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Ruth Stone's L:ife and Career

Wendy Barker

Born 8 June 1915 in Roanoke, Virginia, in her grandparents' house, Ruth Perkins Stone was surrounded by relatives who wrote poetry, painted, practiced law, and taught school. Intrigued by the large collection of books in her grandparents' library, Stone began reading at three. She attended kindergarten and first grade in Roanoke, but then moved to Indianapolis where she lived with her father's parents. Living at that time in her paternal grandparents' home in Indianapolis was Stone's Aunt Harriette, who delighted in playing writing and drawing games with her niece. Together they wrote poems and drew comical cartoons: Ruth Stone has said that Aunt Harriette was the best playmate she ever had. The poet's mother, Ruth Ferguson Perkins, also encouraged her daughter's "play." For her, too, poetry was an essential ingredient of life: while nursing Ruth as a baby, she read the works of Tennyson out loud. And as her child grew, she openly delighted in her daughter's irrepressible creativity.

Writing, poetry, drawing, and music surrounded the young poet while she grew up in Indianapolis. Her father--Roger McDowell Perkins--was a drummer, who often practiced at home. As Stone tells it, on the nights he was not gambling, he would bring home an elegant box of the best chocolates and some new classical records. There would be music and candy and he would read out loud to them, sometimes from the Bible, sometimes from humorous pieces by Bill Nye. He was "crazy about funny stuff," says Stone. "Funny stuff" was, in fact, a large part of the pattern of family life in Indianapolis. The poet remembers her uncles at dinner parties who told one fascinating story after another, convulsing the family with their humor. Every member of her father's family had an extraordinary sense of the ridiculous--they saw right through the superficial.

And yet, this family of English descent also played its part in polite Indianapolis society. The poet’s paternal grandfather was a senator, and in keeping with the familial social position, his wife gave frequent formal tea parties. Stone remembers pouring tea, learning to be a lady--something, she says, she later "had to learn to forget."

From "Mapping Ruth Stone’s Life and Art" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 105. Ed. R.S. Gwynn. Copyright 1991 by Gale Research, Inc.

Jan Freeman

At the age of nineteen, Stone moved to Illinois with her first husband, a chemist. While living in Illinois, she met and later married the poet and novelist Walter Stone. In 1952, she moved with her husband and three daughters, Marcia, Phoebe, and Abigail, to Vassar College, where Walter Stone was offered a teaching position in the English department. At Vassar, Stone composed the poems for her first book, In an Iridescent Time (1959). During this period, she won Poetry's Bess Hokin prize and the Kenyon Review Fellowship in Poetry. With the prize money from the Kenyon Review, Stone traveled alone to Vermont and bought a house where she could write and her family could spend the summers. Stone's life changed dramatically when, in 1959, on sabbatical from Vassar, Walter Stone moved with Ruth Stone and their young daughters to England. In England, Walter Stone committed suicide. 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.

In 1963, Stone was awarded a two-year Radcliffe Institute fellowship, and from 1963 to 1965, she worked on poems for her second collection, Topography and Other Poems (1971), and developed close ties to other Radcliffe fellows, such as Maxine Kumin and Tillie Olsen. After the Radcliffe Institute, Stone taught creative writing at many universities throughout the United States, including Indiana University at Bloomington; the University of California, Davis; New York University; and Old Dominion University. Currently she is Professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Between teaching engagements, Stone has lived in the Vermont house she purchased with the Kenyon Review Fellowship money in 1957. Known as the "mother poet" to many contemporary women writers, she is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Shelley Memorial Award (1964), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1971 and 1975), the Delmore Schwartz Award (1983), the Whiting Writer's Award (1986), and the Paterson Poetry Prize (1988). Returning over and over to the themes of loss and death, Ruth Stone's poems are ultimately emblems of survival. Combining lyricism with a poignant mix of humor and tragedy, she manipulates the emotions of her audience by opening them with laughter, then shocking them with sorrow. Stone is a feminist poet who uses poetry to boldly address the world of women and family, as well as issues such as aging, homelessness, and poverty. Interspersing astronomy, biology, physics, and botany into her poems, she calls attention to the largest and the smallest spheres, expressing the beauty of the natural world as she highlights the pathos of the human condition, and especially the female condition within the patriarchal world. In addition to Cheap (1975), Second-Hand Coat (1987), and Who Is the Widow's Muse (1991), she has published several chapbooks, including American Milk (1986), The Solution (1989), and Nursery Rhymes from Mother Stone (1992).

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Oxford University Press.

Willis Barnstone

For most of her writing fife, Ruth Stone has been a secret poet. Her obscurity means that while she has been amply anthologized and widely published in books and periodicals, has given countless readings and, until her recent distinguished position at SUNY at Binghamton, taught for nearly thirty years as a wandering professor at a new college or university almost each year, sometimes two in a year (Ruth Stone may hold a record for teacher vagabondage), she remains a national secret that her multitude of single readers hold as a personal discovery. Stone's relation with us, the readers, is perfectly in harmony with her acuity in going directly to the poetic truth of an event, which she expresses in words that amaze by their intuitive precision, humor, horror, and compassion. It is appropriate that she be secret, because she is also poor. Her real and poetic house is beautiful and pondered by time, waiting for the next repair to give it new mornings, for she gives away her money to those who need it more than she. Her generosity leaves her free of dollars (she spends virtually none on herself); and while her house may be in need of heat, a new roof, a septic tank, and more bookshelves, her unique solitary alliance with art also directs the vision of her poems, which we see in the very titles she has chosen for two of her books, Cheap and Second-Hand Coat. Ruth Stone's poverties--her early loss of Walter Stone in 1959, her beloved poet-professor, her economic poverty as she has contended alone with supporting herself and three young daughters through their education and early adult lives--have, like all adversity, kept her lean and real and made her wealthy in her profession, which is her poetry. Her finances also made her turn, by necessity, to her second profession, her teaching; her professor-husband's death eventually led her to replace him in the classroom.

Stone is a legendary teacher of poetry like no one on this side of the century, which has led to many ardent converts to poetry. She has given her full spirit to instruction--she sees, offers plain, honest criticism, and converts by her example. No wasted word escapes her sharp attention. In her encounter with young students, she becomes of their age, an age she has never lost in her poems. And the classroom has alerted her to current material and kept her distinctive prosody, always classical, renewed and fresh. But Ruth Stone finds her inspiration everywhere and anywhere. Each event in her life, whether relating to a rooming house, a meadow, or the suicide's rope, has pushed her further into her knowledge, passions, and art. She is a total artist. Through daring and precise wizardry, she transforms macabre losses into miraculous creations.

From "The Poet in the Mountains" in The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone. Ed. Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. Copyright 1996 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.

Willis Barnstone

Her Vermont house is one of the main characters in her life, and each room, in addition to having her fine books--with poems on papers and envelopes safely stored or lost in them--has rocking chairs, old pumpkin pine bedsteads, a barn-tin roof, delicate blue wallpaper, and windows with rain, orchards, and farmer neighbors directly outside the panes, All figure in the moments of her verse.

From "A Poet in the Mountains" in The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone. Ed. Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. Copyright 1996 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.

Jan Freeman

The house is made of poetry. The wars are covered with books. Surfaces, stacked with notebooks. Piano, tables, typewriter, shelves, floors. Record jackets and old grocery lists, covered with drafts of poems. On the bathroom walls, poems by students, friends, her children, grandchildren. For years an early poem by Sharon Olds hung beside the light switch. Now, Mother's Day poems beside drawings and photos of Ruth, her children, grandchildren, friends and students. Everywhere, something connected to poetry.

Copyright 1996 by Jan Freeman. From "Poetry and Life, Poetry and Ruth" in The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone. Ed. Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. Copyright 1996 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.

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