Gerald Stern

b. 1925
Gerald SternPhoto: Martin Desht

Gerald Stern has been called an “American original,” “a sometimes comic, sometimes tragic visionary,” and, by his friend Stanley Kunitz, “the wilderness in American poetry.” Over dozens of books, and decades of teaching and activism, Stern has emerged as one of America’s most celebrated and irascible poets. “If I could choose one poem of mine to explain my stance,” Stern told Contemporary Poets, “it would be ‘The One Thing in Life,’ which appears in Lucky Life.” According to Stern, the poem, which includes the lines “There is a sweetness buried in my mind/there is water with a small cave behind it,” makes a claim for his own inheritance and legacy: “I stake out a place for myself, so to speak, that was overlooked or ignored or disdained, a place no one else wanted.” Stern was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1925. The son of Eastern European immigrants, Stern’s poetry frequently references his all-American, working-class upbringing as well as his Jewish and Eastern European heritage. Cosmopolitan, even international in scope, and yet deeply personal, Stern’s work is known for its passionate defense of human emotions and needs. According to Jeffrey Dodd, Elise Gregory, and Adam O’Connor Rodriguez, all of whom interviewed Stern for the journal Willow Springs: “His work derides provincialism and points to a world of experiences beyond American borders and transcendent of temporal limits. Stern has lived in this rich world, and his poetry calls attention to its failures, beauties, and curiosities without fear, shame or sentimentality.”
Though Stern has declared himself “not really an internationalist,” he does identify with Eastern European poets. In his Willow Springs interview, Stern said: “My family’s only been here for 100 years. Exactly 100 years. And I grew up in Pittsburgh, American-raised, whatever the hell that means—to be American. But I realize now I’m somewhat of a foreigner.” That sense of foreignness and outsider status has permeated both Stern’s work and his career. Though good friends with poets like Jack Gilbert, who enjoyed early success, Stern was over 50 when his first book to receive critical attention was published. His second poetry collection, Lucky Life (1977), was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets and nominated for a National Book Award. His next, The Red Coal (1981), received the Melville Caine Award from the Poetry Society of American. Subsequent collections include Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems (1990); Bread Without Sugar (1992), winner of the Paterson Prize; This Time: New and Selected Poems (1998), which won the National Book Award; Last Blue (2002); American Sonnets (2002); Everything is Burning (2005); Save the Last Dance (2008); and Early Collected Poems: 1965–1992 (2010), a volume collecting six of Stern’s earliest books. Stern has also written two collections of essays, including the autobiographical What I Can’t Bear Losing: Notes from a Life (2004; 2009).
Stern taught for many years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has also held positions at Temple University, New England College—where he co-founded the Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry—and Drew University. Stern is proud of his checkered career within academia: “Myself, I floundered in my twenties,” he told Adrienne Davich in an interview for The Rumpus. “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… 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.”
Stern’s many awards and honors include the Wallace Stevens Award, the Bess Hokin Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Bernard F. Conners Award from the Paris Review, and the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. He has received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was Poet Laureate of New Jersey from 2000–2002. More than one critic has compared Stern to Walt Whitman, but Southern Review writer Kate Daniels articulated a different perspective: “We might like to think of [Stern] as our quintessentially Whitmanian American poet,” Daniels has stated, “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.”


Lake Grove School, Lake Grove, NY, English teacher and principal, 1951-53; Victoria Drive Secondary School, Glasgow, Scotland, English teacher, 1953-54; Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, instructor in English, 1956-63; Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA, associate professor of English, 1963-67; Somerset County College, Somerville, NJ, professor of English, 1968-82; University of Iowa, Iowa City, professor of English, beginning 1982. Lecturer, Douglas College, spring, 1968; visiting poet, Sarah Lawrence College, spring, 1978, University of Pittsburgh, fall, 1978. Visiting professor, Columbia University, 1980, Bucknell University, spring, 1988; Fanny Hurst professorship, Washington University, 1985. Chairman of creative writing, University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, 1984. Conducts poetry workshops and gives readings at colleges, universities, theaters, and art centers. Consultant in literature to Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.


  • The Naming of Beasts, Cummington Press (Omaha, NE), 1972.
  • Rejoicings: Selected Poems 1966-72, Fiddlehead Poetry Books (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1973.
  • Lucky Life, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1977.
  • The Red Coal, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1981.
  • Paradise Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
  • Lovesick, Perennial Library (New York, NY), 1987.
  • New and Selected Poems, Harper, (New York, NY), 1989.
  • Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.
  • Bread without Sugar: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Odd Mercy: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
  • This Time: New and Selected Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
  • Last Blue: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 2000.
  • American Sonnets: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
  • Not God after All, drawings by Sheba Sha, Autumn House Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2004.
  • Everything Is Burning: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
  • Save the Last Dance: Poems, Norton (New York, NY), 2008.
  • Early Collected Poems: 1965–1992, Norton (New York, NY), 2010.


  • Selected Essays, Harper, (New York, NY), 1988.
  • What I Can't Bear Losing: Notes from a Life (essays), Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
  • What I Can’t Bear Losing, Trinity University Press (San Antonio, TX), 2009.

Also author of "Father Guzman," a long poem published in Paris Review, spring, 1982. Contributor to anthologies; contributor to poetry journals and popular magazines, including New Yorker, Nation, Paris Review, Poetry Now, American Poetry Review, and Poetry.

Further Reading


  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 40, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press, 1996.
  • Sommerville, Jane, Gerald Stern: The Speaker as Meaning, Wayne State University Press, 1988.
  • Sommerville, Jane, Making the Light Come: The Poetry of Gerald Stern, Wayne State University Press, 1990.
  • Stitt, Peter, Uncertainty and Plenitude: Five Contemporary Poets, University of Iowa Press, 1997.


  • American Poetry Review, January/February, 2005, Ira Sadoff, review of What I Can't Bear Losing: Notes from a Life.
  • Dallas Times Herald Books, July 29, 1984.
  • Georgia Review, spring, 1978; winter, 1981.
  • Harper's, June, 1978.
  • Library Journal, June 1, 2005, Rochelle Ratner, review of Everything Is Burning: Poems, p. 134.
  • Literary Review, fall, 1984.
  • Nation, May 11, 1998, "Dance, Song, and Light," p. 49.
  • New Yorker, November 16, 1998, "Lyricism Unplugged," p. 103.
  • New York Times, October 9, 1977.
  • New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1981.
  • Poetry, August, 1982.
  • Poetry East, fall, 1981; fall, 1988.
  • Publishers Weekly, June 6, 1987; May 25, 1998, review of This Time, p. 84; February 21, 2000, review of Last Blue, p. 83; May 30, 2005, review of Everything Is Burning, p. 55.
  • Southern Review, autumn, 1998, "Boys to Men: Recent Poetry in Review," p. 736.
  • Tribune Books (Chicago), September 13, 1981.

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NewsHour Poetry Series
  • Watch A Conversation with Poet Gerald Stern
    At 87, Gerald Stern is one of the nation's most honored poets. He recently received the prestigious Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress for his collection Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992.
Poetry Documentaries
  • Watch Gerald Stern: Still Burning
    Produced by Norbert Lempert of REMproductions in association with the Poetry Foundation. Gerald Stern is as much the poet warrior now as when he stunned the poetry world thirty years ago with his book Lucky Life. In that book he first staked out a place for himself and readers that he has continued to make, a place that in his words is "overlooked or ignored or disdained, a place no one else wanted." This short documentary film, illustrated with materials from Stern's own archive, features some of Stern's best known poems. It also includes commentary by poets Ross Gay, Edward Hirsch, Anne Marie Macari, Heather McHugh, and Thomas Lux, each with a unique perspective on Stern as artist and friend.

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Gerald Stern


Gerald Stern has been called an “American original,” “a sometimes comic, sometimes tragic visionary,” and, by his friend Stanley Kunitz, “the wilderness in American poetry.” Over dozens of books, and decades of teaching and activism, Stern has emerged as one of America’s most celebrated and irascible poets. “If I could choose one poem of mine to explain my stance,” Stern told Contemporary Poets, “it would be ‘The One Thing in . . .

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