Of his college education, Stern says: "I went to the University of Pittsburgh, but I didn't even know as a boy where the university was. I discovered it literally by accident. I saw some people lined up on the lawn outside the university registering for courses, and it was the War, and anybody could get into college. And I decided, 'Hey, I'll take classes!' And I became a college student. No one ever advised me. No one at home ever talked to me about college." Although he started writing poetry in college Stern didn't know any other poets, had no mentor, so did not consider sending his work away for publication. In 1951, he became an English teacher and taught in schools and universities for almost twenty years before he began regularly writing poems. Since then, he says he has been "practically besieged by poems". He published his first collection, The Pineys, in 1971, and has gone on to produce a further fourteen collections, and several books of essays.
Stern's Jewish heritage enables him to write from a very distinct viewpoint. His America is a surreal place, alive with biblical intensity and shaded by themes of Judaic loss, and his tone - sometimes chatty, sometimes streetwise - takes the reader into a landscape where grandeur combines strangely with the everyday. As Hayden Carruth has said: "It is extremely difficult to bring off the kind of poem Stern writes, doomsday among the tricycles and kittens." Stern himself has said that he rarely thinks of himself as a Jewish poet, yet is quite open to the idea that his poems might be construed as Jewish in nature.
Stern's later work, with its emphasis on the writer as a contemporary American Everyman, has been compared to that of Walt Whitman, and although Stern in principal resists being compared to anyone, he is effusive in his praise of Whitman. Kate Daniels, expanded on the comparison in Southern Review, writing: "We might like to think of [Stern] as our quintessentially Whitmanian American poet, but he is far too literate, too worldly to seem typically American. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of him as a post-nuclear, multicultural Whitman for the millennium—the U.S.'s one and only truly global poet."
This Time: New and Selected Poems (1998), won the National Book Award, and is a good introduction to Stern's work, taking the reader from his early, sparer more allegorical and dreamlike poems, through to his work of the late 1990's which typically relies on narrative progression, using longer meandering lines. The 'I' is more present in Stern's later poems, which take a sometimes melancholic look back over his life, and range from accounts of his childhood in Pittsburgh to reminiscences about old friends and their importance to him.
Published in 2006, Everything is Burning sees a further development in Gerald Stern's work. Described by a reviewer as "his most powerful verse in a long time", Stern urgently modulates his familiar melancholy with moods of joy, anger, uncertainty and frustration. The most moving and disturbing of these poems is 'My Sister’s Funeral' which finally confronts the pain of loss that Stern suffered as a child, and continues to suffer as an adult: "the pain/ which in my life this far has lasted seventy/years for I am in love with a skeleton/on whose small bones a dress hung for a while/on whose small skull a bit of curly hair/was strung . . ."
The poems you can hear in these recordings display a wide range of concern, and include the anti-war poem 'Asphodel'; the farewell to the East Coast poem, 'Kissing Stieglitz Good-Bye'; and the powerful 'The Jew and the Rooster Are One', an ekphrastic piece which sees the Jewish painter Chaim Soutine butchered, like one of the roosters (ironically a Jewish symbol of new beginnings) in his own paintings. All of these poems demonstrate the compelling chattiness of Stern's poetic voice, which feels linked directly to his speaking voice. The conclusion to the tumbling drama of 'The Jew and the Rooster Are One' comes as a blessed release to reader and listener alike.