That’s what I thought when I heard Gerald Stern, 87, read from his two newly published collections (of poetry and prose) last night at the Neue Galerie, the most elegant book party I have ever attended, hosted by his wife, the poet Anne-Marie Macari. And it’s why I’m glad I’m not a tennis player who has to retire at 32, or a dancer who might be lucky to dance till s/he’s 45 (except for flamenco dancers, the true poets of dance, who draw down duende and can dance till they die).
“[C]ould I be the one / who carries the smell of dead birds in his blood, and horses?” That’s how Gerry’s poem “Nietzsche” (which he read) ends—a sentence that goes on for 12 lines, beginning with him walking through “the Armstrong Tunnel” in Pittsburgh, I surmise, and then gathering momentum, returning to the bleeding horse: “the snorting and the complex of / leather straps,” that brings with it the grief over the dead with whom Gerry can no longer talk (“Stanley” [Kunitz] and “Paul Goodman”), until that final image, when Gerry becomes the human, all too human Nietzsche intervening and sobbing over the flogging of the horse. Intervention, as Gerry said to us, which is all we can hope to do.
Surely, that’s what Gerald Stern’s poems have done for me and for so many other readers, students, fellow poets. He’s intervened in our lives with his hamish poetic voice (years ago with the dead skunk he has to stop for in his poem “Behaving Like a Jew”) that is truly like Emerson’s all-seeing eyeball with its sweep of history, of misery, of personal friendship, of books that live and breathe for him. As generous and capacious an imagination and person as you could ever hope to encounter. What a privilege to be on the spinning globe with him.
And what a funny, yet apt place to toast this Jewish poet, while eating spoonfuls of schnitzel. It reminded me of the way I feel, standing under the Arch of Titus in Rome. Wehave survived. And Gerald Stern reminds me once more (pace Frank O’Hara) why I’d rather be a poet.