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Poetry Moment: Gerald Stern and 'The Hammer'

Poet Gerald Stern
Mark Ludak
Poet Gerald Stern

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.

Today’s poem is “The Hammer” by Gerald Stern.

Stern is a native of Pittsburgh and a poet strongly associated with a city that has produced a great number of American poets in the 20th century into this one. Stern is the author of dozens of books and the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry. His most recent collection is Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems.

“The Hammer” is from Stern’s earlier collection, American Sonnets. Throughout the book, Stern gives the classic form a kind of American upsizing, with most of the poems running closer to twenty lines, rather than the conventional fourteen. “The Hammer” is no exception in being stretched in Stern’s hands. More than length, the poem is expansive in voice, character, and tone. Fashioned from memory, “The Hammer” offers a personal mythology of the self, delivered with the dry humour for which Stern is well known. “The Hammer” celebrates Stern’s working class, Jewish, Eastern European roots and wryly reminds readers the western Alleghenies is a place where life happens, just as meaningfully as it does in New York or any other cosmopolitan locale.


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?

That was “The Hammer” by Gerald Stern.

And with Poetry Moment on WPSU, I’m Shara McCallum. Thanks for sharing this moment of poetry with me today.