Obituary: Gerald Stern

New Jersey’s agnostic Poet Laureate who fiercely believed in ‘the idea of the Jew’


The poet, writer and teacher Gerald Stern, who has died aged 97, published 20 collections of poetry and four books of essays, as well as teaching literature and creative writing at various higher education institutions in the United States.

He came to poetic prominence relatively late in life. His first published poem, The Pineys, did not appear until he was 44, in 1969. He was almost 50 when his collection, Rejoicings, was published in 1973.

While Stern did not consider himself a Jewish poet, he conceded that his poems might be interpreted as Jewish in nature. He was a confirmed agnostic but also fiercely believed in “the idea of the Jew.”

His Jewishness certainly gave him a unique perspective and his poetry is full of references to his working-class upbringing in the US as well as his Eastern-European Jewish heritage and the striking divisions between Jews and non-Jews in Pittsburgh.

His poetry “elevates the mundane into the realm of the sacred” wrote one critic. At the same time, given his experiences in Europe, it is also cosmopolitan and international.

“His America is a surreal place, alive with biblical intensity and shaded by themes of Judaic loss, and his tone,” another critic said, “sometimes chatty, sometimes streetwise — he takes the reader into a landscape where grandeur combines strangely with the everyday.”

Jewish references are heard in his poems. The Jew and the Rooster Are One, about Chaim Soutine, imagines the painter slaughtered like one of the roosters in his own paintings.

According to the poet and critic Edward Hirsch, describing one of Stern’s signature poems, The Dancing, “This extraordinary moment of dancing is really the liberation from the camps in 1945. And suddenly you realise that this — paradisial moment in Pittsburgh, is also an infernal moment, or coming out of an infernal moment, in Europe.”

“We remember the famous words that after the Holocaust, after Shoah, there can be no poetry,” Stern said. “The alternative is, after Shoah there can be only poetry.”

He won the National Jewish Book Award in Poetry in 2005.

Gerald Daniel Stern was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Jewish immigrant parents. His mother, Ida Barach Stern, had arrived from Poland and his father Harry Stern had emigrated from Ukraine.

The Sterns owned shops selling clothing and other goods such as cigars because his paternal grandfather, who died before he was born, had started a cigar manufacturing business in Pittsburgh. He grew up in a house with no books.

Stern was profoundly affected by the death of his older sister Sylvia, aged nine, from spinal meningitis. He was eight and she was his only sibling.

“Sylvia in a way was my muse,” he said in the Poetry Foundation video. “In a way her death became the motif and the stimulating force — that sense of loss.” He later wrote a poem entitled Sylvia. Stern attended Taylor Allderdice High School, graduating in 1942.

Rejected from military service owing to his poor eyesight, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. But when the Second World War ended in 1945, he was passed fit and served in the Army Air Forces from 1946 to 1947.

He then resumed his studies, receiving a BA in political science in 1947 and an MA in English from Columbia University in 1949.

He then spent a year at the University of Paris to work on a doctorate that he never finished, but it was there he found his poetic metier. On returning to the US in 1952, Stern married Patricia Miller.

They had two children together but divorced in the 1980s. He then began a relationship with poet Anne Marie Macari, which continued until he died. With Miller, Stern travelled to Europe, teaching in Scotland before returning to the US in 1956 where he took up a teaching position at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Over the following years, he taught at several institutions, including Pittsburgh, Columbia, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, Princeton, and the University of Iowa.

Stern retired from teaching in the mid-1990s. He was the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the National Book Award, the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress.

In 2000 Governor Christine Todd Whitman appointed him the first Poet Laureate of New Jersey.

Stern died at the Calvary Hospice in New York City.

He is survived by his partner, Anne Marie Macari, and by his children, David Stern and Rachael Stern Martin, from his marriage to Patricia Miller, and four grandchildren, Dylan and Alana Stern and Rebecca and Julia Martin.

Gerald Stern: born February 22, 1925. Died October 27, 2022.

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