The Final Vocabulary of Gerald Stern
It was Kafka who remarked that in the last analysis, when all is said and done, life isn't
ironic. Sadly, I think it was an intuition of this sort that fueled the greatly gifted David Foster Wallace's
wariness of his own talent for the ironic turn and of his generation's interest in recentering literature. What
I mean is that there has been a perceptible wish to reach for the reset button and refashion serious literature
as a species of authenticity (a thesis), rather than let it be one more ironic "take" on some prior and
illusory authenticity (an antithesis). In a larger senseand it is always in the larger sense that the truth
of Kafka's aside takes holdAmerican literature (including poetry) has been seen as having succumbed too long
to the tractor-pull of irony. And yet why not let that tractor do its work? Irony is, after all, a defense
against the fear that we may be finally incapable of tragedy. At the same time, as ironists have aimed dart after
dart at literature's many presumptions, those who allow the occasional nod toward the old belief system have been
stigmatized as traditionalists in the bad sense, as benighted Sad Sacks of the cultural right. Gerald Stern's
example rejects the injustice of such a claim on its face; as for the assigning of poets into the camp of the
In Richard Rorty's terms the loss of irony is tantamount to writing in one's "final vocabulary," that
end-point of expressiveness where there is no way to pass the buck along: things are as they are, a situation
that would have delighted Tolstoy, for whom rhetorical shenanigans were a kind of moral failing, a refusal to
insist things be what they were, rather a push that they stand for other things (and as for the leftovers: under
the rug!). In the final vocabulary, we are surrounded only with what we hold to be true, with what we really
believe: hence, no irony, since irony is just passing the buck of meaning. It is as if Stern's poems are all
written in his final vocabulary: they are what they are, and you cannot imagine that they could be something
else. That's why he's able to get away with nostalgias another poet couldn't presume to express without inviting
knowing jeers. I wonder, reading much contemporary poetry, how much of it could have been otherwise (often,
how much of it should have been otherwise). When I read Gerald Stern I don't wish any of it could have been
otherwise, although I occasionally chafe that some of his poems seem pieces ticking toward one grand, baggy
symphony that we can't yet see, what with our being, so to speak, on the inside.
Having situated his poems in the context of final vocabularies, I should turn around and point out that perhaps
even this is the very illusionthe illusion that poetry deals in final vocabulariessuch poetry seeks
to overcome. Why? Because once Gerald Stern transposes himself to the page, he becomes "Gerald Stern,"
a larger-than-life character weeping, trembling, decrying the unjust, the cruelty and coarseness of existence, but
praising the natural, the beautiful, the cultured, the steadfast. His are also the intellectual heroes, as if
culture is for him one of those key threads that link otherwise temporally and geographically discrete human
purposes: individual threads, yes, but rope all the way down. We have seen such self-branding in terms of absurd
expansiveness in Whitman, but we have also seen it in terms of more buffo limitations with poets such
as Paul Zimmer. The virtue of creating a character of oneself is that one no longer has to maintain a respectable
relationship to fact. After all, "fact" is just a state of affairs uncomplimented by the warmer breezes
of truth, and so not being tied down to that is no biggie. On the other hand, the temptation, as with any persona,
is to commend oneself to the clouds. This Stern avoids, while indulging in effusiveness, sentimentality, excessive
pity, all the good stuff on whose ridiculous petards lesser poets are more or less continually hoisted. How many
times do we find him trembling and weeping, clutching his and others' sorrows? Or launching apostrophes to the
air? How many times do we find Stern dutifully observing his own movements, as if the registration of his passage
in space and time were of significance in addition toor beyondthe sanctions of history and place? C.
K. Williams, in a fine observation, mentioned how ordinary our collective passage was before Stern's poems came
along to "exalt" it. And the fact is that in most cases the effects of these exaltations are bumps: we
are goosed into momentarily waking from the dream of subjectivity long enough to see Pittsburgh. Yet Pittsburgh
is Pittsburgh, quite apart from anyone's benediction or nostalgia. Bly spoke of a kind of versifying he called
the "I-do-this, I-do-that- poem." For Bly the designation was self-deprecating; for Stern it is
reenactment, and reenactments rewrite time in a way that favors the protagonist-actor-poet at the expense of
history. For though it (history) has shot its bolt, yet it curiously returns to take a bow in Stern's poems. The
figure of the poet absent of irony dignifies the time that lurches forward as much as the time that goes
nowherewhich is much of the time. Thus it would require a persona drenched in nostalgias to make sense of
the times in which it set about doing this-and-that. At the same time, time renders the person, as well as the
persona. Stern comes from that long line of Romantic seers, the smell of Eden still fresh in their shirts, who
know to train the political eye into the not-yet, into what occurs after the book.
As he tells us in a lovely poem about W. H. Auden, Stern suffered from years of neglect, but it was a particular
kind of suffering:
. . . I would have to wait for ten more years
or maybe twenty more years for the first riches
to come my way, and knowing that the stick
of that old Prospero would never rest
on my poor head . . .
("In Memory of W. H. Auden")
Perhaps poets place too much significance in the laying-on of hands, but even in the absence
of this benediction, there is something to commend invisibility, something touching the growth of feelings, provided
it be temporary:
I think of Gilbert all the time now, what
we said on our long walks in Pittsburgh, how
lucky we were to live in New York, how strange
his great fame and my obscurity . . .
("The Red Coal")
Many people have noted a similarity of project between the Stern and Whitman personas, and Stern
has cautioned readers not to make too much of the similarity. He is right to do so. Whereas Uncle Walt is a
census-taker, filling up a roster with what he dreams our democracy will be, Stern is a hoarder of memories who
suggests that, notwithstanding the fact that all sweetness is snatched untimely from life, there is a beauty that
continues after-the-fact. And this beauty must stand to evoke forgotten bliss and overwritten painthe bliss
of love and family; the pain of war, separation, and death. While both are rhetorically sweeping, one beauty sways
outward, the other inward: one is centrifugal, the other centripedal.
To be true, the fullness of the human must encompass weakness and failure, loss, pain and incapacity. This is but
one reason why a poet is the opposite of a general, who in many other marshaling respects (s)he may resemble. These
conditions are also remote to the ironist, whose preferred road leads to nihilism. Embracing the powers of the weak
is one of Stern's specialities. It allows him to maintain an often inflated persona because the character that
"Stern" is becomes larger-than-life by carrying all of life, things insignificant or regrettable, as well
as laudable and traditionally important. As a result, he finds his own mind reflected not in empirical models with
which most are familiar: the blank sheet, the scientific theory, the ratiocinations that lead inexorably to powerful
conclusions at the expense of freedom, imagination, and love. Thus the discarded, the invisible, and the minor
provide him with a more fully human image than an idealism that would allow him to go "from strength to
strength." In "I Remember Galileo," he refuses to identify with the master power-strategies of
knowledge, preferring an image of the confused and weak, at whose expense such knowledge is mounted:
I remember Galileo describing the mind
as a piece of paper blown around by the wind,
and I loved the sight of it sticking to a tree
or jumping into the backseat of a car. . . .
but yesterday I saw the mind was a squirrel caught
Route 80 between the wheels of a giant truck,
dancing back and forth like a thin leaf,
or a frightened string, for only two seconds living
on the white concrete before he got away,
his life shortened by all that terror, his head
jerking, his yellow teeth ground down to dust.
Having found the image of his mind, a thing closer to the animal than to a machine for abstract
procedures, the speaker has a "eureka" moment and breaks, as he often does, into apostrophe, which is
tantamount not only to having discovered something to say, but something to present to his "wild God" as
acknowledgment of hisand ourhumanity:
O philosophical mind, O mind of paper, I need
finishing his wild dash across the highway,
rushing up his green ungoverned hillside.
As Blake knew, animals are a part of our humanity as much as humans are a part of the general
creaturehood. In fact, it makes more sense to turn "humanity" into a big tent than to extol virtues of
creatureliness among humans. Only people fail in offices of love and moral deportment: animals, we recall, were
exempt from the effects of the Fall. Meanwhile, when it comes to being brutes, no one scores like good old
homo sapiens. Upon this thought, Stern has excelled in reinstituting the force of pity, that old-fashioned
and yet not superannuated word.
You who knelt on the frozen leaves,
you know how dark it got under the ice;
you know how hard it was to live
with hatred, how long it took to convert
death and sadness into beautiful singing.
When Stern arrived on the national scene in 1977, it was almost as if, in spite of Wright,
Levine, Hugo, Simpson, and their confréres, no none had ever trained American poetry continuously on
defenselessness, not as per victimhood, but as per virtue and beauty. Hence the rich title of his most-anthologized
poem, the road-kill masterpiece, "Behaving like a Jew":
I am going to be unappeased at the opossum's
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
The unforgettable final image of "the little dancing feet" identifies the lowly
opossum's suddenly stilled movement with the possibility implicit in the "dancing" squirrel of the mind
in "I Remember Galileo." The bodies of animals figure prominently in Stern's poems, but none more
hauntingly than "The Dog," which is itself a haunting, the canine in question speaking posthumously to
the same reader that would witness the shock of the squirrel and the mute opossum pulled from the "greasy
highways." This is a lot of disbelief to suspend, but that overhead is, you might Say, the degree of
difficulty whose overcoming will win something not at all unlike belief to accompany appreciation (for appreciation
in this kind of poetry will not suffice). The poem is also "Behaving Like a Jew" written from the
non-human point of view:
What I was doing with my white teeth exposed
like that on the side of the road I don't know,
and I don't know why I lay beside the sewer
so that lover of dead things could come back
with his pencil sharpened
The dog'sand Stern'ssly reference to the poet as a "lover of dead things"
paints elegy with the same quizzical brush as any deathly activity. It is not that we die, but that we know we do,
that brings our fallen experience close to the tragic, which becomes a possible ground, both for self-understanding
and for love, even if these things are never realized. The dog's slightly different understanding of mortality
throws the poet, the object of the dog's observations, into relief:
I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror
of smelland sightis overtaking him;
I know he has that terrified faraway look
that death bringshe is contemplating.
The speaker then tips his hand (or paw) in one of those cascades of emotion for which Stern is
great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me,
give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember
the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive
the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity.
How could there be enough?
The dog instructs the teacher, the poet, in a way that suggests, in relating the lesser to the
greater, the relationship of the human to the divine. We may be a dog's divinity, but as our creature, the dog is
ours by virtue of having given up his wildness. Yet he stands to teach us about our condition, and that teaching
is greater than the "little tricks" and domestication for which we congratulate ourselves and our new
I have exchanged my wildnesslittle tricks
with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is
I am a rampant horse, am a lion,
I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth
as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and
The final image, from the perspective of the ground (and soon, the ditch), finds the poet
isolated in the tower of his inquisitions, and it is questionable whether he can understand the meaning of the
dog's soliloquy. Be that as it may, we are made to understand that our relationship to death is special in one
sense, just as it is utterly ordinary in another. The special sensethat elevates usis also the one that
leaves us distant and, above all, lonely.
The format for many of Stern's poems is syllogistic: if A, then B. This thought-template, if you will, takes two
forms in Stern's work. In "The Dog" and "Behaving Like a Jew," his speakers suggest that if,
say, roads must be built at the expense of innocence, then the poet is going to be forced to resort to ancient
stereotypes, themselves the enemy of bourgeois conformity: in the one case, a curious poet; in the other, a Jew.
Elsewhere, the syllogism takes an even more denuded form:
If you know about the Babylonian Jews
coming back to their stone houses in Jerusalem,
and if you know how Ben Franklin fretted
after the fire on Arch Street,
and if you yourself go crazy when you walk through
the old shell
on Stout's Valley Road,
then you must know how I felt when I saw Stanley's
boarded up and the sale sign out . . .
While these syllogistic wind-ups are sometimes gnomic, they always put forward the suggestion
that intellect is an honorable thing, something learned by means of which which we can conduct our lives. They
also set about establishing a complicit air in which poet and reader are assumed to be part of the same significance
grid and participate in a process during which the reader completes the logical circuit. And so it is with every
poem, you say. Yes, but Stern's repetitions, like a bolero, are designed to pull the reader tighter, to get in the
If you saw me walking one more time on the island
you would know how much the end of August meant
and if you saw me singing as I slid over the wet
you would know I was carrying the secret of life in my hip pocket
("If you Saw Me Walking")
It is the tightness of that grip that lets you know you are in the arms of someone who not only
wants to impart information about himself, about how it is with him, but about how it is within the zone of his
affections. And that, as we see with the animals, is an altogether larger matter.
As with his nostalgia for the texture and feel of culture, particularly in its lost mode, luminescent minds
also populate the place where his imagination and memory cross. Readers are not surprised to find heroes of the
mind and art as varied as Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Coleridge, Dostoyevsky, Schoenberg, Wagner, Stieglitz, Casals,
Debs, Luxemburgthe list is long. In "Fritz," he offers another explanation for this proliferation
of cultural naming. Remembering having seen violinist Fritz Kreisler in Pittsburgh in the 1940s, he wonders,
What have we lost?
Does Kreisler belong to the dead? Was that a world
of rapture that we lived in? In what year
did he fix his imagination. Will there be strings
two hundred years from now? Will there be winds?
The questions are hardly academic, for what is the sense of culture if sense itself, starting
from our forebears and ourselves, changes into unrelatable forms from which we are unintelligible to humans of the
future? But the ace up Stern's sleeve concerns what it is that is rapturous about any worldlost, present,
or to come. Passion is the key because passion is the cure for cold thought. He plays that ace just when it seems
wistfulness and nostalgia will cover the memory of Kreisler in unlikely Pittsburgh, Stern's home town:
I love him
because he strayed from the art, because he finished
his formal training at twelve, because he was
and full of secret humors.
To this the speaker counters,
my journey in 1947. I wrote
four hours a day, I read five books a week.
I had to read five books, I never knew
the right hand was raised like that. I never knew
how trapped the body was. I didn't believe
you gave yourself to the fire like that.
But, like Kreisler("who knew both Schoenberg and
Brahms") he realized that,
awhileif the brain was in the fingersthe heart
was all that made the sound, whatever I mean
by "sound," and that we have to start with feeling
we poor machineswhich stood me in good stead
for ten or twenty years, that and Marlowe's
tears, and Coleridge's soft flight, and Dostoyevski's
rackit was the fire that moved me.
Dedication to art can be its own religion, and one often senses that such is the case with
Stern. For him it is a religion that dovetails with Christ and the Jews and exhortations to pity not by-and-by,
but at all points. In "Soap," the poet who has pulled us so close that we share his breath, both at the
necessary intake and the artificed expression, now takes us on a tour of ultimate inhumanity, but does so by holding
the itemsoapboth dear and familiar. This little commodity, by which we make ourselves clean, was, as
everyone on earth now sadly knows, perverted into one of the last century's most shocking atrocities. Indeed,
turning humans to soap is a kind of inverted triumph of ingenuity, the likes of which evil has been waiting centuries
full of dull tortures to invent.
I buy a black Romanian for my shelf.
I use him for hair and beard,
and even for teeth when things get bitter and sad.
He had one dream, this piece of soap,
if I'm getting it right,
he wanted to live in Wien
and sit behind a hedge on Sunday afternoon
listening to music and eating a tender schnitzel.
There is enough tenderness in the "tender schnitzel" to make it stand
for a whole lament. Unfortunately the schnitzel exists in the imagination only, not in Wien and not in
the mouth of the Romanian, but it becomes all the more desirable and delicious to the extent that the
Romanian has been transmogrified.
I write this poem, for my little brother, if I
should call him thatmaybe he is the ghost
that lives in a place I have forgotten, that dear one
that died instead of meoh ghost, forgive me!
Maybe he stayed so I could leaveoh live forever!
There is no one I know who comes close to the real tenderness of Stern's poems. All that is
lost is what is within reach. His poems ask over and over: what is tenderness worth? Why does pity fail? When
does moaning become music? Surrounded by the dead, he is like those few other poets who have imagined the
underworld and the clamoring desire of the dead to seize the opportunity of their visitor's presence. They would
hear news of the future and to be remembered, to have their limbs rejoined, and their lives resumed. His greatest
blessing: live forever! Notice that it comes straight after "forgive me." But then "forgive
me" means something akin to "bring me back to life." But in this case it's the dead who are being
asked to forgive the living, to bring the living back to life. Stern, who punctured the end-stopped subjectivity
of the 'Seventies by titling his breakthrough book
Lucky Life, finds life lucky in just this
respect: the honor of requesting forgiveness from the dead means too that he writes to the dead. And that is the
best way to instruct the future in its obligation not to disappear among in its own tempting lotus-eaters, its own