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Poet Gerald Stern Looks Back on a Career Spent Reading and Writing

April 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks with Gerald Stern, one of America's most acclaimed poets. At 87, Stern received the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress for his collection, "Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992." Stern reflects on his working class upbringing and 70 years of writing verse.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we talk with one of the country’s most acclaimed poets, Gerald Stern, as he looks back at more than 70 years of writing verse.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation, part of our occasional series on poets and poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 87, Gerald Stern has been writing poetry a long time and has been one of the nation’s most honored poets. Now he’s received a new honor for a collection of some of his earliest works.

The prestigious Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress is given for the most distinguished book of verse published in the last two years. Stern won for his “Early Collected Poems.” His newest book is called “In Beauty Bright.”

And welcome to you.

GERALD STERN, Author, “Early Collected Poems”: Hi, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happened when you look — I want to talk about these early — this early collection. What happened when you looked back at the early poems? What did you see?

GERALD STERN: Well, you know, I paid a lot of attention to it in the last couple of days, because I felt there it was my duty in terms of this prize to read from that book, rather than recent poems.

And what struck me was two things, the overwhelming similarity of what I’m doing now and the overwhelming difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the one hand, on the other hand.

GERALD STERN: In a certain year, ’64/’66, I suddenly developed a voice that I have been happy with ever since. And I have never been left alone. I have never had a time when I didn’t have five or six poems from that day to this where I’m ready to work at …

JEFFREY BROWN: I see. So, in that sense, you feel sort of the same poet.

GERALD STERN: Right, albeit, you know, you write differently when you’re 70 than when you’re 30 or when you’re 80 than when you’re 50.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean? How do you write differently?

GERALD STERN: Well, because you’re closer to death. You’re farther from birth.

Your children, if you have them, are older. You have some money.

JEFFREY BROWN: You grew up in Pittsburgh.

GERALD STERN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You describe walking, walking the streets. You came from a working-class background.

GERALD STERN: And that’s what I did. I walked all the time across the bridges.

JEFFREY BROWN: And …

GERALD STERN: Through the tunnels.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the background wasn’t one of literature and poetry. Right?

GERALD STERN: We didn’t have one book in my house, not one book. And we used to get Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, which was a Hearst paper. And we subscribed to Look magazine. And that was the extent of reading material there, plus a Bible in Hebrew, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when it came to there you were now teaching American literature, and you had to teach yourself in some ways?

GERALD STERN: I was a prisoner of the library.

And I just — just spent hours sitting on the — in the stacks on a lighted floor which gave off some heat in the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh just reading, reading, and reading. And I just — after I graduated from college, and I did with highest honors — I was really a bright student — I wasn’t a major in English. I majored in political science. I was going to be a lawyer.

And I — my dad, my poor dad said, well, what are you going to do? Because I was offered all kinds of scholarships. And I said I’m going to take off a year and read. And that became 10 years. I lived in Paris, New York, and all that stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then a life of reading and a life of writing.

GERALD STERN: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, just bring us up — in our last minute here, like, bring us up to date. I mean, where are you now as a writer, as a poet?

GERALD STERN: In 2012, I had two books published, this book called “In Beauty Bright,” which is a book of poetry, and a book of prose called “Stealing History,” which is published by Trinity University Press. It’s about 300-some pages, 85 short sections.

They’re not essays, but they’re essay-like and they’re almost like prose poems, some of them. And since I have published this book — I counted the other day — I have 63 new poems.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you’re certainly not slowing down?

GERALD STERN: I’m speeding up.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a sense of urgency, or it just happened?

GERALD STERN: Just joy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just joy?

GERALD STERN: And there’s no — joy and sorrow, of course. They go together, and — don’t they?

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess so.

GERALD STERN: And it’s just what I do.

I have another poem again that’s a recent poem. I don’t have it with me. I don’t think it’s in here. It’s called “The Mule.” And I think of myself as a mule with blinders or blinded. Some of them, they actually blind. And they went in a circle pushing against a stone grinding corn, grinding wheat, and, only, I make poems, so I’m a mule.

And that was the metaphor I used in that poem.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well, the honored book is for the “Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992.” The new book is “In Beauty Bright.”

GERALD STERN: “In Beauty Bright.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Gerald Stern, nice to talk to you. Thanks.

GERALD STERN: It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Jeff. It really is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What an inspiration. And you can go to Art Beat to listen to Stern read his poem “The One Thing in Life.”