Gerald Stern, one of America’s most beloved and respected poets, who wrote with buoyant melancholy and earthy humor about his childhood, Judaism, mortality and the wonders of the contemplative life, has died. He was 97.
Stern, New Jersey’s first poet laureate, died Thursday at Calvary Hospice in New York City, according to his longtime partner, Anne Marie Macari. A statement from Macari, released Saturday by publisher WW Norton, did not include the cause of death.
Winner of the 1998 National Book Award for the anthology This Time, the bald, round-eyed Stern was sometimes mistaken for Allen Ginsberg in person and was often compared to Walt Whitman for his lyrical and sensual style and his gift for marrying the physical world to the larger cosmos.
Stern was shaped by the rough, urban surroundings of his native Pittsburgh, but he also identified strongly with nature and animals, marveling at the “power” of a maple tree, likening himself to a hummingbird or a squirrel, or finding “the secret of life ” in a dead animal on the road.
A lifelong agnostic who also strongly believed in “the idea of the Jew”, the poet wrote more than a dozen books and described himself as “part comic, part idealistic, tinged with irony, tainted with mockery and sarcasm”. In poems and essays, he wrote with particular intensity about the past—his immigrant parents, long-lost friends and lovers, and the striking divides between rich and poor and Jews and non-Jews in Pittsburgh. He considered The One Thing in Life, from the 1977 collection Lucky Life, to be the poem that best defined him:
There is a sweetness buried in my mind
there is water with a small cave behind it
there is a mouth that speaks Greek
That’s what I keep to myself; to which I return;
the one thing no one else wanted
He was over 50 before he won any major awards, but was often quoted in the second half of his life. In addition to his National Book Award, his honors included being a 1991 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Leaving Another Kingdom and receiving such lifetime achievements as the Ruth Lilly Award and the Wallace Stevens Award. In 2013, the Library of Congress awarded him the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Award for Early Collected Poems, praising him as “one of America’s great poet-proclaimers in the Whitmanic tradition: With moments of humor and whimsy, and an abiding generosity, his work celebrates the mythologizing power of art “.
At the same time, he was named New Jersey’s first Poet Laureate, in 2000, inadvertently contributing to the position’s rapid demise. After serving his two-year term, he recommended Amiri Baraka as his successor. Baraka set off a violent outcry with his 2002 poem, Somebody Blew Up America, which claimed that Israel had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks the year before. Baraka refused to resign, so the state decided to no longer have a laureate.
Stern, born in 1925, recalled no major literary influences as a child, but spoke of the lasting trauma of his older sister Sylvia’s death when he was eight. He would describe himself as “a thug who hung out in pool halls and got into fights”. But, he told the New York Times in 1999, he was a well-read thug who excelled in college. Stern studied political science at the University of Pittsburgh and earned a master’s degree in comparative literature from Columbia University. Ezra Pound and WB Yeats were among the first poets he carefully read.
Stern lived in Europe and New York during the 1950s, eventually settling in a 19th-century home near the Delaware River in Lambertville. His creative development came slowly. Only during spare moments in the army, where he served for a short time after the Second World War, did he come up with the “sweet idea” to write for a living. He spent much of the 30s working on a poem about the American presidency, The Pineys, but despaired that it was “indulgent” and “dull”. As he approached 40, he worried that he had become a “forever old student” and “forever young instructor”. Through his midlife crisis, he finally found his voice as a poet and discovered that he had “taken an easier road” than he should have.
“It also had to do with a realization that my protracted youth was over, that I would not live forever, that death was not just a literary event but very real and very personal,” he wrote in the essay Some Secrets, published in 1983. “I could let go and finally be myself and lose my shame and pride.”
His marriage to Patricia Miller ended in divorce. They had two children, Rachael Stern Martin and David Stern.
Stern mostly avoided topical poems, but he was a longtime political activist whose causes included desegregating a swimming pool in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and organizing an anti-apartheid reading at the University of Iowa. He taught at several schools, but was very skeptical of writing programs and academic life. At Temple University, he was so enraged by the school’s decision in the 1950s to build a 6-foot-tall brick wall separating the campus from the nearby black neighborhoods of Philadelphia that he made a point of climbing the wall on his way to class.
“The institution subtly and insidiously works on you in such a way that even if you appear to have freedom, you become a servant,” he told the online publication the Rumpus in 2010. “Your main issue is to be promoted to the next thing. Or to be invited to a picnic. Or get a job. Or go to bed.”
In addition to Macari and his children, Stern is survived by grandchildren Dylan and Alana Stern and Rebecca and Julia Martin.
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