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A sampling of the
many published works
by Gerald Stern.

When he was 39 years old, nobody compared him to Walt Whitman.

Gerald Stern, a University of Pittsburgh alumnus, hadn’t even published a poem. Since then, the poet and former Pitt faculty member has made up for lost time, which has done wonders for his campus legacy.

Stern Words

Meghan Holohan

 [Jon Roemer photo]
He had always been writing. At least since he was 17 or 18. He wrote his poetry at night, in his spare time, away from others. He worked as a teacher. He didn’t have to publish, didn’t want to publish. Gerald Stern was like a perpetual graduate student, clinging to magazines and books, holding on, not moving to the next level.

Around the time he was 39 or so, he woke up, realizing that he was no longer part of the younger generation. There were poets, some nearly half his age, who had their own style, their own connections. They were probably giving poetry readings in coffee shops or sitting in bars drinking scotch, talking poetry. Depression clouded his mind. For six months he walked around dazed. Still, he kept writing, working on this long poem. It was draining, this poem. In the margins were these notes. It seemed like someone else wrote them.

Stern scrawled these notes down. They formed some poems. But he didn’t submit them to a publisher.

“It was a combination of fear of rejection and fear of acceptance,” he admits. Having his views, his style, his emotions in print was just as terrifying as rejection. If his poems were published, everyone could see him, read his feelings. Not publishing was his defense mechanism.

One of Stern’s friends didn’t want to hear more excuses. He insisted that Stern send those poems to a publisher. Stern acquiesced. The margin-notes-turned-poems became a book entitled Rejoicings, published by Fiddlehead Poetry Books in 1973.

Rejoicings was barely noticed by the literary world. And it didn’t alleviate Stern’s fears. Even though he kept writing, there would be no second book. His poems were shoved in desk drawers, hidden under magazines, sandwiched in old notebooks. They were never quite finished. He had to clean them up, change words. And why should he publish, anyway? He had steady teaching jobs, one after the other, at Temple University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, then a community college in New Jersey. He didn’t have to work summers.

Another good friend called Stern a few years later, a day before this contest deadline.

You have to send your manuscript to this publisher tomorrow. Send it overnight mail.

Oh, I have to clean it up. I can’t send it the way it is.

No, Gerry, send it by tomorrow.

Maybe it was the confidence in his friend’s voice, maybe it was his serious, insistent tone. Stern sent it. A year later, in 1977, Lucky Life was published by Houghton Mifflin, garnering him the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. It would be the first of many awards. Today, many of the nation’s poets consider him one of the world’s preeminent poets. The Washington Post called Stern “our modern-day Walt Whitman.” More than a few of Stern’s colleagues predict he will win the Pulitzer Prize. Soon.

Stern, born in 1925, never planned to be a poet. The son of immigrant Jews from the Ukraine and Poland, he grew up in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood, a close Jewish and Italian working-class community. He spent much of his youth in smoky pool halls playing eight-ball, not in school.

Don’t ever try to go to college, warned his high school English teacher, Mrs. Preston. You will never pass freshman English.

That advice haunted Stern. Days passed. He took a walk. Walking is what he does, how he thinks. Should he join the army? Should he work in the mills? As he walked, he spotted a line outside what appeared to be a skyscraper.

What’s going on here?

Oh, the students are registering for class.

He didn’t even know that he was standing by the Cathedral of Learning. Maybe it was a sign? Stern registered. With so many young men serving in World War II, the University of Pittsburgh was willing to overlook his high school struggles.

Pitt introduced him to a world he had no idea existed. He had a music appreciation class, hearing Mozart, Bach, Beethoven. He took philosophy and political science classes. He started reading. Poems, books, magazines. He did better than just pass freshman English. By his graduation in 1947, several universities, including Harvard, offered scholarships for graduate school, but Stern wanted to read more, maybe write. Harvard lost out to a boarding house on Oakland’s Atwood Street. Stern rented a room there for seven dollars a week. A desk and books, that’s all he wanted.

He wrote, not really thinking he was a writer, and definitely not interested in trying to publish his work. He read everything he could. He would walk around town with friends, including Pittsburgh poet Jack Gilbert, exploring, thinking, talking. Walking is what he does. Pittsburgh was different then. Suburbs were farms, and trees covered every hill. Stern and his pals would stay up late in his room, talking.

Stern loves to talk, mostly about writing. His friend and former student, Lynn Emanuel, director of the writing program at Pitt, can’t even name any of Stern’s hobbies because that’s not what they talk about. They talk about writing. It consumes his life.

“Every way we connect has to do with writing and literature. I don’t know if Gerry has any friends who are civilians.”

After leaving Oakland in the early ’50s, Stern divided his time between France and New York. He was living on $75 dollars a month in France, though that didn’t stop him from renting a box at the opera one evening for $11. When he wrote, he waited for the “perfect line,” admitting he was young, intense, and arrogant.

“Now I might start writing a poem on the back of an envelope, and write it as if it were prose and then convert it to a poem later. I don’t look for perfection. If perfection or beauty leaps out at me, it’s a gift, and I’m happy about it.”

He doesn’t really look for that inspiration many think of when they think of artists. He writes eulogies to dead opossums. He says his job is to make the ordinary poetic. And he also deals with what people don’t like to think about.

Like his poem “Soap.” He was shopping, and picked up a piece of soap. He thought about the claims that Nazis made soap from some of the Jewish corpses.

Part of the appeal of a Stern poem is its honesty, Emanuel says. “His poems are extremely clear-sighted. His poems don’t make the world better than it is. They have a great tenderness and affection for the world as it is.”

As he approached 30, Stern searched for stability, the steady job, a wife, family, and a house. He started at Temple, the first job of many that sheltered him from publishing his work. When he finally published Lucky Life, his fears started dissolving.

“I’ve reached a point now that nobody rejects me, well maybe the New Yorker sometimes. When I started out, I was rejected quite a lot. After I gained name recognition, the same poems that were rejected by the same magazines now got accepted. But I’ve been rejected for a lot of things in life, loans, jobs, by women, but not very often,” says Stern, who has a strong voice and a dry wit.

In 1978 Stern returned to Pitt to teach in the fledgling graduate writing program. Ed Ochester, a Pittsburgh-based poet, started the program in the early ’70s. He also is director of the University of Pittsburgh Press’s well-known poetry series—since the series’ inception, the press has published over 150 volumes of poetry—which publishes the likes of Billy Collins (whom Ochester himself selected), the current poet laureate, and Alicia Suskin Ostriker.

Ochester recalls Stern’s embrace as a person, and talent as a writer, but most vividly remembers Stern as a man who nurtured Li-Young Lee, an undergraduate poetry student. The two would meet in Stern’s office and talk. It seems Stern is the type of teacher from whom a student learns as much in conversation as in the classroom. With Stern’s and Pitt’s guidance, Lee has become an award-winning poet.

While Stern was teaching here, Judith Vollmer, now the director of the writing program at the Pitt-Greensburg campus, recalls an independent study class she took with him. At the time, she was on the police beat at the Pittsburgh Press newspaper. Covering the sordid—muggings, assaults on the homeless, the murder of a prostitute—took her from edge to edge of Pittsburgh. She thought she knew this town. The rivers. The hills with their awkward angles. The parkway.

She and Stern would talk. Sometimes they’d read together, sometimes they’d write. Stern guided Vollmer as a writer. She wrote feminist poems, but he would have little to do with them; he wanted to see something more.

So they would walk, that’s what Stern does. He was seeing the city differently, much had changed, physically in Pittsburgh, and emotionally in him. And he shared his knowledge of Pittsburgh with Vollmer, and she discovered she didn’t know everything about this town after all. He’d take her to the corner of the woods, or to the edge of the city at sunset, and she’d see beauty she never saw before. Go to Paris because it’s Paris, but see the beauty of Pittsburgh, he urged.

“That was a formative experience to try to look at the city and read the city. I’m still exploring this in my poetry,” Vollmer says. The disciple of Stern is the author of Level Green and The Door Open to the Fire. She also co-edits the national poetry journal 5 AM, with Ochester, and has been a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

While at Pitt, Stern was writing what would become The Red Coal, published by Houghton Mifflin. It was his Pittsburgh poetry book, which he scribbled on brown butcher paper. Vollmer thinks he was trying to connect with his roots. Coarse brown paper. Anonymity. Like his Pittsburgh youth. Maybe it made him think of his parents, who couldn’t understand why their son wanted only to read and write. Maybe the paper would help him think of his father, as he did in “The Dancing:”

After leaving Pitt in the late ’70s, Stern went to the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. There he wrote Paradise Poems, Lovesick, Leaving Another Kingdom Selected Poems, Two Long Poems, and Bread without Sugar. Maybe a little fear was still there, but no one could tell, with that volume and quality of work. He won a slew of awards, some of which include the Bess Hoskin Award for Poetry; the Bernard F. Connors Prize for Long Poem; the Melville Caine Award from the Poetry Society of America; the Ruth Lilly Prize; the PEN Award. Most notably he won the 1999 National Book Award for his 1998 collection of poetry, This Time: New and Selected Poems. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and had three creative writing grants from the National Endowment of the Arts.

Critics, like the one from the Washington Post, have noted Stern’s similarity to Whitman, a comparison Stern doesn’t really like.

“Whitman and I have certain poetic strategies, like long lines, repeating lines, embracing the world, in common, but I try to focus on our differences. He wasn’t as funny as I am. He wasn’t Jewish. I’m not gay,” he says with a laugh.

Stern has friends throughout the country. He says his phone bills are outrageous. Emanuel taught with Stern at Pitt for a year, but also went to the Writer’s Workshop while he was there. That’s when they really became friends. Another disciple of Stern, she has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and three Push-cart Prizes.

Emanuel, Vollmer, and Ochester have learned from Stern that an important element of successful poetry workshops is community. Writers need to talk and share ideas. The professors have worked hard to establish this at Pitt, Vollmer in Greensburg, Ochester and Emanuel in Oakland.

Aside from providing important workshop classes that are small enough for teacher-student interaction, Ochester and Emanuel established the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series four years ago. This lecture series brings more literary talent to Pittsburgh, such as Richard Ford and Gay Talese. There are also two writing series where students and professors share their poetry over food and drink at Oakland hangouts. The series gives students a chance to hear poetry from award-winning faculty members like Toi Derricotte and Tony Hoagland, both old friends of Stern.

At 77, Stern recently retired from teaching, or what he considers retirement. His fear of rejection and acceptance has been replaced by the fear of getting too far away from the place where he started. He has an internal demand to write. It’s not peaceful when he isn’t writing. He’s living in Lambertville, New Jersey, on the Delaware River. This past spring he published his latest book, American Sonnets, a collection of 59 sonnets. He’s working on his memoirs.

He also wrote his first verse play, Father Guzman, which takes place in a Venezuelan slum. It’s a conversation between a priest and a young boy; the priest is obsessed with lost love, the young boy tries to placate the priest, but the real question is whether both characters exist. Stern won the Bernard F. Connors Prize for the play. It was produced last year in New York City. Now he’s organizing a poets’ theater in New York City.

So he’s walking along the Delaware, because that’s what he does. And he’s judging contests, encouraging his friends to publish, writing blurbs on the backs of books. A couple of weeks ago, he was eating a pear, slurping juices, quite reminiscent of life, and his poem “Grapefruit.”

Meghan Holohan is a contributor and editorial assistant of this magazine.

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