Marissa Hank ’20
On Oct. 25, renowned poet Gerald Stern held a poetry reading at Smith to create publicity for his new book, “Galaxy Love,” being released next year. At ninety-one, Stern has written over twenty books of poems and essays and continues to lighten up a room with his sarcastic humor. He was a finalist in 1991 for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his book “Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems.” In 1998 he received the National Book Award for Poetry for “This Time: New and Selected Poems.” New Jersey Governor, Christine Todd Whitman, appointed Stern as the state’s first poet laureate in 2000.
Gerald Stern attended the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University to receive his undergraduate degree in English and worked on his post-graduate study at the University of Paris from 1949 to1950. Stern has taught at Temple University, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the co-founder of New England College’s Master of Fine Arts Program in Poetry. Currently Stern is serving as a distinguished poet-in-residence at Drew University’s low-residency MFA Program in Poetry, which began in January 2009.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Polish and Ukrainian parents, Stern’s poetry references his all-American, working class upbringing and his Jewish heritage. According to an interview in the journal “Willow Springs,” “His work […] points to a world of experiences beyond American borders and transcendent of temporal limits. Stern has lived in this rich world, and his poetry calls attention to its failures, beauties, and curiosities without fear, [or] shame.”
Even though Stern does not declare himself an internationalist, he does identify with Eastern European poets. In the same “Willow Springs” interview, Stern stated that he does view himself as “somewhat of a foreigner.” This outsider status permeates throughout his poetry, even though he has stated that he rarely thinks of himself as a Jewish writer.
As Stern walked to the podium on Tuesday night, his sense of humor immediately made the audience laugh, as he sarcastically commented how the staircase leading to the stage wasn’t made for old men. This humor lasted throughout the night as he joked about his inspiration for poems and smacked the microphone as it got in the way. Listening to him read his poetry, felt as though the audience members were his lifelong friends.
Stern read twenty-one poems ranging from old works, to recent poetry, to poems from his new book. A few of the poems he shared were “Gracehoper,” “The Dancing” and “Last Blue.” The theme of internationalism is prevalent in the selection of works he read, allowing his poetry to reflect his cultured philosophies. The tone of Stern’s poetry is chatty and somewhat streetwise, yet also profound. Poet Toi Derricotte perfectly remarked on Stern’s poems saying, “Their lyrical ecstasies take you up for that moment so that your vision is changed, you are changed. The voice is intimate, someone unafraid to be imperfect.” Stern’s poems are honest and erupt with emotion about the human experience.
After the reading, everyone left ready to fall in love with Gerald Stern’s new book, which will be released in the spring. One audience member thanked Stern during the book signing, commenting that she was grateful that her first time hearing his poetry was at a live reading. For those who missed this event, it is not too late to go online and read some of Stern’s massive collection of works. You won’t be disappointed!