With his free spirit, free verse Poet laureate's term ending.

Posted: June 26, 2002

LAMBERTVILLE, N.J. — Between cursing a missed FedEx delivery and reading from his new book of sonnets, Gerald Stern exercised the vocal cords that in his youth made him a soprano.

First, he played a cantor, chanting a prayer in Hebrew. Then came a less austere maxim that he had been teaching his girlfriend's 10-year-old son.

"A purely decorative poet," he said on the porch of his Lambertville home, "deserves to have their head cut off."

Stern, 77, is a wordsmith for the people, and not just because his verses capture the Rust Belt through the eyes of an immigrant's son.

Playful and affable, Stern is New Jersey's first poet laureate. In a state that was home to Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, it wasn't until 2000 that the legislature created the position of state poet. The governor and the state Council for the Humanities can appoint a poet laureate every two years.

The title comes with a $10,000 honorarium, which Stern has used to travel around the state for readings. He fell short, though, of his plan to assemble all of the state's poets in one place.

"They didn't give me enough money," he said with a half smile.

Tomorrow night, he will cap his term with a reading at the Rutgers University-Camden Summer Writers' Conference.

"He is not necessarily what you would expect to find in a poet laureate," said J.T. Barbarese, an assistant creative-writing professor at Rutgers-Camden who will introduce Stern tomorrow. "He has never been a formalist."

Stern, the author of more than a dozen books, exercises a strong sense of place in his poetry. Perhaps it helped him become New Jersey's state poet even though he was born in Pittsburgh.

"I latch on to a place like I have been there forever," Stern said. "I use the physical as a takeoff point for the intellectual, the spiritual - the invisible journey."

Twenty years ago, Stern wrote this about the sleepy Hunterdon County river town he now calls home:

Ah, but for sadness there are very few towns like Lambertville.

It drips with grief, it almost sags from the weight.

In American Sonnets, Stern's latest collection, he writes some about Philadelphia. One poem, "Box of Cigars," recalls his throwing a box of stale cigars out the window of his Pine Street apartment.

Street people gathered to pick up the cigars, and before Stern could warn about their lack of freshness, the stogies were lit. His action left him ill at ease, and he wrote, in part:

I ran down to explain but they were smoking already nor did I have anything to give them since we were living on beans ourselves, I sat and smoked too, and once in a while we looked up at the open window, and one of us spit into his empty can. We were visionaries.

When teaching at Temple University, Stern was "banned to the Cheltenham campus," he said. "I became a one-man English department."

He also claims a radical streak, one that he said led to the university's asking him to leave after seven years on the faculty.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Stern was not yet renowned as a poet or teacher. So it didn't improve his standing with the Temple administration that on his way to work he would scale a wall that he said had been designed to separate the school from the predominantly black neighborhood.

He also arranged, he said, for an "erotic" poem that had been censored from a school publication to be published in a local newspaper.

His likely successor has an equally activist background. Amiri Baraka, a poet and playwright who founded the Spirit House, an African American community theater in his native Newark, is expected to be named New Jersey poet laureate next month.

"I liked being laureate," Stern said. "I liked when people said, 'Hey, you're the New Jersey poet laureate.' I liked that."

Contact Jake Wagman at 856-779-3829 or jwagman@phillynews.com.

'The Hammer'

What did a foot of snow matter when I

was upstairs with my hammer banging against

the radiators; and what good was my threadbare

camel's hair coat and white silk scarf inside

that freezing office I paid seven dollars a month

for, including heat; and what did it matter that I

grew up on the wrong side of the Alleghenies

and got the news from New York, oh five, ten years

too late, and was the hammer well balanced or not?

And did I wear my coat when I read and did I

wear the scarf like a babushka or wasn't there

a green beret somewhere, and what did my moustache

have to do with it, and wasn't it fine,

that waiting, and wasn't the floor covered with paper

the way a floor should be, a perfect record of

a year or so in that ruined mountain city

where I spoke out on my side of the burned-over slag heap?

Gerald Stern will read from his poetry at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Octagon Room at the Rutgers University-Camden Campus Center, Lawrence and North Third Streets. Admission is free.

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