The Poetry of Gerald Stern

Right after I finished my blog entry “The Wasteland of My Heart,” I received a NY Times Tracker poetry alert. Upon opening the link, I was introduced to Gerald Stern, A Poet Raging Against Pretension (and Princeton). Nothing too unusual about that, I receive these updates regularly. However, once I read:

Mr. Stern loves poetry, not for its deftness or technical structure but its ability to transmit the deepest human emotions, “passion, anger, love, justice and fear.”

I knew that I was obliged to spend the next few hours running down his poetry and checking him out on the web. I certainly wasn’t deterred by the final quote in the article:

“Poetry should be passionate and outrageous and political and most of all revolutionary,” he said. “I am a radical, although as I get older sometimes I get too soft and am just a liberal.”

Of course, I don’t consider myself radical, though some might, but I hope I’ve let it be known that I am liberal, and judging from what I found the same kind of liberal that Gerald Stern is.

In the old days I would have had to get my lazy ass up, get myself dressed and travel miles to a book store, and probably not my local B Dalton bookstore, either, because it’s poetry section has been shrinking and shrinking ever since it opened a few years ago. This morning, though, after a minimal search I was confronted with a virtual cornucopia of Stern poems, and a number of revealing essays at the same time.

First I went to and found an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth and Stern. For those already satiated with reading, there’s even a real audio interview, with the added advantage of getting to hear Stern read two of his poems, a real treat for those of us who believe that all poetry really has to be heard to be fully appreciated.

For me, the most revealing part of the interview came in the following exchange:

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have – in your poems there are many poems about the Holocaust. This is something – there’s a great sense of loss in all of your work, which I think comes from that partly.

GERALD STERN: It partly comes from that. It comes from personal matters – the death of my sister. It comes from family matters – one is not altogether sure. But, of course, loss and the elegy remain the most typical poem of our period.

but there are certainly other insights to be found here.

Seven of his poems can be found at Norton poets online,
where, naturally enough, you can find a listing of all of his poetry books, while another three, and an excellent mp3 recording, can be found at http:/The Hapless Dilettante. Another link to eight poems, some of which overlap the above, can be found at Gerald Stern

At The Academy of American Poets you can find three poems and a reading of “The Dancing,” my favorite poem from the selection of poems I have found:


In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a post-war Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel’s “Bolero” the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of 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 us
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.

With all these opportunities to meet new poets and to read samples of their work online without having to find them in a college library perhaps poetry can still be relcaimed from the universities and brought back to the general public.

4 thoughts on “The Poetry of Gerald Stern”

  1. Now you have gone and done it … took me back a couple of years, but not that far from home, in a workshop in Napa, Gerald Stern, throwing us the hook of a line around which to build our poem of the day … and the line, it seems to me now that I read “The Dancing,” was “the world at last a meadow.”

  2. I’ve been watching Stern ever since Lucky Life back in the seventies… his appearance on one of those Bill Moyers poetry shows is worth tracking down… i think he was paired with Li-Young Lee…

    Last year during poetry month I sent out a poem a day and used The Dancing one day… got back the strongest and most positive responses on that one… and during the past school year some of my seniors chose to present Stern poems… class reactions varied from “i GET it!” to “weird… but cool”… he generates a unique electrical charge…

    and now I’ve gone off looking for my copy of his collection This Time and find it gone… somebody liked him enough to rip me off… good for them

  3. I just remembered that the other poet at that conference in Napa back there some years ago, was Jack Gilbert, who also hails from Pittsburgh. I have read his volume, “The Great Fires,” written as an elegy of sorts for his wife who died. Many of the poems in this volume refer to an island in Greece, where he once went with his wife. Here is just a short sample of his poetry:

    Older Women

    Each farmer on the island conceals
    his hive far up on the mountain,
    knowing it will otherwise be plundered.
    When they die, or can no longer make
    the hard climb, the lost combs year
    after year grow heavier with honey.
    And the sweetness has more and more
    acutely the taste of wilderness.

  4. First of all, I have to tell you how
    beautiful and powerful your poetry is.

    Secondly, I know you don’t know me from Eve-
    but I have been writing some poems in a diary/journal – just for myself over the years.

    This is a one of the poems I wrote-
    but and if you could spare – a couple of minutes – just to read it and maybe just tell me if it at all has potential — with the help of some poetry classes — it would be much appreciated.

    In any case,
    thank you for your time
    and keep up your marvelous work!


    By Claudette Girard

    and what was you, if not remembered,
    would they know your tender tears
    when you were shown how to love

    would they look back eons from now
    and see the soft surrender of your lips
    as they first trembled in expectancy

    and what was me, if not remembered
    as I looked at you, my heart aching,
    at being filled with too much tenderness

    would they look back eons from now
    knowing how I had loved your voice
    how it had made me want you to call me

    and what was us, if not remembered
    was it supposed to be a great love
    if it had not been left to die in the cold

    would they look back eons from now
    and see our first fevered glances
    as we searched for eternity in our eyes

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