Ruth Stone Essay - Critical Essays

Stone, Ruth


Ruth Stone 1915-

Late twentieth-century American poet and short story writer.

The following entry provides criticism of Stone's works from 1972 through 2001.

Known as the “mother poet” for mentoring other writers, Stone is considered a major poet who loves heavy themes but not heavy poems. Her poetry combines lyricism, a naturalist's eye, a musician's ear, and a deep-abiding interest in science with sharp wit in wide-ranging poems that explore domesticity, poverty, death, loss, and aging. The recipient of numerous awards, including two Guggenheims and the National Book Award, Stone's work has a visionary quality and sensibility that has been favorably compared to such disparate poets as Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, and Dante Alighieri.

Biographical Information

Born on June 9, 1915, in Roanoke, Virginia, Stone is the daughter of Roger Perkins, a professional drummer, and Ruth (Ferguson) Perkins. Stone's early years were peripatetic, as the family moved often, following her father's prospects as a musician before settling in Indianapolis, where they lived with Stone's paternal grandparents. By age ten, Stone, who began writing villanelles and sestinas in grade school, won a citywide poetry contest and published several poems in the editorial pages of the New York Times. Stone married young and, at age nineteen, she moved to Illinois with her first husband, a chemist. Her first marriage failed and while studying liberal arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, she met her second husband, the poet and novelist Walter Stone. The Stones had three daughters, Marcia, born in 1942; Phoebe, born in 1949; and Abigail, born in 1953. In 1952, the Stones moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, where Walter was offered a teaching position in the English Department at Vassar. During this period, Stone published individual poems in prestigious magazines such as the New Yorker and Partisan Review, and recorded her poems at the Library of Congress. She won Poetry magazine's Bess Hokin Prize in 1953 and received the Kenyon Review Fellowship in Poetry in 1956. She used the prize money to purchase an old farmhouse in Goshen, Vermont. In 1959, at age of forty-four, Stone published her first book of poetry, In an Iridescent Time, the same year her husband, Walter, committed suicide. Stone received a B.A. in English from Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study in 1964, where she was also a teaching fellow. At the Radcliffe Institute, Stone developed friendships with poets Maxine Kumin and Tille Olsen. After teaching at Harvard, Stone was an itinerant visiting scholar for over twenty-five years before obtaining a tenured position at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1990. Stone divides her time between Binghamton, New York, and Goshen, Vermont.

Major Works

Alternately lyrical and ribald, Stone's poetry subversively yokes serious subjects with playful rhymes, witty musical phrases, and startling imagery. Stone's poetry reveals her deep interest in science, her belief in the significance of ordinary, everyday life, and her appreciation for the absurd. Her first volume of poetry, In an Iridescent Time, celebrates domesticity. Topography and Other Poems (1971), written after the suicide of her husband, is darker, with more open-ended forms and fewer rhymes; nevertheless, its poems are filled with humor and pathos as well as grief. The speaker in a poem called “Green Apples” recalls “In August we carried the old horsehair mattress / To the back of the porch / And slept with our children in a row.” “Topography” ends, “Yes, I remember the turning and holding, / The heavy geography, Columbus.” Stone is also known for her humor, nursery-rhyme rhythm, and grotesquely comical characters, as demonstrated in “The Song of Absinthe Granny” from Cheap (1975). In “Some Things You'll Need to Know Before You Join the Union,” from Second-Hand Coat (1987), Stone turns her caustic wit on academic poetry: “The antiwar and human rights poems / are processed in the white room …,” she writes, “These poems go for a lot. / No one wants to mess up.” Stone uses scientific ideas to suggest the importance of the most absurdly insignificant detail. “Message from Your Toes,” from Second-Hand Coat, begins “Even in the absence of light / there is light. Even in the least electron / there are photons. / So in a larger sense you must consider your own toes.” Her poems also address issues of aging and loss with philosophical humor. In “Yes, Think” from Ordinary Words (1999), she describes a “young tomato caterpillar” devoured from within by wasp worms: “Nature / smiled. Never mind, dear. She said. / You are a lovely link / in the great chain of being. Think how lucky it is to be born.”

Critical Reception

“A Ruth Stone poem feels alive in the hands,” declares the poet Sharon Olds, who is not alone in recognizing what she terms the “originality and radiance” of Stone's wide-ranging poetry. “Ruth Stone's poetry, like Dante's Commedia,” writes poet Diane Wakowski, “gives us the vision of an all-too-human world where the norm is trouble.” The poet Tillie Olsen considers Stone a “major poet” with a “clear, pure, fierce” voice and literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert notes Stone's “terribly clarity of vision.” For cultural critic Leslie Fiedler, Stone “resists all labels.” According to Fiedler, Stone is “One of the few contemporaries whom it is possible to think of simply as a ‘poet.’” Critic Donald Hall has called Stone's poetry as “relentless as a Russian's.” Poet and academic Willis Barnstone also compares her to a Russian, calling her “America's Akhmatova.” According to Sandra M. Gilbert, In an Iridescent Time “reveal[s] a witty, sophisticated artist with exceptional verbal energy and, complementing her sophistication, a vein of visionary naivete.” Frances Mayes calls Second-Hand Coat a “stunning work” that encompasses a “superb range of evocative experience.” Diana O'Hehir observes that Stone's poetry leaves readers “surprised, startled, and made to follow gasping.” According to poet Galway Kinnell, “Stone's poems startle us over and over with their shapeliness, their humor, their youthfulness, their wild aptness, their strangeness, their sudden familiarity, the authority of their insights, the moral gulps they prompt, their fierce exactness of language and memory.” Upon awarding her the 2002 National Book Award, the judges wrote: “Stone has taken on new themes and images, created with both a seer's eye and the eye of social witness. Of remembered love, loss, and poverty she writes with such a force of intelligence and compassionate dispassion that even the most humble, commonplace things inhabit a world made strange, lucid, luminous.” Stone has received many honors and awards, including the Shelley Memorial Award (1964), two Guggenheim fellowships (1971 and 1975), the PEN Award (1974), the Delmore Schwartz Award (1983-84), the Whiting Writer's Award (1986), the Paterson Poetry Prize (1988), and the National Book Critics Circle Award (2000). She has also won the 2002 National Book Award in poetry and the 2002 Academy of American Poets' Wallace Stevens Prize.

Principal Works

In an Iridescent Time 1959

Topography, and Other Poems 1971

Unknown Messages 1973

Cheap: New Poems and Ballads 1975

American Milk 1986

Second-Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected 1987

The Solution 1989

Who Is the Widow's Muse? 1991

Nursery Rhymes from Mother Stone 1992

Simplicity 1995

Ordinary Words 1999

In the Next Galaxy 2002


Harvey Gross (essay date spring 1972)

SOURCE: Gross, Harvey. “On the Poetry of Ruth Stone: Selections and Commentary.” The Iowa Review 3, no. 2 (spring 1972): 94-104.

[In the following essay, the author “pleads the case” for Stone's poetry, which does not follow popular trends but exhibits “a concern for craft which flows from intelligent use of traditional techniques and imaginative departures from their restrictions.”]

In those remote times called the Fifties (the rhetoric of our on-going Cultural Revolution has speeded up the historical process so that events more than five years in the past seem to have occurred in the Pleistocene Era) literary critics speculated on The Death of the Novel....

(The entire section is 4208 words.)

Roger Gilbert (review date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Roger. “Ruth Stone's Intricate Simplicities.” The Iowa Review 26, no. 3 (fall 1996): 179-93.

[In the following review, the author addresses the reasons for Stone's relative obscurity—her lack of connection to academia, her lateness in starting her poetic career, her refusal to conform to expectations—and praises Stone for her “virtuoso range of subject, tone and technique.”]

Ruth Stone's Simplicity is the kind of book one might expect from a great poet just hitting her stride, eagerly testing the full range of her powers for the first time. Its 116 pages—unusually generous for a book of poems these days—embrace a dazzling array...

(The entire section is 4788 words.)

Leslie Fiedler (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Fiedler, Leslie. “On Ruth Stone.” In The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone, edited by Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert, pp. 3-4. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, the author of the landmark study, Love and Death in the American Novel, celebrates Stone's “wonder of the ordinary.”]

I have been reading and passionately responding to Ruth Stone's poetry for more than half a century, ever since I rescued and deciphered a balled-up, scribbled page that she had tossed under the bed in her tiny pre-fab house just off Harvard Yard. Though she occasionally read one aloud to her family and...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Wendy Barker (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Barker, Wendy. “Mapping Ruth Stone's Life and Art.” In The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone, edited by Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert, pp. 33-45. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, the author presents a brief biography of Stone and provides a biographically informed reading of Stone's early works In an Iridescent Time and Topography.]

Tillie Olsen, in the Iowa Review collection Extended Outlooks, calls Ruth Stone “one of the major poets” of the latter twentieth century, describing her poetic voice as “clear, pure, fierce” (Gilbert et al. 327). She is not alone...

(The entire section is 4276 words.)

Diane Wakowski (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Wakowski, Diane. “The Comedic Art of Ruth Stone.” In The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone, edited by Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert, pp. 101-05. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, the American poet Diane Wakowski compares the comedy of Stone's poetry to that of Dante, arguing that Stone is, above all else, a comedic poet who uses wit and irony in the service of comedy rather than satire.]

Dante called his great poem La Commedia (only later did he add the word “divine”) because “in the conclusion it is prosperous, pleasant, and desirable” and in its style “lax and...

(The entire section is 1671 words.)

Kevin Clark (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Clark, Kevin. “‘The Wife's Went Bazook’: Comedic Feminism in the Poetry of Ruth Stone.” In The House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone, edited by Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert, pp. 112-26. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Clark argues that the poems in Stone's Second-Hand Coat represent a sort of “comedic feminism,” in which Stone laces social commentary with humor.]

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...

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Sandra Gilbert (essay date October 1999)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra. “Extraordinary Words.” The Women's Review of Books 17, no. 1 (October 1999): 6-7.

[In the following essay, the author favorably reviews Stone's Ordinary Words, paying special attention to Stone's fascination with ornithology, botany and metaphysics. The author finds Stone's meditations upon the ordinary “refreshing.”]

I should begin by confessing at once that I've admired the extraordinary words of Ruth Stone's poetry for more than a quarter of a century now, and for almost as many years have wondered why her distinguished and distinctive art isn't more widely known. I'm of course delighted that Paris Press has chosen to issue...

(The entire section is 2608 words.)

Mary Ann Wehler (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Wehler, Mary Ann. “Ruth Stone: Voice from Society's Margins.” In Modern American Poetry, an Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson. Urbana-Champaign, Ill.: Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2000.

[In the following essay, published online, Wehler emphasizes the feminism of Stone's poetry but misses the humor and nuance.]

Ruth Stone was forty-four when she published her first book, In an Iridescent Time, in 1959. In fact,...

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Christine Gelineau (essay date 2000/2001)

SOURCE: Gelineau, Christine. “The Poetry of Ruth Stone: An Exercise against Loss.” Paintbrush: A Journal of Poetry and Translation 27 (2000/2001): 55-61.

[In the following essay, Gelineau reads poems from Second-Hand Coat, Ordinary Words, and Simplicity to consider the “multiple and various,” “sly and direct,” “heart breaking and funny,” “unrestrained,” “unconventional” and “fresh” ways Stone's poetry addresses issues of loss.]

Her triumph is her refusal to buckle. Born into the wartime years of the “War to End All Wars,” Ruth Stone has lived through the Depression, the Second World War, and the death by suicide of her...

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April Lindner (essay date 2000/2001)

SOURCE: Lindner, April. “A Tender Brutality: Ruth Stone's Poems of the Body.” Paintbrush: A Journal of Poetry and Translation 27 (2000/2001): 109-16.

[In the following essay, the author contends that the body in Stone's poetry is often a site of “wild, mordant humor.” In poems such as “Nuns at Lunch on the Bus,” “Split, Conjugate, Whatever,” and “Message from Your Toes,” Stone's poetic gaze refuses to rest on the surface of the body but insists on traveling into the physical processes that make us human.]

Ruth Stone's singular poetic voice manages to reconcile many contradictions: warm and expansive as often as it is flinty, funny but deeply...

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Mary Beth O'Connor (essay date 2000/2001)

SOURCE: O'Connor, Mary Beth. “Ordinary Words.” Paintbrush: A Journal of Poetry and Translation 27 (2000/2001): 71-8.

[In the following essay, O'Connor argues that Stone is a “sneakily political poet” who uses sly humor to comment upon imbalances of power, trivial materialism, violence, and lack of compassion.]

Skewed, funny, rueful, lyrical, shocking, wise—a new collection of poems by Ruth Stone is an occasion of import. There is so much that this poet sees and understands that we need to know. She shows us both what is so mundane as to be obscured by familiarity, and so unfamiliar as to require the intuitive leap of an original and brilliant poetic mind. She...

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Further Reading


Arnesen, Ingrid and Ruth Stone. “Facets of Simplicity: An Interview with Ruth Stone.” Green Mountains Review 11, no. 1 (spring/summer, 1998): 89-97.

An interview with Stone that focuses on Simplicity and her development as a poet.

Battaglia, J. F., and Ruth Stone. “A Conversation with Ruth Stone.” Boulevard 12, nos. 1-2 (winter, 1997): 70-81.

A wide-ranging interview with the poet that touches upon her own poetry, her critical reception, and her relationship with academia.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “Ruth Stone.” In The Norton Anthology of Literature...

(The entire section is 695 words.)