(Poetry Criticism)

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.