Gerald Stern, lyric poet and award-winning, dies at 97

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NEW YORK — Gerald Stern, one of the nation’s most beloved and respected poets who wrote with fiery melancholy and earthly humor about his childhood, Judaism, mortality and the wonders of the contemplative life, has died. He was 97 years old.

Stern, New Jersey’s first poet laureate, died Thursday at Calvary Hospice in New York, according to his longtime partner, Anne Marie Macari. A statement from Macari, released by publisher WW Norton on Saturday, 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 in person for Allen Ginsberg and often compared to Walt Whitman because of his lyrical, sultry style and his wedding gift. the physical world to the greater cosmos.

Stern was shaped by the harsh urban environment of his hometown of Pittsburgh, but he also identified strongly with nature and animals, marveling at the “power” of a maple tree, comparing himself to a hummingbird or a squirrel, or discovering the “secret of life” in a dead animal on the road.

A lifelong agnostic who also believed fiercely in “the idea of ​​the Jew”, the poet has written more than a dozen books and has described himself as “part comic, part idealist, tinged with irony, smeared with mockery and sarcasm”. In poems and essays, he wrote with particular intensity about the past—his immigrant parents, his long-lost friends and lovers, and the stark divisions between rich and poor and Jew and non-Jew in Pittsburgh. He considered “The One Thing in Life”, from the 1977 collection “Lucky Life”, as the poem that best defined him.

___

There’s a sweetness buried in my mind

there is water with a small cave behind

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 winning major awards, but he was often quoted during the latter half of his life. In addition to his National Book Award, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1991 for “Leaving Another Kingdom” and has received lifetime achievement awards such as the Ruth Lilly Prize and the Wallace Stevens Prize. In 2013, the Library of Congress awarded him the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for “Early Collected Poems” and commended him as “one of the great American poet-proclaimers in the Whitmanic tradition: with moments of humor and whimsy, and an enduring generosity, his work celebrates the mythological power of art.”

Meanwhile, he was named New Jersey’s first Poet Laureate, in 2000, and inadvertently contributed to the post’s rapid demise. After serving his two-year term, he recommended Amiri Baraka as his successor. Baraka would spark fierce outcry with his 2002 poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which alleged that Israel had foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks the previous year. Baraka refused to step down, so the state decided not to have a winner anymore.

Stern, born in 1925, did not recall any major literary influences as a child, but spoke of the lasting trauma of the death of his older sister, Sylvia, when he was 8 years old. He would describe himself as “a thug who hung around the lanes pool and got into fights.” But, he told the New York Times in 1999, he was a cultured hoodlum 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 read carefully.

Stern lived in Europe and New York in the 1950s, eventually settling in a 19th-century home near the Delaware River in Lambertville. His creative development came slowly. It was only during his spare time in the army, in which he served for a short time after the Second World War, that he conceived the “sweet idea” of writing for a living. He spent much of his 30s working on a poem about the American presidency, “The Pineys”, but was desperate for it to be “indulgent” and “boring”. As he neared the age of 40, he feared he had become “an eternally old student” and “an eternally young instructor”. During his midlife crisis, he finally found his voice as a poet, discovering that he had “taken an easier path” than he should have.

“It also had to do with the realization that my protracted youth was over, that I would not live forever, that death was not just a literary event but a very real and very personal one,” he wrote in the “Some Secrets” essay. published in 1983. “I was able to let go and finally be myself and lose my shame and my 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 lifelong 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 highly skeptical of writing programs and college life. At Temple University, he was so enraged by the school’s decision in the 1950s to build a 6-foot brick wall separating the campus from neighboring black neighborhoods in Philadelphia that he insisted on climbing the wall on the class path.

“The institution subtly and insidiously works on you in such a way that even though you seem to have freedom, you become a servant,” he told online publication The Rumpus in 2010. ‘get promoted to the next thing. Or get invited to a picnic. Or get a job. Or get laid.’

Besides Macari and her children, Stern is survived by her grandchildren Dylan and Alana Stern and Rebecca and Julia Martin.

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