Gerald Stern on the Accidental Beginnings of Poems
“Every poem worth its salt was unpredicted and has its genesis at a low point in the poet’s journey.”
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All poems start by accident, and every poem worth its salt was unpredicted and, as often as not, has its genesis at a low point in the poet’s journey—which turns out to be a good metaphor: Once, I was on a bus going south on Second Avenue in New York, an especially low point, when I saw from my window an odd-looking one-story building made of smooth stone, sort of shining there, at the southeast corner of Twenty-Third, with a phrase from Isaiah carved in its side: “This house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” I pressed the magic strip and jumped out. I had been given a gift—the material for a long poem in the very middle of a busy neighborhood on an as-of-yet untransformed, unredeemed corner.
The building was a synagogue, or to be more accurate an ex-synagogue, called the East End Temple. The windows were boarded up, there were building permits pasted and nailed to the plywood, and it was waiting to be rebuilt, remade, or torn down. The building next door—all this I indicate in the poem—was a standard three-story red-brick with a fire escape on the outside. It probably housed the rabbi’s study, meeting rooms, classrooms, and the like. It was also empty. My guess is the whole corner will give way to an apartment building for the nouveaux-greedy and the house of God will be just a memory, since the whole neighborhood is rousing itself. Across the street, to the west, is the Cosmos Diner, an old local greasy, and to the east, a few blocks distant, is the East River, and Greenpoint, across the way, in Brooklyn. All this is in the poem.
The poem, called “I.,” takes place on the street outside the abandoned temple, inside the Cosmos Diner, on the East River, and across the water in Greenpoint, New York’s Poland. “I.” is a takeoff of Isaiah, albeit one that is hopelessly secular, fragmented, and incomplete. He—I.—is compulsive, and, sometimes, berserk. He is drunk on tea. He arranges the salt and pepper shakers as Manichean opposites, he takes his clothes off (as did another Isaiah), he goes through birthing pangs (as did another), he invokes Dickinson, Cervantes, Genesis, Exodus. He makes references to Mozart and Oswald Spengler. He remembers bathing costumes of the 1930s. He is angry (as was another), he cries for justice (as did another), he invokes not only the famous image—in a slightly different way—of the sword and plowshare, but also of the wolf and the lamb. He is moved by the persecuted and the poor. He seems to have Tourette’s. But “I.” is not a rewrite. It is a continuation, a meditation, a crazy footnote, a digression, a weird midrash. It is somewhat impious.
It is, in my view, quite Jewish, but your opinion depends on what you mean by Jewish and what Jews you are talking to—and about. Above all it leaves out the chapters on faith and salvation. In fact, if it mentions God it does so only by initial and only in reference to His appearing in Exodus and Genesis, and not—ever—in terms of I.’s belief, whatever that is. I. is also short on cursing and pronouncements. Even against the Ukrainians. Nor is he a misogynist. Ankle bracelets and timbrels seem okay. Childbirth is not a curse. Perfume is good. Nor is he particularly tribal, exclusive, oppositional, or prayerful. I wrote “I.” under the spell of Isaiah and because of the carved words. I started to read—my bibles, my encyclopedias, books I borrowed for some wild reason out of the Dartmouth College library, dear Rav Heschel’s magnificent work on the prophets, even Internet junk—but it was more a journey I was taking, a side trip on the east side of New York, always with a memory of Isaiah, with the presence, but not a retelling; a riff, in a way, a furtherance, but with a different purpose and with different beliefs and expectations.I wrote “I.” under the spell of Isaiah and because of the carved words.
Biblical scholars for the last century or so have ascertained, based on historical and linguistic evidence, that there is not one Isaiah but several, perhaps many. Common knowledge, this. It’s sometimes said that First Isaiah, Proto-Isaiah, wrote chapters one through thirty-nine; Deutero-Isaiah, chapters forty through fifty-five; and Trito-Isaiah, fifty-six through sixty-six—though Trito-Isaiah’s chapters may have been written by disciples of Deutero-Isaiah; several, or many. If I mention Isaiah Four, it is with comic and bitter tongue in cheek. It would not only be presumptuous, it would be ridiculous otherwise. I’m sorry if the consequence seems disrespectful or sacrilegious—God, not that! What I do, or try to do, is create an imaginary figure who, in a few emotional outbursts, acts out or reenacts some of the original outbursts as imagined in a modern setting, or ones that might occur in such a place, at such a time.
Furthermore, “I.” is a narrative, action over time, and not, as such, separate poems of praise or scorn that could be rearranged as they circle about a felt center (the way Isaiah of the Bible is, or might be). Furthermore, and most important, whatever “I.” does or doesn’t do, it’s not for the sake of, or out of fear of, or knowledge of, or even longing for deity, beard or no beard. If he (I.) is sometimes scathing in his denunciations (though he acts more out of wonder) it’s not out of duty or terror; it’s the way he is. It’s not that he has no sense of the sacred. He has too much. Even that ridiculous shul, even the diner, even the East River and the dilapidated buildings beyond are sacred.
As far as comedy, or the comic, is concerned, we must never be taken in by the sloe-eyed, depressed fools of the Hollywood and TV screen, prefigured in some windows or tile floors here and there. The little lesson on how to make an idol—use the same wood for fuel and God—is certainly comic in its deadpan literalness, though it is also ruthless in its accuracy and unyieldingness. It is good satire, a blockhead bowing down to a block of wood. In my poem I play around with the idea of remnant as purified Jew on his way back from Babylon, on the one hand, and as a piece of rug—that other remnant—on the other. I guess that’s a little funny, even if the context is unbearably sad.
Somewhere I read that Isaiah—Proto-Isaiah?—was finally sawn in half for being too insistent, too uncompromising, naming names and the like. I hope he died on the straw instead, or the wool, whatever they used. I don’t know where I. will die. In the Cosmos Diner? Maybe he did already. Maybe he’s going to do the absolutely unforgivable—buy a glass of vinegary wine, piss-water—to go with his enormous piece of greasy chicken. For which he does deserve the saw.
Excerpted from I. by Gerald Stern, with a foreword and afterword by Ross Gay and Alicia Ostriker (Ayin Press, 2022). Reprinted with permission from Ayin Press. An earlier version of “I.” appeared in Blackbird in 2009.