Death of an Oracle
We have very few oracles. The loss of the poet Gerald Stern means we have one less.
The poet Gerald Stern, who died last Friday at the age of 97, spent his life thundering against the mendacity and abuse of power; rebelling against all forms of authority, big and small; defying social conventions; and wielding his finely honed writing on behalf of the demonized, forgotten and oppressed. He was one of our great political poets. Poetry, he believed, had to speak to the grand and minute issues that define our lives. He was outrageous and profane, often in choice Yiddish, French and German. He was incredibly funny, but most of all brave. Rules were there, in his mind, to be broken. Power, no matter who held it, was an evil to be fought. Artists should be eternal heretics and rebels. He strung together obscenities to describe poets and artists who diluted their talent and sold out for status, grants, prizes, the blandness demanded by poetry journals and magazines like The New Yorker, and the death trap of tenured professorships.
I met Jerry when I was a pariah. I had repeatedly and publicly denounced the invasion of Iraq and, for my outspokenness, had been pushed out of The New York Times. I was receiving frequent death threats. My neighbors treated me as though I had leprosy. I had imploded my journalism career. Seeing how isolated I was, Jerry suggested we have lunch each week. His friendship and affirmation, at a precarious moment in my life, meant I had someone I admired assure me that it would be all right. He had the impetuosity and passion of youth, reaching into his pocket to pull out his latest poem or essay and reading long sections of it, ignoring his food. But, most of all, he knew where he stood, and where I should stand.
“There is no love without justice,” he would say. “They are identical.”
Jerry’s rebelliousness colored his life. There was, for him, no other honest way to live. He donned bathing trunks to join Black students desegregating a swimming pool in Indiana, Pennsylvania. When, in the 1950s, Temple University, where he was teaching, built a six-foot wall around its campus to separate it from the surrounding Black neighborhood, he refused to walk through the entrance and climbed over the wall to get to class. The university fired him. He knew that any concession to power — and he saw universities as bastions of corporate power — eroded your integrity. He was unyielding. He told me, but perhaps more importantly showed me, that I must also be unyielding. We would not, he assured me, be rewarded by the wider society for our obstinacy, nor would we often be understood, but we would be free. And there would be those, especially the marginalized and oppressed, who would see in our defiance an ally, and that, in the end, was all that truly mattered. He called himself an agnostic, but he came as close to embodying the qualities of an Old Testament prophet — Biblical prophets were regarded at best as eccentrics if not insane — as anyone I ever met. He tied the most mundane moments of existence to the eternal mystery of the cosmos.
He closes his poem “The One Thing in Life” with these words:
There is a sweetness buried in my mind;
there is water with a small cave behind it;
there’s a mouth speaking Greek.
It is what I keep to myself, what I return to;
the one thing that no one else wanted.
Jerry read voraciously. He could recite volumes of poetry from memory. He loved the musicality of language. He kept a notebook next to his bed, so when words came to him in the middle of the night, and they would come in torrents, he could immediately scribble them down.
“Your job is to read, read, read and occasionally write,” he said.
Poems he loved, including his own, peppered his conversation. He especially admired poets, including the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, imprisoned for their defiance of authority. Hikmet, in “Letters from a Man in Solitary,” which Jerry recited, wrote:
To talk to anyone besides myself
So I talk to myself.
But I find my conversation so boring,
My dear wife, that I sing songs.
And what do you know,
that awful, always off-key voice of mine
touches me so
that my heart breaks.
Poets, he said, had a sacred calling. They must not allow the oppressed to remain voiceless, the crimes of the oppressor to go unnamed or memory to be obliterated. They must, like the prophets of old, feel the blast from heaven, rage against the night, conquer, as Abraham Heschel wrote, “callousness, to change the inner person as well as to revolutionize history.”
I myself once lay under a bare light bulb on a terribly uncomfortable army cot, the mattress removed, with forty or so others lined up on either side of me. And I marched to an early breakfast with a number on my back and guards with loaded guns in front and back of me. And I fought with a pig of a provost-sergeant and was threatened with the hole. It feels odd — and alien — to talk about it now, and I feel foolish listing myself this way with the holy ones, for my time there was short, and my cause was absurdly small — compared to theirs. I was twenty years old at the time. I didn’t know it then, but my soul had descended into that place for the sake of making the universe more complete, and I had lost my way, and I was expiating for my own, or someone else’s wrong. I began writing poetry seriously there, weak and humid poetry, and I started to think like a poet. That helped me, and the physical labor helped me, and the love of my fellow prisoners. I read the New Testament there for the first time, and I talked to my friends about their terrors. They thought I was a preacher — because of my reading, I suppose — and I couldn’t disenchant them. That provost-sergeant was shot dead one day a few years later in a courtroom by an angry prisoner — or his brother. I know I plotted his death for years and even remembered his name for a month or two. I will not recognize him when he comes on his smoking knees for forgiveness.
You can see an interview I did with Jerry here.
He despaired of the decline of literacy and the ravages of the technological age, which he saw as intellectually, artistically and morally impoverishing. He believed the computer debased the poet as he or she “joined the company of scholars, secretaries, and petty businessmen.”
He grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, living in the shadow of the Carnegie and Mellon oligarchs who resided on the hills above the city on their estates, escaping the fetid air the working class breathed below. The social inequality of his childhood instilled in him a lifelong hatred of the rich, as well as the religious institutions that bowed before them. Drafted into the army at the end of World War II, he ended up being charged for a crime he did not commit and working ten- or eleven-hour days in a rock quarry with other convicts, most of whom were Black. He was later exonerated and given an honorable discharge, allowing him to collect seventy-five dollars a month from the GI. Bill and study for a doctorate, which he never completed, at The University of Paris. He lived in a cheap hotel in Paris where he had an affair with the owner’s wife, leading the husband to slip rat poison into his food, which nearly killed him. He walked across the northern half of Italy in remnants of his old uniform, visiting cities such as Venice and Bologna. He taught at many colleges and universities, some of which terminated his contracts because of his radicalism and outspokenness. He once fell asleep and started snoring during a poetry reading by Donald Hall, who never spoke to him again, an incident Jerry found uproariously funny. At a stop light on an empty road on the edge of Newark, New Jersey, he was shot in the right shoulder and chin by a teenager with a zip gun, the bullet burying itself in the left side of his neck. It was never extracted.
“Sometimes the brutalized is brutal, the oppressed is oppressor,” he wrote of the event. “It’s an agony to think of it, though sometimes it’s a comedy. We can be both at once, we can even split the difference. Maybe only Diogenes was not oppressive. But who knows what his wife would say? And wasn’t his dour, puritanical, and featherless message itself oppressive?”
He was haunted by the death of his older sister Sylvia when he was eight and shaped by his life as a street tough in Pittsburgh, lifting weights, boxing and hanging out in pool halls. He had a pugnacious combativeness and worldliness foreign to most academics.
He wrote in his memoir, What I Can’t Bear Losing, a beautiful and wise book:
Half the world is at war or preparing for it or recovering from it. Moreover, a sizeable portion of the good people of the world are in political prisons of one kind or another, and a fourth are starving; and we are contemptuous not only of human life but all life on the planet, if not the universe; and we are in a kind of trap, and coldness of heart has become the dominant mode, and the life we force ourselves to lead is degrading; and almost all governments are inept and corrupt and brutal; and we live by delusion, and there is very little dignity left and very little awe; and we may perhaps indeed be evil or indifferent creatures altogether, as the cruel incendiaries among us have for centuries suggested; and in my own country ugliness is apotheosized, and money is worshipped more than ever before; and we elect weasels to office; and we carefully destroy most of what is good from the past; and we murder and rape and thieve with ease; and we bore ourselves to death; and we either believe in dark and mindless things or pretend to be governened by systems and rules we neither understand nor believe in; and we hate the brain; and we are deeply pessimistic. Although there are some pockets of resistance: we produce art and we are somehow great in medicine and astronomy; and we dance and write poetry; and we still live for the future; and for one drop of water, the thirsty among us would gather and weep.
There are moments in our lives when, despondent, abandoned, uncertain and afraid, someone miraculously appears, like an angel, or let us say an oracle, to say the words we need to hear, to affirm what no one else affirms but what must be affirmed. It is because of Jerry, at one of the lowest moments in my life, I was able to stand up, bind my wounds, dismiss my enemies and go on.
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What a lovely tribute.
Thanks for that personal recollection of a friend in your life, Chris. You words are inspiring.