Gerald Stern, poet of wistfulness, anger and humor, dies at 97

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Gerald Stern, poet of wistfulness, anger and humor, dies at 97
Mr. Stern, who drew on his own upbringing and the death of his sister, began writing late in life and earned the 1998 National Book Award, among other accolades.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Gerald Stern, who drew on nature, history and his own experiences to write prizewinning poetry laced with wistfulness, anger and humor, died Friday in New York City. He was 97.

His death, in a hospice facility, was announced by his companion of 25 years, poet Anne Marie Macari.

Stern, whose “This Time: New and Selected Poems” won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998, came to poetic prominence relatively late; his first published poem, “The Pineys,” appeared in The Journal of the Rutgers University Library in 1969, when he was 44. His first collection, “Rejoicings,” was published in 1973, when he was nearing 50.

It was his second collection, “Lucky Life” (1977), that really put him on the poetry-world map. (In 2010, director Lee Isaac Chung made a feature film by that title, crediting it as “inspired by the poetry of Gerald Stern.”) It was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award as the year’s best poetry book (the prize went to Robert Lowell for “Day by Day”); when it was rereleased in 1995. Tayve Neese, in the Web Del Sol Review of Books, called it “a cornerstone in American poetry.”

“Where other poets may fall short,” she wrote, “Stern is able to create lines that are almost conversational in tone, but are suddenly made taut by way of detail that elevates the mundane into the realm of the sacred.”

One of Stern’s signature poems, which he often featured at the readings he did, was “The Dancing,” from his collection “Paradise Poems” (1984) — a bit of history, a bit of personal heritage, a lot of heart.

In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furnitureand wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee potsI have never seen a postwar Philcowith the automatic eyenor heard Ravel’s “Bolero” the way I didin 1945 in that tiny living roomon Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I didthen, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,my mother red with laughter, my father cuppinghis left hand under his armpit, doing the danceof old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,half fart, the world at last a meadow,the three of us whirling and singing, the three of usscreaming and falling, as if we were dying,as if we could never stop — in 1945 —in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, homeof the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles awayfrom the other dancing — in Poland and Germany —oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

“This extraordinary moment of dancing is really the liberation from the camps in 1945,” poet and critic Edward Hirsch said of the poem in a video about Stern found on the Poetry Foundation’s website. “And suddenly you realize that this moment in Pittsburgh, this paradisial moment in Pittsburgh, is also an infernal moment, or coming out of an infernal moment, in Europe.”

In the same video, Stern talked about the work.

“We remember the famous words that after the Holocaust, after Shoah, there can be no poetry,” he said. “The alternative is, after Shoah there can be only poetry.”

Gerald Daniel Stern was born Feb. 22, 1925, in Pittsburgh. His father, Harry, had emigrated from Ukraine as a boy, and his mother, Ida Barach Stern, had come from Poland; they both arrived in 1905, part of a wave of Jewish immigrants.

His parents owned several stores that sold clothing and other goods. Cigars were also part of the family story — his paternal grandfather, who died before he was born, had started a cigar manufacturing business in Pittsburgh, which an uncle inherited and ultimately sold to a West Virginia company.

“Every year I smoke one,” Stern told The Iowa Review in 2001. “They make them in a light and a dark tobacco — a terrible cigar. I choke to death on one each year, in memory of my grandfather whom I never saw.”

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Stern was profoundly affected by the death of his only sibling, Sylvia, from spinal meningitis. She was 9; he was 8.

“Sylvia in a way was my muse,” he said in the Poetry Foundation video. “In a way her death became the motif and the stimulating force — that sense of loss.”

His poem “Sylvia,” from the 2005 collection “Everything Is Burning,” is about her:

Across a space peopled with stars I amlaughing while my sides ache for existenceit turns out is profound though the profoundbecause of time it turns out is an illusionand all of this is infinitely improbablegiven the space, for which I gratefully liein three feet of snow making a shallow graveI would have called an angel otherwise andthink of my own rapturous escape fromliving only as dust and dirt, little sister.

Stern graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in 1942 and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, having been turned away for military service because of poor eyesight. He was surprised when, after World War II had ended in 1945, the military changed its mind.

“I had one semester to go,” he told The Iowa Review, “and every year or so I’d be called down for an examination at the Post Office, where we’d parade around naked, right? This time they passed me. I said, ‘What do you mean? I have a date tonight.’”

He served in the Army Air Forces in 1946 and 1947 — he spent much of that time manning a gatehouse at what is now Andrews Air Force Base — and then resumed his studies, receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science at Pitt in 1947 and a master’s degree in English at Columbia University in 1949. He then spent a year in Europe, supposedly working on a doctorate, which he never completed. But he did find his poetic calling there, as he writes about in “The Red Coal,” a 1981 poem. The poem begins, “Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember/what it was like in the spring of 1950/before the burning coal entered my life.”

“When poetry entered my life,” Stern explained in the video interview, describing what the work was about. “When the spirit entered. When I suddenly, self-consciously, said, ‘I am a poet.’”

That poem mentions his friendship with the poet Jack Gilbert, another Pittsburgh native; they used to read their poems to small gatherings at a restaurant in the Webster Hall Hotel, across from the Pitt campus.

Returning to the United States, Stern married Patricia Miller in 1952. (They divorced in the 1980s.) He made a second trip to Europe with her and taught high school for a time in Scotland before returning to the United States in 1956 and taking a teaching position at Temple University in Philadelphia

Over the years he would teach at a number of institutions, including Pitt, Columbia, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University and Princeton. He also taught poetry at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, where his readings would draw standing-room-only crowds.

In 1985 he was a passenger in a car in Newark, New Jersey, on his way to a reading in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when he was shot — whether a casualty of someone’s gang initiation rite or a victim of an attempted carjacking, he was never sure. One bullet grazed him; another lodged in his neck and was still there years later.

“I am so used to having a bullet in my neck that I never think of it,” he wrote in an essay that appeared in his autobiographical 2003 collection, “What I Can’t Bear Losing: Notes From a Life,” “only when the subject comes up and someone — full of doubt or amazement — gingerly reaches a hand out to feel it.”

Stern retired from teaching in the mid-1990s. In 2010 he received the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2012 his “Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992” received the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress.

In addition to Macari, Stern is survived by his children, David Stern and Rachael Stern Martin, from his marriage to Miller; and four grandchildren.

Stern’s most recent poetry collection, published in 2020, was “Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems, 2000-2018.” A few years earlier he published “Divine Nothingness,” a collection that includes “Writers’ Workshop,” a poem inspired by a neglected apple tree in his yard when he lived in Iowa. He thought the tree was worthless until he picked up an apple off the ground and discovered that it was delicious.

“It’s got to do with this concept that’s dominated a lot of my poetry,” he said in an interview posted on the website in 2015, “particularly my early poetry: the sense that the ignored, the ignoble, the detested, the despised, the abandoned was truly worthy, be it people, be it nature. I always honor the unrecognized, the lost.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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