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Apr152011

1998

This Time: New and Selected Poems

By Gerald Stern

Original and Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Ross Gay writes: 

I remember sitting in the graduate poetry workshop at Sarah Lawrence College where Gerald Stern was presiding in one of his last full-time teaching jobs, when in the middle of a story about being shot in the neck by two kids in Newark he reached over and grabbed my hand, with some force, and stuck my fingers pretty close to his carotid, where I could feel two bullet fragments stuck, slipping slightly under my touch.  When he talks about the incident, he’s always sympathetic to the kids (he calls them kids)—he mentions it in the essay aptly titled “Bullet in My Neck” from his book of essays, What I Can’t Bear Losing.  And maybe it’s too much to say, but Stern’s poems feel to me, often, a bit like that story, or rather, his manner of telling it: here is my pain, here is my sorrow, here is the song I’ve made of it. 

Gerald Stern wrote his poems for a long time in a kind of isolation, a kind of obscurity.  It wasn’t until Lucky Life, published in 1977 when he was about 50, that his poems received serious attention.  The poems in that book, while very different than the poems he’s writing these days, originate in a similar place (the first half of Stern’s Collected Poems just came out in the fall, the second half forthcoming): our sorrow.  And it’s the “our” that feels significant here, as while Stern’s work has a kind of unquestionable interiority and singularity of voice and vision, an obvious peculiarity and personality, the poems are not the wailings of an individual.  There is a difference between sadness and sorrow—you can even hear it in the sounds of the words: sadness is pinched, abbreviated, fleeting, drifting off, about me; sorrow is cavernous, permanent, and born of wisdom.  But as Keats instructs us, sorrow does not exist without joy, or relief.  Or mercy.  I think mercy is Stern’s word.  Here’s the end of “Lucky Life”:

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

But I’d be missing the point if I didn’t mention that Stern’s poems can also be comic—not funny, but comic, in the way of Richard Pryor or Beckett.  It’s the kind of humor that drops the floor from under you while you’re laughing, that butts together the playful and horrible, that makes off the cuff observations about the century’s worst cruelties.  It’s interesting to listen to an audience listening to Stern read his poems.  Sometimes you hear laughter immediately followed by a kind of deep silence.  One such poem is “The Dancing”: one second we’re laughing as the father is “doing the dance / of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum, / half fart,” and the next second the family is “screaming and falling, as if we were dying, / as if we could never stop—in 1945— / in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home / of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away / from the other dancing—in Poland and Germany— / oh God of mercy, oh wild God.”  This aspect of his poetry is maybe less discussed than it ought to be—almost all of his great poems (it’s something, by the way, when we refer to a poet’s great poems…and Stern has several great poems, a number of them written since This Time) are comic.  “Lucky Life,” “The Dancing,” “Behaving Like a Jew,” “Another Insane Devotion” and “Soap” all come to mind.  He makes us remember our cruelty and stupidity, and our persistence despite it. 

And to close I’ll let one of Stern’s poems do the talking.  You’ll notice in it, like in so many of his poems, an animal, a small one.  You’ll notice the sorrow and the meditation.  You’ll notice the struggle.  And you’ll notice, too, the conversion.

Singing

I have been waiting for a month
for this squirrel to dissolve in water.
I couldn’t afford the disgrace
of dumping it onto the ground
and watching its body lurch and its teeth chatter.

There is such ghoulishness now
that it might drag its back legs after it,
such desperation
that I might rub its shoulders or brush its lips
to bring it back to life.

You who rushed home to masturbate,
you who touched the same red flower every day,
you know how I must skirt this lawn
to avoid the barrel.
You know how I live in silence.

You who knelt on the frozen leaves,
you know how dark it got under the ice;
you know how hard it was to live
with hatred, how long it took to convert
death and sadness into beautiful singing.     

Ross Gay’s books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming January 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists’ books, including The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT, and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue. Gay received his MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his PhD in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University’s English department. (Photo credit: Zach Hetrick)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • B.H. Fairchild for The Art of the Lathe
  • Alicia Suskin Ostriker for The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998
  • Linda Pastan for Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998
  • Carl Phillips for From the Devotions

Poetry Judges that Year: Michael Collier, Rita Dove, Mary Oliver, Grace Schulman, David Wagoner

The Year in Literature: Black Zodiac by Charles Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Gerald Stern (1925- ) was born in Pittsburgh, PA.
  • Stern has been Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets since 2006.

Suggested Links:


Gerald Stern reading two poems at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival
Posted by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

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