Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ruth Stone (1915-2011)


I heard Ruth Stone read alongside Sharon Olds about ten years ago. Olds read first. Dressed as a Sunday school teacher who might at any point whip out guitar, Olds surprised me -- I'd been expecting someone less tame in appearance. She joked that she'd been left at train stations and airports because the people sent to pick her up for readings simply didn't recognize her.

To be honest, I'd come for Olds. I assume most in the audience had. Stone, for whatever reasons, has been lost to the larger poetry audience. Her poetry, in recent years, has finally started to garner the kind of respect it's deserved for a long time. She won the National Book Award at 87.

If we were ignorant in that auditorium (I certainly was), Olds clearly understood the importance of Stone's work. She introduced Stone -- with great unbridled admiration. I remember Stone as unassuming and, yes, old -- even ten years ago. Her poems were forces of nature.

For those of you who've seen Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk, you probably remember how Stone described her poetic process to Gilbert; when as a child working the fields, Stone would feel and hear a poem “coming at her from over the landscape, like a thunderous train of air.” “She’d have to run like hell to the house” to write it down, but didn’t always catch it. Sometimes it would almost escape her, then she’d reach out and “catch the poem by the tail,” “perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first” (For more on Stone, check out Rosanne Wasserman's 2009 blog post: http://groundwater-zanne.blogspot.com/2009/11/normal-0-0-1-1126-6421-university-of.html)

In her poem "1941," she writes:

"Oh mortal love, your bones
were beautiful. I traced them
with my fingers. Now the light
grows less. You were so angular.
The air darkens with steel
and smoke. The cracked world
about to disintegrate,
in the arms of my total happiness."


I wish Ruth Stone a peaceful passage from this world of mortal love into the arms of total happiness.