Ordinary Words


Ordinary Words celebrates Ruth Stone's 84th birthday. Ordinary Words captures a unique vision of "Americana" marked by Stone's characteristic wit, poignancy, and lyricism. The poet addresses the environment, poverty, and aging with fearless candor and surprising humor.. "Stone's subjects are 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 ...
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Ordinary Words celebrates Ruth Stone's 84th birthday. Ordinary Words captures a unique vision of "Americana" marked by Stone's characteristic wit, poignancy, and lyricism. The poet addresses the environment, poverty, and aging with fearless candor and surprising humor.. "Stone's subjects are 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. Her heroes are dead husbands, wild grandmothers, struggling daughters - ordinary Americans leading simple and extraordinary lives.

Winner of the National Book Critic's Circle Award for Poetry.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Nominated for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award, Ordinary Words, Ruth Stone's 11th book of poetry, chronicles the small-town dramas of "ordinary" Americans as they pass through her wise, uncanny vision. This collection of more than 60 short, lyrical poems ranges from a tale of an energetic grandmother to wanderings through the Vermont landscape to unabashed insights on the passing of time.

In reading the poems, one imagines a quiet old woman who suddenly speaks, who suddenly lets you know that she has been watching you and the rest of the world for years. Her voice is not any highbrow play of language or embedded in distraught confession, but plainspoken and direct. She has seen the world and tells it how she wants to tell it. She finds inspiration in donut shops, in Aunt Mabel's kitchen, even in bottled water.

Many of the poems are short tales of transformed lives rendered with a quirky lyricism. In "Perhaps," a woman sits while snow falls outside: "This woman sits in the kitchen/at a plastic table playing computer chess." Another poem, "How They Got Her to Quiet Down," is a mixture of bizarre tragedy and humor, where a woman is chopping the furniture with an ax, a baby is tossed in the air ("Little Ustie came down/with brain fever"), and a toothless grandma is running around the house.

Stone frequently pays homage to Wallace Stevens, whose philosophy that poetry should be free of rigidity and forever changing she clearly takes to heart. This collection goes far beyond simple snapshots of Americana. The polyphony of voices attempts to communicate in universal terms what the local stories cannot. A nostalgic moment in 1941 Indianapolis rests beside the "thermonuclear wings" of hummingbirds, making the reader forget the earlier proclamation: "This montage upon which we write the message/that fails in language after language."

From the very first poem, "Good Advice," there is an acute awareness of mortality, of the inability to conquer time:

      We who grow old so fast
      may not perceive their turbulent birth.
      My darling suffered so; her cells
      bursting and burning, eaten alive.
      In this slow terrible way, we come to know
      violent chaos at the pure brutal heart.

What the poet cannot get at through direct approach, she communicates through a tone of distance from the world. Strangers pass in and out of her view as if in automatic motion, unable to escape their situations. Couples grope each other at the Greyhound station, then "uncouple" and begin a different drama. Moments with a lover from 60 years before have been diluted to hazy fragments. In "Repetition," she searches for that mysterious life-affirming element that moves people: "It's unbearable and yet, every day/you go to the city."

This detachment from the world is balanced by her nature poems, which seem to explain the unintelligible answers that she searches for in people. She has an affinity for the strangely unnoticed, such as the suffering of amoebas or the funeral woods for the diseased cattle. But her visions of the ordinary seem most powerful:

      Across the highway a heron stands
      in the flooded field. It stands
      as if lost in thought, on one leg, careless,
      as if the field belongs to herons.

In many of her poems, the enormous distance between the stories, imagery, and metaphors stacked on top of one another works to dissociate your senses. The rapid movement from shadows to cards to confetti to a penumbra creates less of a scene than an accumulation of images that tries to connect from the furthest reaches. In "Sorting It Out," and other poems, she hints that this "obsession with invisible things" is a form of female intuition, an illogical feeling of fragments.

There is a strange truthfulness in the poetry of Ruth Stone. What most poets tend to ignore or pass over as unpoetic, she confronts head on. The images of McDonald's and Buicks and shopping malls make the reader squirm. An urge arises to push such capitalist icons out of your head at the same time you recognize their long familiarity in your life. And yet, Stone's homegrown poetry still enlists the wisdom of the canon to push the boundaries of what is considered poetry. She unearths the quirks and tragedies of provincial America while still managing to confront the universal conditions of time, sex, and death.

—Justin Frimmer

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the now abandoned race to find the next Virginia Hamilton Adair, one might have overlooked Stone, who, with 10 other books and numerous awards, has been here all along. Her 11th, with its unprepossessing title, is well worth discovering, consistent and forthright in its explorations of the quotidian and the dream-life it can produce. Writing of "this sly shadow of too much knowing," the poet takes us through "cities scattered like a deal of cards/...As I run on miraculous hooves/ from the wooden pen. As I run/ through the market street squealing.// This glaze of vision fragmented,/ confetti caught in the updraft;/ dark photograph of the penumbra." If poems like "1941" (about an interracial dalliance) don't quite find the tense language they seek, others are studded with socio-political zingers: "My middle-class beauty, testing itself,/ discovered the dull dregs of ordinary marriage." Stone often writes as aging observer, commenting wrly on a boring, line-up-at-the-counter existence; she laments the past's inability to break its frame-or her own inability to keep her late middle-aged daughters ("in over their hips") from falling into it. But Stone's other characters, with a contagious hope, look out with "worn eyes/ and see the bright new Pleiades." The ordinary, for Stone, turns out to be more than enough. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Founded recently to present "the work of women writers who have been neglected or misrepresented in the literary world," Paris Press did well by Stone--her book recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. At 85, with 11 books to her credit, Stone finally received long-overdue recognition. Stone's work could be described as witty (see, for instance, "Western Purdah" on the joys of wearing pantyhose) if it weren't so tartly obvious in addressing the darker side of life. Ordinary words, these aren't. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Elizabeth Lund
Stone, who won this year's National Book Critic's Circle Award, uses ordinary language to breathe life and depth into ordinary relationships...This collection shows us that there are no humdrum moments, only moments that have not been carefully observed.
The Christian Science Monitor
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780963818386
  • Publisher: Paris Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2000
  • Pages: 96
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruth Stone

Ruth Stone is the author of nine books of poetry, for which she has received the National Book Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Shelley Memorial Award. She taught creative writing at many universities, finally settling at SUNY Binghamton. She lives in Vermont.


"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.

Good To Know

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.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Ruth Perkins Stone
    2. Hometown:
      Goshen, Vermont and Binghamton, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 8, 1915
    2. Place of Birth:
      Roanoke, Virginia
    1. Education:
      University of Illinois (no degree); B.A., Radcliffe Institute of Independent Study at Harvard University

Read an Excerpt


In our loss we accepted the strange shape of things as though it had meaning for us,
as though we moved slowly over the acreage,
as though the ground modulated like water.
The floors and the cupboards slanted to the West,
the house sinking toward the evening side of the sky.
The children and I sitting together waiting,
there on the back porch, the massive engine of the storm swelling up through the undergrowth,
pounding toward us.

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Table of Contents

Good Advice 1
Up There 2
Words 3
This 4
The Dark 5
Summing It Up 6
1941 7
How They Got Her to Quiet Down 8
So What 9
Madison in the Mid-Sixties 10
Repetition 11
Perhaps 12
Echoes and Shadows 13
Earthquake 14
Male Gorillas 15
Never 16
An Education in the Eighties 17
Absence Proves Nothing 19
So What's Wrong? 20
Relatives 21
Strands 22
Can Cranes Cogitate? 23
Aesthetics of the Cattle Farm 24
Incredible Buys In 25
Light Conclusions 26
Uncle Cal on Fashions 27
Yes, Think 28
Hummingbirds 29
The Ways of Daughters 30
Then 31
Ordinary Words 32
When 33
Patience 34
One Thought 35
Residue 36
Sorting It Out 37
The Trade-Off 38
Romance 39
Reading 40
With Love 41
So Be It 42
In the Arboretum 44
Overnight Guest 46
All in Time 47
Schmaltz 48
The Trinity 49
A Moment 50
Ventriloquist 51
This Space 52
Unspeakable 53
Vermont Nature 54
Prefab 55
I Meet Them 57
At McDonald's in Rutland 58
The Word Though as a Coupler 60
Etc. 61
Sitcom on the Greyhound in Rutland, Vermont 62
On the Street 64
At the Museum, 1938 65
Speculation 66
Bottled Water 68
Western Purdah, Inc. 69
Empathy Again 70
Boom 71
Moving Right Along 72
A Little Chart 73
Prayer of Descending Order 74
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