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Gerald Stern

 10-20-2017

 
Gerald Stern
 
I Sometimes Think of the Lamb
 
I sometimes think of the lamb when I crawl down
my flight of stairs, my back is twisted sideways
in a great arc of pain from the shoulder down
and the buttocks up. I think of the lamb through my tears
as I go down a step at a time, my left hand
squeezing the rail, my right hand holding my thigh
and lifting it up. As long as there is a lamb
I can get on my hands and knees if I have to
and walk across the floor like a limp wolf,
and I can get my body to the sink
and lift myself up to the white porcelain.
As long as there is a lamb, as long as he lives
in his brown pen or his green meadow,
as long as he kneels on the platform staring at the light,
surrounded by men and women with raised fingers,
as long as he has that little hump on his rear
and that little curve to his tail, as long as his foot
steps over the edge in terror and ignorance,
as long as he holds a cup to his own side,
as long as he is stabbed and venerated,
as long as there are hooves - and clatttering -
as long as there is screaming and butchering.
 
 
The Dog
 
What I was doing with my white teeth exposed
like that on the side of the road I don't know,
and I don't know why I lay beside the sewer
so that the lover of dead things could come back
with is pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper.
I was there for a good two hours whistling
dirges, shrieking a little, terrifying
hearts with my whimpering cries before I died
by pulling the one leg up and stiffening.
There is a look we have with the hair of the chin
curled in mid-air, there is a look with the belly
stopped in the midst of its greed. The lover of dead things
stoops to feel me, his hand is shaking. I know
his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping.
I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror
of smell—and sight—is overtaking him;
I know he has that terrified faraway look
that death brings—he is contemplating. I want him
to touch my forehead once again and rub my muzzle
before he lifts me up and throws me into
that little valley. I hope he doesn't use
his shoe for fear of touching me; I know,
or used to know, the grasses down there; I think
I knew a hundred smells. I hope the dog's way
doesn't overtake him, one quick push,
barely that, and the mind freed, something else,
some other, thing to take its place. Great heart,
great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me,
give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember,
the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive
the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity.
How could there be enough? I have given
my life for this, emotion has ruined me, oh lover,
I have exchanged my wildness—little tricks
with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is a parrots's,
I am a rampant horse, I am a lion,
I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth—
as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely.
 
      -from Lovesick (HarperCollins, 1987), selected by TR Hummer
 
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As in Gerald Stern's, "I Sometiems Think of the Lamb," depict a time when you were injured and make it weird. Simple as that.  
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Gerald Stern was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 22, 1925. His recent books of poetry include Divine Nothingness: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2014); In Beauty Bright: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2012); Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992 (W. W. Norton, 2010), Save the Last Dance: Poems (2008); Everything Is Burning (2005); American Sonnets (2002); Last Blue: Poems (2000); This Time: New and Selected Poems (1998), which won the National Book Award; Odd Mercy (1995); and Bread Without Sugar (1992), winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize.

His other books include Stealing History (Trinity University Press, 2012); Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems (1990); Two Long Poems (1990); Lovesick (1987); Paradise Poems (1984); The Red Coal (1981), which received the Melville Caine Award from the Poetry Society of America; Lucky Life, the 1977 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; and Rejoicings (1973).

About his work, the poet Toi Derricotte has said, “Gerald Stern has made an immense contribution to American poetry. His poems are not only great poems, memorable ones, but ones that get into your heart and stay there. Their lyrical ecstasies take you up for that moment so that your vision is changed, you are changed. The voice is intimate, someone unafraid to be imperfect. Gerald Stern’s poems sing in praise of the natural world, and in outrage of whatever is antihuman.”

His honors include the Paris Review‘s Bernard F. Conners Award, the Bess Hokin Award from Poetry, the Ruth Lilly Prize, four National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from American Poetry Review, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In 2005, Stern was selected to receive the Wallace Stevens Award for mastery in the art of poetry.

Stern was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006. For many years a teacher at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stern now lives in Lambertville, New Jersey.

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Poems - Prompt - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

"CHEKHOV IN AMERICA," A Review of Gerald Stern's Lovesick by David Walker
 
A reviewer writing recently in the Hudson Review charged Ger- ald Stern with sentimentality. I can see the reasons behind such a claim: Stern's work is often unfashionably passionate in its re- sponse to everyday pleasures and terrors. His poems frequently risk banality by dancing in the territory of apparently naked emo- tion; they are full of the sounds of moaning and singing, of ex- travagant gestures of celebration and repentance. But in my judgment there is nothing sentimental about the poems in Love- sick, if by that term one means a self-indulgent summoning of emotion for its own sake. What seems remarkable to me about Stern's work is how successfully he manages to dramatize the emotional content of the poems, framing it so subtly that the seam between art and artlessness almost disappears. In that sense he seems to me increasingly an American Chekhov. He is as generous, honest, and fearless a poet as we have, but he is also a masterful sculptor of tone, rhetoric, and cadence. 

Stern's best poems grow out of an apparently autobiographical impulse, but they are also wonderfully open and inclusive: the persona is at once localized and representative. Such poems have their foundation in the domestic, historical, everyday self, but they are apt at some point to break into an urgent lyricism with breathtaking ease and grace. One of the clearest examples is "All I Have Are the Tracks": ...

Read more here: https://archive.org/stream/fieldno38ober/fieldno38ober_djvu.txt, (scroll down to page 86)
 
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The Rumpus Interview with Gerald Stern by Adrienne Davich 

There’s a black and white photo in which the poet Stanley Kunitz lovingly holds Gerald Stern’s cheeks in both hands. It’s 1990. They’re looking into one another, and Kunitz says, “You’re the wilderness in American poetry.”

I’ve wanted to know what America’s poet of wilderness thinks about the power of art. What is the action of art? I’ve wanted to ask him. And what responsibility, if any, does the artist have to address social issues?

Stern came of age as a poet and activist in the 1950s and 60s. He’s probably best known for Lucky Life (now part of his Early Collected), which established him as a major voice in American poetry in 1977, and This Time: New and Selected Poems, for which he won the National Book Award. I don’t think that book titles and awards do much, however, to capture his presence, his vitality—how he’ll say what others won’t, or how, when you read one of his poems, you can feel urgently as if you should give dignity and love away to some unacknowledged thing.

Stern is also a prose writer at work right now on a collection that includes a section about how various people, including Simone de Beauvoir and Henry Miller, have written about New York. I mention this in particular because its real subject is how the artist’s vision may give birth, in language, to a kind of raw energy, which may at best complement calls for justice, and at worst fan bigotry. Stern writes of how Simone de Beauvoir fell in love with New York and America, and how she offered in her writing “kindness, honesty, and full-throated opinions about American racism, sexual relations…and self-assurance.” Henry Miller, on the other hand, offered racism, sexism, and a rejection of everything American in his book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. “He seems actually to hate everything,” Stern writes, “or really not to love anything except one or two lost souls he bumps into.”

Here’s an edited version of a conversation I had with Stern at his home in Lambertville, New Jersey.

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The Rumpus: Talk to me about political poetry.

Gerald Stern: I don’t know what to say that hasn’t been said already. Not everyone confronts. Not everyone is summoned. It’s you who are “political,” it’s not what you say. Political means so many things. We are political willy-nilly. Political poetry is an easy invitation to disaster. But then so is love poetry. But we are a little more patient with bad love poetry. It might be an evil necessity that we want to get rid of—so we can go back to the other. Oppressed persons, oppressed cultures, tend to be more political, obviously, as are those with a rage for justice, or the crazy messianic desire. Oppressed cultures often envy those which are not, or oppressed individuals do, and sometimes those which—and who—are not envy those which—who—are.  All said before. Some are spokesmen, spokespeople: they can’t help themselves. They can’t think of anything else. Maybe they’re deprived, even depressed. If you don’t have a bed, or a dresser or a wall, or a book or a toy you are oppressed. An African American in a white world.  A Jew in a Christian world. A gypsy. A Native American. A Chinese American. Let’s say, you were born deprived. What then? Some don’t identify; they just don’t. Berryman’s best poetry was not (properly) political. Yet “The Imaginary Jew” (totally political) is his best story. It’s insane—why does a poet have to do it? Can’t he not?  I have left out what I don’t remember or don’t know. Temperament, fear, shyness, obedience, kindness. I use to be better at this!  This is the last time I’ll talk about it.

The Rumpus: I want to ask you about caves. ...

 
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      Click here for multiple readings by Stern
 



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