from FIELD, Fall 2013. Gerald Stern: A Symposium
by Gerald Stern
I wanted to know what it was like before we
had voices and before we had bare fingers and before we
had minds to move us through our actions
and tears to help us over our feelings,
so I drove my daughter through the snow to meet her friend
and filled her car with suitcases and hugged her
as an animal would, pressing my forehead against her,
walking in circles, moaning, touching her cheek,
and turned my head after them as an animal would,
watching helplessly as they drove over the ruts,
her smiling face and her small hand just visible
over the giant pillows and coat hangers
as they made their turn into the empty highway.
To read a poem is to read a mind. The experience of reading a good poem has the quality of meeting a person who strikes you immediately as distinct, not the nth iteration of a type. This is what I mean when I tell someone their poem works—it is itself and nothing else. Even though it's made of borrowed things—virtually all words are pinched—it has a shape, an attitude, a vibe I've encountered nowhere else. What we want of being is what we want of art—to be a one-off, to be true. One of the greatest compliments we pay each other: you have a unique voice (and lovely shoes). Voice, fingerprint, signature—all testify to a distinctive self. Voice is self conveyed, is essence given the flesh of words.
I like Gerald Stern's mind. It's the mind of a bear who reads or a flower that talks. It—he—the poems—what's the difference—are always doing and going and falling in love, in love with love, among many other things. If American poetry is a tug of war between the exuberant and the pensive, as it seems to be—we still declare ourselves and each other little Whitmans or Dickinsons—Stern has for decades led the yawpish charge. His poems are immediate in appetite and broad in vision. More than anything, though, they're unique: Gerald Stern is Gerald Stern.
What I've overlooked, though, until now, until setting out to say some small thing about his work, is the intimacy of this poet. A random (really—I'm about to flip through his New and Selected) sampling of Stern's beginnings:
This is too good for words. I lie here naked
listening to Kaiser play.
There are two hundred steps between my house
and the first café.
Little did the junco know who he was keeping company with
I guide my darling under the willow tree
to increase the flow of her blood.
Stern's poetry—which I think of as large (he could be tiny, pocket-sized even, I've never seen the man)—as an advocacy of passion (in the sense of engagement with things and people, thimbles and lovers and operas)—an embodiment of hunger (spiritual, artistic, actual)—is habitually personal and domestic in its facts, in its contexts and actions. In other words, these big poems are small. In other other words, Gerald Stern is a master of the psychic and physical inversion: by looking inside and nearby, he looks at the world.
"Waving Good-Bye" is a dog-eared poem. I come back to it because it moves me, though perhaps more because of why it moves me: inside this tiny moment, there's a largeness of imagination and a desire to use imagination for emotional ends. Stern enters the poem wanting to be changed, to be other in order to understand better who he is. It's a kind of torque he applies, a pure interjection of self, of whim and wish, an unreality grafted to something real. In the personality of those first four lines, I discover a life—not the product of a mind so much as its creation before me. No one else would have written that start, which has the effect of proving Stern's humanity and establishing him as a person to be listened to, someone who has a way of seeing that is unlike but complementary to my own. This matters so much in a poem that ultimately requests that I feel Stern feeling, that I recognize his pain and connect it to some pain in myself.
But the coolest part of the poem is that, in wanting to be un-minded and un-teared, Stern magnifies the sense of loss by very quietly pointing out that loss is not only a human but an animal experience. He's not trying to avoid loss here but to experience it in a purer form—to go back, in a sense, to the start. He wants, if anything, to feel his daughter's departure more deeply, more physically, and to have no choice but to communicate what he's feeling in the most physical terms.
Sometimes I think the real test of the quality of a made thing is if it tells you something about its own nature. A good chair must tell you something about chairs. This poem makes me consider poetry as a struggle against estrangement from our deepest selves, an effort to make the immaterial real—to give flesh, through language, to what we think and feel. To go back to a time—imagined, Edenic as it may be—when we were at ease with ourselves.
Gerald Stern has always had this effect on me, has always pulled me toward his subjects and into the anatomy of what he does. I can't imagine American poetry without him. His poems are not just poems but advocates for poetry.
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Editors: David Young, David Walker
Associate Editors: Pamela Alexander, Kazim Ali, DeSales Harrison
Editor-at-Large: Martha Collins
Managing Editor: Marco Wilkinson