June 3, 2003
A Poet Raging Against Pretension (and Princeton)
Mr. Stern, 78, who may turn out to be the only poet laureate in New Jersey who ever managed to finish the two-year term, loathes the dining room people, the ones with the blue blazers and the button-down Oxfords, and the literary talk and the high-blown pretensions. When he says the word "Princeton," he discharges it from his mouth like a hairball. He was born on the other side of the tracks, in Pittsburgh, "a place where we did not even know what a poet was," and despite a peripatetic life, one that saw him living as a young writer in Paris, he never really left.
It was Mr. Stern who inaugurated the post of poet laureate and pushed hard to have the African-American poet and playwright Amiri Baraka become his successor. But Mr. Baraka, after writing his poem, "Somebody Blew Up America" which asserts that the Israelis and President Bush knew beforehand of the attack on the World Trade Center set off a furor. The State Senate voted in January to abolish the post. The bill is in the Assembly's state government committee, where it may remain, although Gov. James E. McGreevey has promised to sign it if it reaches his desk. The decision to get rid of the poet laureate position angers Mr. Stern, who also shares the outrage against his successor "for being so stupid about this, it is not even worth debating the issue."
"But why do they abolish the post?" he asked, his voice rising in what soon seems like perpetual indignation. "It is weird. They abolish the post to get rid of him. Shall we abolish the Senate because some senators are crooks?"
His one fashion accouterment is a broad-brimmed white hat that he wears on his strolls or when he sits on the porch of his brick row house. He works here. At night he walks to a roomy Victorian house with a turret and a wraparound porch where he lives with Anne Marie Macari, also a poet, and her three sons. But during the day he is alone, left to plod barefoot in an old pair of jeans about the sparsely furnished rooms.
His mind spins with words as he walks along the towpath or ruminates Buddha-like in front of his notebook, the pages scribbled on and curled. The kitchen utensils, the clock, the tree outside the window and always the river make it into his poetry. "I am always writing," he said. "I get up in the middle of the night to put it down so I do not forget. I never stop."
He speaks with the profanity of a soldier or an inmate, indeed he was both, spending six months incarcerated in an Army guardhouse after World War II for a crime he said he did not commit. He has the excitement of a small boy eager to show his mother his latest piece of schoolwork and begins, unprompted, to read, old poems, new poems, half-finished poems.
Mr. Stern loves poetry, not for its deftness or technical structure but its ability to transmit the deepest human emotions, "passion, anger, love, justice and fear."
It was the death of his sister Sylvia when he was 8 and she was 9 that led him to turn to words to express the grief that his family, Jewish but infused with "the gray deadness of Calvinism," never openly acknowledged. He ended up in Paris, too unsure of himself to approach poets whose work he knew by heart. He labored there over a poem called "Ishmael's Dream," which he says was terrible.
He spent years working odd jobs so he could write, but late in life began to receive acclaim and honors such as the National Book Award for his volume "This Time."
"I can write what I like because, unlike in Russia during Soviet rule, poets are not a threat," he said. "I'm nobody. The only time artists achieved real power in this country was in the film industry in the 1950's and the government got rid of dozens whom they perceived as a threat."
He has taught at several universities, being thrown out of a couple and never staying very long at the others. He has a problem with authority, indeed, he said, he believes poets should have a problem with authority. He says institutions, and especially universities, are "repressive and conservative and along with grants kill good poetry and good art."
"Poetry should be passionate and outrageous and political and most of all revolutionary," he said. "I am a radical, although as I get older sometimes I get too soft and am just a liberal."