Gerald Stern, who wrote with spirited melancholy and earthy humor about his childhood, Judaism, death, and the wonders of the contemplative life, has died. He was one of the most loved and respected poets in the country. He was 97.
Stern died Thursday at Calvary Hospice in New York City. He was New Jersey’s first poet laureate. His longtime partner, Anne Marie Macari, said he was surrounded by his family when he died. The publisher, WW Norton, put out a statement from Macari on Saturday, but it didn’t say what caused his death.
The anthology “This Time” won the National Book Award in 1998. The bald, round-eyed Stern was sometimes mistaken for Allen Ginsberg in person, and his style was often compared to Walt Whitman’s because it was lyrical and sensual and because he was able to connect the physical world to the larger universe.
Stern grew up in the rough, urban environment of Pittsburgh, but he also had a strong connection to nature and animals. He would marvel at the “power” of a maple tree, compare himself to a hummingbird or a squirrel, or find the “secret of life” in a dead animal on the side of the road.
The poet wrote more than a dozen books and called himself “part comedic, part idealistic, colored in irony, smeared with mockery and sarcasm.” He was an atheist his whole life and also had a strong belief in “the idea of the Jew.” In poems and essays, he wrote about his immigrant parents, long-lost friends, and lovers, and the stark differences between rich and poor, Jews and non-Jews in Pittsburgh with a lot of emotion. He thought that the poem “The One Thing in Life,” from the collection “Lucky Life” in 1977, said the most about who he was.
- There’s something sweet hidden in my mind.
- Behind the water, there is a small cave.
- Greek is coming out of my mouth.
- It’s something I keep to myself and keep coming back to.
- the one thing that nobody else wanted.
He was over 50 when he won his first big award, but he was often mentioned in the second half of his life. In addition to the National Book Award, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1991 for “Leaving Another Kingdom.” He also won the Ruth Lilly Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award for his lifetime of work.
In 2013, the Library of Congress gave him the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for “Early Collected Poems.” They called him “one of America’s great poet-proclaimers in the Whitman tradition,” saying that his work “celebrates the mythologizing power of art with moments of humor and whimsy and an enduring generosity.”
In 2000, he was named New Jersey’s first poet laureate, but he ended up making the job go away quickly. After his two-year term was up, he suggested that Amiri Baraka take over. Baraka’s poem “Somebody Blew Up America” from 2002 made a lot of people angry because it said that Israel knew about the Sept. 11 attacks before they happened. Baraka wouldn’t give up his position, so the state decided to stop having a laureate.
Stern was born in 1925. He didn’t remember any major literary influences on him as a child, but he did talk about how the death of his older sister, Sylvia, when he was 8, had a major effect on him. He would say that he was a “thug” who went to pool halls and got into fights. But in 1999, he told the New York Times that he was a well-read criminal who did well in college. Stern went to the University of Pittsburgh to study political science, and he got his master’s in comparative literature from Columbia University. Some of the first poets he really got into were Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats.
During the 1950s, Stern lived in Europe and New York. He eventually moved to a house built in the 1800s near the Delaware River in Lambertville. His creativity grew slowly over time. After World War II, he served in the Army for a short time. It was only when he had some free time that he came up with the “sweet idea” of writing for a living. He spent much of his 30s working on a poem called “The Pineys.” It was about the American presidency, but he thought it was “selfish” and “boring.” As he got closer to 40, he worried that he had become “an eternally old student” and “an eternally young instructor.” During his midlife crisis, he finally found his voice as a poet. He realized that he had been “taking the easy way” when he should have been “taking the hard way.”
In the 1983 essay “Some Secrets,” he wrote, “It also had to do with the fact that I realized my long youth was over, that I wouldn’t live forever, and that death was not just a literary event but something very real and very close to me.” “I was finally able to let go, be myself, and let go of my shame and pride.”