Tag Archives: Gerald Stern

In Divine Nothingness, Pittsburgh’s Gerald Stern Proves He’s Still Around

One of my very favorite poems is “Lucky Life” by Gerald Stern, born and raised in Pittsburgh and now living in Lambertville, New Jersey.  It is somewhat embarrassing for me to have discovered this well-known poem only two years ago – I mean, it was published in 1977 – but discover it I did, last year, while spending some time down at my beloved Jersey shore. It found me at exactly the most perfect time, as if he was writing directly to me. I thought about it during our vacation this year and I’ve thought about it again, several times over the course of what has been a rather challenging month, personally-speaking.

It’s one of those poems that describes exactly what fellow treasured Pittsburgh poet Toi Derricote means when she says, “Gerald Stern has made an immense contribution to American poetry. His poems are not only great poems, memorable ones, but ones that get into your heart and stay there. ”

How could they not, with lines like these?

“Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?
Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study
the black clouds with the blue holes in them?
Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year?
Will you still let me draw my sacred figures
and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.”
~ from “Lucky Life” by Gerald Stern

Love that. And words like these are what made me pick up Divine Nothingness, Gerald Stern’s latest collection of poetry, published last November.

Divine NothingnessAt 90, this is Gerald Stern’s seventeenth poetry collection and there is a definite sense of the passage of time. Divided into three simple parts (perhaps to symbolize childhood, adulthood, and the final years of life? Or a nod to Pittsburgh’s renaissance and rebirth, as one might interpret “Three Stages in My Hometown”) Divine Nothingness  contains the reflections of a life.

There are the places (‘so let me take you back to the meadow/ where the sidewalks suddenly become a river …”) and the people (“There was a way I could find out if Ruth/ were still alive but it said nothing about/ her ’46 Mercury nor how the gear shift ruined/ our making love ….”) of particular moments experienced during a time gone by. These poems segue into an acceptance of life’s finality and the self that is left behind.

“…and, like him – like everybody – I scribble words
on the back of envelopes and for that reason
and for two others which I’m too considerate to mention 
I’ll be around when you’re gone.”
(from “I’ll Be Around”) 

~ Melissa F.


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3 Poems By Gerald Stern

3 poems logoTomorrow, Thursday June 10th, is the next meeting of the wildly popular, always invigorating 3 Poems By . . . Discussion! This month, we’re discussing poems by native Pittsburgh poet Gerald Stern.

Our selections are:

  • Behaving Like a Jew (Poem is within the article.)
  • Lucky Life
  • Kissing Stieglitz Goodbye
  • bonus poem: The Dancing
  • Listen to Stern give a deeply moving reading of “The Dancing” here. You can find out more about Stern and read examples of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation and Poets.org. You can also revisit Don’s extensive Stern post right here on Eleventh Stack.

    This is our last meeting of 3 Poems By . . . before our summer break, but we’ll see you again in September to discuss Nikki Giovanni. You can view the list of poets we’ve read in the past and will read in the future at the 3 Poems By . . . page on CLP’s website.


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    Gerald Stern Leads a Lucky Life

    It is not often that a feature length motion picture is based on a poem.  Thinking about this, in a different context, I once put together a partial list of movies based poems and it looked like this:

    The Bells
    Casey at the Bat
    The Charge of the Light Brigade
    Gunga Din
    The Man from Snowy River
    The Odyssey
    Old Ironsides
    The Raven
    The Set-Up
    The White Cliffs of Dover
    Wild Party

    Recently, I found a couple of late additions:

    El Cid

    Beyond these classic titles, there have been other movies based on the lives of poets (SylviaIl PostinoBarfly, ByronTom & Viv, Before Night Falls, Stevie, Tales of Ordinary Madness, and Omar Khayyam come to mind), and now there is a new 2010 film, Lucky Life, based on a poem of the same name by the poet, Gerald Stern, and directed by Lee Isaac Chung. As you might imagine, its release is extremely limited and whether it will ever play in Stern’s birthplace, Pittsburgh, is open to conjecture. One can only hope.

    If you’ve never experienced the poetry of native son Stern, you are missing out on something very special, indeed. It is at once down to earth and ecstatic, full of great joy and great sorrow, compassionate and soulful, intense and lyrical, imaginative and celebratory.  If you think you might like a brief, insightful introduction to his work while discussing 3 of his wonderful poems, consider attending our next meeting of the 3 Poems by … Poetry Discussion group, when Gerald Stern’s work will be the center of attention. We will meet Thursday, June 10th, at 7:30 in Museum Classroom A. 

    “Lucky Life,” the poem, is bit too long to quote here, but you may read it online or the old-fashioned way.  To give you a taste of the man and his work, here is a short, lyrical poem that at once captures his passion, feeling, and sorrow, all precisely pinned to a particular moment in time, in a particular place, and concerning a particular person.

    June Fourth
    Today as I ride down Twenty-fifth Street I smell honeysuckle
    rising from Shell and Victor Balata and K-Diner.
    The goddess of sweet memory is there
    staggering over fruit and drinking old blossoms.
    A man in white socks and a blue T-shirt
    is sitting on the grass outside Bethlehem Steel
    eating lunch and dreaming.
    Before he walks back inside he will be changed.
    He will remember when he stands again under the dirty windows
    a moment of great misgiving and puzzlement
    just before sweetness ruined him and thinking
    tore him apart.  He will remember lying
    on his left elbow studying the sky,
    and the loss he felt, and the sudden freedom,
    the mixture of pain and pleasure – terror and hope –
    what he calls “honeysuckle.”

    Gerald Stern

    I must admit that, though no native son myself, I am an unabashed fan of Gerald Stern. (Disclaimer: though born and raised in Pittsburgh, Stern went on to become the first State Poet of NJ; there were only two, but that’s another story.) Though he’s received a great deal of recognition, still I think it is nowhere near what he deserves. Would I call him one of the best American poets of the later half of the twentieth century? Absolutely. Would a great many, more knowledgeable folks disagree vociferously? No doubt.

    Yet, if poetry isn’t the speaking of one heart to another, what is it?

    And, for the record, Gerald Stern speaks to me.

    – Don

    P.S. Wonder if there are any more movies based on poems that could be added to the above list?    Wikipedia has a few suggestions that I’ve yet to confirm.  Perhaps that’s the subject of a future post.

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    Happy Birthday, Eleventh Stack!

    Today is the first birthdayof the Eleventh Stack blog!  To celebrate we’re offering a team smorgasbord of wit and wisdom on libraries, blogging, or, well, whatever:

    One year ago today, Eleventh Stack sounded its barbaric yawp over the rooftops of Pittsburgh.  Our fans seem to enjoy both poetry and film, so here’s a little gift that combines both:

    You can, of course, continue that trip down cinematic memory lane by borrowing the film from us. Thanks for reading along with the blog team, and don’t be shy about making those comments and suggestions…we want to make this the best darn library blog ever, but we need you to help us keep it real and relevant, Pittsburgh.


    –Leigh Anne


    To celebrate our blog’s birthday we’ve invited our favorite one-ring circus clowns to juggle bananas while singing Happy Birthday in two keys at the same time.
    Lorenzo Pickle (Larry Pisoni) with the Pickle Family Circus

    Lorenzo Pickle (Larry Pisoni) with the Pickle Family Circus

    – Julie


    Now might be a good time to listen to Marilyn Monroe breathily singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK

    — Tim


    I like to pick a birthday ritual and do it for as many of my friends and family as possible for one calendar year.  Happy Birthday to You by Dr. Seuss read aloud was the ritual a few years ago. I would show up at peoples’ places of work or on their phone, etc. I know it’s not this year’s ritual (haven’t figured one out yet, better get on it ) but it’s really appropriate for this occasion. So please check it out and read it to yourself. All of you. It is very trippy and if you don’t enjoy it something is wrong.

    – Jude



    Happy 38th, Sean

    I’m proud to say that the Eleventh Stack blog shares a birthday with one of the greatest actors of our time, Sean Astin.  Not only did he portray the heroic Mikey in the most important movie of the last twenty-five years, The Goonies, he also played the role of the hobbit Sam in the film rendition of the deservedly hyped Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Oh, and let’s not forget his role as the inspirational Rudy.



     According to The Secret Language of Birthdays, those born on February 25 are strong individuals with a belief in universal goals and a higher purpose.  And sharing a birthday with George Harrison, Marcel Pagnol, and Jim Backus isn’t too shabby either.  Happy birthday, Eleventh Stack!


    After a year’s worth of blogging, I believe I’ve now learned why, throughout the centuries, the writing, publishing, and reading of personal journals was so popular. By roundabout way of sharing my surmise, I’d like to point you to a poem by one of my favorite poets, Gerald Stern, Pittsburgh born and bred, that celebrates, at least in part, a very specific place: the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where you can get the above mentioned journals, Mr. Stern’s oeuvre, and Eleventh Stack, which, when you think about it, is something of a journal of this very American institution.


    Stepping Out of Poetry


    What would you give for one of the old yellow streetcars

    rocking toward you again through the thick snow?


    What would you give for the feeling of joy as you climbed

    up the three iron steps and took your place by the cold window?


    Oh, what would you give to pick up your stack of books

    and walk down the icy path in front of the library?


    What would you give for your dream

    to be as clear and simple as it was then

    in the dark afternoons, at the old scarred tables?


                           Gerald Stern




    If today is Eleventh Stack’s birthday, then that makes her a Pisces.  I love Pisceansno wonder we get along so well!



    Happy Birthday, Eleventh Stack! In the tradition of the unreality of social networking, I’m giving you a virtual (read: imaginary) handmade birthday gift! Although you may be able to use a lovely knitted item – you know, in case your, uh, wires get cold – I think a handmade journal might suit you best. Especially with a retro card.



    Happy Birthday, Eleventh Stack.  I wanted to make you a birthday treat. I couldn’t decide if I should make you cupcakes or a birthday cake…so I made you both….enjoy!

    First Birthday Cake by hfb.

    – Lisa




    Eleventh Stack, you may only be one, but you make us laugh, you give us book recommendations, you challenge our ideas about the world, you teach us, and you make us love libraries more than we ever thought possible.


    Happy birthday, you cute little one-year old baby library blog!



    –Eleventh Stack


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