Famous Poet Steals Writers House Show

The Daily Pennsylvanian

Dressed in casual blue jeans, a cherry-red sweater and shoes that combined the looks of hiking boots and bowling shoes, 72-year-old poet Gerald Stern stole the spotlight for one hour Sunday at the Kelly Writers House.

English Professor and poet Bob Perelman introduced Stern as "one of the best known contemporary poets." Among Stern's credits are the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Mellville Caine Award, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

A dynamic and creative force, Stern promised a "gentleman's hour" -- 50 minutes -- and delivered a short yet captivating reading to the packed room. Stern described himself as a native Philadelphian, although he claimed many cities as home.

Most of Stern's poems -- notable for their rich humor and imagery, as well as for allusions drawing on history, literature and the Bible -- focused on these different homes. He began the reading with poems from his books, Bread without Sugar and Odd Mercy, and concluded with new, mostly unpublished pieces.

Stern introduced each poem by explaining its meaning, context and allusions and kept the atmosphere lively with anecdotes and trivia. For example, he noted that Alan Ginsberg always left a one-dime tip at the East Village restaurant where he and Stern used to eat.

One of Stern's most compelling poems, "Ida," refers to his dying mother. Stern prefaced the reading with a few bars of Pavarotti and explained that Ida died at age 93 in 1993 in Florida -- "the ugliest place in the world."

While reading the poem, Stern's thick, gravelly voice described Florida as a "land of discontent, melancholy, horror and palm trees." He portrayed Ida sitting on her bed watching "a fat angel with a beard and a handkerchief in his hand" on her 30-year-old television.

Stern also read what he termed a "mean poem" to ensure that the audience would not think he was a "nice guy."

"It's the worst thing you can say about someone," the poet said. "I'd prefer 'bastard' on my tombstone."

The poem, "Memoirs," employed the sort of raw language and explicit subject matter that is popular in modern culture.

Throughout the reading, Stern spoke with relentless animation and passion, and when asked what propels him to write, he answered, "A faith in your singing -- your belief system" and reminded the audience that "a poem is made up of ordinary things -- words -- as a painting is made up of dirt."

Stern also discussed the unlimited landscape of poetry. He described how poems offer the poet a "second life" where an unreal world or forbidden acts may exist.

Stern -- whose first book of poems was not published until he was 46 -- stressed that a literary career is not easy. He said many poets -- including himself -- have often been forced to work additional jobs. Stern has taught at such schools as New York and Columbia universities.

He advised aspiring poets and writers to "Read, read, read -- good writing comes from good reading."