Sunday 27 November 2011

Ruth Stone (1915-2011)

Ruth Stone: photo by her granddaughter Bianca Stone

The American poet Ruth Stone, who only received wide recognition for her work in her late 80s, has died, aged 96. She was 87 when she received the National Book Award for her collection In the Next Galaxy, and was still writing extraordinary poetry well into her 90s. Her acclaimed retrospective, What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems, followed in 2008 from Copper Canyon Press. The UK edition published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009 won her many admirers in Britain and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1915, Ruth Stone lived in rural Vermont for much of her life. In 1959, after her husband committed suicide – during a stay in London – she had to raise three daughters alone, all the time writing what she called her ‘love poems, all written to a dead man’ who forced her to ‘reside in limbo’ with her daughters.

The young Ruth, photograph by John Lane Studio

For 20 years she travelled the US, teaching creative writing at many universities. A greatly loved teacher, she was still working into her 80s. She has won many awards and honours, including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Eric Mathieu King Award from the Academy of American Poets, a Whiting Award (with which she bought plumbing for her house), two Guggenheim Fellowships (one of which roofed the house), the Delmore Schwartz Award, the Cerf Lifetime Achievement Award from the state of Vermont, and the Shelley Memorial Award.

Ruth Stone pictured in 1965

Ruth Stone once said, ‘I decided very early on not to write like other people.’ What Love Comes To shows the fruits of this resolve in the lifetime’s work of a true American original. This comprehensive selection includes early formal lyrics, fierce feminist and political poems, and meditations on her husband’s suicide, on love, loss, blindness and ageing. What Love Comes To opens up her own particular world of serious laughter; of uncertainty and insight; of mystery and acceptance.

The book has a foreword by Sharon Olds, who ‘had the joy of meeting Ruth Stone’ as a teenager, a later encounter giving her ‘a vision of a genius at work’:
Ruth Stone’s poems are mysterious, hilarious, powerful. They are understandable, often with a very clear surface, but not simple – their intelligence is crackling and complex… She is a poet of great humor – mockery even – and a bold eye, not obedient. There is also disrespect in her poems, a taken freedom, that feels to me like a strength of the disenfranchised.

Ruth’s poems are direct and lissome, her plainness is elegant and shapely, her music is basic, classical: it feels as real as the movement of matter. When we hear a Stone first line, it is as if we have been hearing this voice in our head all day, and just now the words become audible. She is a seer, easily speaking clear truths somehow unmentioned until now… She has a tragic deadpan humor: love and destruction are right next to each other…

Ruth Stone’s poems, in their originality and radiance, their intelligence and music and intense personal politics, shine in their place within her generation, among the pioneering women (Bishop, Brooks, Rukeyser)… Ruth Stone’s poems are the food the spirit craves.
Photo by Paul O. Boisvert, 2002

Ruth Stone: Poems through a life

My mother read poetry aloud when she was nursing me. She loved Tennyson deeply. She taught me all those poems by heart, so by the time I was two I knew many poems. What I absorbed from her was both a cadence of language and a music of poetry and patterns. Later on, when I was able, I wrote all these patterns of English poetry.

I started reading when I was three, and I’ve read all kinds of books all my life: a lot on science, nature and the universe. Women who love to write poetry are the hagfish of the world. We eat everything. We eat the language. We eat experience. We eat other people’s poems.

I wrote my first poem without knowing I’d done it – and found that poems came with this mysterious feeling, a kind of peculiar ecstasy. I’d feel and hear a poem coming from a long way off, like a thunderous train of air. I’d feel it physically. I’d run like hell to the house, blindly groping for pencil and paper. And then the poem would write itself. I’d write it down from the inside out. The thing knew itself already. There were other times when I’d almost miss it, feeling it pass through me just as I was grabbing the pencil, but then I’d catch it by its tail and pull it backwards into my body. Then the poem came out backwards and I’d have to turn it round.

My father was a musician and played the drums all the time, so I learned a lot of rhythms just through my ear. Rhyme is automatic with me. I use a lot of internal rhyme. It’s all in my ear, my own music. People are always talking to me about my sense of form but I think it’s just built in. It’s fun and challenging to work with form. It’s a catalyst, it zips up your adrenaline. I don’t know at what point I became more in control over what was so spontaneous, an uncontrollable process.

When I was younger there was a kind of singing in all my poetry, but after Walter died, that younger singing was subdued, not harsh enough. Of course I still have a lot of inner rhyme. But I needed to find a different way to write. Life altered me. Experience and suffering altered me. Having to endure and be strong for my daughters altered me. I couldn’t cry, but I didn’t talk for a year either. I couldn’t even stand up straight, I shuffled: ‘I shuffled and snuffled and whined for you’ [‘The Tree’]. I couldn’t live anywhere except in some sort of dreamlike state in which it seemed as though he’d never left me. And also the past kept intervening, and then it was as though there was no present, but only the past. And that kept going for a long long time.

Collaged by Neil Astley from interviews by Ruth Stone with J.F. Battaglia, Robert Bradley, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sandra M. Gilbert and Mary Ann Wehler. A shorter version of this piece was published by the Poetry Book Society in the PBS Bulletin in 2009.

Ruth Stone: photo by her granddaughter Sahara Najat Croll

Writers on Ruth Stone

Galway Kinnell: 'Her poems startle us over and over with their shapeliness, their humor, their youthfulness, their wild aptness, their strangeness, their sudden familiarity, the authority of their insights, the moral gulps they prompt, their fierce exactness of language and memory.'

Philip Levine (recalling her reading): 'She read and spoke of betrayal, rage, suicide, loneliness, despair. There are some poets who, when they read, leave at the end of each poem a little silence to be filled by the sighs of the audience as it recoils from so much wisdom in such an exquisite package. Ruth was not one of them. I think we all felt her need to unburden herself of an enormous weight of language and imagery. She’d already waited too long... Ruth lived in the only world of poetry that matters, the one without publishers, awards, prestige, competition, jealousy, money — the one we might call “poetry eternal,” the same world the great poems live in. Now she is there forever.' (Read his beautiful tribute in full in the New York Times magazine.)

Michael Longley: 'In not one of my 20 or so anthologies of American poetry is Ruth Stone’s work represented.  This is a shocking state of affairs.  Her poetry is profound and beautiful.  It will alter the way you consider the art.  What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems is, for me, the most captivating discovery of the last few decades.' (Books of the Year, Scottish Sunday Herald)

Neil Astley: Ruth Stone is a true US original. Now aged 93 and almost blind, she is still writing poetry of extraordinary variety and radiance - fierce feminist and political poems and hilarious send-ups, meditations on ageing, love and loss. I had the privilege of meeting her in September, just after reading her What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon), by far the most spirited, mysterious, wise, funny, defiant and deeply moving book of poetry that I have read in ages. (Books of the Year, Morning Star)

Frances Leviston: Guardian review of What Love Comes To.

Carol Rumens: writing on the Guardian's Poem of the Week, Ruth Stone's 'Things I Say to Myself While Hanging Laundry', quoted with the article.

Obituaries & profiles
William Grimes, New York Times
Chard DeNiord, Guardian
Kandace Brill Lombart, Independent

Ruth Stone filmed in Vermont

Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed Ruth Stone in Vermont in September 2008. Ruth was almost blind by then but still knew many of her poems by heart, and recites (or sings) several poems in this short film (prompted occasionally by editor Neil Astley) from What Loves Comes To: 'In an Iridescent Time', 'Orchard', 'The Talking Fish', 'The Excuse', 'Advice', 'I Have Three Daughters' (which she sings), 'Metamorphosis', 'Bargain, 'Mantra' and 'The Season':

In an Iridescent Time

My mother, when young, scrubbed laundry in a tub,
She and her sisters on an old brick walk
Under the apple trees, sweet rub-a-dub.
The bees came round their heads, the wrens made talk.
Four young ladies each with a rainbow board
Honed their knuckles, wrung their wrists to red,
Tossed back their braids and wiped their aprons wet.
The Jersey calf beyond the back fence roared;
And all the soft day, swarms about their pet
Buzzed at his big brown eyes and bullish head.
Four times they rinsed, they said. Some things they starched,
Then shook them from the baskets two by two,
And pinned the fluttering intimacies of life
Between the lilac bushes and the yew:
Brown gingham, pink, and skirts of Alice blue.


The mare roamed soft about the slope,
Her rump was like a dancing girl’s.
Gentle beneath the apple trees
She pulled the grass and shook the flies.
Her forelocks hung in tawny curls;
She had a woman’s limpid eyes,
A woman’s patient stare that grieves.
And when she moved among the trees,
The dappled trees, her look was shy,
She hid her nakedness in leaves.
A delicate though weighted dance
She stepped while flocks of finches flew
From tree to tree and shot the leaves
With songs of golden twittering;
How admirable her tender stance.
And then the apple trees were new,
And she was new, and we were new,
And in the barns the stallions stamped
And shook the hills with trumpeting.

The Talking Fish

My love’s eyes are red as the sargasso
With lights behind the iris like a cephalopod’s.
The weeds move slowly, November’s diatoms
Stain the soft stagnant belly of the sea.
Mountains, atolls, coral reefs,
Do you desire me? Am I among the jellyfish of your griefs?
I comb my sorrows singing; any doomed sailor can hear
The rising and falling bell and begin to wish
For home. There is no choice among the voices
Of love. Even a carp sings.

The Excuse

Do they write poems when they have something to say,
Something to think about,
Rubbed from the world’s hard rubbing in the excess of every day?
The summer I was twenty-four in San Francisco. You and I.
The whole summer seemed like a cable-car ride over the gold bay.
But once in a bistro, angry at one another,
We quarreled about a taxi fare. I doubt
That it was the fare we quarreled about,
But one excuse is as good as another
In the excess of passion, in the need to be worn away.
Do they know it is cleanness of skin, firmness of flesh that matters?
It is so difficult to look at the deprived, or smell their decay.
But now I am among them. I, too, am a leper, a warning.
I hold out my crippled fingers; my voice flatters
Everyone who comes this way. In the weeds of mourning,
Groaning and gnashing, I display
Myself in malodorous comic wrappings and tatters,
In the excess of passion, in the need to be worn away.


My hazard wouldn’t be yours, not ever;
But every doom, like a hazelnut, comes down
To its own worm. So I am rocking here
Like any granny with her apron over her head
Saying, lordy me. It’s my trouble.
There’s nothing to be learned this way.
If I heard a girl crying help
I would go to save her;
But you hardly ever hear those words.
Dear children, you must try to say
Something when you are in need.
Don’t confuse hunger with greed;
And don’t wait until you are dead.

I Have Three Daughters

I have three daughters
Like greengage plums.
They sat all day
Sucking their thumbs.
And more’s the pity,
They cried all day,
Why doesn’t our mother’s brown hair
Turn gray?

I have three daughters
Like three cherries.
They sat at the window
The boys to please.
And they couldn’t wait
For their mother to grow old.
Why doesn’t our mother’s brown hair
Turn to snow?

I have three daughters
In the apple tree
Singing Mama send Daddy
With three young lovers
To take them away from me.
I have three daughters
Like greengage plums,
Sitting all day
And sighing all day
And sucking their thumbs;
Singing, Mama won’t you fetch and carry,
And Daddy, won’t you let us marry,
Singing, sprinkle snow down on Mama’s hair
And lordy, give us our share.


Now I am old, all I want to do is try;
But when I was young, if it wasn’t easy I let it lie,
Learning through my pores instead,
And it did neither of us any good.
For now she is gone who slept away my life,
And I am ignorant who inherited,
Though the head has grown so lively that I laugh,
“Come look, come stomp, come listen to the drum.”
I see more now than then; but she who had my eyes
Closed them in happiness, and wrapped the dark
In her arms and stole my life away,
Singing in dreams of what was sure to come.
I see it perfectly, except the beast
Fumbles and falters, until the others wince.
Everything shimmers and glitters and shakes with unbearable longing,
The dancers who cannot sleep, and the sleepers who cannot dance.


I was not ready for this world
Nor will I ever be.
But came an infant periled
By my mother sea,
And crying piteously.

Before my father’s sword,
His heavy voice of thunder,
His cloud hung fiery eyes,
I ran, a living blunder.

After the hawker’s cries,
Desiring to be shared
I hid among the flies.

Myself became the fruit and vendor.
I began to sing.
Mocking the caged birds
I made my offering.

“Sweet cream and curds…
Who will have me,
Who will have me?”
And close upon my words,
“I will,” said poverty.


When I am sad
I sing, remembering
the redwing blackbird’s clack.
Then I want no thing
except to turn time back
to what I had
before love made me sad.

When I forget to weep,
I hear the peeping tree toads
creeping up the bark.
Love lies asleep
and dreams that everything
is in its golden net;
and I am caught there, too,
when I forget.

The Season

I know what calls the Devil from the pits,
With a thief’s fingers there he slouches and sits;
I’ve seen him passing on a frenzied mare,
Bitter eyed on her haunches out to stare;
He rides her cruel and he rides her easy.
Come along spring, come along sun, come along field daisy.

Smell the foxy babies, smell the hunting dog;
The shes have whelped, the cocks and hens have lost their wits;
And cry, “Why,” cry the spring peepers, “Why,” each little frog.
He rides her cruel and he rides her easy;
Come along spring, come along sun, come along field daisy.

All poems from Ruth Stone's What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, USA, 2008; Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2009).

Trailer from Nora Jacobson's film on Ruth Stone

Independent filmmaker Nora Jacobson has been working on a film about Ruth Stone over the past few years, assisted by Chard DeNiord. Her film production company Off the Grid Productions is based in Norwich, Vermont.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Ruth Stone's genius

An extract from Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk A different way to think about genius in which she describes meeting the poet Ruth Stone who described the way poems "came" to her. The full talk is on TED (here) and on YouTube (here). Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses – and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius. It's a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.


Jose Varghese said...

Thanks a lot for posting this - it's so informative. The Elizabeth Gilbert video sums it up well - watched that long time ago.

Chard deNiord said...

Thank you, Neil, for posting this potpourri of poems, reviews, film clips, obituaries (The Guardian's obit just appeared) and tributes to Ruth. A great service to the poetry and larger world. Ruth lived uniquely in both.

Anonymous said...

This is a remarkable compilation in tribute to Ruth Stone, a uniquely American poet, truly one of our country's greatest poets,yet BloodAxe brought her back full-circle to a universal audience. In gratitude to BloodAxe Books for honoring Ruth, publishing What Love Comes To, and continuing her written word . . . it was such a great gift to know her. Kandace Brill Lombart.

Burgess said...

This is a wonderful quilt-work of Ruth's work and life. I read through it, listening to her voice and remind myself that each snippet is the tip of many lives lived and many other poems written. I am delighted BloodAxe books drew in so many more readers to appreciate Ruth's endless creativity.

Abigail Blue Jay Stone said...

This is a wonderful collection of tributes, and footage of my mother at the end of her life. Lovingly put together and portrayed.