Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Gerald Stern

In the late forties and early fifties my father hauled steel from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. I was born in 1949 and remember the daily ritual of my mother boiling coffee for his thermos, his flatbed truck pulling out before dawn, my waking up in the middle of the night to the smell of his diesel-soaked boots. As a child I never heard of any living poets, and if I had, I would have never imagined any of them residing in "The Smoky City." But, while my father was making entries in his log book by flashlight in the cab of his Mack truck, college students in Pittsburgh were straining their eyes beneath dim desk lamps, writing poems that would later appear in prize-winning books, fashioning a tone for poetry in the second half of the 20th century that would coalesce into a major "school." One of those poets was Gerald Stern.

Stern's poems did not receive critical acclaim until 1977 when Lucky Life appeared in the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series. Stern was not only quickly ushered to center stage by winning the Lamont Poetry Prize and having a series of essays on writing poetry published in American Poetry Review that same year, but he followed up his opening act with a prolific outpouring of books that either nominated him or won him almost every major prize in poetry, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, The National Book Award, The Wallace Stevens Award and The Pulitzer Prize (nominated).

The Poetry Foundation has said that "Stern’s poetry frequently references his all-American, working-class upbringing as well as his Jewish and Eastern European heritage. Cosmopolitan, even international in scope, and yet deeply personal, Stern’s work is known for its passionate defense of human emotions and needs. According to Jeffrey Dodd, Elise Gregory, and Adam O’Connor Rodriguez, all of whom interviewed Stern for the journal Willow Springs: His work derides provincialism and points to a world of experiences beyond American borders and transcendent of temporal limits. Stern has lived in this rich world, and his poetry calls attention to its failures, beauties, and curiosities without fear, shame or sentimentality."

Stern's work has carved out a unique place for him in American Literature. About that place Stern has said I stake out a place for myself, so to speak, that was overlooked or ignored or disdained, a place no one else wanted. Stern continues, If I could choose one poem of mine to explain my stance, it would be "The One Thing in Life," which appears in Lucky Life. According to Stern, the poem makes a claim for his own inheritance and legacy:

The One Thing In Life

Wherever I go now I lie down on my own bed of straw
and bury my face in my own pillow.
I can stop in any city I want to
and pull the stiff blanket up to my chin.
It's easy now, walking up a flight of carpeted stairs
and down a hall past the painted fire doors.
It's easy bumping my knees on a rickety table
and bending down to a tiny sink.
There is a sweetness buried in my mind;
there is water with a small cave behind it;
there's a mouth speaking Greek.
It is what I keep to myself, what I return to;
the one thing that no one else wanted.

There is much to admire in Gerald Stern's poems: their Whitman-like narrative lyricism, their unique stories of suffering and joy, their visceral imagery, their hypnotic cadences. Stern's poems I love the most are the self-reflective ones about his work of writing poetry. I close with "Little White Sister," but before I do, let me say that if you do not know Stern's work, you need to. Writing poetry without Gerald Stern in your ear is like flying without ever hearing of the Wright Brothers, without ever seeing the Kittyhawk--you might be able to do it, but you'll never know where you came from--and you'll never be as good as you can be--he is that important to American literature. And he's from Pittsburgh. Go figure...

Little White Sister

It was in Philadelphia that I first lived a life of deferment,
putting everything off until I could be at ease.
There, more than in New York and more than in Paris,
I lay for hours in bed, forgetting to eat, forgetting
to swim, dying of imperfection and loneliness.
It was in Vienna that I learned what it would be like
to live in two lives, and learned to wander between them;
and it was in the rotten underbelly
of western Pennsylvania that I was saved twice by a pear tree,
one time living and one time dead, and enslaved
once and for all by a patented iron grate
carrying words of terror through the yellow air.
My ear betrayed me, my little white sister
glued to the side of my head, a shiny snail
twisted everywhere to catch the slightest
murmur of love, the smallest sobbing and breathing.
It wasn't the heart, stuck inside the chest
like a bloody bird, and it wasn't the brain,
dying itself from love; it was that messenger,
laughing as she whispered the soft words,
making kissing sounds with her red lips,
moaning with pleasure for the last indignity.

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