Ruth Stone: Poet who chronicled love and loss

 

Ruth Stone, who has died aged 96, was an award-winning poet whose life spanned the 20th and 21st centuries. During her lifetime she was compared by her contemporaries to Sappho, Dante, Christine de Pizan, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Kate Chopin and Anna Akhmatova. She bequeaths a literary legacy to be reckoned with for the remainder of this century.

Ruth Swan Perkins was born in 1915 in Roanoke, Virginia; her mother rocked her to Tennyson's verses or readings from the King James Bible, while her typesetter father offered his five-year old printed poems to read. The family moved to Indianapolis, where Stone began her writing career as a reporter for the Indianapolis Star. She married an engineer, gave birth to her first daughter, Marcia Stone Croll, but while attending classes at the University of Illinois met the poet and professor of English Walter B Stone, who was to be her second spouse. Her prophetic "Marriage Song" ("Whatever good befalls us now / After this pact or whatever evil / Loosens the bloom upon the bough / This way is marked forever double.") was a vow she kept, marking their conjugal course, even when death separated them. During their marriage, two daughters, Phoebe and Abigail, were born; both are award-winning writers.

While on sabbatical from Vassar College at Cambridge, Walter Stone took his life in March 1959. This incomprehensible loss – "There is no cure for this grief" – is vividly documented over a half-century in her poems with startling, poignant clarity: "See what you miss by being dead." The brutal realities of widowhood ("Is alone more alone than I was led to believe?") are etched into her verses, along with themes of her daily life as a woman, mother and professor in "po-biz." She referred to her art as "a natural response to life – what I see and feel changes like a prism, moment to moment. A poem holds and illuminates. It is a small drama."

She described her "tremendous loss" while driving through the mountains with me: "I had to love my children, and it was my mother, the way she loved, and my love for Walter, I gave it to others." Ruth possessed a remarkable, incomparable caritas, a generosity of her time and genius that she shared with everyone, usually poets, who flocked to her Vermont farmhouse, purchased with the Kenyon Poetry Prize.

While raising her three young daughters, she taught at major American universities as a visiting poet, nurturing generations of future writers. The poet Roseanne Wasserman confirms: "Stone has always been a stunningly empathetic teacher, funny and dead serious at once, masterful at the excruciating dance of giving immediate feedback ."

After Stone's retirement (2000) from the State University of New York at Binghamton she received an honorary doctorate from Middlebury College, Vermont. Then, with failing eyesight, then blindness, her renown was illuminated by her last books, all by Copper Canyon Press: In the Next Galaxy (2002), In the Dark (2004), and What Love Comes To (2008). Her final collection was reissued in the UK by BloodAxe Books (2009) to sterling reviews.

Stone's 2009 Pulitzer Prize nomination rounded off a lifetime of America's most prestigious literary awards. From 1954, she won Poetry magazine's Beth Hokin Award;other awards included the Kenyon Poetry Prize (1956); Radcliffe Institute/Harvard University Fellowship (1963-65); two Guggenheim Fellowships (1975 and 1976); the National Book Critics Circle Award (1999); and the National Book Award (2002).

As her bibliographer, I am astonished by the volume of Ruth Stone's literary production since 1947. Published widely in small presses, she has appeared on covers with every major contemporary poet of her generation. Since 1953, she has been represented in over 50 anthologies, and has published 15 books of poetry. Her first book, In an Iridescent Time (1959) coincided with the year of her spouse's death.

Our lives became "inexorably intertwined," in Ruth's words, when she gave a reading in Buffalo, New York (1988). In fact, our biographical parallels are uncannily similar. When we were introduced, I asked: "Who is the widow's muse?" Within hours, she telephoned to read freshly-birthed poems. These would evolve into an unprecedented quest for a muse in an illustrated volume of that name, described by Wasserman as "unlike any other in the American canon."

Ruth Swan Perkins, poet: born Roanoke, Virginia 8 June 1915; married firstly (one daughter), secondly Walter Stone (died 1959; two daughters); died Ripton, Vermont 19 November 2011.

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