The antics of Hurricane Floyd did not keep renowned poet Gerald Stern away from Washington College for long. Originally scheduled to read his work on Thursday, September 16 at 8:00 p.m. in the Sophie Kerr room, the poet postponed his trip in the face of threatening weather. Stern instead visited the campus Tuesday, September 28 - same time, same place. The last minute change in agenda did little to hinder the enthusiasm of the poet's audience.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Stern considers himself an urban poet. He has taught at Temple University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Iowa. His first book of poems, Pineys, appeared in 1971. Stern has since written twelve more books of poems, including his most recent, This Time: New and Selected Poems. The poet is due to have another book published in March of 2000, entitled Last Blue.
Stern is the recipient of many literary awards, including the American Poetry Review Award and the Melville Caine Award from the Poetry Society of America. His work has appeared in such periodicals as the New Yorker, the Nation, and the Paris Review.
Professor Robert Mooney gave a brief introduction of the poet, stating that, "What makes Gerry Stern's poetry so unique is the way in which it rides on an exuberance that is forgetful of suffering." Stern then led into his discussion by quoting T.S. Eliot, stating that he would only talk for 45 or 50 minutes "because mankind cannot bear too much reality."
Proving the apparent entertainer from the beginning, Stern mixed plenty of humorous anecdotes with his poetry. His presentation first centered around poems from This Time, the 1998 winner of the National Book Award for Poetry.
Stern's first poem, entitled "Oskar," was about a stuffed squirrel that the poet had as a small child. He then read another poem involving a squirrel, called "I Remember Galileo," preceding it with the humorous remark that "I should just read squirrel poems tonight."
Stern grinned and explained that his next piece, "Nice Mountain," was a birthday poem for himself.
Much of Stern's discussion centered around religion and the poet's light-hearted but respectful take on the subject. After affirming that "I'm Jewish, so I should read a Jewish poem," Stern digressed by saying, "Did you hear that the Pope declared the other day that Heaven and Hell are metaphors?" A point of amusement, he continued his presentation by reading "The Jew and the Rooster Are One," about Chaim Soutine's painting "Dead Foul."
Stern followed with "Barrel," "a more gentle poem" about an imaginary love affair between his mother, who died in 1993, and composer Aaron Copland of the same age.
"Lilacs For Ginsberg" was an elegy for Allen Ginsberg, and Stern described his poem "Memoir" as "really cruel, mean, vengeful, horrible, murderous."
Stern then read poetry from his upcoming book Last Blue. He began with two poems about the Pamet River, one entitled "Drowning On The Pamet River," the other called "Pamet Harbor."
Stern followed with the poem "Paris" and another entitled "Short Words." His poem "Egg Shells" was an elegy for the poet Larry Levis, who died at age 50.
Finally, Stern read the title poem of his work-in-progress, "Last Blue." The poem dealt with the many meanings of "blue," its color and the feeling it implies. The description culminated with the last line, illustrating the color as "Everything living."
It was apparent that Stern's audience enjoyed the poet and his work. Jason Perrone explained that this was the second reading he has been to this year and felt it the better of the two. He also said that he is interested in writing poetry and thought Stern gave good insights.
"I really enjoyed him," sophomore Megan Horowitz commented. "I think he was the best poet I've seen here." Horowitz went earlier in the day to pick up Stern from the train station.
Senior Laura Sauter concurred with Horowitz. "He's extraordinarily entertaining, one of the most entertaining poets I've ever met," Sauter said.
Stern himself was very pleased with his audience. He called them "terrific, very attentive," and commented that he is always enthusiastic when reading before a good audience.