There’s a black and white photo in which the poet Stanley Kunitz lovingly holds Gerald Stern’s cheeks in both hands. It’s 1990. They’re looking into one another, and Kunitz says, “You’re the wilderness in American poetry.”
I’ve wanted to know what America’s poet of wilderness thinks about the power of art. What is the action of art? I’ve wanted to ask him. And what responsibility, if any, does the artist have to address social issues?
Stern came of age as a poet and activist in the 1950s and 60s. He’s probably best known for Lucky Life (now part of his Early Collected), which established him as a major voice in American poetry in 1977, and This Time: New and Selected Poems, for which he won the National Book Award. I don’t think that book titles and awards do much, however, to capture his presence, his vitality—how he’ll say what others won’t, or how, when you read one of his poems, you can feel urgently as if you should give dignity and love away to some unacknowledged thing.
Stern is also a prose writer at work right now on a collection that includes a section about how various people, including Simone de Beauvoir and Henry Miller, have written about New York. I mention this in particular because its real subject is how the artist’s vision may give birth, in language, to a kind of raw energy, which may at best complement calls for justice, and at worst fan bigotry. Stern writes of how Simone de Beauvoir fell in love with New York and America, and how she offered in her writing “kindness, honesty, and full-throated opinions about American racism, sexual relations…and self-assurance.” Henry Miller, on the other hand, offered racism, sexism, and a rejection of everything American in his book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. “He seems actually to hate everything,” Stern writes, “or really not to love anything except one or two lost souls he bumps into.”
Here’s an edited version of a conversation I had with Stern at his home in Lambertville, New Jersey.
The Rumpus: Talk to me about political poetry.
Gerald Stern: I don’t know what to say that hasn’t been said already. Not everyone confronts. Not everyone is summoned. It’s you who are “political,” it’s not what you say. Political means so many things. We are political willy-nilly. Political poetry is an easy invitation to disaster. But then so is love poetry. But we are a little more patient with bad love poetry. It might be an evil necessity that we want to get rid of—so we can go back to the other. Oppressed persons, oppressed cultures, tend to be more political, obviously, as are those with a rage for justice, or the crazy messianic desire. Oppressed cultures often envy those which are not, or oppressed individuals do, and sometimes those which—and who—are not envy those which—who—are. All said before. Some are spokesmen, spokespeople: they can’t help themselves. They can’t think of anything else. Maybe they’re deprived, even depressed. If you don’t have a bed, or a dresser or a wall, or a book or a toy you are oppressed. An African American in a white world. A Jew in a Christian world. A gypsy. A Native American. A Chinese American. Let’s say, you were born deprived. What then? Some don’t identify; they just don’t. Berryman’s best poetry was not (properly) political. Yet “The Imaginary Jew” (totally political) is his best story. It’s insane—why does a poet have to do it? Can’t he not? I have left out what I don’t remember or don’t know. Temperament, fear, shyness, obedience, kindness. I use to be better at this! This is the last time I’ll talk about it.
Rumpus: I want to ask you about caves. You wrote an essay all about caves in What I Can’t Bear Losing. You talked about physical and metaphysical caves, you looked at caves as places of both confinement and liberation, and you said at one point that the artist’s “job” is to be a cave dweller. How is being in the cave—the place of confinement and liberation—useful to the artist?
Stern: The cave is a dark, shadowy place. It’s a place that’s very close and yet distant at the same time, and it’s a place of revelation and isolation. Your form, your body, your writing is your confinement. It’s a kind of liberation to break free in language, if you can break free, but it’s also a confinement, because form confines you—whatever the form. I’m not talking necessarily about rhyme, though that’s certainly confinement. It’s through that form, through that discipline of writing, that you liberate yourself. You come into, through the isolation of writing even, an understanding, maybe of some form of detachment, which is a complicated and ambiguous word. Maybe being an artist is a kind of detachment. You’re in the cave, you’re isolated, you’re apart from everything and it’s there you can find out what you believe in, or what is—what is the nature of being, as you see it, you know?
Rumpus: This sounds very much like Buddhism.
Stern: Well, if the Buddhist’s job is to be detached, I think that the artist’s job is to be both detached and attached. We understand detachment, sort of, albeit in Buddhism it’s a different story than, say, Medieval Christian mysticism. For the Christian mystics, detachment meant to leave attachment so that God could enter you and take over completely and you could climb the ladder to their heaven. Kind of crazy, but what the hell? Attachment has to do with suffering, so it’s really close to Buddhism, because Buddhism wants to relieve you from suffering; you’re supposed to escape from suffering. But the artist’s job, as I see it, is to be both attached and detached. How can he not embrace suffering?
Rumpus: How would you describe the attachment?
Stern: You could be attached to merely a description of a plant or a flower. Or a narrative of an event. Or rage at injustice. Isaiah and the other Hebrew prophets, in their rage, were being altogether attached—not at all detached, although as I think of the word “detachment,” I also think of a sheet of paper, loose from its notebook, fluttering around somewhere in the wind trying to find its home again.
Rumpus: I think you’re saying, then, that there’s also some danger in being too detached. Or you’re saying just how crucial it is to be attached to something.
Stern: Let’s take a couple of poets out of thin air. Let’s say Adrienne Rich. You know she’s attached to the condition of women, or to the condition of suffering among people, particularly poor people and third-world people. She’s attached to justice, so she writes about injustice. She’s not a funny writer, or humorous. She’s deeply serious. Her attachment is very clear and she’s very popular because of her ideology as much as her poetry.
Rumpus: Sometimes I have trouble connecting with Adrienne Rich’s feminism, even though I’m deeply interested in anything she has to say and I love a lot of her poems and essays. To get at this idea of the artist’s attachment, could we use for an example a poet who isn’t specifically political?
Stern: Let’s say Billy Collins. I know Billy really well. He’s a dear friend of mine. Among other things, he’s funny. Humor is not funny. Humor is something else. Funny is a joke, sometimes silly. Comedy is deep and connected to tragedy; comedy could be deeper than tragedy, in my view. Billy has developed a kind of strategy, almost a system. He has a dog, a pipe, a desk. And these objects constantly appear in his poems. There’s a problem that he resolves, and then he continues his walk. The subject is light, or it appears to be light, and it’s accessible and popular. I like Billy’s work for other reasons. I think he’s a deeply melancholic, lonely and tender soul. A lot of that has been expunged perforce in some of his funnier poems, but that’s really his nature, and that’s the level where I meet him.
Rumpus: So how would you describe his attachment?
Stern: It becomes complicated. Sometimes a person thinks he’s attached to one thing and he’s really attached to something else. Billy is attached to the objects that are familiar to his readers, like his dog—and a lot of people who are critical of him are critical because it can get repetitive. But he’s really attached, as I see it, to a kind of sadness that underlies those objects. Sometimes, in his best poems, that really appears. As with Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin’s new poems are very political. They’re about the ugly wars. She’s attached to the stupidity, greed, lying, injustice of the American government, particularly of Asshole Bush. We don’t say Bush. We say Asshole Bush.
Rumpus: So different poets, different prisons.
Stern: And there are hundreds of prisons—sexual, political, cultural. But being a prisoner also gives you impetus. The artist looks for a subject. You know, a lot of new poets don’t seem to have a subject. I don’t totally understand that. I did a reading recently at The New School for Best American Poetry; I published a poem there this year. Anyway, there were some very good poets at this reading, but there were also some who seemed more interested in being funny and making cute jokes and writing endlessly about nothing. It was narcissism, indulgence, no social consciousness, no sense of… We’re destroying the earth! We live in a country that’s governed by confusion and lies and that operates through greed and selfishness and cruelty. We’ve killed or forced into exile two million Iraqis. Where is the poetry? What are our important poets doing?
Rumpus: I think people are very, very inhibited about participating in political movements in part because of the posturing and lack of results. But then, I also don’t think artists who are political can be inhibited like that. What I think I respond to most in your poems is the feeling of dignity in undignified circumstances. That’s where I really feel drawn in and held. So thinking about that, I want to ask you about Tolstoy’s idea that art must “infect” the reader. Real art, he said, transmitted an emotion, the stronger the better. What do you think of that?
Stern: Tolstoy is one of the greatest artists in history, but he finally became infused with the idea of the uselessness of art. He gave himself to his own kind of religion. In America it’s a particular problem. The artist, particularly the poet, is just unacknowledged; if I can use that dumb word. Maybe it has always been that way. Maybe the only way he or she can be acknowledged is to be connected with some movement, be it religious or political. Isaiah was a great poet, but if he wasn’t a prophet, who would give a shit?
I think of this in my life. I’ve spent hundreds of hours working over words, and part of me, a large part of me, has a desire to do something else. Or a large part of me feels that what I’ve done is not enough. Let’s just call it activism, for want of a better word, because that’s the other half of my life. I’ve been active in a minor way compared to professional activists. I was a labor leader. I led two labor strikes. I’ve manipulated boards. I’ve led marches. I’ve done many things. But as I’m nearing the end of a new collection, I’ve been trying to come to terms with what I am and what I do and what I believe in. And I see that I’m not happy with—well, it’s almost as if being a poet is not enough for me. It’s too late for me to do more now. I did what I could in a small way. I did it as theater, too, to be honest.
Rumpus: I hadn’t really thought about artists needing to be connected to a movement in order to be heard. But it seems as if poets, even those attached to a movement, aren’t as likely to be heard as they were in the 60s or 70s.
Stern: Or the 30s! I’ve been writing about Simone De Beauvoir, who people know mostly because of The Second Sex or a couple of her novels. She wrote a book called America, Day by Day. It would be worth it, I think, for you to read this book. Simone visited America for the first time in 1947. She was 39 years old. She was already very well known as Sartre’s associate, colleague, mistress, girlfriend. She was well known at all the colleges. She traveled across country, and in Chicago she met Nelson Algren, the novelist who wrote The Man with the Golden Arm. They fell in love. Algren became the love of her life. He was a big, gruff peasant-type, and brilliant. He hardly ever left Chicago, and he wanted Simone to marry him, have babies, and live there with him. She lived in the Latin Quarter in Paris, surrounded by world famous people. It’s fascinating to hear her talk about artists in France compared to artists in America—her perspective on things as a Frenchwoman who fell in love with America. Artists have always been neglected in America. Probably China too. I mean, there was Nelson Algren, a wonderful writer in Chicago, totally unknown.
De Beauvoir is very bright and cunning and lovely. In writing about her, I’ve sort of fallen in love. I was even thinking at one point that I should have looked her up when I was in France. But then I thought, well, I would have had nothing to show. I was nobody. What would I have done? What would she have done with a fool who could barely speak French? And was one of the three—four—hundred thousand Americans in Paris collecting his G.I. Bill check every month.
Rumpus: I like that story—the thought of spending time with her in Paris. Going back to this idea of the artist as activist, though, do you feel that art should transmit values? Or instruct us?
Stern: Yes, if by instruct we mean to alert you or disturb you or awaken you into a state where you will take action or contemplate or think or feel deeply about something.
Rumpus: Have you always felt that way? I mean, do you think that your activism has anything to do with how your work has evolved from the early poems to mid-career poems to most recent poems?
Of course, I’ve changed over my writing life. If I can generalize, I would say that the more recent poems—believe it or not—are more pointedly political; although, if the earlier poems were more existential, they were still political; though, in their own way, had a complicated presence. So you can see that I’m still on the same route here—interfering, causing trouble, disturbing the peace. That’s the feeling I have. I feel that my job, as an artist, is to disturb the peace. And to disturb it intellectually, linguistically, politically and literally.
Rumpus: But granting that it’s not a requirement…
Stern: Of course. Billy Collins doesn’t do it. I love him, but he doesn’t do it. Adrienne Rich does. Phil Levine does. Mark Strand doesn’t. Of course that doesn’t mean he’s not a good poet. It’s just that very few poets disturb the peace to any degree. Bob Hass doesn’t do it in the way I describe. Why do you think he doesn’t? His age?
Rumpus: No. I don’t think it’s age. Do you think that being at an institution has anything to do with it?
Stern: Of course! Though I’m thinking that “disturbing the peace” has as much to do with language—for a poet—as I already said—as politics. It’s as if this argument has been going on for centuries.
Myself, I floundered in my twenties. Though I wore a long scarf. And when I got to be thirty I got a job at Temple University in Philadelphia. I worked there for seven years, and I finally got fired, mostly for political reasons. I’ll give you one example. The English building was across the street from what was then an African American slum. They put a 6-foot wall across the street to mark the boundary, the southern boundary, of the campus, but really it was to keep the “them” out. In those days, you wore a suit, tie, and white shirt, and you carried a brief case. I made my way to Temple by subway. Then I climbed over the 6-foot wall with my briefcase. After a while, there were a couple of graduate students following me, and soon there were about 40 or 50. I could hoist myself over the wall then. After a while they tore the wall down.
It was an insane thing to do, but I don’t want a badge for it. And it certainly only reflected one element in my poetry, maybe not the most important.
Rumpus: But writing, in and of itself, isn’t outrageous…
Stern: Only when it is. The act of writing itself isn’t outrageous. But your question is about institutions. And the institution subtly and insidiously works on you in such a way that though you seem to have freedom you become a servant. Your main issue is to get promoted to the next thing. Or get invited to a picnic. Or get tenure. Or get laid.
Maybe it’s just that I started too late. I was ruined before I got started. I say ruined, but I could say blessed; I was too far gone to believe in it. And I’m shocked how generation after generation repeats the behavior. Though teaching poetry, teaching as such, is worthy—if back breaking, and there are actually six good institutions. It is ridiculous to think that all poets might behave this way, but if they did there would be plenty of them walking on the streets.
Rumpus: We’re talking about the university, but it doesn’t have to be the university, right? You’re saying any institution—a university, government agency, company, church, whatever—can be an echo chamber.
Stern: Exactly. Any hole in the ground. Did I send you “Hyena”?
Rumpus: You did.
Stern: It’s about Tricky Dick, of course. I was in the Chicago airport during his funeral and, believe it or not, Clinton was on television crying. I saw it! And I went from one room to another yelling, “Asshole! Asshole!” And nobody was listening to me. Everybody was pretending that it wasn’t really happening.
I’ll read you “Hyena.”
The fact that his front legs were longer than his rear
Stern: I’m talking about hyenas, as you know…
or I should say his arms, it made it possible
while hunching over—
Stern: That’s what he did, you know…
shouldering—to give the
two-handed V for Victory signs and do his
smiling just before he boarded the airplane,
Stupidity I, but made it hard to drink
his tea unless he doubled his wrist but such
it is for hyenas when they leave the capital
and such it is they grin—I saw his death
in Chicago over four hundred television stations,
eating ice cream and waiting; there was only
one poet in the whole airport—going from
station to station crying “asshole” and watching
his friend Clinton drop a tear for him
in 1993, and ah, you don’t have
Hyena to kick around much any longer.
Stern: That’s what Hyena said after he ran for governor (of California) and lost. He said at a press conference, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around much any longer.”
Rumpus: When I read that line at home, I wondered if the “you” was also pointing at the reader.
Stern: No, it’s something Nixon actually said. Of course, he was later forgiven by Gerald Ford, because they probably made a deal. Nixon was about to go to jail for income tax evasion.
Rumpus: You’re not giving a lecture, though, in that poem. Someone once told me that Henry James said all art needed to do was be consistently interesting. I tried to find where James might have said that and ended up reading The Art of Fiction. James says in there that “the sole end, aim, and purpose”—of fiction, of art—“is to portray humanity and human character.” And I guess that’s much more conservative than the idea that art’s purpose is to instruct…
Stern: I love Henry James. I mean, that’s an interesting take. But he wasn’t political in the sense that I am—particularly in his late books, The Wings of the Dove, Ambassadors. His writing at that time was pretty much without reference. It’s a very complicated subject, art and politics. People struggle over it and fight over it. There are certain standard things you say, such as, “It has to be art first.” But, you know, some poems are art because of their passion.
Rumpus: What about transmitting negative values in art?
Stern: Sure, take Henry Miller. He came back to America for two or three months in 1940—I can’t remember why—and then he wrote The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, a book basically attacking American Culture. He actually came back five years earlier and wrote a 77-page letter to Alfred Perles attacking New York, which was converted into a book called Aller Retour New York. He is anti-Semitic, anti-everything. He calls women cunts. Men aren’t called pricks, but women are called cunts. He’s a misogynist of the first order.
And his greatest stupidity is his defense of slavery. This was 1935-1940. We were still hanging black people, and he praises the south. He says it corresponds more nearly to “the dream life of the poet” than any other section of the country. Then he says that this dream world is being “poisoned” by the spirit of the North. I mean, his book is just a diatribe against poor people, black people, women, social action, and even hope. The bigotry is just outrageous, and so is the attack on America. I was twenty years old when I first read Nightmare, and I just read it again sixty-five years later. I know how the 30s, 40s, and 50s were, but Miller is special. He seems to hate everything or really not to love anything. He was a flawed genius. A bigot. A low-life.
Rumpus: But did you ever love him?
Stern: Sure, I loved him. For nine years. But fuck him.