NEW YORK — 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.”
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