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AN INTERVIEW WITH GERALD STERN Gerald Stern The Poetry of Constant Renewal and Celebration: An Afternoon's Chat with Gerald Stern / Sanford Pinsker I love the weeds— I dream about them— grass clogging the ditches, mustard sleeping in the ground— I love their stubbornness and secrecy . . . —from "The Weeds." This is a locust tree, dying of love, waiting one more time for its flowers to come, regretting its life on the stupid river, growing more and more Jewish as its limbs weaken. —from "Four Sad Poems on the Delaware.' Raubsville, Pennsylvania, is six miles south ofEaston, on the Delaware River. It is at one and the same time a rural village and a commuter's hop to either New York or Philadelphia. Raubsville simply never made up its mind; along Canal Road you can choose to look out at the sprawling Delaware or up the tow path toward the canal. Most of the houses lie in the tiny strip ofland between. All ofwhich is to suggest that Raubsville is a nearly perfect embodiment of Gerald Stern's mythos. He is unashamedly bookish, at the same time he is free-swinging; halfbourgeois, domesticated man, halfproletarian hero and aging Beatnik. No wonder he teaches at a two-year college and dresses like a lumberjack. Admittedly, these are surface impressions. Sweeping generalizations are even more dangerous, but let me risk a modest one to begin: America divides its poets into two, widely separated categories— those who die tragically in their youth and those who threaten to live on forever. Between these poles of ragged-out, suicidal energy and gray-haired wisdom, yawns that nebulous space known as middle age. As the myth would have it, poetry can tell us very little about what it is like to be a mature adult. Only light verse, a la Judith Viorst, dares to deal with the crises of forty. Gerald Stern's poetry suggests otherwise. His congenial subject is the left-over America ofjunk heaps and weeded lots, of broken-down cafeterias and seemingly busted lives. In his best poems these things are both renewed and celebrated. As he says in the concluding lines of "1 Will be a Romantic": A gull will carry my bulging eye to a clean and brilliant place in the fields of guano. I will be enriched. The Missouri Review · 55 Moreover, this is a vision— and a voice— that came late: I didn't start taking myselfseriously as a poet until the white began to appear in my cheek. All before the amusement and affection. —from "The Bite." Gerald Stern is that rarest of creatures— a likable Romantic. His vision is serious without waxing solemn, comic without descending to the trivial. Very often his poetry begins in postures of exaggerated loss, as if the collective moment were too much for him. In short, he can register High Intensities with the best of our latter-day Romantics; he, too, finds his subject in a lyrical voice's relationship with the World's body. A strange power, as elemental as Nature itself, bursts the poems forth. In an older sense of the word, he is possessed. What Stern adds, however, is a sense ofHistory, a realization that, at long last, he has looped back to make touch with an almost forgotten, but essential, self. That, and a gritty sense of particulars help to strike the right metaphysical balance: I amfinally readyfor the happiness I spent my youth arguing and fighting against . . . I am going to live again on four dollars a day in the little blocks between 96th and 116th. I am going to follow the thin line of obedience between George's Restaurant and Salter's Books . . . I will drift off again to Bickford's and spend my life in the cracked cups and the corn muffins . . . On lucky afternoons the sun will break through the thick glass and rest like a hand on my forehead. I will sit and read in my chair; I will wave from my window. (from "At Bickford's") A good poem overcomes our skepticism; a great poem transcends it. If we begin a Stern poem wondering if its sense of world-weariness is justified, we...


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