Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2981
Gerald Stern’s book takes its title from a poem which opens with the words, “Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors.” That declaration alone sets the poet apart from lesser artists who, now that the “Genteel Tradition” lies safely behind us, seem compelled to catalogue the horrors of life, peeling back the stiff bandages to show humankind’s collective wounds. The statement is remarkable too for its apparent willingness to generalize, and to make a statement about life instead of limiting itself to an isolated individual’s unique pleasures or pains.
Stern goes so far as to admit that it is lucky “there are moments of peace, and pleasure”; he says it is “Lucky you can be purified over and over again,” and he says, flatly, “Lucky life is like that.” But the title poem admits to a few horrors as well, and the reader recognizes that Stern is doing something very like what Samuel Johnson advised everybody to do: he is making the happiness he does not find ready-made. He wonders, at one point, if the waves will drown his screams, but instead of asking the waves to obliterate him, or wash him, effortlessly, to bliss, he asks if they will let him “lie on the white bedspread and study / the black clouds with the blue holes in them?” It is a modest request.
If Stern successfully avoids the doomsday notes of much contemporary poetry, he steers equally clear of a tinkling and mindless optimism. His poems may be sad and the sadness may arise from deepening awareness of change and death, but every poem seems also to recognize the sheer miracle of life’s gifts. Stern tempers his occasional urge to go looking for the “snows of yesteryear” with ironic understanding that, like everything else, himself included, snow rejoins the cycle.
Stern did not earn his poetic voice and authority overnight; his poems profit from a ripening and distilling process, allowing his experience and sensibility to affect the reader as unobtrusively as do those last and greatest poems of John Keats. The comparison goes beyond mere intention to praise Stern, for this poet, more than others among the moderns and post-moderns, seems to understand the meaning of Keats’s “negative capability” and T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative.” Stern’s poetry allows him to draw upon personal experience, past and present, without being illustrative, anecdotal, or confessional. The poems’ authenticity permits generalization while they retain their pungency of the immediate and the actual.
Stern published a first book of poems, The Pineys, in 1969; and in 1972 and 1973, The Naming of Beasts and Rejoicings appeared. In recent years, it has been the rule, not the exception, for writers either to reach success by age thirty, or to slide irretrievably into obscurity. Ironically, Stern’s long-matured poems in Lucky Life came out as part of Houghton Mifflin’s New Poetry Series, designed (say the publishers) “to introduce to the reading public significant and original work by younger poets.”
No one can argue with those words “significant” and “original,” but one may be allowed to challenge the assumption that “younger poets” are more likely to provide those qualities than poets such as Stern, who have entered their fifties after meaningful apprenticeships in life and literature. At any rate, Stern richly deserved the distinction awarded him and his book when the Academy of American Poets designated Lucky Life as its 1977 Lamont Poetry Selection. The judges, Alan Dugan, Philip Levine, and Charles Wright, have distinguished themselves by acknowledging an emotionally and technically mature work.
Stern’s work has appeared in good magazines and he was among the select few writers to enjoy a National Endowment for the Arts Writer’s Fellowship. At fifty-three, he may be said to have “made it,” but his doing so is unlikely to affect the intensity of his self-examination, or the standard by which he seems to judge his own work. Characteristically, he ends Lucky Life with a poem called “Something New,” suggesting that his prize-winning book represents, for him, a new starting place, not a place of rest. Whatever else one may say of Gerald Stern, he is not a writer who lives his life so that he may quarry his experience and hew poems from it. Above all else, Lucky Life recognizes the ongoing character of life and of art. The evidence indicates that, as poet, Stern winnows material from a fully lived life. Living in (or near) a small Pennyslvania town, Raubsville, he teaches part of the time at Sarah Lawrence College, outside New York City, and the rest of the time at the Somerset County (New Jersey) College.
Lucky Life is a book about startings and stoppings, leavings and returnings, looks backward and forward, but, at the same time, Stern observes and reports the particulars of an essentially concrete “now.” The poems have deep roots, as powerful, in poetic ways, as the roots of the maples, which Stern says you have to understand “if you want to live in the country.”
Opening his book with “The Power of Maples” and ending it with “Something New” makes a statement which applies to individual poems and to the whole book. “The Power of Maples” implies admiration of the fecundity and the staying power of maples, even when they “sink their teeth into the roots of old locusts” and when they “force the sycamores to gasp for air.” Although the poem admits that survival requires a degree of ferocity, its final message is an invitation to live: “you have to plant your table under its leaves and begin eating.”
The final poem, “Something New,” combines in a different way the destructive and the life-giving urges of external nature. At the poem’s end, Stern seems to turn away from the maple’s invitation to live and, instead, to brood upon the possibility of “daring . . . to give myself up to the waves. . . .” More importantly, however, the poem lets the reader see Stern’s projection of himself toward a future time, when, as he understands, he will have “another whole year behind me.” “Next summer,” he writes, “is the charm and already / I am getting ready for it.” Getting ready involves waiting for changes, both internal and external, but, all the while, he imagines “what the waves will look like this time.”
In “Something New,” Stern expresses the desire (is it really different from the need?) to stop the world, even briefly, in the clarity of stasis. He wants to stop the “sloppy maneuvering” of land and water, he wants to stop the body’s hurrying, and he wants to stop the mind’s “falling apart / every other year like a cheap clock.” In the long run, however, this poem recognizes, as do Keats’s great odes on the nightingale and the Grecian urn, that freezing life in its process, even if for the sake of Beauty or Truth, deprives it of its most essential quality. Irving Babbitt calls that essential quality a “oneness which is always changing.” Further, Stern recognizes that the observer himself changes in the act of observing.
Like most good poems, the ones in Lucky Life prompt philosophic questions and responses, but they are too good as poems to be used as philosophic springboards or as illustrations of philosophic ideas. They resist purely cognitive, or intellectual, statements of meaning, for they exist wholly in the concreteness of their statements. One can no more abstract a symbol from a good poem, than one can abstract one member of a complex equation. Poems are “many-termed relational constructs,” not jigsaw puzzles. Stern achieves poetic integrity by paying attention to the life processes his work records. He does not compromise his experience by “making” art from it; consequently, one rarely feels led—or pushed—to discover an idea hidden along the way.
This is not to suggest that Stern’s poems lack the kind of craft apparent in American verse since the New Criticism taught a generation to admire “organic verse.” Stern’s work commands intellectual interest, while also satisfying the ear’s appetite for expressive sound. Stern’s lines conform to no rigid or set meters; but they regularly employ rhetorical and repetitive patterns, which serve to ritualize speech and to heighten the drama. Stern manages to satisfy multiple demands upon verse: the late Robert Frost would applaud his reliance upon metaphor; Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren would appreciate the way his poems resolve into “little dramas,” and James Dickey would most certainly concede that every Stern poem manages to “say something memorably.”
That last achievement demands expansion, for Stern does not always treat what the world would consider “memorable” events and realizations; instead, he contents himself with the materials of everyday life and renders them memorable through the force of words and details. The force of his sensibility captures the reader’s interest. Still, he manages to avoid the baldness of purely confessional utterances, and to infuse his poems with a sense of place and a sense of a tradition.
Always, Stern allows a breathing space: his place is never so particular that it precludes the place his reader knows, nor is his tradition so exclusive as to disallow the tradition his reader knows best. This kind of poetry must partake of magic, for it blends the better part of the particular and the general. Stern apparently knows that fine line between vagueness and excessive particularity, for he never renders a scene invisible by insisting upon his set of details. Stern’s is an art of suggestion, of indirection; yet his poems never depend upon half-statement or abstraction.
Confessional poetry dominates the literary scene in the 1970’s, but Lucky Life manages to evoke feeling rather than to impose the raw materials of twentieth century anxiety. Stern does not assume that the mundane becomes poetry simply because it is part of his life and feeling. Readers have a right to expect from poems more than the pathology of misery, the records of misspent lives, and fulminations against “a sick society.” The “confessional” school of poetry (Robert Lowell, John Berryman, W. D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton) has sometimes broken through the limitations of Self into true discoveries of what it means to be human. At other times, the confessional poets have retreated into self-indulgence and fault-finding in a world they seem unwilling to confront head-on.
To a high degree, Stern is able to shape his disappointments and triumphs into statements applicable to lives other than his own. Though he does not presume to define anyone else’s humanity or to strike a pose as universal spokesman, he addresses the question of what humans share; at the same time, he indicates how he differs from the typical.
Picking up the thread of Stern’s life in Lucky Life, the reader learns a good deal about the writer/speaker. The effect is cumulative, not merely additive. The poet’s feelings about nature (the maples, the ocean, his island, New York City, spiders), other people (his wife, old friends, Emma Goldman, Van Gogh, D. H. Lawrence, and strangers he passes in the night), and himself (his Jewishness, his maleness, his being a poet and a mortal) cannot be comprehended as a series of snapshots advancing from early to late. Far less do they represent a series, advancing from lesser to greater understanding. Instead, the poems let one know the poet as one normally knows the world and self—imperfectly and partially, always, but with those occasional illuminations arising from patterns of thought, behavior, and speech. Just when the reader thinks he “knows” the poet, one of those deviations occurs, reminding that the poet is real, hence unpredictable. The poem “Blue Skies, White Breasts, Green Trees” contains a number of such surprises. What the poet perceives as ordinary objects turn out to be exotic or grotesque, and what he perceives as exotic, even miraculous, turns out to be ordinary. Imagining the two hemispheres of his own brain “floating like two old barrels on the Hudson,” he says he is ready to “reverse everything now / for the sake of the brain.” He has mistaken a horse’s skull “with its teeth sticking out of the sockets” for a candelabrum; he has mistaken crows for leaves, corpses for bottles. At the center of the poem, he is prepared “to light the horse’s teeth” and “to stroke the dry leaves.” He recites, with almost hypnotically solemn cadences, the list of things that have, and have not, ruined him. Finally, “It was my delicacy, my stupid delicacy, / and my sorrow. / It was my ghost, my old exhausted ghost. . . .”
Stern goes beyond the anticipated surreal devices of juxtaposing familiar objects in bizzare backgrounds, or bizarre objects in familiar surroundings. In some instances, the objects he names (“the president lying dead again on the floor”) have explicit reference to public and personal experience; in others, the objects evoke their own kind of myth and mystery.
The poem “The Blue Tie” finds the poet apparently content “more and more” to “go into the dark.” He fishes for keys, hunts for brushes; he is “sighing for what I leave behind me / instead of caring for what lies ahead.” The “old blue necktie” he wears on such occasions is the one he tells of buying in an earlier poem, “The Days of Nietzsche.” (Nietzsche is mentioned also in “Blue Skies, White Breasts, Green Trees.”)
These repetitions serve of course to provide connections among the poems, and enhance Stern’s meanings. They also hint the poet’s preoccupations, thus allowing the reader some reasonable inferences about the kinds of concerns central to his book. A short poem, “Proverbs,” states as explicitly as any other the point which is the center of Lucky Life. The nine-line poem recites the conditions under which he will be able again to prop his feet in the window “and know there is a future for my sanity.” The poem’s rhetorical pattern intensifies the statement: “It is when there is not one leather jacket left with / the rivets crawling up and down the arms like civilized lice. . . .” The studded jacket, representative of routinely tolerated violence, gains its force from the image of “civilized lice.” Quietly, the poem pleads for a world in which to be sane—and gentle.
One of the most frequently recurring elements in these poems is the author’s Jewishness. Several poems, including one called “Behaving Like a Jew,” identify Jewishness as a source of values quite different from twentieth century callous conformity. Gentleness, rage, and sadness arise from Jewishness, and, in “Psalms,” the sight of “the little bald hills of Tennessee” makes Stern think of “the rabbis of Brooklyn bent over their psalms.” The poem ends with the image of “gigantic lips” moving “through the five books of ecstasy, grief and anger.”
Other poems pose a conflict between aspects of Stern’s Jewishness and his Greekness, and one wonders in the light of his allusions to Nietzsche if he is dramatizing his own split between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Trees, particularly sprouting trees, recur regularly, and in one poem (“The Cemetery of Orange Trees in Crete”), the poet himself feels “green leaves growing out of my neck, / my shoulders flowering again with small blossoms.” All the while, however, his “white heart” remembers “the violence and sorrow that gave us our life again.” The final of four poems (“Four Sad Poems on the Delaware”) identifies the black locust tree as “dying of love” while waiting for its flowers to come and “regretting its life on the stupid river.” Meanwhile, Stern writes, it is “growing more and more Jewish as its limbs weaken.” Earlier, in “The Sensitive Knife,” Stern’s fantasy takes him into the limbs of black locusts, “always loving the stiffness and shyness / of the old giants.” Finally, “across the river the sticks are coming to life” and Stern sees Mithras and Moses and Jesus “swaying and bowing.” He swims “through the blood” and lands on his feet “on the side of Carpenter’s Hill.”
There on a flat rockmy father is placing the shank boneand the roasted egg on a white napkinI climb over the rhododendrons and the dead trees to meet him.
The book’s dominant images come together here—the river and trees and rocks—with the Passover. The effect is stunning.
Stern’s second poem in the book (“The Last Self-Portrait”) prepares for the importance of Van Gogh in later poems, and it also looks toward the longest and most impressive work of all—“Self Portrait.” Here, Stern orchestrates his images and cadences into a litany of introspection which grows in mystery with every reading. The effort of the poem, the effort of continuing to dream, is “for the sake of Van Gogh,” and at poem’s end, Stern chants: “In honor of Albert Einstein. / In honor of Eugene Debs. / In honor of Emma Goldman.” Elsewhere (“Climbing this Hill Again”), Stern’s physical effort is “in memory of Emma Goldman,” whom he imagines, “bending over my face to show mercy.” Einstein, probing natural mystery with reverence; Debs, campaigning for the worker and the poor; and Goldman, fighting against property and deported to Russia; as well as Van Gogh “raging against the bourgeois world” and “working all day in the sun”—these figures provide the emotional center of Lucky Life.
Most readers will find great pleasure in all the poems, but Lucky Life provides peculiar rewards for close reading. The book is not a mere selection, or collection of what the writer regards as his “best” work since his last book. The objects in one poem, renamed in others, build up contextual implications and deepen the resonance of the entire book. In short, Stern does not “use” symbols so much as he allows the realities of his life to grow, or develop, their own pervasive meanings.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 21
Book World. December 11, 1977, p. E6.
Booklist. LXXIV, September 15, 1977, p. 133.
Library Journal. CII, October 1, 1977, p. 2068.
New York Times Book Review. October 9, 1977, p. 15.