Poet and photographer Mark Hillringhouse, who took the photograph above of Gerald Stern at home in Lambertville, New Jersey, tells us it was one of Jerry’s favorites of himself. It shows him at the kitchen table, writing in longhand on looseleaf paper with a Bic pen, which was his practice, and laughing at himself over something he’d just written or said.
Poets who write at the kitchen table don’t draw boundaries between their art and domestic life, often from necessity. They learn to write amidst the everyday sounds, smells, dramas and joys of the family table because a desk in a private study is an unhoped-for luxury. This is quintessential Gerald Stern: Seating himself squarely at the heart of everyday life, working with the same tools he’d probably been using since learning to write as a boy, utterly unpretentious, rooted in practical necessities, always ready to laugh at life and himself, and somehow making something incandescent out of it all, out of everything and anything: potatoes and refrigerators, grackles and squirrels, refinery towers, cars overheating in traffic jams, the azaleas and hydrangeas out the window.
From these mundane materials he forged a unique voice that was at once intimate and vatic, one-part conspiratorial confidante, one-part Biblical prophet. He was a singer of lamentations and an ecstatic; outraged by our capacity for pettiness and meanness and awed by our potential for kindness. He was at once a mourner for the broken-hearted and a celebrant of the joy song can summon in us. To hear him read, as he did during his seven appearances at the Dodge Poetry Festival, is to enter a place where incantation and common speech merge into something new: the poetry of Gerald Stern. He is missed by the past and present members of the Dodge Poetry Program.
–Martin Farawell, Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program Director