Poet's Proving Ground

More than 50 years ago, Gerald Stern had to do time in the brig at Aberdeen -- and the experience released his literary voice.

May 01, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

LAMBERTVILLE, N.J. - Gerald Stern figures it took a few months in the brig at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to make a poet of him. Perhaps it had something to do with all that solitary work on the rock pile, or meals taken alone for weeks on end - nothing but time to think and think. By the time it was over his notions about a law career had been consumed in a fire burning to this day, more than 50 years, one National Book Award and hundreds of poems later.

In April, he sent the latest manuscript to W.W. Norton & Co. for his 12th published collection, 56 new poems, including "Aberdeen Proving Grounds, 1946," first published in the New Yorker on March 12. A forthcoming book of essays is expected to include a piece about those months he spent in the guardhouse awaiting trial on minor charges of which he was eventually exonerated. For Stern, whose poetry is much concerned with memory, the recollection has a particular significance.

"That jail experience turned me into a poet," says Stern, although he cannot say precisely why.

"I'm not sure, something spiritual," he says, some new awareness of an array of philosophical questions about right and wrong: "I suddenly confronted them, and took them personally."

A memory lies dormant for decades. One day it surfaces. Who can explain the vagaries of the poetic impulse? Stern recalls that the Aberdeen experience got his attention once again about a year ago when he was at a friend's home in Westchester, N.Y. The rhyme or reason of the timing, Stern says, is mysterious.

"You know how things go, I could have been reading about something, talking about prisons," says Stern. "I have no idea. A poet has no answer to these things. Why do we dream? I compare it to that."

Tappings at the door of consciousness. What's a poet to do but answer in writing? Stern opened one of the school composition books he uses and started writing in long hand:

"I have had the honor of being imprisoned, the/ joy of breaking stone with a sledgehammer, the/ pleasure of sleeping under a bare light bulb, the/ ... sorrow of eating by myself ...

Stern, now 76 years old, sat there in Westchester, pen in hand, and found the words flowing nicely, as he says they have been for decades. As he recalls, a barrier fell around 1966. He'd been writing poetry nearly 20 years and teaching poetry writing in college, and couldn't help but notice young poets arriving on the scene, along with fresh notions of how things should be done. He had not published a book or won big prizes or made for himself anything like a name. And he had turned 41.

"I was lost," he says. "I gave up writing for the recognition."

Who can figure how the writing catches fire? W. Somerset Maugham is known to have said there are three rules for writing the novel, unfortunately nobody knows what they are. Something happened for Stern after 1966, some liberating loss of self-consciousness. He published his first book in 1971, and in 1977, at 52, established his reputation with a collection called "Lucky Life," which won the Lamont Poetry Prize, the first of several honors Stern has received since then. From 1981 through the mid-1990s, Stern taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop at University of Iowa.

In 1998, he won the National Book Award for poetry and before that the $75,000 Ruth Lily Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

A year ago, he about collapsed from exhaustion and had to cut back on his public speaking schedule, which was running to 20 or more appearances a year. A labor of love, he says: "I get turned on by an audience. ... If I weren't a poet I would be a standup comedian."

At any given moment it seems, a few poems are stacked in his head, waiting to be written. Having been absent from the divisive debates among poets of the 1950s and 1960s, he emerged into prominence in the late 1970s with a certain license. A member of no particular camp, he could, as critic Jane Somerville wrote, "draw on the resources of both tradition and revolution."

And, of course, on memory.

World War II came late to Stern's door in Pittsburgh, as he was classified 4-F by the draft board due to poor eyesight. When the Army drafted him in 1946, he was a semester shy of completing his bachelor's degree in political science and philosophy at University of Pittsburgh. He was sent to basic training, then assigned to learn counter-intelligence at Holabird Signal Depot at Fort Holabird in southeast Baltimore. Among his buddies was a fellow with a particular talent and irrepressible impulse for picking pockets.

"He had a chestful of ribbons" from World War II combat, says Stern. "He was my hero. He had small feet, as I remember."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.