Chris Hedges Original Remembrance

Chris Hedges: Death of an Oracle

We have very few oracles. The loss of the poet Gerald Stern means we have one less.

By Chris Hedges / Original to ScheerPost

The poet Gerald Stern, who died last Friday at the age of 97, spent his life thundering against the mendacity and abuse of power; rebelling against all forms of authority, big and small; defying social conventions; and wielding his finely honed writing on behalf of the demonized, forgotten and oppressed. He was one of our great political poets. Poetry, he believed, had to speak to the grand and minute issues that define our lives. He was outrageous and profane, often in choice Yiddish, French and German. He was incredibly funny, but most of all brave. Rules were there, in his mind, to be broken. Power, no matter who held it, was an evil to be fought. Artists should be eternal heretics and rebels. He strung together obscenities to describe poets and artists who diluted their talent and sold out for status, grants, prizes, the blandness demanded by poetry journals and magazines like The New Yorker, and the death trap of tenured professorships.

I met Jerry when I was a pariah. I had repeatedly and publicly denounced the invasion of Iraq and, for my outspokenness, had been pushed out of The New York Times. I was receiving frequent death threats. My neighbors treated me as though I had leprosy. I had imploded my journalism career. Seeing how isolated I was, Jerry suggested we have lunch each week. His friendship and affirmation, at a precarious moment in my life, meant I had someone I admired assure me that it would be all right. He had the impetuosity and passion of youth, reaching into his pocket to pull out his latest poem or essay and reading long sections of it, ignoring his food. But, most of all, he knew where he stood, and where I should stand. 

“There is no love without justice,” he would say. “They are identical.”

Jerry’s rebelliousness colored his life. There was, for him, no other honest way to live. He donned bathing trunks to join Black students desegregating a swimming pool in Indiana, Pennsylvania. When, in the 1950s, Temple University, where he was teaching, built a six-foot wall around its campus to separate it from the surrounding Black neighborhood, he refused to walk through the entrance and climbed over the wall to get to class. The university fired him. He knew that any concession to power — and he saw universities as bastions of corporate power — eroded your integrity. He was unyielding. He told me, but perhaps more importantly showed me, that I must also be unyielding. We would not, he assured me, be rewarded by the wider society for our obstinacy, nor would we often be understood, but we would be free. And there would be those, especially the marginalized and oppressed, who would see in our defiance an ally, and that, in the end, was all that truly mattered. He called himself an agnostic, but he came as close to embodying the qualities of an Old Testament prophet — Biblical prophets were regarded at best as eccentrics if not insane — as anyone I ever met. He tied the most mundane moments of existence to the eternal mystery of the cosmos.

He closes his poem “The One Thing in Life” with these words:

There is a sweetness buried in my mind;
there is water with a small cave behind it;
there’s a mouth speaking Greek.
It is what I keep to myself, what I return to;
the one thing that no one else wanted.

Jerry read voraciously. He could recite volumes of poetry from memory. He loved the musicality of language. He kept a notebook next to his bed, so when words came to him in the middle of the night, and they would come in torrents, he could immediately scribble them down.

“Your job is to read, read, read and occasionally write,” he said.

Poems he loved, including his own, peppered his conversation. He especially admired poets, including the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, imprisoned for their defiance of authority. Hikmet, in “Letters from a Man in Solitary,” which Jerry recited, wrote:

To talk to anyone besides myself

                             Is forbidden.

So I talk to myself.

But I find my conversation so boring,

       My dear wife, that I sing songs.

And what do you know,

that awful, always off-key voice of mine

           touches me so

                 that my heart breaks.

Poets, he said, had a sacred calling. They must not allow the oppressed to remain voiceless, the crimes of the oppressor to go unnamed or memory to be obliterated. They must, like the prophets of old, feel the blast from heaven, rage against the night, conquer, as Abraham Heschel wrote, “callousness, to change the inner person as well as to revolutionize history.”

Jerry wrote:

I myself once lay under a bare light bulb on a terribly uncomfortable army cot, the mattress removed, with forty or so others lined up on either side of me. And I marched to an early breakfast with a number on my back and guards with loaded guns in front and back of me. And I fought with a pig of a provost-sergeant and was threatened with the hole. It feels odd — and alien — to talk about it now, and I feel foolish listing myself this way with the holy ones, for my time there was short, and my cause was absurdly small — compared to theirs. I was twenty years old at the time. I didn’t know it then, but my soul had descended into that place for the sake of making the universe more complete, and I had lost my way, and I was expiating for my own, or someone else’s wrong. I began writing poetry seriously there, weak and humid poetry, and I started to think like a poet. That helped me, and the physical labor helped me, and the love of my fellow prisoners. I read the New Testament there for the first time, and I talked to my friends about their terrors. They thought I was a preacher — because of my reading, I suppose — and I couldn’t disenchant them. That provost-sergeant was shot dead one day a few years later in a courtroom by an angry prisoner — or his brother. I know I plotted his death for years and even remembered his name for a month or two. I will not recognize him when he comes on his smoking knees for forgiveness.

You can see an interview I did with Jerry here.

He despaired of the decline of literacy and the ravages of the technological age, which he saw as intellectually, artistically and morally impoverishing. He believed the computer debased the poet as he or she “joined the company of scholars, secretaries, and petty businessmen.”

He grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, living in the shadow of the Carnegie and Mellon oligarchs who resided on the hills above the city on their estates, escaping the fetid air the working class breathed below. The social inequality of his childhood instilled in him a lifelong hatred of the rich, as well as the religious institutions that bowed before them. Drafted into the army at the end of World War II, he ended up being charged for a crime he did not commit and working ten- or eleven-hour days in a rock quarry with other convicts, most of whom were Black. He was later exonerated and given an honorable discharge, allowing him to collect seventy-five dollars a month from the GI. Bill and study for a doctorate, which he never completed, at The University of Paris. He lived in a cheap hotel in Paris where he had an affair with the owner’s wife, leading the husband to slip rat poison into his food, which nearly killed him. He walked across the northern half of Italy in remnants of his old uniform, visiting cities such as Venice and Bologna. He taught at many colleges and universities, some of which terminated his contracts because of his radicalism and outspokenness. He once fell asleep and started snoring during a poetry reading by Donald Hall, who never spoke to him again, an incident Jerry found uproariously funny. At a stop light on an empty road on the edge of Newark, New Jersey, he was shot  in the right shoulder and chin by a teenager with a zip gun, the bullet burying itself in the left side of his neck. It was never extracted.

“Sometimes the brutalized is brutal, the oppressed is oppressor,” he wrote of the event. “It’s an agony to think of it, though sometimes it’s a comedy. We can be both at once, we can even split the difference. Maybe only Diogenes was not oppressive. But who knows what his wife would say? And wasn’t his dour, puritanical, and featherless message itself oppressive?”

He was haunted by the death of his older sister Sylvia when he was eight and shaped by his life as a street tough in Pittsburgh, lifting weights, boxing and hanging out in pool halls. He had a pugnacious combativeness and worldliness foreign to most academics.  

He wrote in his memoir, What I Can’t Bear Losing, a beautiful and wise book:

Half the world is at war or preparing for it or recovering from it. Moreover, a sizeable portion of the good people of the world are in political prisons of one kind or another, and a fourth are starving; and we are contemptuous not only of human life but all life on the planet, if not the universe; and we are in a kind of trap, and coldness of heart has become the dominant mode, and the life we force ourselves to lead is degrading; and almost all governments are inept and corrupt and brutal; and we live by delusion, and there is very little dignity left and very little awe; and we may perhaps indeed be evil or indifferent creatures altogether, as the cruel incendiaries among us have for centuries suggested; and in my own country ugliness is apotheosized, and money is worshipped more than ever before; and we elect weasels to office; and we carefully destroy most of what is good from the past; and we murder and rape and thieve with ease; and we bore ourselves to death; and we either believe in dark and mindless things or pretend to be governened by systems and rules we neither understand nor believe in; and we hate the brain; and we are deeply pessimistic. Although there are some pockets of resistance: we produce art and we are somehow great in medicine and astronomy; and we dance and write poetry; and we still live for the future; and for one drop of water, the thirsty among us would gather and weep.

There are moments in our lives when, despondent, abandoned, uncertain and afraid, someone miraculously appears, like an angel, or let us say an oracle, to say the words we need to hear, to affirm what no one else affirms but what must be affirmed. It is because of Jerry, at one of the lowest moments in my life, I was able to stand up, bind my wounds, dismiss my enemies and go on. 


NOTE TO SCHEERPOST READERS FROM CHRIS HEDGES: There is now no way left for me to continue to write a weekly column for ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show without your help. The walls are closing in, with startling rapidity, on independent journalism, with the elites, including the Democratic Party elites, clamoring for more and more censorship. Bob Scheer, who runs ScheerPost on a shoestring budget, and I will not waver in our commitment to independent and honest journalism, and we will never put ScheerPost behind a paywall, charge a subscription for it, sell your data or accept advertising. Please, if you can, sign up at chrishedges.substack.com so I can continue to post my now weekly Monday column on ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show, The Chris Hedges Report.


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Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.

18 comments

  1. Was this man a saint or simply a self-indulgent bore? Seems a bit of both. Fell asleep during a Donald Hall poetry reading? Not very nice; I met Hall once, a very nice man, though I never knew him as you knew the stern Stern. Maybe a little more New Testament would’ve made his life better.

    Seems he lived his life in a dark hole and didn’t allow much sunlight into it. You can rage about the injustice of humanity, as you do, Chris, so well and rightly so. But where is the joy, where is the hope? There is more to life than just reading books and castigating the wrongs and evil in the world.

    1. I’ll go old Jerry one better with his pithy “Love/Justice” observation…. Both love and justice require courage…with probably a generous smattering of compassion added to the mix.

      Have the guts to tell the truth about 9/11 and this manufactured War on Terror; and maybe we can avert the predictable end to this tragic burlesque…. If you’re not willing to do that; shut the hell up, and let the people in the cheap-seats enjoy the fireworks.

      1. This is an addendum to my last heresy.

        I wrote a polemic “peace anthem” stage-play, film project that miraculously captured Ed Asner’s attention and participation, prior to his death.

        It included the same sort of heresies that Galileo was eventually granted pardon for, by a massive kiddy-diddling power structure. (I don’t want to name names.)

        Maybe there’s some young , firebrand filmmakers out there, that are less concerned about market-share and gross receipts, than they are about the fate of humanity. (it could happen)

        I’m damn near as easy to find as I am to shut up…. If you’d like to see what Asner and I cobbled together, I’d be delighted to show you what we had in mind.

        Hope springs eternal…. Let’s see where this goes.

    1. Same here. I am not a real poetry fan on the whole. But some poets are worthy of the effort. There is always a surprise reward.

  2. As Salman Rushdie has said, “A poet’s work . . . to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” When such a poet dies, there is a void in the universe. Fortunately, the writing lives on.

  3. There is much that “needs to be affirmed” at this moment in our collective unconscious. Much that needs to be seen and recognized for what it is. Poet can and do speak the language of love, truth and justice, things that occupy smaller and smaller spaces in our lives. There is great value in making more room in ourselves for their presence.

    We have not come here to take prisoners, but to surrender ever more deeply to freedom and joy.
    We have not come into this exquisite world to hold ourselves hostage from love, but to experience ever and ever more deeply our divine courage freedom and light.
    -Hafiz

  4. In this age where Joe Biden sends car bombs out to writers and philosophers he does not like, I doubt that this is the last time we’ll remember someone who’s writing we admire. But perhaps one of the last to live to an old age?

    Remember Darya Dugina, and all others accused of Thought Crimes by the state and the party that can not tolerate any opposition, at home or abroad, to their decrees and pronouncements. First they ‘deplatform’ you. But, if that doesn’t do the trick, the car bombs and drone missiles will soon follow.

    Notice the way “The Progressives” have been made to quickly cower in fear after their weak, spineless call for ‘diplomacy’. That is not the way things would work in a democracy. But, we saw other regimes in the 20th century that did work in that fashion.

    Ah, too bad this isn’t the Good Ole Days when all they did was burn the books they did not like.

  5. Poets are to be confined to their corner to pee and pirouette. They are not permitted to take part in the international discourse, as though esthetics has nothing to do with feeling and observation. Gerald Stern refused to be weak-willed, and his punishment was to be largely ignored by major presses. Still he pressed on, and Chris Hedges’ fine obit should keep him alive in the heart-mind–at least for a time.

  6. That last cut from “What I Can’t Bear Losing” was a flash tsunami.

    On that “pig of a provost-sergeant …”
    Gerald Stern seems to have been a man, and I’ll assume it to be the case.

    The Lord’s prayer ’bout ends with “And lead us not into temptation…”
    Why should the Lord lead us into temptation? We’ve got Satan, all the devils and our fellow men for that. On the other hand, The creator put us here, and must have known that almost each and every one would surely be tried. Gray area.

    Cain and Abel – men have been moved to kill one another from almost the day they hit the dirt. But when a decent and moral man is moved to kill some other for being so brutal, vile, evil… such an uncut curse on his fellow men, we have a man who is not only damned by his acts, but as well for his influence, for moving others to defy the cardinal commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” For leading others into temptation, and perhaps pushing them into action.

    aside, got off my lazy and googled it:
    A Provost Sergeant is a non-commissioned officer associated with military police.

    Well.

  7. A handful of poets, artists, writers, spiritual teachers and even songwriters have seen through the veil/s of deceit with the eyes of clarity.
    Not enough to change the world. Yet.
    Thanks Chris.

  8. Hmmm…. that ;six-foot wall’ that Temple University built to separate itself from the ‘surrounding Black community’. Wonder why they did that? Could it be for the same reason so many California liberals live inside gated communities? Okay, I know … it’s to protect themselves from all those raging white supremacists that kill dozens of young Black men in Black communities each weekend! Maybe that’s why Temple University did it.

  9. Your tribute to Gerald Stern is much appreciated. Myself, I have been close to the novelist, essayist, and longstanding editor of Fiction International, Harold Jaffe,whose writings, like Stern’s, is and has been on behalf of the dispossessed, including humans, animals and growing things. Defiant as he has had to be in an autocratic culture, his 30-plus books have been published only by small presses with little or no funds to distribute his writings. Increasingly, the market has dried up for serious writers whose utterances are not just from their mind but from their heart. His latest book, published by Equus Books, in Europe, is called Performances for the End of Time. The title is borrowed from the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who was imprisoned by the Nazis and composed the memorable Quartet for the End of Time in a labor camp in 1940.

  10. I signed up on Substack to support your work ($150) annually, and received neither an acknowledgement nor the email I was told I would receive in order to facilitate setting up an account on that site. Growing pains? (Sorry to post this on your comments section, but I found no other Contact link.)

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