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...
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