A Reading by Gerald Stern
recorded April 26, 2007

Gerald Stern: I may wear my hat for a little bit to celebrate my former orthodoxy. And it’s an honor and a joy to be introduced by my dear friend, whom I don’t see enough in life, David Wojahn, whose work I admire so much, truly admire. We live in this huge country. I guess it’s still a country. It’s nervously held together by the wrong fingers, and we don’t get to see each other much.

I remember from time to time when I went to Greece, all the Greek poets, they have their island. Each one has his or her own island, where they live. Then they all have an apartment in Athens. It’s a small place. Or it could be Israel or some other small . . . you know Jordan, Ecuador. I mean the llamas write poems in Ecuador. And I’ve always envied little countries where you get to see your friends more often than we get to see ours.

And it’s a pleasure for me to be here. The last time I was here in any force was on the death of Larry Levis, whom we all know and loved and celebrate. And Ellen Voigt . . .

I’m looking at my clock only to figure out—hey, because as an old teacher I know what the fifty-minute hour means. So not to be nervous. I’m not Gary Snyder. I’m not going to go on for three hours. I’m not Robert Bly. I’m not going to say, “Do you want to hear that again?” I love Robert.

Where was I? Yeah, so, Ellen and I came down here after Larry died and students were in such shock and some of them are here tonight still I noticed. And we tried to fill in his unfillable shoes by meeting his students and talking to them and nursing them a little bit, nurturing them a smaller bit. I’m so happy to learn tonight that Larry’s presence—Mary how did you say was a . . .

Mary Flinn: Street art.

Gerald Stern: Street art. They’re naming pictures, is it, of Larry with lines of his poems here and there. I treasure his memory more and more as the years pass. So many of us knew him well and loved him. And I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with him in, what was for a while my home, Iowa City, and spending long, long evenings with him emptying bottle after bottle. So I’m going to dedicate this reading, if I may, to Larry. And I would read a poem for him called “Eggshell: for Larry Levis, 1946-1996.”

[“Eggshell: for Larry Levis, 1946-1996,” Gerald Stern, This Time: New and Selected Poems, W. W. Norton, 1998.]

I celebrated at the end, there, a trip we took together to New Orleans. He’d never been to New Orleans. We were doing something in Baton Rouge. Larry would get excited. He would jump—Mary Flinn would remember—he would literally jump up and down. And we went to New Orleans, and I had the honor of having him write a poem about me on that visit, in a graveyard. As you know, in New Orleans the graveyards are raised up because of the water. It was all Bush’s fault. Everything is.

I noticed in this poem I was celebrating eggs that come for, whatever reason, or used to come by the dozen. You know, why a dozen eggs? Why not ten eggs? Now they’ve outwitted me and you can get eggs that are eighteen eggs, ten eggs, six eggs. I’m pissed off. They ruined the poems. And I can just see these half-million dollar, million dollar CEO’s sitting at a table, saying:

“I’ve got an idea.”


“Why do eggs have to come 12 to a box?”

“Never thought of that Gus? Why do they?”

“Well they don’t.”

“You’re gonna get a raise. What’s going to happen with you? You’re terrific.”

So now they’re making eggs, you know, you’ve seen them in the supermarket. You can get eighteen eggs, or fifteen eggs or ten eggs. Don’t be deceived; they’re not really eggs. They’re not chicken eggs, anyhow. Twelve to a box. Be loyal. Be loyal to the dozen.

So I’m going to read you, from three or four books, two or three poems from each, ending up with some new poems. And on the way in, I stole from the bookseller back there a book that I don’t have with me.

So let me read, yeah, a couple poems from this long book which is about, you know, seventy-five years of poetry. How about I read a poem called, “Swan Legs.” I always wanted to write a poem called “Swan Lake,” and I never could because it always came out corny, until I was in a doctor’s office and I read about Mao Tse Tung and [his] second visit to Soviet Union, guest of Kruschev, and he was in what used to be called Leningrad, and it described how Kruschev took him to a performance of Swan Lake and so on and so on.

The other fact you should know is that swan was once an animal that we ate. And then during the American Revolution it was a delicacy—or the time of the American Revolution. I mean, Washington, they just ate Hessians. They were terrorists. They crossed the Delaware River near where I lived and killed these poor Germans celebrating Christmas, which was kind of a crime in those days. And they were singing, “Ja, ja, ja, ja, weißt nicht wie gut ich dir bin.” And all of a sudden these terrorists started to kill them. And we celebrate that. We call it, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

[“Swan Legs,” Gerald Stern, This Time: New and Selected Poems, W. W. Norton, 1998.]

And I’ll read one more poem from this book. There’s one here; it’s a love poem. What’s the opposite of a love poem? It’s not a hate poem. It’s when you’re denied love. Well, that’s got to be a species of poem. What shall we call that? Let’s make it up? Loveless? Lovelorn? Hopeless? Lonely? Bitter?

Audience:  Unrequited?

Gerald Stern: Unrequited. Mankind is always unrequited. That’s his fate. Unrequited, “I didn’t get my due! Hey God!” God sits on all the committees that give us awards. We talked about that at supper. Not God. I have a book called, Not God After All. I wish I had a copy of it here.

All right, I’m going to read a poem called, “The Sounds of Wagner.” So when I was twenty years old or so, I was 4-F. I used to have bad eyes and I got an operation a few years ago and now I have good eyes. Though, when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, I was kept out of the Army because of my eyes. Finally, they admitted me when they lowered all the standards, when the War was over, you know, when all the sissies were going to the War and so-on. My friends were all home, all the heroes, picking up the girls, and there I was going in with eighteen year olds, seventeen year olds and everybody laughing. But before that I was a student. I was able to go to college, because I was such a terrible student in high school, because there were no men around at the time and I saw a bunch of people on the lawn; they were doing something, It was Pitt University. “What are they doing?” Someone said, “They’re registering.”

So I could put two and two together. One thing I could always do was put two and two together. Five. And so I went over and I registered and I became a student. So I had a girlfriend; her name was Doris. I won’t tell you her last name. It’s Borkin. She had a sister named Naomi and their grandfather was the chief rabbi of Poland. She was supposed to marry a rabbi. She married a cello player. But anyhow, you know in our culture—I lived in Pittsburgh; I was a Jew then. I’m still a Jew, I guess. They say, “Once a Jew, always a Jew.” That’s what I hear. And you know, from my culture, maybe other cultures are like [this] for all I know. The girls, they would go only so far; they wouldn’t go all the way. You know what I mean by, “all the way.” Not to somebody who was cognate. But here I—one day I walked into the Carnegie library listening room and there was my love. I looked in this little mirror and she was with a cadet, one of these GIs that was going to college at the time, belonged to the ASTP as in Army Specialized Training Corp, ASTP.

His song went like this,

Oh, some mothers have sons in the Army.
Some mothers have sons on the sea.
Oh, take down your service flag mother.
Your son’s in the ASTP.
A     S     T     P.
Your son’s in the ASTP TS.

TS stands for tough shit. So there she was on the floor; you’ll hear the poem.

[“The Sounds of Wagner,” Gerald Stern, This Time: New and Selected Poems, W. W. Norton, 1998.]

She’ll regret it. I’ll show her! Doris. She was a dear woman. Her sister did marry a rabbi. God almighty, had nine kids or something. That’s all rabbis do is they have kids. That’s not quite fair. Mormons do that too.

I’m going to read some poems from this book that’s called . . . is this back there, American Sonnets? I’ll read some poems . . . anyhow. If there was an academic here we’d get into an argument about what a sonnet is. I could have called these American Songs—a sonnet means a little song—and nobody would have given me any grief.

But it was people who were amazed and not counting lines and counting rhymes and talking about the turn and the summary. I mean, Shakespeare himself violated the rules. The Italianate rules. And everybody has violated . . . George Meredith violated. Robert Lowell. I mean, that’s the whole purpose of life to violate rules. Well I’ll read maybe three poems from here. Here’s one called “Winter Thirst.” These were poems I discovered—after I wrote the book—they were all about Western Pennsylvania where I come from. They’re autobiographical. They’re intellectual. And they’re about the winter. None of them are about the summer, that I can remember.

[“Winter Thirst,” Gerald Stern, American Sonnets, W. W. Norton, 2003.]

This is a poem called “The Ink Spots.” That was a group who used to sing when I was kid. I guess everybody knows who the Ink Spots are. If you have any idea, raise your hands. OK. Can you sing a song from the Ink Spots?

If I didn’t know why the roses grow . . .  la da da da da so-on and so-on.

Thing about the dove . . .

It’s about a city called Altoona, Pennsylvania. There’s a horseshoe curve. It’s called, “The Horseshoe Curve.” And I could go on forever about why the Pennsylvania railroad, as it used to be called, why it’s there instead of where it should be and it’s got to do with the greed, selfishness, and criminality of the millionaires who bought up the land and owned the state legislature. But why go into that? See, I know the whole history of Pennsylvania, inside, I’m the only one.

[“The Ink Spots,” Gerald Stern, American Sonnets, by W. W. Norton, 2003.]

There’s always a big discussion going on now about lucidity and obscurity in poetry, and I’m sure you guys go into it a lot here. And everybody has an ax to grind, or two. And those of us who write poetry, namely, practically everybody here, are always happy when we discover a poem that we wrote that really doesn’t make sense and that is good. I mean we can write a lot of poems that don’t make sense that are bad. You can open the Denver Quarterly any day and read that. But what if you write a poem that doesn’t make sense and is good? That’s a delightful experience. I don’t know why. So here’s a poem that doesn’t . . . I guess it . . .  I read this the other night and someone said, “It does make sense.” I didn’t ask him what it was about.

But the first line of the poem was taken from a letter that a poet named Alexandra Lynch—did you ever know her work? She’s a good poet—wrote to me. And I’ll read the poem; it’s called “Dandelions.”

[“Dandelions,” Gerald Stern, American Sonnets, W. W. Norton, 2003.]

I guess that doesn’t make much sense.

One more. How are we doing here? OK, we’re doing good. We’re doing well. Here’s a poem called “Samaritans.” We used to take high school trips.  Everybody’s taken high school trips. This was a . . .  I think we were studying geology and we took a trip and our teacher was old and blind and so we could, you know, make out on the bus. We used to always go to these primitive communities near Pittsburgh where they practiced some kind of fundamental communism. We had a lot of these communities. I mean, not the kind of communism that came later, but where everybody lived equally and nobody . . . they didn’t cohabit and the women lived in dorms and the men here. They grew. They did furniture. I mean different groups that did different things like that.

There was a town where the Samaritans lived, you know who the Samaritans are, don’t you? They were a group living in what is now called the Near East. I like that word. Sometimes it’s called the Middle East, which is near the Near East, and Palestine is around there somewhere. And there was a group there called the Samaritans. They were alluded to very often in the Christian and the Hebrew Bible called mistakenly the Old and the New Testament.

Jesus referred to the Samaritans. They were an accursed race. You’ve gotta have an accursed race. Now, currently it’s the Bangladeshi, but for a while it was the Irish. The Irish were so low in the 19th century that, when there was still slavery going on in this great Republic of ours, there were signs in Boston and New York, “Irish need not apply.” Do you know that? It was great to hate the Irish. I kind of liked it. I was kind of sad when we finally elected an Irish president. And you could no longer “hate the Irish.” Then my son married an Irish woman, and he’s half Irish anyhow. Jesus, what the hell did I? . . .  That’s a poem I’m going to read later about that. So we went on the class trip. We visited the Samaritans who live in Ohio. 

[“Samaritans,” Gerald Stern, American Sonnets, W. W. Norton, 2003.]

There’s a couple of these sonnets there. And I’m going to read this . . . I like to read one longish poem at every reading, and this is the one I’m going to read from the book that I stole back there. It’s called “16 Minutes.” I hope it doesn’t take 16 minutes, and it won’t, don’t worry. I was poet-in-residence at a place called Bucknell in Pennsylvania. It’s in a town called Lewisburg. And there’s a prison at Lewisburg. I drove over to the prison, and I was going to drive in and I got just a voice, just a voice, and it wasn’t God’s voice on Mt. Sinai.

It said, “Don’t go any farther; we have guns trained on you.”

I swear to God. So I turned my car around, and I went the other way. And in this prison, it was a white collar prison of sorts. There were various prisoners who didn’t kill people but they’d you know, spies, I mentioned a lot of them there, some of the prisoners in there, in that prison were really political prisoners. The group of people connected with the Rosenberg’s. The brother-in-law, and Alger Hiss was there. And Wilhelm Reich. Do you know who Wilhelm Reich was? He was a follower of, he was a student of Freud’s, and he came to America and he developed a thing, what was it called? The box? What was it called? Orgone Box. Certain energy got into that box. It was connected with orgasms—you’ve heard of them. I knew people who are devoted followers of Wilhelm Reich. I’m one of them. He was put in prison for not paying taxes, or something like that. The reason they put him there was the government didn’t like the idea of the Orgone Box. I don’t know who was president at the time. Because it was too sexual—something like that. He died of a heart attack in prison.

Well, really I’m in a parking lot and there are two clouds there and for some reason one of the clouds looked like Ireland, and one of the clouds looked like Greenland, and that’s how the poem started. It goes like this:

[“16 Minutes,” Gerald Stern, Odd Mercy: Poems, W. W. Norton, 1995.]

Both cultures are moon worshippers, the Jewish and the Irish. And they both wear shawls and the Jewish shawls are called Tallits. And so on and so on and so on. A lot of those names you don’t know about but they’re all connected with the Rosenburg’s. I read an article in Nation magazine today, an old Nation I took with me on the train. It was about Alger Hiss again. They’re still digging him up, saying,

“Was he innocent? Was he guilty? Was there a pumpkin?”

You know, stuff like that. There’s Alger Hiss. He is disguised as a bottle top. A bottle cap. 

I’m going to read from this book, it’s called, Everything is Burning. And David was kind enough to mention a poem called, “Original Stern Country” and I’m going to read a poem, another poem in this book called “Stern Country”. It’s not derivative Stern Country. It’s just Stern Country. And since many of you are students, or have been students or are studying or thinking about writing I’m going to talk to you about the creative writing process in this short poem: how to teach. So listen carefully. It’s also how to learn.

[“Stern Country,” Gerald Stern, Everything is Burning, W. W. Norton, 2005.]

I’m going to read a poem a little later about meeting a man on the train, last year, on the way to the Virginia Center for the Arts. I wrote a poem there. It’s called, “Aspidel.” It’s about selling flowers on May 30th. Poppies, you know. Start of World War One. People stand in front of banks, supermarkets and they sell poppies. They used to sell them for a quarter. I don’t know what they cost now. A dime? Because death is cheap now. Or life is cheap. It’s like life insurance. They call it life insurance—it’s death insurance. I mean, you don’t call fire insurance, “water insurance.” So why would you call death insurance life insurance? It’s because we lie. Because lying is our national pastime. So we put an expert in lying in the White House—the greatest liar in American history. He’s even greater than Johnson was. It’s an interesting fact.

I’m going to read a short poem about the Spanish-American War. And, I go, I’ve travel[ed] by air, with US Air? All their agents live in Manila.

So I say to them, “So, it’s snowing in Philadelphia. I can’t go that quick.”

They say, “Yes, sir.” They’ve never heard of snow.

Then I say, at the end of our negotiations, “I want to apologize for the Spanish-American war.”

They say, “Oh Thank you, Mr. Stern.”

They have no idea what I’m talking about. You read Mark Twain on the Spanish-American War, and it makes our current commentators look pathetic. He calls us . . . he talked about the beginning of American imperialism. How we went to help, you know, you know the Philippinos then had them get rid of the Spanish for us. And then we turned on them. What the hell? It’s an old game? We learned it from the Mafia? Or maybe the Mafia learned it from America? Who knows? Anyhow, I don’t know why I’m reading this poem. It’s called, “To Say Goodbye to Mother,” no it’s called “May 30th.” There are two poems here. The reason I’m reading “To Say Goodbye to Mother” is there’s a song from the Spanish-American War.

It goes something like this, “To Say Goodbye to Mother, and tell her there’s no other. La Da De De D . . . ” and so-on and so-on.

Yesterday morning I was with a mother of a murdered soldier. A woman who parked in Texas outside of Bush’s ranch. There was a group of us who met on the steps of the Congress, and led by Congressman Kucinich who called for the impeachment of the President and there wasn’t even a mention of it in the New York Times or the Washington Post. There were important people there. I didn’t talk, but there was Elsworth was there, Christopher Hedges, and some important ministers and so on and so on. That’s how you get the news in this country. It’s a first official act because Kucinich introduced a bill, Bill 333 calling for an Impeachment of Bush for specific causes which is an appropriate thing to do. It’s mentioned 18 times in the Constitution: how to impeach a leader. And the last time we did this was two years ago, before the Democrats got into office in Congress, and there were 39 people who signed it.

Nancy, whose picture is in my study, but is coming down tomorrow, said, “Well, we’ve got other business to do first.”

You know, I mean what’s to be done before impeachment? So, I’ll read my May 30th, that little poem.

[“May 30th” appears in Blackbird v2n2, Fall 2003 and is reprinted here. Stern interupts his reading of the poem with commentary. ]

May 30

I had to sit on the steel railroad tracks
to eat my sandwich and you understand I wrapped it
in wax paper since that is as far as I went
in preservation and I remember my serial number
and I was an H . . .

It stood for Hebrew in World War II . . . you were either an H, or a C, or a P. You couldn’t be an A. I mean, H is a language. It’s not a religion. The religion’s not called Hebrew. It’s called Judaism. The stupid government called it H.

                  . . . and I remember my serial number
and I was an H in case somebody murdered me
for that was the day we fanned out in all directions
with poppies in one hand and quarters in the other,
the photograph that of a corporal with his balls blown off.

Now I’m going to read a poem called, “Golden Rule.” I forget where I got the title, but I like it. Golden Rule. It means, you know do unto others as you’re supposed to. And it’s for my blue jay in my back yard.

[“Golden Rule,” Gerald Stern, Everything is Burning, W. W. Norton, 2005.]

That’s a reference there in the last line is to two famous, Jewish sages. One was asked by a pagan, a so-called pagan, can you explain Judaism in one sentence while, standing on one leg, that was it, and he explained the Golden Rule. Do not do unto others as you don’t want to do. That’s one version . . . Do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . . I forget.

Let me read a poem called, “Lilies.” It’s another religious poem. I used to live on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Now I live on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. I lived right off of a Route called 611, which runs from the Pocono Mountains down to Philadelphia. And on Sunday night in the summer there’s a bit of a traffic jam. You know, ten-minute traffic jam. People coming home Sunday night, back to Philadelphia from the Pocono’s. Bitter and angry. Caught no fish. It rained. Their wives didn’t. Not with them anyhow. There’s a reference here to Yeshua whom you guys call Jesus. You may remember those Lily of the Field, they do not spin da da da.

Jesus was saying, “Don’t buy IRA’s” that’s what he was saying, “Because God will take care of you.” That’s what it says. 

[“Lilies,” Gerald Stern, Everything is Burning, W. W. Norton, 2005.]

I’ll read a poem about music called, “Shouldering.”

[“Shouldering,” Gerald Stern, Everything is Burning, W. W. Norton, 2005.]

So I’m going to read some recent poems and then we’ll call it a day, a night. I’ll answer a question or two, if you want to do that. Maybe you’ll buy a book, and I’ll make a nickel. This book is coming out and you know, it takes an elephant’s pregnancy for a book to come out—a year.

I wrote a lot about shoes. I don’t know why. You remember a shoe called, “Thom McCanns?” I sold Thom McCann shoes. When I was young I bought them; they cost $4.99, and I used to always have a sore foot because you know, they were bad shoes, and I always thought that we had new shoes and sore feet. You had that shoe, a month, and when the shoes were broken in it was OK. Until I graduated to Regal Shoes—$5.99, and then my feet weren’t so bad after that. But they used to have X-ray machines. You put your feet in, and you got cancer. They said, the perfect fit, you know.

[“Thom McCann,” Gerald Stern, Save the Last Dance, W.W. Norton, 2008.]