Poetry Fridays: Gerald Stern

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

The second poem Gerald Stern reads in this video clip from the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival ends with the phrase, “the way my brain works.” Yet it is exactly how his brain works that pulls us into the poems and astonishes us with where he takes us.

He begins with the most mundane objects: coffee pots, wilted rhododendron, a rusted burst-out water pipe, a green cap. For Stern, nothing is insignificant; everything demands our attention and our praise because, as one of his book titles instructs us: Everything Is Burning. In the act of cherishing this transitory world, he stumbles over human ignorance, cruelty and greed, and rages against them. But it is the rage of one who refuses to abandon his faith in our capacity for joy. Stern may be our one true ecstatic poet, for he will praise what most of us abandon and neglect.

And he does this with great humor and irony. But Stern’s irony has little in common with that praised in much of the poetry of the last century. He does not use it to gain distance from his subject, or to allow the reader to feel superior to human emotion. His irony is like that in King Lear. It is awful and awe-full.

Lear does not see the truth until Cordelia is dying. We know it is too late to matter, to change anything, and yet, like Lear, we lean forward, hoping against hope she will breathe. In “Asphodel,” the speaker, after a lifetime that has spanned World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, both Iraq invasions and the war in Afghanistan, refuses to believe it should take a lifetime “just to hate one of their dumb butcheries.” And yet, because it is the last line of the poem, we know it does, and it has. The aged veteran we meet in the poem, wearing his Korean War cap, which we would assume is a sign of pride and patriotism (Is it?) calls that war stupid and useless.

In “The Dancing,” the speaker and the reader share the historical knowledge that creates the terrible irony that the small family dancing so riotously in their small apartment in Pittsburgh in 1945 know nothing of the “dancing” of the families dying in gas chambers across the sea. In a few short lines Stern has painted that small family with such loving detail they come alive for us. They become every family we did not see because they were vanished in the Holocaust.

This Time: New and Selected Poems offers a generous selection from Gerald Stern’s first seven books of poems. Save the Last Dance is his most recent collection.

In case you wondered: Stern’s “Here’s Eddy” during his opening remarks is his noticing his old friend Edward Hirsch in the audience.

Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead.

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The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark is October 7 – 10!
For more information, visit the Poetry website.

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