Mr. Stern graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in 1942 and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, having been turned away for military service because of poor eyesight. He was surprised when, after World War II had ended in 1945, the military changed its mind.
“I had one semester to go,” he told The Iowa Review, “and every year or so I’d be called down for an examination at the Post Office, where we’d parade around naked, right? This time they passed me. I said, ‘What do you mean? I have a date tonight.’”
He served in the Army Air Forces in 1946 and 1947 — he spent much of that time manning a gatehouse at what is now Andrews Air Force Base — and then resumed his studies, receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science at Pitt in 1947 and a master’s degree in English at Columbia University in 1949. He then spent a year in Europe, supposedly working on a Ph.D., a degree he never completed. But he did find his poetic calling there, as he writes about in “The Red Coal,” a 1981 poem. The poem begins, “Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember/what it was like in the spring of 1950/before the burning coal entered my life.”
“When poetry entered my life,” Mr. Stern explained in the video interview, describing what the work was about. “When the spirit entered. When I suddenly, self-consciously, said, ‘I am a poet.’”
That poem mentions his friendship with the poet Jack Gilbert, another Pittsburgh native; they used to read their poems to small gatherings at a restaurant in the Webster Hall Hotel, across from the Pitt campus.
Returning to the United States, Mr. Stern married Patricia Miller in 1952. (They divorced in the 1980s.) He made a second trip to Europe with her and taught high school for a time in Scotland before returning to the United States in 1956 and taking a teaching position at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Over the years he would teach at a number of institutions, including Pitt, Columbia, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University and Princeton. He also taught poetry at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, where his readings would draw standing-room-only crowds.