Gerald Stern, award-winning and lyrical poet, has died at the age of 97

NEW YORK — Gerald Stern, one of the country’s most beloved and acclaimed poets, who wrote with spirited melancholy and earthy humor about his childhood, Judaism, mortality and the wonders of the contemplative life, has died. He was 97.

Stern, New Jersey’s first poet laureate, died Thursday at Calvary Hospice in New York, according to his longtime partner Anne Marie Macario. A statement from Macari, released Saturday by publisher WW Norton, did not include a cause of death.

The bald, rotund Stern, winner of the 1998 National Book Award for the anthology “This Time,” has sometimes been personally mistaken for Allen Ginsberg and often compared to Walt Whitman for his lyrical and sensual style and gift for marriage. physical world into the larger cosmos.

Stern was shaped by the harsh urban environment of his native Pittsburgh, but he also identified strongly with nature and animals, marveling at the “power” of a maple tree, comparing himself to a hummingbird or a squirrel, or finding the “secret of life” in a dead animal on the road.

A lifelong agnostic who also fiercely believed in “the idea of ​​the Jew,” the poet wrote more than a dozen books and described himself as “partly comedic, partly idealistic, tinged with irony, tainted with mockery and sarcasm.” In poems and essays, he wrote with particular intensity about the past—his immigrant parents, long-lost friends and lovers, and the stark differences between rich and poor and Jews and non-Jews in Pittsburgh. He considered “One Thing in Life” from the 1977 collection “Lucky Life” to be the poem that best defined him.

___

There’s sweetness buried in my mind

there is water and behind it a small cave

there are mouths speaking Greek

This is what I keep to myself; to which I return;

the one thing no one else wanted

___

He was over 50 years old before he won any major awards, but he was often quoted in the latter half of his life. In addition to his National Book Award, his honors included being a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1991 for “Leaving Another Kingdom” and receiving such lifetime achievement awards as the Ruth Lilly Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award. In 2013, the Library of Congress awarded him the National Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Award for “Early Collected Poems” and hailed him as “one of America’s greatest poet-proclaimers in the Whitmanian tradition: with moments of humor and whimsy, and with enduring generosity, his work celebrates the mythologizing power of art.” ”

Meanwhile, he was named New Jersey’s first Poet Laureate in 2000 and inadvertently contributed to the position’s rapid demise. After serving his two-year term, he recommended Amiri Baraka as his successor. Baraka sparked furious outrage with his 2002 poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which claimed Israel had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks the previous year. Baraka refused to resign, so the state decided not to have another laureate.

Born in 1925, Stern did not recall any major literary influences as a child, but spoke of the lingering trauma of the death of his older sister Sylvia when he was 8. He would describe himself as “a thug who hung out in the lobby pool and got But, he told The New York Times in 1999, he was a well-read criminal who excelled in college. Stern graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in political science and a master’s degree in comparative literature from Columbia University. Ezra Pound and WB Yeats were among the first poets he read closely.

Stern lived in Europe and New York during the 1950s, eventually settling in a 19th-century house near the Delaware River in Lambertville. His creative development came slowly. It was only in his spare moments in the army, in which he served briefly after the Second World War, that he had the “sweet idea” of writing for a living. He spent most of his 30s working on a poem about the US presidency, “The Pineys”, but despaired that it was “indulgent” and “tiring”. As he neared his 40s, he worried that he had become a “forever-old student” and an “forever-young instructor”. Despite his midlife crisis, he finally found his voice as a poet when he realized he had “taken the easier road” than he should have.

“It also had to do with the realization that my protracted youth was over, that I would not live forever, that death is not just a literary event, but very real and very personal,” he wrote in the essay “Some Mysteries.” published in 1983. “I was able to surrender and finally become myself and lose my shame and pride.”

His marriage to Patricia Miller ended in divorce. They had two children, Rachael Stern Martin and David Stern.

Stern mostly avoided topical poems, but he was a longtime political activist whose causes included desegregating a swimming pool in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and organizing anti-apartheid readings at the University of Iowa. He taught at several schools but was very skeptical about programming and academic life. At Temple University, he was so enraged by the school’s decision in the 1950s to build a twenty-foot brick wall separating the campus from nearby black neighborhoods in Philadelphia that he decided to climb the wall on his way to class.

“The institution subtly and insidiously affects you in such a way that even when you seem to have freedom, you become a servant,” he told the online publication The Rumpus in 2010. “Your main problem is getting promoted to the next thing. get invited to a picnic. Or get tenure. Or lie down.”

In addition to Macari and his children, Stern is survived by grandchildren Dylan and Alana Stern and Rebecca and Julia Martin.

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