Gerald Stern got a standing ovation just by walking onto the stage last Tuesday night at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland.
Fans of the venerated 90-year-old poet, a Pittsburgh native, enthusiastically welcomed Stern as he returned to his hometown to deliver a reading of his work, which spans eight decades, and to celebrate the official opening of the Gerald Stern Papers at the University of Pittsburgh Libraries.
“I am real touched by this whole thing,” Stern said earlier in the day at Pitt’s Hillman library, as he viewed the 13 cases exhibiting a lifetime of original manuscripts, drawings, posters advertising his readings and photographs of his family extending back to his childhood days growing up on Wylie Avenue in the city’s Hill District and later in an apartment on Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill. “This feels terrific.”
All the papers in the exhibit come from Stern’s private collection, according to Jennifer Needham, Pitt’s library archivist. The exhibit is arranged chronologically “following the trajectory of his life,” she said.
The exhibit illuminates the significant influence of the city of Pittsburgh, as well as Stern’s Jewish heritage, in his work. He alludes to his geographical and cultural roots often — sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly.
“They are in my blood,” Stern said in an interview. “I hardly even realize it. But looking at it, I realize how much Pittsburgh is in those books, even if I didn’t mention the city.”
References to climbing hills, he said, and crossing bridges all stem from his formative days in the Steel City. Some of his most vivid memories are of the woods and forests of Pittsburgh, which were widespread throughout the area.
“Wherever you lived in Pittsburgh,” he recalled, “you always had access to the woods. That was lovely. We would get away from the city. We just lived in the woods.”
Stern is the author of 16 books of poetry, one collection of personal essays and one verse play. He was older than 50 when his first book to receive critical attention was published. Since then, he has given countless poetry readings and lectures throughout the United States and Europe and conducted several poetry workshops. He has won numerous prestigious honors and prizes for his work and was the first Poet Laureate of New Jersey and Chancellor of the American Academy of American Poets.
“Gerald Stern is a poet of brilliance and heartbreaking compassion,” said local poet Jan Beatty, a teacher in Carlow University’s MFA program. “Born in the Hill District, he is of Pittsburgh — he knows the soot from the mills and he knows the crimes of the Carnegies and the Fricks. His work takes us each time to the elusive inner world of knowledge — the body and its devastating emotional life. Stern has made us all better poets and better humans.”
Stern was born in Pittsburgh in 1925 to Jewish emigrants from Ukraine and Poland. When he was about 6 years old, his family moved from the Hill District to Beechview and became members of Beth El Congregation. They moved to Squirrel Hill a few years later; Stern celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Shalom and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in 1942. He received a Bachelor of Arts from Pitt in 1947 and a Master of Arts from Columbia University in 1949.
While he recalls rampant anti-Semitism growing up in Pittsburgh, he prefers to focus on fonder memories of his youth in Squirrel Hill.
“South of Forbes Street then was Jewish, and north of Forbes was goyishe,” he said. “And it was a nice neighborhood to grow up in. There were two or three movie houses, and restaurants and so on.”
His family was not particularly religious, he said, and spoke English without an accent.
“They only spoke Yiddish on Sunday mornings when they fought,” he said.
Still, his ties to his heritage are strong. The nonagenarian, at once gracious, witty and sagacious, peppers his speech with words from the mamaloshen, and might be mistaken for anyone’s zaydie. He is unassuming yet has created a body of work that belies his manner and appearance.
He still writes, all the time.
“It’s all I do,” he said.
In a phone interview after he returned home to New York City last week, the poet recounted his many pieces about the Shoah and his relatives who were murdered by the Nazis.
“If you have room, you may want to print a short poem of mine called ‘The Dancing,’” Stern suggested. “It’s a Holocaust poem. It’s pretty good.”
Stern’s reading at the Carnegie Library was the launch of a new series entitled “Poets on Tour,” which will bring several poets to Pittsburgh in the next few months with readings free of charge to the public.
(reprinted with permission)
In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a post-war Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel’s “Bolero” the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop — in 1945 —
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing — in Poland and Germany —
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.