Banner

Bert Stern: Wabash Poet

Steve Charles—The journalist chases the story, the essayist the idea, the memoir writer the dissipating vapor of her life.

But the poet loves the word. The logos. The “in the beginning was the word” word. Today, I need the poet.

I’m spent. Scattered. I can’t write one more thing about anyone here. All my words look the same. None of them do these people justice. None gets to the essence of the person I’ve met.

It’s the middle of summer, and I need to hear poets. Not just Garrison Keillor reading a poem a day on the Writer’s Almanac. I need to hear a poet in his own voice, or at least a poet whose voice I trust.

In the last capital campaign we built this alumni terrace with bricks, each inscribed with a dedication from the giver. Mine read, “To Baker, Petty, Stern, and Hudson: Wabash Poets.” They were some of the first poets I knew outside of their poems, whose life and voice I could hear in their work. (Even though Bob Petty died before I got here, his words have been my field guide to this place.)

Our culture tends to undervalue poets. Few of them can make a living at their craft. But I can’t imagine life without them. They resurrect the words I suck the life out of.

I’m no poet, still it is the poet’s voice that calms and focuses me. The attention paid and devotion to one word at a time calls to me to slow down and consider.

I write fewer words and much more slowly than most on our staff, so I have no excuse for this, but every year, it seems, I get “written out.” I never tire of meeting and interviewing and photographing people; I tire of my words not being up to the task. Of the fact that they never will be up to the task, and that the gap between who I meet and what I can express seems to widen every year.

My antidote is usually a writer’s workshop, where other like-minded failures get together to remind ourselves that falling short is inevitable, that the joy is in the pursuit, that we’re blessed to do this work and, really, what choice do we have? Sort of a 12-step program for English majors.

But this year, no workshop. So I need to hear a poet.

Enter Bert Stern. Professor Emeritus of English, teacher, and poet whose collection, Steerage, was published earlier this summer by Ibbetson Street Press.

I knew some of these poems. I was blessed to read many in manuscript form, and we published a few in Wabash Magazine. But to see the work as a whole is different. More like a journey from beginning to near end. My favorite piece and others I’ll write about later. But here are some lines of the sort that remind me of how much we can mean to one another, and that rejuvenate my faith in the word to express that meaning:

I didn’t know that angels could get tangled
in the winter branches, or that the sun in winter
only seems to shine on an alien planet.
All that I held in my arms got broken
until you came and I learned that flesh could marry.

It is always like this. Even now children are being born
They are sucking milk because they were made to,
and staring at their mothers from across a great distance.
          —from “Testament”

 
When the ship came into the harbor
my spirit was waiting for me,
dancing on the shore,
a bird on the edge of the water.
      —from “America”

 A scene from childhood:

Evenings that went on forever
still unfolding. Deep Buffalo
winter, living room soft auburn
daddy asleep on his back, evening
News over his face, mother
knitting in her chair, reading
the book on her lap, I at her feet,
reading. Silence. I can hear
our breathing.
     —from  “Buffalo, 1938” 

or this, from the poem “Wait,” in which is the speaker is trying to call back into life a dying girl, a poem written by a man whose own little girl died of leukemia when he was a professor at Wabash:

Wait, he said, listen. He knew
a thin song that birds steer by. Wait,
he said, I’ll sing it. The rain falls
in torrents, coats the earth with
its own sheen, under the reflected
lights of stars. Wait, taste water.
It is a cold night. Pull the covers up,
press your body against whatever will hold it.
        —“Wait”

In an earlier version of that poem, the last line was "press your body against whatever will touch it." What a difference one word makes. 

Finally this, from the short poem “White-Throated Sparrow”:

Always a white-throated sparrow
singing on a mountain top, and somebody
there listening to it for the first time.
That’s what you need to believe …

           

 

  1. Thanks for this, Steve. Nothing more wonderful than to know that one’s words touch others.
    Warm regards,
    Bert

Comments are closed.