by Athena Kildegaard
Some years ago I read One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, the selected letters of Elizabeth Bishop, and felt, as I read, as if she were addressing those letters to me: they were so vivid and intimate. I was in her thrall— Bishop’s beloved—and her missals were written for me. In the magic transportation that is reading, I was oblivious to the fact of Bishop being no more than dust. And so it was that when I came to the last letter, when I turned the page and there were no more, I cried. I was grieving for someone I never had.
Now I am grieving the loss of the poet Ruth Stone. Though she died late in 2011, I barely knew who she was then—a name in the great rolodex of poets—and I’d read only a few of her poems. But I fell madly in love, and so, as with Bishop, I am grieving for her.
Stone would have understood this. The science of the second half of the twentieth century has forced us to think about time and its order. Stone loved science. She stayed awake into the wee hours reading astronomy and physics. The world around her—its beauty, complexity, violence, and folly—was to be wondered at, but also understood, albeit imperfectly. And Ruth Stone knew grief. These two things, grief and wonder, inform her poetry.
In 1959, the publication year of Ruth Stone’s first book, In an Iridescent Time, Theodore Roethke‘s Words for the Wind won the National Book Award. It was a good year for Roethke, as he also won the Bollingen Prize. That same year, W. H. Auden‘s W.H. Auden: Selected Poems appeared; Robert Lowell published his groundbreaking Life Studies and For the Union Dead; and Stanley Kunitz, won the Pulitzer for his Selected poems, 1928-1958. In 1971, the publication year of Stone’s second book, the Pulitzer went to W. S. Merwin for his collection The Carrier of Ladders, his tenth book of poetry. Adrienne Rich published her seventh book of poetry. And Galway Kinnell‘s highly praised collection The Book of Nightmares appeared.
Stone’s generation of poets—Roethke, Auden, Lowell, Kunitz, Merwin, Rich, Kinnell, and others—surged ahead in their careers just as Stone was getting started, and her start was slow: from 1959 (when she was 44) to 1990 she published just four collections. But, from then until her death in 2011 at age 86—in half as many years—she published six full-length collections.
One of Stone’s admirers, the poet Philip Levine, included Stone among a small group of poets—“superb ones who are all but unknown, poets who don’t have careers, who just write poetry,” he said in a 1988 interview in The Paris Review. He added that these poets “never learned how to bow down or manage a career [and] didn’t start out at an Ivy League school.”
Levine’s portrayal perfectly fits Stone. She grew up in Roanoke, Virginia and then in Indianapolis, in a house filled with music and poetry, and she began writing as a young child. In sixth grade she won a citywide contest and was given a book of poetic forms; and so Stone taught herself the elements of formal poetry. She married after high school and followed her husband to Illinois where he entered graduate school. There she went to school, had her first daughter, and met Walter Stone, her beloved, for whom she left her first husband. Walter was her advocate, typing Stone’s poetry and sending it out into the world. In an interview in 1973, Stone said she was “only ambitious vicariously, through him. . . . he defined the idea of achievement.” As she writes in the poem “The Follies of My Youth”: “But I didn’t think of bettering myself; / there were too many books in the world. / There was so much I wanted to read.” She wrote poetry and read widely and that was enough.
Her husband was not her only advocate. Walter Stone studied at Harvard, and there the noted scholar Leslie Fiedler became a great friend to Ruth Stone, and, as he wrote, “rescued and deciphered a balled-up, scribbled page that she had tossed under the bed.” Fiedler sent Stone’s poems to Karl Shapiro, the editor of Poetry, who published nineteen of her poems in the 1950s. Stone received the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, and with the money bought a small farm property in the Green Mountains of Vermont. This farm, without running water or electricity, would be Stone’s primary residence until her death.
And then Stone’s life changed: Walter committed suicide in 1959, an act that seems to have been a surprise, and so left Ruth to raise three young daughters. Friends came to the rescue. Richard Wilbur secured Stone a job with Wesleyan University Press, and then she received a fellowship to Radcliffe, where she began teaching. Willis Barnstone, poet and lifelong friend to Stone, sent letters “to over a hundred colleges and universities,” seeking a teaching position for Stone. From that time until 1990, when she was offered a permanent position at SUNY Binghamton, Stone traveled around the country teaching where she could find work. Her daughter Abigail remembers that they moved twenty-seven times in one ten-year period.
Between stints of teaching, Stone would return to her Eden, the house near Goshen. This rough and woodsy stability, combined with her otherwise peripatetic teaching career, perhaps explains why it is that Stone was unaffected by academia or by the sometimes flattening effects of Po Biz. She belonged to no school or group; Stone was sui generis. And while she sometimes railed against “the good ol’ boys’ club,” she didn’t let the lack of recognition get in the way of her writing.
Stone advised her students to keep a small notebook near them all the time, so that, if a poem came rushing in, they could get it down immediately and not lose it. Stone wrote on napkins or envelopes, on any paper available. She wrote in the car as she drove across the country with her dachshund balanced on the back of the seat, leaning against Ruth’s neck and shoulders for balance and warmth. Stone did not lose a poem.
Some facts about writer’s lives can overshadow the work. Walter Stone’s death and Ruth Stone’s response to it—to the loss and to her grief—in poetry strikes many readers as the first fact about her work. It is clear that the love between Ruth and Walter was, as e. e. cummings wrote, “more thicker than forget,” and Stone never remarried. She addresses Walter in her second book: “you are coming toward me, / We are balanced like dancers in memory, / I feel your coat, I smell your clothes, / Your tobacco; you almost touch me.” These lines are from her poem “Tenacity.” Tenacity, of course, means “to hold fast,” and Stone holds fast to the memory of her husband. And in her last book, What Love Comes To, we find the poem “Acrostic,” which is an acrostic on “Walter Stone PhD.” Almost fifty years after his death, Stone was tenacious in her attentions to his memory.
Another strand in Stone’s poetry, one that is equally important along side her grief—perhaps more so, if you’re of the mindset that we humans are irreparably destroying our world—is an attitude of wonder before the natural world. At the end of her 1991 book-length sequence “Who Is the Widow’s Muse?”, near the end of the last poem, the muse, who has been silent through most of the book, speaks: “’We must get back to the real thing. / The blood and meat of the world.’” Stone finds a response to grief, and way of grieving without losing one’s balance, by looking into the “blood and meat of the world.” The poet Sharon Olds said about Stone, “She is always for the earth, for the harmed mother.”
In a poem from her last collection, Stone gives us the ultimate expression of wonder: naming.
This is the brown mud
This is the dry winter grass
This is the water of the sky
These are wet veins of the land
These are the rocks wearing smooth
These are standing factories of the air
These are the leaves
These are the starch into sugar
photon pinball machines
These are the breathers
This is the recycling ocean
This is the ozone layer
We can see clearly the way in which Stone is naming the world and, in the process, Stone forces us to look outside ourselves at the world.
This is an attitude of wonder. In her essay “The Truth of the Barnacles: Rachel Carson and the Moral Significance of Wonder”, the philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore argues that wonder “begins with surprise.” Wonder is the moment of surprise, of astonishment, which comes from being present before some outside force: the brown mud, the dry winter grass. Stone allows us to experience this astonishment, which, as Moore notes, comes from the Latin tonus, or thunder. Moore’s simple repetition serves as a thunder blast that makes us notice the “blood and meat” of the world.
Moore also argues that the second element of wonder is a way of seeing, “an attitude of openness or receptivity,” and this way of seeing moves us beyond our selves and our griefs or joys, outward to an attitude of vulnerability before the barely knowable world. Here is a poem from Ruth Stone’s second book, Topography and Other Poems, a book that is informed by her grief for Walter’s absence, but which simultaneously looks outward:
I am here to worship the blue
asters along the brook;
not to carry pollen on my legs,
or rub strutted wings
in mindless sucking;
but to feel with my eyes
the loss of you and me,
not in the powdered mildew
that spreads from leaf to leaf,
but in the glorious absence of grief
to see what was not meant to be seen,
the clusters, the aggregate, the undenying multiplicity.
Finally, Moore argues that wonder is a way of being—that is, a way of acting with respect and humility before and in the world. Moore says that if we’re experiencing surprise, if we’re seeing, then “[T]he sweep of time, the operations of chance have created something that leaves us breathless and rejoicing, struggling to understand the very fact of it. . . .” Or as Stone says, “to feel with [our] eyes” and “to see what was not meant to be seen.” To be unafraid and therefore vulnerable is to experience wonder.
Ruth Stone was a person whom others wanted to help. That is one kind of vulnerability—the fragile, or shy, or humble person who others are keen to put forward, to help along, to be ambitious for. But Stone was also vulnerable because she went through the world experiencing wonder, in mud and mildew and in the people around her—Walter, of course, her daughters, relatives, and strangers. And in return people were attracted to her. Stone’s daughter Abigail tells of watching her mother step off a Greyhound talking to the other passengers and hugging them. She had stepped onto the bus a stranger and she stepped off it a member of the community of passengers.
Readers of Ruth Stone’s poetry will find someone who suffered terribly but turned that grief, that personal horror, outward toward the world in an attitude of wonder. Another of her last published poems captures this:
What It Comes To
Sometimes I cry for that young man
I loved fifty years ago. My, my he has been
dead for almost half a century. . .
And do I cry for myself,
that lonely, ignorant woman?
No half, I think.
Even in my sleep I laugh, . . .
But there were the stars
and the breath of something, stamens,
the centers of the thinnest tissues;
and almost tangible universe.
Stone was buried behind her house, under raspberry canes, without a grave marker. She is nowhere and everywhere, she is with the earth. We have her poems to carry us into the world, their grief and wonder, their vulnerability and beauty.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of three books of poetry: Rare Momentum, Bodies of Light (a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award), and Cloves & Honey. She is the recipient of grants from the Lake Region Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board and of the LRAC/McKnight Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Tar River Poetry, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Faultline, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris, a public liberal arts college in western Minnesota.