AP

Gerald Stern, prize-winning and lyrical poet, dies at 97

Oct 29, 2022, 1:21 PM | Updated: Oct 31, 2022, 7:33 am

NEW YORK (AP) — Gerald Stern, one of the country’s most loved and respected poets who wrote with spirited melancholy and earthly 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, didn’t include the cause of death.

Winner of the National Book Award in 1998 for the anthology “This Time,” the balding, round-eyed Stern was sometimes mistaken in person for Allen Ginsberg and often compared to Walt Whitman because of his lyrical and sensual style, and his gift for wedding the physical world to the greater 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 fiercely believed in “the idea of the Jew,” the poet wrote more than a dozen books and described himself as “part comedic, part idealistic, colored in irony, smeared with mockery and sarcasm.” In poems and essays, he wrote with special intensity about the past — his immigrant parents, long-lost friends and lovers, and the striking divisions between rich and poor and Jews and non-Jews in Pittsburgh. He regarded “The One Thing in Life,” from the 1977 collection “Lucky Life,” as the poem that best defined him.

___

There is a sweetness buried in my mind

there is water with a small cave behind it

there’s a mouth speaking Greek

It is what I keep to myself; what I return to;

the one thing that no one else wanted

___

He was past 50 before he won any major awards, but was cited often over the second half of his life. Besides his National Book Award, his honors included being a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1991 for “Leaving Another Kingdom” and receiving such lifetime achievement awards as the Ruth Lilly Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award. In 2013, the Library of Congress gave him the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for “Early Collected Poems” and praised him as “one of America’s great poet-proclaimers in the Whitmanic tradition: With moments of humor and whimsy, and an enduring generosity, his work celebrates the mythologizing power of the art.”

Meanwhile, he was named New Jersey’s first poet laureate, in 2000, and inadvertently helped bring about the position’s speedy demise. After serving his two-year term, he recommended Amiri Baraka as his successor. Baraka would set off a fierce outcry with his 2002 poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which alleged that Israel had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks the year before. Baraka refused to step down, so the state decided to no longer have a laureate.

Stern, born in 1925, remembered no major literary influences as a child, but did speak of the lasting trauma of the death of his older sister, Sylvia, when he was 8. 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 received a master’s in comparative literature from Columbia University. Ezra Pound and W.B Yeats were among the first poets he read closely.

Stern lived in Europe and New York during the 1950s and eventually settled in a 19th century home near the Delaware River in Lambertville. His creative development came slowly. Only during free moments in the Army, in which he served for a brief time after World War II, did he conceive 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 despaired that it was “indulgent” and “tedious.” As he approached age 40, he worried that he had become “an eternally old student” and “eternally young instructor.” Through his midlife crisis, he finally found his voice as a poet, discovering that he had been “taking an easier way” than he should have.

“It also had to do with a realization that my protracted youth was over, that I wouldn’t 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 was able to let go and finally become 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 had great skepticism about writing programs and the academic 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 the nearby Black neighborhoods of Philadelphia that he made a point of climbing the wall on the way to class.

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

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

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Police clear the area following a shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs NFL football Super Bowl celebr...

Associated Press

1 dead, many wounded after shooting at Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory parade

One person died after 22 people were hit by gunfire in a shooting at the end of the Kansas Chiefs' Super Bowl victory celebration Wednesday.

7 days ago

This image from House Television shows House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., banging the gavel after h...

Associated Press

GOP-led House impeaches Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas — by one vote — over border management

Having failed to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas the first time, House Republicans are determined to try again Tuesday.

8 days ago

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, and Kenya's Defense Minister Aden Duale, left, listen during...

Associated Press

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hospitalized with bladder issue

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been hospitalized following symptoms pointing to an “emergent bladder issue."

10 days ago

Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church, stands with his wife, Victoria Osteen, as he conducts a...

Associated Press

Woman firing rifle killed by 2 off-duty officers at Houston’s Lakewood Church run by Joel Osteen

A woman entered the Texas megachurch of Joel Osteen and started shooting with a rifle Sunday and was killed by two off-duty officers.

10 days ago

(Pexels photo)...

Associated Press

Baby in Kansas City, Missouri, dies after her mother mistakenly put her in an oven

An infant in Missouri died when her mother mistakenly put her down for a nap in an oven, a prosecutor said Saturday.

11 days ago

Former Arizona Department of Corrections boss Charles Ryan received probation on Feb. 9, 2024. (AP ...

Associated Press

Former Arizona corrections boss sentenced to probation over armed 2022 standoff with police

Former Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan was sentenced Friday to probation for his no-contest plea to a disorderly conduct charge stemming from a 2022 armed standoff at his Tempe home.

12 days ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.

...

Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

...

FanDuel

The 2023 Diamondbacks are a good example to count on the underdog

The Arizona Diamondbacks made the World Series as a surprise. That they made the playoffs at all, got past the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card round, swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS and won two road games in Philadelphia to close out a full seven-game NLCS went against every expectation. Now, […]

Gerald Stern, prize-winning and lyrical poet, dies at 97