Gerald Stern, "who drew on nature, history and his own experiences to write prizewinning poetry laced with wistfulness, anger and humor," died October 27, the New York Times reported. He was 97. Stern, whose This Time: New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998, "came to poetic prominence relatively late," with his first published poem, "The Pineys," appearing in the Journal of the Rutgers University Library in 1969, when he was 44; and his first collection, Rejoicings, published in 1973. His second collection, Lucky Life (1977), was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Stern served in the Army Air Forces in 1946 and 1947, after which he resumed his studies, receiving a bachelor's degree in political science at Pitt in 1947 and a master's degree in English at Columbia University in 1949. He spent a year in Europe, "supposedly working on a Ph.D., a degree he never completed," the Times noted, adding that he "did find his poetic calling there," as he wrote about in "The Red Coal," a 1981 poem that begins: "Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember/what it was like in the spring of 1950/before the burning coal entered my life.' "
"When poetry entered my life," Stern explained in a video interview, describing what the poem was about. "When the spirit entered. When I suddenly, self-consciously, said, 'I am a poet.' "
Over the years he taught at a number of institutions and taught poetry at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, "where his readings would draw standing-room-only crowds," the Times wrote. He retired from teaching in the mid-1990s. In 2010, he received the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2012 his Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992 was awarded the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress.
Stern's many honors also 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 was Poet Laureate of New Jersey from 2000 to 2002.
Stern's most recent poetry collection, Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems, 2000-2018, was published in 2020. The Times noted that a few years earlier he had published Divine Nothingness, a collection that includes "Writers' Workshop," a poem "inspired by a neglected apple tree in his yard when he lived in Iowa. He thought the tree was worthless until he picked up an apple off the ground and discovered that it was delicious."
"It's got to do with this concept that's dominated a lot of my poetry," he said in an interview, "particularly my early poetry: the sense that the ignored, the ignoble, the detested, the despised, the abandoned was truly worthy, be it people, be it nature. I always honor the unrecognized, the lost."
From Stern's poem "Still Burning":
walking afterwards through the park or sometimes
running across the bridges and up the hills,
sitting down in our tiny dining room,
burning in a certain way, still burning.