introduction for a reading by Gerald Stern

Tom Devaney, Program Coordinator at the Kelly Writers House
March 28, 2002

Gerald Stern writes tender, brave, and robust poems that tell us how it has been with him.

There is a blurb in the cover of his new book American Sonnets, which claims that "Stern writes as if he had to take note of every single thing in the world."

But Stern does not take note of every single thing in the world. Noticing everything may be as unproductive and boring as noticing nothing at all.

Reading American Sonnets I get the sense that Stern is noticing each thing—one at a time—in a various case-by-beautiful-and unpredictable-case. In the complex, open and honestly discriminating poem "Hydrangea" he says, "hate the read carnation, I love the cream/ and when it's cone-shaped I even like the pink."

Stern shows us that the everyday world (its everyday objects) and our everyday lives are dull only to dull people.

Listen to the counterbalancing of mind and body in the poem "All I Did for Him," where the poet wrestles with his dog and realizes that he is dangerously outmatched. Even standing next to, or thinking about an old sink can become an occasion for transformation, compelling Stern to flex, what I've heard tennis players call, "muscle memory," in the poem "Sink."

You can't remember the sink you grew up with
Let alone the sink of the year you were born
Or the next or the next, and it is always surprising
Seeing what an old sink looked like, how shallow
It was, what the spigots were like, how the legs
Were merely sticks of sorts, exposed and sodden,

The poems, and Stern's American Sonnets in particular, remind me of Emerson's thought that "For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing."

He continues, "For the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet."