Friday, December 21, 2012

Final in the Series: Top Ten Poetry Books on your Holiday Wish List: This Time by Gerald Stern (And What I Can't Bear Losing)

On the back cover of Gerald Stern's National Book Award winning Selected Poems, This Time, Kate Daniels, of the Southern Review, has written We might like to think of Gerald Stern as our quintessentially Whitmanian American poet, but he is far too literate, too worldly, to seem typically American. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of him as a post-nuclear, multicultural Whitman for the millennium--the U.S.'s one and only truly global poet.

It is difficult to come up with too many superlatives for Stern's work. "The Red Coal" will help explain:

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.

I study my red hand under the faucet, the left one
below the grease line consisting of four feminine angels
and one crooked broken masculine one

and the right one lying on top of the white porcelain
with skin wrinkled up like a chicken's
beside the razor and the silver tap.

I didn't live in Paris for nothing and walk
with Jack Gilbert down the wide sidewalks
thinking of Hart Crane and Apollinaire

and I didn't save the picture of the two of us
moving through a crowd of stiff Frenchmen
and put it beside the one of Pound and Williams

unless I wanted to see what coals had done
to their lives too. I say it with vast affection,
wanting desperately to know what the two of them

talked about when they lived in Pennsylvania
and what they talked about at St. Elizabeth's
fifty years later, looking into the sun,

40,000 wrinkles between them,
the suffering finally taking over their lives.
I think of Gilbert all the time now, what

we said on our long walks in Pittsburgh, how
lucky we were to live in New York, how strange
his great fame was and my obscurity,

how we now carry the future with us, knowing
every small vein and every elaboration.
The coal has taken over, the red coal

is burning between us and we are at its mercy--
as if a power is finally dominating
the two of us; as if we're huddled up

watching the black smoke and the ashes;
as if knowledge is what we needed and now
we have that knowledge. Now we have that knowledge.

The tears are different--though I hate to speak
for him--the tears are what we bring back to the
darkness, what we are left with after out

own escape, what, all along the red coal had
in store for us as we moved softly,
either whistling or singing, either listening or reasoning,

on the gray sidewalks and the green ocean;
in the cars and the kitchens and the bookstores;
in the crowded restaurants, in the empty woods and libraries.

If I could only keep one of Stern's books of poetry, it would be This Time, with its selections from Rejoicings, Lucky Life, The Red Coal, Paradise Poems, Lovesick, Bread Without Sugar, and Odd Mercy, in addition to fourteen poems that were "new" in 1997. If I could squeeze in one other book by Stern, it would not be a book of poems, it would be What I Can't Bear Losing: notes from a life, a series of prose pieces that compliment his work the way nothing other than his own words can. And, in typical style, Stern writes in his introduction about how his prose is about his poetry, and yet different . . .

I'm not sure if it's a compliment or not when friends tell me that my prose sounds like my poetry . . . my prose has an agreed-upon subject and opts for as much clarity as possible . . . whereas my poetry is more language driven, indirect, and puzzling, even if it assumes the form of a simple narrative, for it is only assuming the form.

If Stern's poetry assumes the form of narrative then, most certainly, his prose conscripts the language of poetry, a language just as "memorable, original, delightful to encounter" as any poem he has written. And that language is placed at the service of subject matter deserving of its container, "events that happened in [his] second and third decade in Pittsburgh, in New York, in Paris."

There are terrible arguments on Sunday mornings between my father and mother an the grey deadness of the rest of the Calvinist Sabbath; there is the first encounter with bohemianism; the naive complicity in an event of sexual manipulation; the founding and writing of an offbeat newspaper in Paris; the six-month stint in an army guardhouse; driving Warhol to the train station in Pittsburgh--on his way to New York--and getting a painting from him; travelling from Paris to Prades, in the Pyrennes, to hear Casals play after he broke his vow of silence he had taken as a protest against Franco; love affairs; ethnic wars.

Gerald Stern is the quintessential "character" that we all encounter at one time in our lives, who we are the better for meeting and, if lucky, having in our lives. He just happens to be the best poet who has come along since Whitman and Crane and is, therefore, the one "character" that America met in the latter half of the 20th century, who, at age 87, is still writing the best poetry of his life. This Time will get you up to speed with his poems. What I Can't Bear Losing will catch you up on his life.

This post concludes My Top Ten Poetry Books (plus a few more) that you should have on your Holiday Wish List!

It's December the 21st--hurry while you still have time!

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

I love this description you have chosen from all the pages of Stern: "poetry is more language driven, indirect, and puzzling, even if it assumes the form of a simple narrative, for it is only assuming the form." (And I love the way you turn it back onto his prose.) I know it is the indirect, puzzling, language driven quality of (some?) poetry that embodies its necessarily failing project of speaking what is unspeakable. Its indirectness and puzzling presentation of well-wrapped gifts are essential to its way of calling us back and back and back again into its fertile darkness. The irony of writing that is driven by language being written by writers who are most aware of the limits and failings of language and who hold it most dear is a rich and deep source of the way of seeing that poetry is.

I know these things, and I know that I could find thoughtful words to identify the same kinds of significance and necessity for writing narrative that merely assumes the form of narrative, narrative masquerading as narrative. Yet today, struggling with just how obscure the obscurity of cloud must be before it becomes wholly taciturn darkness, I feel manipulated by the idea of narrative that isn't actually narrative.

In these posts, the image of poet and reader, or poet and poet like Jack Gilbert and Gerald Stern, or even poet and path, walking together in a journey full of trust and commonality appears often. Convincingly so. But narrative that only assumes the form of narrative feels like something of a betrayal. Not like the betrayal of a path that ends like something thoughtlessly, mistakenly erased, for that is a shared path, a narrative that poet and reader walk together. It sounds instead like being led by a guide who takes me to a place that is not the place he promised after all and he knew it all along and never told me.

Reminds me of those so-called "hidden meanings" and imagined insider language that shut the gate of poetry to would-be walkers. Oh, sure, I know it's not what Stern meant to say, and I could read it a different way. But then I wouldn't get to wave this favorite red flag of mine.