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!