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Gerald Stern “This Time”

November 23, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The National Book Award for Poetry announced last week went to Gerald Stern for his work This Time: New And Selected Poems. It’s his 11th collection of poetry since 1972.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1925 to immigrant parents, he has spent his life as both poet and teacher. He was a professor at — among other places — the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop for 12 years, until he retired in 1996. He has won many poetry honors, including the Ruth Lilly Prize for Lifetime Achievement, a PEN Award, and the Lamont Poetry Prize.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much and congratulations, Mr. Stern.

GERALD STERN, National Book Award, Poetry: Thank you very much. A pleasure to be here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about your family. Were you encouraged to be a poet as a little boy?

GERALD STERN: No. Not at all. There were no books in my house. I was not discouraged from being a poet. It just never – it was just never brought up. And there was no discussion about literature or writing, or reading. It was just a non-existent subject.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you have mentors?

GERALD STERN: I had absolutely no mentors. I came from nowhere.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell me how you got this voice. How did you become a poet then?

GERALD STERN: When I was – I don’t know – I always – when I was in high school and in the army and in college, I was always writing poetry, and I thought everybody was writing poetry. I just thought it was a normal activity. I was doing the other things – dating, playing football, drinking beer, et cetera, playing pool, but always I was writing poetry. And growing up in Pittsburgh at that time there were no opportunities to meet older poets. There were no workshops. There was no publicity about poetry. So it was a kind of isolation I was in.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read “The Bite” for us. This is partly about you becoming well-known as a poet only in your 40′s.

GERALD STERN: Yes. And it’s a kind of – it’s the first poem in this time, and it’s sort of a descriptive poem, a kind of poem which identifies the whole – the whole work. It’s a short poem.

“The Bite.”

I didn’t start taking myself seriously as a poet until the white began to appear in my cheek. All before was amusement and affection- now, like a hare, like a hare, like a hare, I watch the turtle lift one horrible leg over the last remaining stile and head for home, practically roaring with virtue. Everything, suddenly everything is up there in the mind. all the beauty of the race gone and my life merely an allegory.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain the hare and the turtle for me.

GERALD STERN: Well, that’s, of course, the old allegory, medieval allegory of the race between the hare and the turtle, and the turtle is slow, and the hare is fast, and ultimately, the turtle wins, because he’s steadfast and determined, while the hare is loafing and sleeping and enjoying himself. So, for me, it represented a life in my 20s and early 30s of being a hare, enjoying myself, playing around, maybe indulging myself until in my late 30s I suddenly realized it was a deadly serious race and that the turtle was, in effect, challenging me. There he is with, as I say, one horrible leg lifted over the last remaining stile, s-t-i-l-e – kind of a top rung of fence.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You started that poem, “I didn’t start taking myself seriously as a poet,” and there are a lot of – I noticed a lot of your poems start like this. “I’m picking the roses for next time.”

GERALD STERN: Right.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: “I will have to tell you what it’s like.” It’s like you’re shaking us; pay attention, I’m going to tell you a story. But these are not confessional; they’re not deeply inward.

GERALD STERN: It’s like the ancient mariner, I suppose, who grabs you and says, “Listen, I have to tell you something. I have to explain myself.” I suppose as I’m explaining myself to others, I’m quintessentially explaining myself to myself. These are not poems that are “I think” – I think they are not confessional; they’re not full of pity, self-pity. They don’t relay the adventure of my life. I become, in effect, at the best, representational, so that my life is the reader’s life, that the reader can zero in on those aspects of my life as I reveal them, that he can say, yes, that’s it, that’s what happens to me, that’s true. I’ve been there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There’s another that is exactly what you described, at least it was for me. It’s the first poem I’ve ever seen about a dead animal on a highway, and I wish you’d read it, please.

GERALD STERN: Which one is that you’re talking about?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s the one called “Behaving Like A Jew.”

GERALD STERN: Because I have so many dead animal poems.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s true. You have a lot of interest in dead animals.

GERALD STERN: I apologize to all the dead animals.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But this one really appealed to me.

GERALD STERN: The poem is a little complicated but I’m not going to get into a deep explanation to use our time up, because it also involves Charles Lindbergh, who’s been in the news later, and there’s a kind of negative attitude towards him. It’s called

“Behaving Like A Jew.”

When I got there the dead opossum looked like an enormous baby sleeping on the road. It took me only a few seconds–just seeing him there– with a hole in his back and the wind blowing through his hair to get back again into my animal sorrow. I’m sick of the country, the blood-stained bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles, the slimy highways, the heavy birds refusing to move; I’m sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything, that joy in death, that philosophical understanding of carnage, that concentration on the species. -I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death. I’m going to behave like a Jew and touch his face, and stare into his eyes and pull him off the road. I’m not going to stand in a wet ditch with the Toyotas and the Chevy’s passing over me at 60 miles an hour and praise the beauty and the balance and lose myself in the immortal lifestream when my hands are still a little shaky from his stiffness and his bulk, and my eyes are still weak and misty from his round fingers and – from his round belly and his curved fingers and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What I really noticed about this were those “little dancing feet” and the whiskers – that you’re so specific about it and that’s why you can’t be appeased.

GERALD STERN: That’s what I can’t be what? I missed that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Appeased.

GERALD STERN: Well, yes. And of course, I’m talking – I guess – simultaneously about the opossum and a – a revy – medieval religious leader, with his little dancing feet, and with his black whiskers. I suppose I’m doing both things simultaneously.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have – in your poems there are many poems about the Holocaust. This is something – there’s a great sense of loss in all of your work, which I think comes from that partly.

GERALD STERN: It partly comes from that. It comes from personal matters – the death of my sister. It comes from family matters – one is not altogether sure. But, of course, loss and the elegy remain the most typical poem of our period. Could I read a very short elegy that I recently wrote?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Very short, yes.

GERALD STERN: Okay. I’ll try to find it real quickly, and because it’s a more recent poem, and believe me, it’s short, because it typifies the sort of thing – this is a short elegy for Larry Levis, a wonderful poet who died at the age of 50 in 1996, and it’s called

“Eggshell.”

The color of life is an almost pale white robin’s green that once was bluer when it was in the nest, before the jay had arranged the straw and warm flesh was in the shell. I found it while doing my forty-five minute walk between two doors beside some bushes and flowers. I put it in one of my pockets keeping some space around it to protect the pale green, an idiot carrying a dead child inside him, something that might have broken out anyway, a blue afterbirth shoved out of the nest. I laid my dead like eggs on the table, twelve tombstones to a box. I buried dread that way, my telephone calls and letters, and on the way I walked into a side yard and straightened a brick-for it was May- and chased a garter snake into his rainspout; and since it was morning and it was hot already I put the eggshell under a leather chair and thought of our trip to New Orleans and used the end of a broom to prop up a rosebush,the way we do, sweet Larry.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Stern, thank you very much. That’s all the time we have. And, congratulations again.

GERALD STERN: Thank you. It’s a joy speaking to you.