Pondering themes that run the gamut from feminism to flora and fauna, Ruth Stone's "sly, subtle, exuberant, poignant, bawdy and bitter" poems (according to fellow poet Sandra Gilbert) have made a lasting impression on poetry lovers for over four decades.
"I'm just as glad I'm not a star," Ruth Stone said in a 1999 interview with the poet Rebecca Seiferle. Sometimes described as obscure -- or, more kindly, as "a poet's poet" -- Stone thought her obscurity gave her a kind of freedom in her work. That was before she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Ordinary Words and the National Book Award for In the Next Galaxy. Now well into her eighties, Ruth Stone has become a star poet, after all.
Poetry was a part of Stone's childhood in the literate, artistic household in which she grew up. Her mother read Tennyson to her when she was a baby, and her musician father would read from the King James Bible. Stone began writing poems when she was five years old; her father, who also worked as a typesetter, would sometimes print her poems on a linotype machine and bring them home. Several of her prize-winning poems were printed in actual newspapers while she was in grade school, but Stone was 44 when her first book, In an Iridescent Time, appeared in 1959.
In that same year, Stone's husband, the poet and novelist Walter Stone, committed suicide while on leave from his teaching post at Vassar College. Stone was left to raise their three daughters alone, and her poetry changed as dramatically as her life. "For the next decade, Ruth Stone moved in and out of periods of deep depression and despair, and Walter Stone's life and death became a nearly constant presence in the poetry of Ruth Stone," wrote Jan Freeman in a biographical essay. To support herself and her daughters, Stone took a variety of teaching jobs at colleges and universities across the country, serving as a mentor and inspiration to so many budding writers (including Jan Freeman, Toi Derricotte and Sharon Olds) that she's been termed a "Mother Poet." Stone was able to buy a ramshackle house in Vermont with the proceeds from an award, and the house -- where "winter demands a vital patience" -- figures frequently in her poems.
Stone's work has come to be characterized not only by a deep sense of loss, but by a sharp, sometimes cynical, often quite funny view of human society. She has paid special attention to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, and has often noted the ways in which women are still marginalized in certain male-dominated arenas. ("At the doughnut shop/twenty-three silver backs are lined up at the bar,/sitting on the stools," she writes in "Male Gorillas.") It's fair to call Stone a feminist poet, even a political poet, but she reaches her reader through plain-spoken observation rather than heated polemics. Her poems are full of the ordinary people, places and events of American life; one publisher lists her subjects as "trailer parks, state parks, prefab houses, school crossing guards, bears, snakes, hummingbirds, bottled water, Aunt Maud, Uncle Cal, lost love, dry humping at the Greyhound bus terminal, and McDonald's as a refuge from loneliness."
This preoccupation with the local and particular is balanced by an interest in the nature of the physical universe. Stone is an avid reader of science writing, and often transforms scientific fact into poetic metaphor, whether it's photons and fractals or a lowly tomato caterpillar carrying parasite wasp eggs. Her subject matter is seldom high-flown, yet the music she coaxes from "ordinary words" often soars. "Sly, subtle, exuberant, poignant, bawdy and bitter" (as Sandra Gilbert wrote), Stone certainly deserves her belated fame.
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After teaching creative writing at so many universities that Willis Barnstone suggested she might hold "a record for teacher vagabondage," Stone finally settled down at SUNY-Binghamton, where she is now professor emerita.
When she's not at Binghamton, Stone lives in Vermont in a "house with 5,000 books in it," as she told an interviewer for Poetic Voices. She has three grown daughters and seven grandchildren.