The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

“Ruby Tells All” is a sixty-four-line, five-stanza poem written in blank verse. The title of the poem establishes both the occasion of the poem and the confessional nature of the piece: The speaker in the poem is a woman named Ruby, who recounts some of the major events in her long life and reflects upon what life has taught her. One of the strongest features of the poem is the voice of Ruby, an unwavering and direct voice that characterizes her and establishes her position in society.

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“Ruby Tells All” is an appropriate introduction to Miller Williams’s work because Williams frequently writes poems that are dramatic monologues: works in which a character directly addresses an audience in such a way as to unintentionally reveal some substantial insight or show some important aspect of his or her personality. As is the case with many of Williams’s dramatic monologues, in “Ruby Tells All” the speaker is identified in the poem’s title. While there is little interaction between speaker and listener in the poem, some critics have maintained that Ruby is telling her life story to a customer at the coffee shop where she works. Support for the assumption that Ruby is speaking to one of her customers comes in the second stanza, in which Ruby says, “I’ve poured coffee here too many years/ for men who rolled in in Peterbilts.”

In the first stanza Ruby tells about her childhood; in the second she explains how difficult it is as an adult to tell truth from lies. In the third stanza she recounts a major event in her adult life, and in the fourth stanza she discusses old age and sums up her thoughts about what is important in life. Finally, in the final stanza, she considers what she might do to reestablish a connection with her long-lost daughter.

The poem begins with a recollection from Ruby’s youth. As a child, she was told that “crops don’t grow unless you sweat at night,” and she explains that in her childhood she felt as if she were especially important because she thought “that it was my own sweat they meant.” This stanza indicates Ruby’s connection with life and with the process of growth. However, with the passing of childhood comes the loss of “everything that’s grand and foolish.” One of the losses brought about by the end of childhood is the ability to discern truth from lies. The second stanza deals specifically with Ruby’s inability as an adult to tell truth from falsehood.

The third stanza focuses on the most important event of Ruby’s adult life: a love affair with a married man, an affair that produced a daughter. Although Ruby feels that, “Given the limitations of men, he loved me,” the man disappears, leaving her to raise her daughter on her own. Ruby has apparently been a good mother; she loves her daughter, and she says that she “raised her carefully and dressed her well.” At the time of the poem, however, the daughter has grown up and moved away. Ruby does not know where she is.

The fourth stanza contains Ruby’s reflections on old age, especially her growing awareness of the passage of time and the inevitability of her own death, as well as her opinions about men and their natures. She assesses what does and does not matter in life. In the fifth stanza she laments the fact that she has lost touch with her daughter and wonders what she could do or say to bring her daughter, if she is still alive, back into her life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

“Ruby Tells All” is an excellent example of Williams’s tendency to write about ordinary people in ordinary language. Ruby’s diction characterizes her as a working-class person, but even though her language is ordinary, Ruby is able to achieve extraordinary insights about life. The most important formal aspect of the poem is its meter; it is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). Iambic pentameter is the most common pattern in English poetry, and its rhythm appears naturally in English speech and writing. Therefore, iambic pentameter is a suitable meter for a poem that is “spoken” in the voice of one character.

The formal meter of the poem is, however, in juxtaposition to Ruby’s diction. Her common diction is especially apparent in stanza 2, in which she says, “I wouldn’t take crap off anybody/ if I just knew that I was getting crap/ in time not to take it.” In addition to juxtaposing Ruby’s common diction with formal meter, Williams uses juxtaposition to close the poem by mixing her philosophical musings with personal ones. When contemplating what she might tell her daughter if they should meet again, Ruby wonders if she should say “that against appearances/ there is love, constancy, and kindness” or that her fingers hurt at night and she has dresses she has never worn. The juxtaposition of philosophical concerns with ordinary ones is indicative of Williams’s ability to write powerfully about common people who have uncommon insights about life.

In “Ruby Tells All,” Williams employs repetition and metaphor to highlight the poem’s essential concerns: an assessment of what matters in life and the notion that life is composed of loss and change. For example, the clause “Everything has its time” appears twice in the poem, once in stanza 3, in which Ruby discusses the loss of the man who fathered her daughter, and again in stanza 4, when she speculates about growing old. Also in stanza 4, the word “don’t” is repeatedly used to help characterize the negative natures of men. Moreover, in the final stanza, three lines begin with the words “maybe that”; the repetition of these words introduces a catalog of Ruby’s alternatives concerning what she might tell her lost daughter.

The poem is also informed by metaphors that promote its thematic concerns. The first metaphor occurs in stanza 1 when Ruby notes that “We lose everything” and that everything “becomes something else.” Reversing a commonplace observation, she says that “one by one,/ butterflies turn into caterpillars.” The second important metaphor occurs in the fourth stanza, in which she comments on men and their natures. According to Ruby, “What’s a man but a match,/ a little stick to start a fire with?”

The varied line length of the first, third, and fourth stanzas is another formal element in the poem. The first stanza, which deals with Ruby’s childhood, is fifteen lines long; the third stanza, which deals with her adult life, is sixteen lines long; and the fifth stanza, which deals with her old age, is seventeen lines long. Each stage of her life is, therefore, marked by a longer stanza.

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Themes