On Ruth Stone's Poetry
[Note: Readers are urged to consult the full book for the full essays from which many of the following excerpts have been taken--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.]
A Ruth Stone poem feels alive in the handsardent, independent, restless. A Stone poem propels forward like a gifted wide-end receiverit has "broken field" (the ability to change course, instantly, at speed, left or right, with great precision); it swivels it hips and moves.
Ruth Stone's poems are mysterious, hilarious, powerful. They are understandable, often with a very clear surface, but not simple--their intelligence is crackling and complex. Her poems are musical, and their music is unforced, unlabored-over, fresh.
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She is a poet of tragedy, and she is a jaunty poet, not proper, her work without middle-class prudishness. She is a poet of great humor--mockery even--and a bold eye, not obedient. There is a disrespect in her poems, a taken freedom, that feels to me like a strength of the disenfranchised.
Ruth's Poems are direct and lissome, her plainness is elegant and shapely, her music is basic, classical; it feels as real as the movement of matter. When we hear a Stone first line, it is as if we have been hearing this voice in our head all day, and just now the words become audible. She is a seer, easily speaking clear truths somehow unmentioned until now. And one has the sense of enough air in her poems--they lift up.
I love Ruth Stone's irony, and the melody of her irony. In many of her poems, we hear the music of the quiet, deep unhopefulness of the poor, the unfooled.
The things in Stone's poems are often ordinary and transcendent at the same time. Ruth has a kind of bald religious sense that is also political. She has sometimes the sound of a prophet. She gives us visions of the uses of power. She looks at the police, and the academics; she looks at gender and race and class, and she judges. They are the judgments of one who had had higher hopes for the human.
From "Ruth Stone and Her Poems" 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.
When I thought about Ruth Stone's poetry, I found I was remembering most vividly the hilarious humor and the wrenching sense of loss, occurring, side by side, in the same poem. I wanted to write about this double aspect of Stone's art and set myself the task of exploring that space, somewhere out in the Milky Way, where those two parallel lines of emotion meet for her.
I asked myself two questions: how does Stone accomplish this fusion of tragedy and comedy, and what are its effects on the reader? I ended up with several answers, but the ones that interested me most involved the poems where she uses an ostensibly comic frame as a setting for tragic material, a frame where the verse structure of the poem, its skeleton or form, uses rhythms, rhymes, sound clusters, and words that are usually recognized as comic.
[ . . . .]
The comic-threatening framework that we have been examining surrounds a tragic narrative: in three of my five examples, the narrative is desperately tragic. Tragic subject and tragicomic form become married in complicated ways that depend partly on the form's dual nature but also on elements within the subject matter.
This subject matter, like its frame, is dual; that is, it asks for several simultaneous responses or for sudden revisions of attitude. It accomplishes these things by broad shifts in association, by jumps in subject.
From "Ruth Stones Magic Mixture" 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.
Stone knows her lover is in the grave. Shes not out of her mind (though she is ecstatic). And she also knows, like the mystics, that what the mind recalls and invents is a significant reality. But the mystic is convinced or deceived that the god-lover is alive and present during ecstasy. For Ruth it is enough to remember. And her experience isnt clouded with oblivion or the ineffable. She is perfectly lucid. After she has resided in the extraordinary, with her artistry she transforms her affair with Walter Stone into ordinary verse. Ruth Stone's poetry is the ecstasy of memory.
She has gone elsewhere with her love and returned with a poem.
Ruth Stone has lived a life with a suicide. Any fool should know that you never bury the dead, and especially a suicide. So the reader must not be surprised that a secular illuminatus has raised the dead, along with time, and onto a splendid grassy and dirty planet. Walter Stone is her heaven and hell, accompanying her earth time, who has grown with her and kept her at various ages (usually between twenty and forty). He is her fountain of grief and youth. He also keeps alive the places and countries where they once were and every event and intimacy, which have inevitably changed with their formulation in verse. Jorge Luis Borges, quoting his father, said if one wishes to keep a memory intact, don't recall it, for each recollection alters once again the former recollection. But of course Borges knew it is better to remember and change a remembrance than not to recall it and lose it. So through constant remembrance, she has continued the life of the past rather than preserve it unaltered and unobserved in a vault of death. And her contemplation and vivid re-experiencing occur down in the valley and up there in biblical Goshen.
Ruth Stone's enduring love affair with Walter Stone is at the center of her writing. But it would be little, or much less, if it were not, as we have seen, one of the multitudinous experiences and observations in her fife. In her poems, everything breeds and feeds on other things, is replaceable and interchangeable.
From "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.
In the tradition of American naturalism, the more recent poems of Ruth Stone's Second-Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected (1987) are always sociologically acute and often thin on hope. Stone's darkly feminist work employs humor to render the lives of people pushed to the margins of society by economics and gender bias. Encountering one of the relatives or friends who populate the pages of her poetry can be like encountering one of the squalid, unsheltered human beings who populate the streets of our towns and cities.
[. . . .]
Like many of the homeless, they have been driven to the margins of human existence by an inability to sustain normalcy in an adversarial locale. Most survive; some don't; all suffer.
And yet Stone's characters are not truly homeless; rather they are usually women devising methods for maintaining an eccentric balance within both a world of quotidian domestic chores and a patriarchy devaluing them as people. Some of Stone's most memorable characters are women who have tried to develop a proactive tool for surviving, especially by creating their own oddball universe of perceptions and rules that counter the dominant but equally bizarre network of forces that constitute early- and mid-twentieth-century American civilization. I'm interested primarily in Stone's comic portraiture of relatives and friends--Aunt Maud, Mrs. Dubosky, the Masons, Ida, Absinthe Granny--in which she has forged her own kind of comedic feminism, employing the colloquial, sometimes rural dialects of lower- and middle-class white America to help depict methods for coping.
From "The Wifes Went Bazook: Comedic Feminism in the Poetry of Ruth Stone" 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.
Sandra M. Gilbert
Some of Ruth's best-known poems are, of course, proudly and explicitly feminist works in which she celebrates the matrilineage that gave her the strength to love. Even while mourning the lost names of mothers and grandmothers, for instance, "Names" rejoices in the heritage transmitted by those ancestresses: "In me are all the names I can remember--pennyroyal, boneset, / bedstraw, toadflax--from whom I did descend in perpetuity." Similarly, "Pokeberries" affirms "the Virginia mountains ... my grandma's pansy bed ... my Aunt Maud's dandelion wine" along with a fiercely revisionary Eve: "my mama, who didn't just bite an apple with her big white teeth. She split it in two."
[. . . .]
What fuels Ruth Stone's impulse toward mercy? I would say that one source of her "desperate love" is maternity. Ruth Stone--like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Denise Levertov, among many others--is one of a group of poet-mothers for whom creativity and maternity do not seem to be contradictory terms. On the one hand, unlike a number of her nineteenth-century precursors, Ruth hasn't apparently felt constrained by an ideology of domesticity that would require her to sentimentalize the experience of motherhood. On the other hand, unlike a number of her modernist predecessors, she hasn't found it necessary to repudiate the role of mother. Instead, she writes to and about her children--facts of her fife and art--as directly and lucidly as she would about any other subject. They are there, not to be glamorized but not to be ignored. And the continuing empathy along with the alternating passions of delight and despair that they evoke, as all children do, widen from a mother-bond into a bond with a larger population.
From "Definitions of Love: Ruth Stones Feminist Caritas" 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.
Ruth Stone is an anomaly among American poets: she loves heavy themes but loathes heavy poems. Shunning the solemn aesthetics of an Adrienne Rich or the raw self-revelation of an Anne Sexton, Stone's characteristic voice is that of her "Absinthe Granny": wise, sardonic, crafty, and misleadingly simple. Wearing her nursery-rhyme rhythms and tight, shorter lyrics like camouflage, Stone cunningly seduces her reader with conversational cadences, then turns with hard brilliance in the final lines--"Mom's 'kicker,"' as daughter Abigail Stone says--to mock the reader's innocence. Meditating on human frailty, greed, cupidity, and need, Stone deliberately avoids the watchful omniscience that attaches itself to public, "political" poetry. When we think of verse that protests war or social atrocity, we recall Robert Bly's furious Vietnam pieces, or Carolyn Forche's moving indictments of American foreign policy in Latin America. But we don't think of Ruth Stone.
Yet Stone confounds us even in this analysis because her work is at times deeply engaged with the violence of history. Despite the safe aesthetic spaces constructed by her short love lyrics, Stone's poems are stitched in history's web, whose pattern of rage, made visible in at least four of Stone's recent pieces from Second-Hand Coat, reminds us that the poetic voice outside history is a fiction. What Stone cannot embrace is the role of poet as detached social legislator, however "unacknowledged," in Shelley's terms. To be sure, the mantle of "poet" has never rested lightly even on the most public of writers such as Robert Frost, whose cagey uneasiness with the title reflects its godlike potential. Emily Dickinson's refusal to reveal herself to "an admiring bog" stands as a paradigm of the female poet who scorns a public role unavailable to her. But these intersections of poet and aesthetic practice are only partially helpful in understanding Ruth Stone's unwillingness to serve as self-anointed "Voice" commenting on history. When she unmasks the "antiwar and human rights poems" as heavy lumps of dullness, Stone mocks not only the production (factory-style, in "writers' colonies" and MFA programs) of poetry but also the reverential self-importance that certain subjects alone are guaranteed to generated reverence, moreover, that extends to the poet: "the workers," after all, "have to be heavy, / very heavy."
In contrast, Ruth Stone shuns the Yeatsian pose of the golden bird who sings from a branch balanced above culture's pageant. She interrogates history from the perspective of a woman trapped within it, implicated in the very transgressions she seeks to identify. To be a "heavy worker" in the "Po-Biz" means exuding a moral superiority that sets you apart from "them"--the military-industrial complex, or a corrupt political system, for example. While Stone's disdain for aggression is scathing, she nonetheless recognizes that the line between "good Us" and "bad Them" is not always easily drawn.
"Political" poems are relatively scarce in Ruth Stone's body of work, but not because she lacks interest in history's violent themes. Indeed, Stone cares too deeply about brutality, aggression, and war to talk about them in conventionally self-righteous ways. The verses discussed here represent a distinctly female perspective, yet their earthy engagements with body, sex, sin, and passion are not the work of a pale pacifist: moral outrage need not be squeamishness or self-importance. By localizing, humanizing, and even ironically humorizing her antiwar comments, Stone avoids the lugubrious cement packaging she so dislikes. Most important, however, Stone finds in these verses a reflecting mirror in which we may see ourselves with a double consciousness, as both victims and occasionally unwitting perpetrators of the horror. Even Stone is not above lying to Touritzen the devil; her white skin glistens in the raging fires of Port Chicago, and her erotic desire straddles a chasm of racism. The android in the closet is herself.
From "Violence and War, Ethics and Erotics: Ruth Stones Miraculous Translations" 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.
The humor of Second-Hand Coat also extends to the poems that show Stone as an avid student of contemporary science. Just as the young Ruth took encyclopedias to bed with her, the mature Stone reads everything she can about biology, astronomy, physics, the body, the galaxy, neurons, protons. Much of the effect of these poems has to do with her knowledge of the way the world actually works, and in many of these poems, she fuses the wacky humor and drummer's rhythms of her father, the lyricism of her mothers Tennyson, and her own relentless curiosity, wit, and wisdom. "The bunya-bunya is a great louse that sucks," begins "From the Arboretum,' a poem that goes on to show the intricacy of relatedness. . . .
From "Mapping Ruth Stones Life and Art" 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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