, just to recall the names,
to put them back together—
the names I can't forget, the faces I love.
We almost fail to notice that the obvious sincerity of this ending is tempered by recognition of solipsism. The nostalgic interlude occurs cut off from the world, with the blinds pulled down. The speaker is absorbed in his own reflection, which is flawed by the "blistered glass."
When the poem mentions "the names I can't forget," it points to the importance of proper names throughout the corpus. Names ring in the poems like alarms going off to remind us of the depth and diversity of culture: Emerson and Apollo, Nietzsche and Hannibal, Ovid and O'Neill. Shelley, Carnegie, Casimir the Great, Landor, Debs. James, Mao Tsetung, W.C. Handy. Galileo, Swedenborg, Adler, Adam. He loves the names themselves, he has said, and he loves "great minds." They are "like cities"; they are "concentrations of energy and memory." Names of places appeal to him for the same reasons. Beside personal markers like streets, beaches, buildings, restaurants, and the towns and cities of America, he places distant cities and nations: Mexico, Paris, Poland, Carthage, Dresden, Rome, Zimbabwe, Alexandria, and his profound city of Crete. He does not focus on American culture alone, but on world culture, which, in imagination, he travels and claims:
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—like
one of the Dravidians—so that nothing will
be lost, nothing I tramp upon, nothing I
chew, nothing I remember.
His persistent recitation of names is a way of rounding up history to save and celebrate it, creating a collaboration between past and present, historic and personal. Naming is also a mode of possession. As Barthes has it, when we name we impose on the reader the "final state of matter, that which cannot be transcended."
The Stern poem typically fans out from an instigating image to a chain of association and allusion that gathers the past into the present and the imagined future, collapsing time and space, uniting subject and object. Through juxtaposition of the visible and the distant, the poet deflects lineal history, replacing it with a recurring apprehension that makes time simultaneous.
A typical portrayal of recurrence and simultaneity occurs in "Later Today." As is often the case in Stern, the experience begins in a traditional recognition of nature's cycles. The word "again," which, like "one more time," is a favorite of Stern's, is used as a trigger. The speaker is confident that historical time will dissolve in eternal time. The fact that this release from temporality will occur "Later Today" is a little joke. Time will be opened by looking at things "for one minute" and talking about them: "we'll sit for one minute / on the side porch and stare at the bright shadows."
I'll start talking about the wall
and the green pool beside the copper feeder
and how the birch could grow again
and how the door would look with roses on it.
We will live in the light
as if we were still in France,
as if the boats were there
and we were staring into space,
as if we were in Babylon,
walking beside the iron giants,
touching their black beards,
looking at their huge eyes,
going down to our clay houses and our tiny cafés
on the muddy river.
The poem creates spacious confidence. We feel opened, reading it, and we tend to ignore the fact that its calm certainty is undermined in several ways. Nature's capacity for rebirth is asserted only conditionally: the birch "could grow again." The experience told in the poem has not occurred nor is it occurring; it is characteristically posited in the future tense. And the return journey is metaphorical; we'll "live in the light" only "as if we were still in France." The same stratagems are used to qualify possibilities in Stevens, as when he writes: "There might be, too, a change immenser than / A poet's metaphors in which being would / Come true, a point in the fire of music where / Dazzle yields to a clarity…." (Emphasis mine.)
The simultaneity represented, however tentatively, in "Later Today" and many other Stern poems is always presented as an occurrence in the speaker's mind, never out there. It is a representation of mental time, but it also suggests the mythic time admired and pursued by modern writers.
When time became historical, it became a line; that is, it became space. Ricardo Quinones is among those who describe this tyranny of history over time as an accomplishment of Renaissance rationalism, which replaced Greek myth. The discovery of perspective, which makes space rational, is often linked to the concomitant rationalization of time. Richard Palmer, for instance, asserts that perspective led to the perception of time as a "linear succession of nows" that can be measured and controlled. Octavio Paz places the origins of historical time much earlier; he says "the idea of a finite and irreversible time" originated in the Fall, when each moment became distinct, severed from "the eternal present of Paradise." He is among the many modern writers who romanticize—and in a sense mythologize—mythic time, which he calls primitive time; he sees the past of the primitives as "always motionless and always present." It is cyclical, "not what happened once, but what always happens."
By the modern period, artists felt trapped in history and became infatuated with myth. Nietzsche foresees the modernist longing for mythic time in The Birth of Tragedy. In Greek tragedy, he says, myth makes the present moment seem "in a certain sense timeless"; ordinary experience gains "the stamp of the eternal." It is this effect that the moderns longed to recapture and that remains the goal of recursi in Stern and others. In this sense, all our nostalgias echo the buried dream of rebirth back from passing time into mythic time, which we might also call ideal time, a dateless paradise which stands not at the ends of history but in, behind, and beyond it.
Stern's radical nostalgia brings to mind the position of the deep image poets, who also seek a return to origins, union, timelessness. Robert Bly, for instance, describes a need to restore "a connection that has been forgotten," to go beyond consciousness and touch "something else." W.S. Merwin, in an early poem, hopes to recall a state of accord imagined as "a place where I was nothing in the fullness," capable of "hearing the silence forever…." James Wright typifies the preference for nature over culture shared by many such poets. In one poem, he throws a book of bad poetry behind a stone, turning instead to the insect world: a column of ants "carrying small white petals" and old grasshoppers who "have clear sounds to make." These poets typically proceed by seeking to distill or abstract out a unity hidden in nature or in the core of primordial memory. They seek the essential through a process of exclusion and concentration, by cutting back, like trimming away at a bush to uncover its form. The success of this kind of poem rests on restraint and an often deceptive simplicity, a quality not of movement but of stillness. It can achieve the quality of purity and silence we associate with James Wright's famous "A Blessing" or with William Stafford poems such as "Looking Across the River" and "A Glass Face in the Rain." The source of this centripetal poetry is shamanistic. It relies on mythic memory, which seeks to escape history. It has been called a poetry of absence.
Stern shares the goal of these poets, yet his poem is of the opposite type. His style is discursive, inclusive; he appears to put in whatever comes to him as he writes. His poem is a baroque performance of elaboration or accretion that accumulates meaning as more and more material is gathered on its surface. He describes his relaxed yet active gesture as "layering on of one line after another and one idea after another by a kind of controlled association, and the delight—and terror—for me is not knowing where I'm going, even if I know what I'm doing." The energy and tension of this adventure stay in the poem; they are felt by the reader. It's an untamed, unruly poem, full of sub-plots, covert signals, revisions and reversals, yet it's supple and pleasing. I am tempted to describe it with the word montage, but the Stern poem is syntactic, not imagistic; continual disruptions of narration make the reader acutely aware of narrative time. I am also tempted by the word organic, often used to describe a poem which develops out of its own impulses rather than according to metrical, logical, or narrative patterns. But this use of the term is misleading, since plants and animals don't discover their own shapes; their forms are predetermined. A better word for the Stern poem is vocal; we feel we are in the unmediated presence of speech as opposed to the reflective distance of writing. Barthes proposes such speech as an aspect of textual pleasure; he calls it "writing aloud." It is carried by "the grain of the voice" and makes us hear the "materiality" and "sensuality" of the human presence.
The discursive mode employed by Stern finds its source in the epic. This kind of poem relies on social memory, on consciousness, and typically wants to enter history, not escape it. Such poetry often has goals like those of realism in fiction, in that it exposes and defines the culture. It rests on a recognition of appearances and pays tribute to the flux; therefore, it may be called the poem of presence. It can be found in the canons of poets as dissimilar as John Hollander, Robert Lowell, Edward Dorn, Robert Pinsky, John O'Hara, and James McMichael. Stern uses this poem of presence to achieve absence; the strain of this combination is one of the sources of the uncommon quality of his work. He is often read according to this mode, and defined thereby as a social poet. And indeed, he can fruitfully be seen through the lens of this definition. He maps the American terrain from the perspective of a city-bred Jew transplanted to small town life. But his emphasis is different from that of the social poet; while topical and political, his poem is also placed overtly and emphatically in the history of ideas. And it is absorbed in an even wider, mystical context. He sees no disparity among these concerns: "The reader must have the real world. He must have it for survival, he must have it because it's there…. And the mystic's world is the same as the agitator's world. It must be."
"A Hundred Years from Now" is an attempt to define the spirit of America and place it in an eternal context. The speaker begins by seeking an American metaphor, a "purple sage," that will have timeless significance. He looks in nature for images that will make essential connections, so poets of ancient civilizations can understand Zane Grey:
I myself am searching for the purple sage that I can share
for all time with the poets of Akkadia and Sumeria.
I am starting with my river bottom, the twisted
sycamores and the big-leaved catalpas, making connections
that will put Zane Grey in the right channel, I am
watching a very ancient Babylonian who looks something
like me or Allen Ginsberg before he shaved his beard off
pick up The Border Legion and The Riders of the Trail
from the dust, I am explaining him the spirit
of America behind our banality, our devotion
to the ugly and our suicidal urges;
how Zane Grey, once he saw the desert,
could not stop giving his life to it,
in spite of his dull imagination and stilted prose;
how the eternal is also here,
only the way to it is brutal.
O Babylonian, I am swimming in the deep off the island
of my own death and birth. Stay with me!
Social criticism is important in the poem; however, its larger goal is to place American culture in the context of human culture and finally to absorb chronos in mythos. When the speaker finds himself watching a Babylonian discover a text of America—as an anthropologist might find an old Babylonian tablet—it is not that time is reversed or that the speaker has traveled back; rather, historic time has entered myth. The speaker swims in "the deep," an eternal element where death and birth—that is rebirth—occur. He entreats the Babylonian to stay with him; he yearns to preserve the ideal time achieved in the poem.
"The New Moses" is another example of Stern as mythmaker. It begins with some cattails struggling to survive near an airport, "putting up with the sound of engines." These mere weeds, representatives of nature, will survive the technological landscape: "They will be all that's left / when the airport is dismantled / and the city is gone / and the roads are ruined and scattered." The cattails remind the speaker of the Moses story; he imagines that "some new Moses" will "float by" and be found by a princess who will make her way
down through the buried brick and iron
on the almost forgotten fringes of modern Thebes,
not far from the man-made islands and lost skyways,
the hundred heavily guarded tunnels and bridges,
of ancient New York.
American civilization is doomed, like all others, in its temporal existence. But it takes its place as part of civilization itself, an idea and a story that is permanent, recurring. In his uses of history to mould an ahistorical drama, Stern is most like the Eliot of The Wasteland, the Eliot who said: "Only through time is time conquered." Stern's America is also like Joyce's Dublin in that it is both history and myth.
American culture is but a surface subject of Stern, albeit an extremely important one. It is a manifestation of his preoccupation with the larger melting pot of human culture which becomes synchronous in his work. His obsession is not so much the past itself as the relationship between presence and memory, history and myth, conscious and unconscious, surface and depth. This is why his brand of nostalgia naturally couches the pursuit of ideal time or absence in a social poetry of presence. He demonstrates that social memory can be assimilated in mythic memory.
This assimilation is accomplished partly by leveling, which erases patterns like chronology and hierarchy that typify social thought, dissolving them in unifying myth. The huge historical events Stern refers to are no more or less important than his walks along the street, his communion in the garden. Scale collapses, but events are not flattened; they are enlarged in an ardent scrutiny.
An eloquent example is "John's Mysteries," where the parking lot of John's, an Iowa City grocery, is transformed into a restaurant on Crete. Like most of Stern's poems, it opens in a mundane incident. The speaker is standing in line at the grocery, but he's lost: "I forget where it is I am." He has seen the same tombstone beef sticks and catalpa trees in so many cities that he could be anywhere—or everywhere. He asserts the poet's prerogative to impose his will on appearances: "I will insist on emptying the parking lot / of the two beer trucks and putting a table there / under the cigar tree, for me and my friends to eat at." Nostalgia in Stern isn't merely passive. It's a willed yet receptive gesture that invites transcendence but recognizes that it must be imaginatively prepared for.
The poem continues in a future tense that immediately spawns a past tense; the spirit of transformation is encapsulated in the syntax. The friends will become nostalgic, both happy and sad, and preserve what it was like. They will "write, in ink, what it was like to live here
on Gilbert Street and Market, on Sixth and Pine,
in a town in Crete eight miles from Omalos,
a mile or so from the crone and her great-granddaughter
selling warm Coca-Colas on the flat
at the end of the deepest gorge in Europe—
if Crete is in Europe—at a lovely table with lights
hanging from the trees, a German there to remind us
of the Parachute Corps in 1941,
a Turk for horror, a Swede for humor, an Israeli
to lecture us, the rest of us from New Jersey
and California and Michigan and Georgia,
eating the lamb and drinking the wine, adoring it,
as if we were still living on that sea,
as if in Crete there had not been a blossom,
as if it had not fallen in Greece and Italy,
some terrible puzzle in great Knossos
Sir Arthur Evans is still unraveling,
the horrors spread out in little pieces
as if it were a lawn sale or foreclosure.
The here in the beginning of this section is delocalized; it is a house where Stern lived for a time on Gilbert Street in Iowa City, his earlier address at Sixth and Pine in Philadelphia, and also Crete. The poem begins its wild, centrifugal motion, becoming global and international, erasing history, as if Crete had not spawned Greek culture and then the Renaissance, as if Crete had not contained the puzzle of origins which its archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, pieced together to create history out of silence.
The poem moves next to a meditation on Sir Arthur Evans, a representative of historic time who is imagined "putting together our future." The group of friends watch "with curiosity and terror, / wondering if he'll get it right, wondering how much / it's really in his hands, wanting a little / to tamper with it…." They long to replace historic time with ideal, mythic time:
wanting it to be as it once was,
wanting the bull to bellow,
wanting him to snort and shake the ground,
wanting it to be luminous again …
But Sir Arthur Evans "finds another fragment / that tells him something." He becomes the "angel of death": history is death.
The poem returns to the present tense and the everyday world as the poet-speaker heads back to his home on Gilbert Street. The use of tenses as a framework for movement between ordinary and radiant experience is common in Stern. He moves from present to future tense when he moves into past events that are intense; more than a time of arrival, his is a future from which the past is validated. His "I will go back" syntax emphasizes the exercise of will in his return journey; it also asserts that the past is in the future, that time is achronous.
All this seems natural, inevitable, as it spins out in the progress of a meditation that sounds like a spontaneous overflow of talk. Sometimes tentative "asides" are included to display the speaker's fumbling attempts to get things straight. In the opening of this poem, for instance, when he's not sure which store he's in, he says "I think it was Bishop's," shifting momentarily to past tense as if to let us know that the present tense of the poem is being invented. Sometimes the speaker stumbles and corrects himself. When he talks about the friends who watch Sir Arthur Evans "putting together" the future, he says "the seven of us." This sounds wrong to the reader, who turns back to the part where the friends are enumerated and counts eight. Stern immediately corrects himself: "the seven of us, / the eight of us, by the sea." Leaving this mistake in place attests to the poem's authenticity as a record of thought.
The speaker returns to Gilbert Street, transformed through his role as actor on the stage of the poem. Now he is "balanced forever / between two worlds," past and present, dailiness and myth, reality and imagination. He sees himself in the historical maps (charts) of Crete; he is a drop of white paint on the page which metamorphoses into images of increasing forcefulness: "I walk
up Gilbert Street to reach my house. I live
with music now, and dance, I lie alone
waiting for sweetness and light. I'm balanced forever
between two worlds, I love what we had, I love
dreaming like this, I'm finding myself in the charts
between the white goat and the black, between
the trade with Sicily and the second palace, between
the wave of the sea and the wave of the sky, I am
a drop of white paint, I am the prow of a ship,
I am the timbers, I am the earthquake—
The future tense resumes as he imagines that someone will eventually see him in a dream of Crete like the "dream" which is this poem. The celebration of remembrance will continue in cyclical time as he greets that dreamer. He, the poet, will again transform the ordinary parking lot. He will do this by touching the beer trucks with his left and right hands, a kind of ritual gesture that recurs throughout Stern. He will be ancient and venerable, a stone god who embraces the dreamer and sings (that is, does poetry) to make him remember the beef sticks and catalpa tree that opened the poem. The return of images from the early lines closes the associative cycle of the poem; it also suggests, mysteriously, that the dreamer he greets in the future / past is himself. Another "wild voyage" into ideal time—another poem—is over.
in eighty or ninety years
someone will dream of Crete again and see me
sitting under this tree and study me
along with the baskets and the red vases.
I'll walk across here touching one beer truck
with my left hand and one with my other.
I'll put my old stone arms around his neck
and kiss him on the lip and cheek, I'll sing again and again
until he remembers me, until he remembers
the green catalpa pushing through the cement
and the little sticks of meat inside, his own
wild voyage behind him, his own sad life ahead.
This performance is complete, but we are meant to see it as a temporal manifestation of an archetype that is always potential: everything happens again, everywhere, is happening now, will happen, always happens.
The backwards quest of "John's Mysteries" is emotional archaeology, set against the historic archaeology of Sir Arthur Evans, which the poem mistrusts. The radiant experience unearthed in the poem is of a kind sought by so many twentieth century writers that it must be called definitive. It's a release from estrangement that elicits and contains the quality of belief without assigning it an object. Among the many names given it by writers and critics, the most convenient, in spite of its overuse, is still epiphany. In his book-length discussion of the subject, Morris Beja stresses examples that include recapture or recreation of the past along with "the notion of the psychological coexistence of all time." An epiphany of this kind is, of course, inherently nostalgic.
The connection between nostalgia and epiphany is an underlying current throughout Stern, but only in Paradise Poems does he engage in lengthy, detailed portrayals of transfiguration. A central example is "Three Skies." Here, he calls his timeless moment "my lightness," a phrase that combines illumination with the sensation of near weightlessness. As in "John's Mysteries," Crete is the alembic source. The speaker seeks to understand its importance in the second long section of the poem:
In Crete the heart gets filled up, there is a joy
there, it is the mountains and sea combined,
it is the knowledge you have that there was a life
there for centuries, half unknown to Europe, half
unknown to Asia, Crete is a kind of moon
to me, a kind a tiny planet,
going through the same revolutions, over and over.
Stern's fascination for Greece is similar in some ways to that of Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which, as Seamus Heaney notes, does not stem from a sense of "belonging to a particular place" or from "the burden of a particular history":
Historical Greece may have provided images for his daydream but transfigured Greece, under the aspect of the urn, awakened his imaginative and intellectual appetites…. Keats' past is closer to the long-ago of fairy-tale and functions in his mind as a source of possibility, a launch pad for transcendence.
Like Keats, Stern loves Greece because it helps him achieve "lightness." But Stern's poem is far more personal and idiosyncratic than its romantic precursor. It rests on close details of his visits to Greece rather than on the import of a cultural symbol like the Elgin marbles. Yet it is not about Stern's private life; it is a dramatization of consciousness.
The pattern of "Three Skies" is the same as that of "John's Mysteries," but in this case the speaker describes the epiphany besides enacting it. Both poems begin in a place where food is sold; this site, usually a restaurant, is a favorite of the poet's. Here, it's Dante's, a Greenwich Village coffee house. The tense is the same continual present that appears in "John's Mysteries" and throughout the canon: "I always remember," "I always think," "I sit." While he sits there in Dante's, his "left hand is walking through Crete" and his "right hand is lying exhausted on the roof / looking up at the stars." The word "stars" triggers a memory of the first time he had his lightness in Greece. He shifts to the past tense:
It was the stars
that helped me then. I stood on the cracked cement
on the same hill I know where Minos stood
looking for heavenly bulls and for the first time
in Greece I had my lightness. I saw the link
between that life and mine, I saw the one
outside me stand for my own, like Dante himself
in Paradise. I felt I was standing inside
the sky, that there were other lights below me
and other worlds and this one could be restored.
And there were other feelings I have forgotten
or can't quite put in words. I saw myself
moving from body to body. I saw my own
existence taken from me. I lost the center.
This supranatural integration approaches literal transcendence when the speaker imagines himself up in the sky. This kind of "upwards fall" has been described by a number of critics; it contrasts with the downward fall into time and knowledge. Paul de Man says that poetic transcendence is like a "spontaneous ascent" and resembles an "act of grace." Stern's out of body experience might seem silly or pretentious were it not for the conversational earnestness with which he confides what he "can't quite put in words."
The speaker recalls that the uplifting accord "lasted for fifteen minutes." Then he slept on the roof—seemingly the same roof where his right hand lay open at the start of the poem—though at that point he was sitting in a coffee shop. This knocks out the distinction between the present time of the poem and the time of the remembered "lightness." He remembers "going into lying still, / going into some secret humming and adoring, / I was so changed, I was so small and silent." This typical Sternian reference to esoteric, prayerful ritual is a response to being changed in the course of the poem.
A few lines later, as the third and last section opens, the poem shifts back to Dante's café. But it does not shift back to the present tense; the new section is continuous with the Crete narrative. This seems to undermine the distinctness and validity of the transcendent event.
It wasn't lost on me that it was Dante's
café that I was sitting in—a coffee house
in Greenwich Village with an overblown photo
of Florence on the wall, squeezed in among
my loved ones, reading books, or talking, or waiting
for someone to come, for someone new to walk in
and catch our interest, the irony—even the comedy—
wasn't lost on me. I think I had been there
over an hour frowning and writing. It was
a disgrace! Thank God for New York! Thank God for tolerance!
These lines remind us that the ecstatic incident occurred, as far as the narrative field of the poem goes, in the everyday world of books and talk at Dante's. They remind us that, in fact, the incident is purely verbal, a poem written in a café: "I think I was there for over an hour, thinking and writing." The self-deflating, amused tone of the lines further weakens the epiphany. The speaker wants us to know that he understands the irony and comedy of his situation.
After a characteristic link back to motifs introduced in the opening, the poem gears up into a typical Stern resolution, one of his most beautiful:
through the cement playground at Sixth and Houston and down
to Vandam Street, My poem is over. My life
is on an even keel, though who's to say
when I will waver again. I start to call
my friends up one at a time to talk about the stars,
my friends in New Jersey and Brooklyn. I listen to them rave,
these poor stargazers, everyone with a story,
everyone either a mystic or a poet,
one a musician, one an astrologer,
all of them illuminated, all of them ecstatic,
every one changed, for a minute, by his own memory.
The interlude of paradisical harmony enacted so fully in the above poems is often suggested more briefly. The Stern corpus, like those of Stevens and Joyce, is a web of cross-references in which an element that appears quickly, sometimes mysteriously, in one place may be fully explicated in another. The canon constantly clarifies, reinforces, and comments on itself; this criss-crossing movement tends to make the whole body of work synchronic.
For instance, detailed familiarity with Stern's epiphany enhances our response to a poem like "Magritte Dancing." The passing reference to Crete in this poem is enriched by what we learn about its significance in "John's Mysteries," which was written later. "Magritte Dancing" presents a more humble and low key version of transcendence than the poems we've looked at. It illustrates how the artist, through the expansive movement of his mind, can escape everyday life. It starts as the speaker goes to bed tired and angry, annoyed when his wife "stumbles over [his] shoes into the bathroom." Unable to sleep, he watches the dark until dawn. His mind moves gradually away from the present and toward nature: "I am thinking again about snow tires," "I am thinking / about downtown Pittsburgh and I am thinking / about the turtles swimming inside their brown willows." He begins an imaginative dance "to the tune of Magritte," that is to the tune of art. He imagines Oskar Schlemmer and Pablo Picasso; these proper names come in typically to expand the poem through the speaker's realization of his continuity with others. He moves from the constrictions of private life into the shared life of history and culture, then leaves his singular life, becoming timeless and global as he enacts Edenic clarity and perfection:
I dance on the road and on the river and
in the wet garden, all the time living in Crete
and pre-war Poland and outer Zimbabwe,
as through my fingers and my sparkling hair
the morning passes, first the three loud calls
of the bluejay, then the white door slamming,
then the voices rising and falling in sudden harmony.
Here the recursio, a gesture both willed and fortuitous, opens into a radiant apprehension of paradise.
In Stern's plot, we are lucky to have lost paradise. It is a nostalgic entity that exists because it is lost. We are lucky to suffer, since suffering is what we transcend. Acknowledgment and acceptance of suffering is our humanity, our victory. This is a version of the romantic vision, and it is also the tragic vision, in which spiritual redemption is won through noble suffering.
It is also a traditional vision, a poetic program so overworked that it seems too old hat to survive without irony or other procedures of extreme deflation. Stern's enactment of it is tinged with a chuckle of self-parody, yet it remains serious. His tactic is to go the other way, to crank up such an orchidaceous display of nostalgic sentiment that we are asked to admire his daring. He uses the word "sweet," for instance, again and again, hoping we'll forgive it of his lovable, clumsy, yet obviously erudite speaker.
His success depends on the originality and authenticity of this voice; it produces a surrealism of wit, a zany flux of rhetoric that beguiles us in spite of ourselves. This speaker, like other victims of nostalgia, is "solitary, musing, full of sighs and moans." He's also an exhibitionist, loquacious and playful, whimsical and wise. Extravagance is often associated, nowadays, with insincerity, but Stern's flamboyance is not feigned, nor is his belief in the mediating force of nostalgic memory, "always seeing the heart / and what it wanted, the beautiful, cramped heart."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 272
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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592
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 ruined by the past"—not because of its horror, but because it is over. But if the content of memory is blotted out by its form (being over), remembering becomes indistinguishable from mourning; in writing about the artist Ad Reinhardt, known for his all-black paintings, Stern says "we loved gloom and believed / in clarity."
Birds and flowers are recurrent motifs—two symbols of beauty, fragility, and vulnerability. The birds are the kindred spirits of his pain. In "Hot Dog," a long poem sequence, the connection becomes obsessive, even grotesque:
I remember the smell
of dead birds when I lived in Pittsburgh, there was
a certain rottenness, a sweetness, I would know
somehow long in advance the smell was coming,
and I would see it there, the broken wing,
blood on the neck, a beak gone, or a leg gone;
it was for me my loss.
At times, Stern's passage through grief becomes a free-fall, in which emotion overwhelms form, mixing everything up like a tornado:
I never thought it through,
I didn't think like that, I may have snorted
and felt a rush inside, I know I got dizzy
just standing, I know I had to walk to slow down,
and when I was forty I held on to a wall
to keep myself from falling—but I meant
that I would let the wind pass through me, that I
would feel my pulses pounding a little, not
that I would see the Republic revived or see
streets with dimes piled up or cigars pouring
out of bedroom windows the way they did
on Pine Street in Philadelphia when I dumped
a box of stale smokes onto the stoop
and the three men who were sitting there went wild
with all those riches.
Hot Dog is the name of a streetperson; the other major figure is Whitman. But the poem's antecedent is less Whitman than Hart Crane—a desperate man looking for Whitman, in what has become a wasteland. Visiting the bard's house, Stern imagines him "thinking about his house / and the ugly church across the street," and "all that / coal smoke and soot and the sweet odor that blew / across the river from the huge house of shit / on the Philadelphia side." You wouldn't think it possible to miss these things, but in this bleak world, it is:
is gone, there is a huge county jail
across the way, the sweet smell of shit
from Philadelphia is gone, the soot
and smoke are gone, the ferry goes back and forth
only to the new blue-and-white aquarium,
and there is a thing called "Mickle Towers" two blocks
down, and acres of grass now and empty bottles.