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Mike Schneider: Gerald Stern (1925-2022)

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He won’t be writing any new ones, but Gerald Stern long ago won a place in the hearts of poetry lovers, maybe especially in Pittsburgh. If there were a competition to choose the most iconic Pittsburgh poem, one to enshrine at City Hall, it would be hard not to pick Stern’s “The Dancing,” published in his collection Paradise Lost (1984). 

 The Dancing

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.

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Drawing a word-picture of mid-twentieth century Jewish-American life and, most evocatively, his father, a first-generation immigrant, Stern shows him “doing the dance/ of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,/ half fart.” How many poems say “fart”? — small hooray for that alone. 

“The Dancing” goes on to register the pain of mid-20th-century history (capital “H”) — economic depression in America, the holocaust in Europe — in an amazing swoop of language:

 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.

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A National Book Award winner (1998), along with many other honors for over 20 published collections, Stern was a vital force in American poetry for the past 40 years. His return to the city that launched him — in September 2014 (for City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s 10th Annual Jazz Poetry Concert) — was a cultural highlight for many. 

In a flashy white-straw hat, leaning on his bright red metal cane, step-by-step silently making his way to a seat at the podium, Stern commanded the audience without a word. Born in the Hill District, raised as a working-class kid in Squirrel Hill, a walk-on running back for the University of Pittsburgh football team, who sparred with Billy Conn, Stern has few contenders — probably only his friend Jack Gilbert (1925-2012) — as the best poet Pittsburgh has produced. 

Introduced by Garrison Keillor, Gerald Stern reads “The Dancing” live, online here:

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Mike Schneider’s poetry collection Spring Mills is forthcoming in 2023.

2 comments on “Mike Schneider: Gerald Stern (1925-2022)

  1. Jim Newsome
    November 2, 2022

    Mike,
    I saw/heard Gerald Stern read to a small poetry class I was auditing in 1986 in Mankato, MN. He read back then with fire and conviction. The poem he shared that day, which most remains with me, was “Lucky Life”. Oh lucky lucky life. (It was “an amazing swoop of language”). He was hatless in that little room. The class of Midwestern wannabe poets sat mesmerized.

    Liked by 1 person

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