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The New Yorker has been publishing a lot of the late greats lately and Gerald Stern is certainly among that group and I feel like I should be creating a template because the sound of my own voice when I write about these old dudes is really starting to chap my ass. Blah blah blah has published 1023 books of poetry and has won every major award, including blah blah blah and has sex with your wife when you’re out of town blah blah blah.

Gerald Stern might be a bit more interesting than your average eminent poet. He was born in Pittsburgh to Jewish parents and lived in a household where books were scarce. He wrote poetry because he thought everybody wrote poetry–it was just something you did. He had zero mentors and role models. He literally stumbled into college; he saw a line of people outside the University of Pittsburgh and thought, hey, I’ll take some classes. He boxed and played football and joined the army. He was shot in the neck in Newark in the ’80s and almost bled to death.  I think he’s very proud to be an outsider: the self-made poet emerging from what he calls “the darkness.” 

His poetic voice fascinates me; it’s affable and direct but is slippery in how it moves and makes you oddly uncomfortable, like holding that weird orange liquid-filled squishy phallus-like toy from the ’80s that would squirt from your hand if you squeezed it, or like a holding a roll of angira–comforting and yet uncomfortable (for men at least). 

Stern writes a lot about the Jewish experience and dead animals. He claims that he doesn’t purposefully write about Judiasm and the Holocaust; his poems just migrate toward those subjects. He writes about the Jewish-American experience, but he’s certainly not a confessional poet even though the structure of his poems appear as if they could be confessional. His “I” is representative.

The poem that appears in the October 27, 2008, issue of the New Yorker just makes me happy and I’m not sure why. But I’ve been giddy ever since Obama was elected and the people spilled out onto the streets and turned the city into one gigantic party. I read this before the election and I didn’t find it nearly as entertaining as I do now; the world has certainly flipped. Maybe it’s because the poem is ultimately about peace. But Stern’s first line is hinting at something greater than a Reginald Denny soundbite, or the generic salute of the word, “Peace.”

It’s hard to reconcile what Stern is doing: comparing the Germans crossing the Ruhr in 1936 and the American Revolutionaries crossing of the Delaware in 1776. Is he saying all war is the same; there are no just wars or injust wars? For someone who has written on and about the Holocaust, it seems unlikely that that’s his position. But wooden guns for Hitler are wooden guns for Washington.  I don’t know; I’m deprived of sleep and having some sort of hallucinatory experience.

I do like how the Battle of Trenton turns into a giant party.

I should note that the Ohio, Allegheny, Batsto, and Mississippi appear to have personal significance to Stern as rivers in places where he has lived.

Further Reading

A monster interview from American Poetry Review.

Brief New York Times review of American Sonnets.

1999 NPR interview.


The Author

D.S. Loney is a poet and writer living in Washington, D.C.


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