Monday, April 5, 2010

Monday Muse: Vermont's Poet Laureate

Ruth Stone became Vermont's sixth Poet Laureate on July 26, 2007. Her term lasts four years. Her official title is State Poet.

Stone succeeds the extraordinary and internationally known poets Grace Paley (March 5, 2003 - July 25, 2007), Ellen Bryant Voight (1999 - 2002), Louise Gluck (1994 - 1998), Galway Kinnell (1989 - 1993), and Robert Frost (1961 - 1963). Frost, according to the Vermont Arts Council, was appointed on the adoption of a Joint House Resolution by the state General Assembly. Galway Kinnell was the first to hold the position after it was reestablished by Executive Order No. 69, in 1988. 

According to the council, the state governor conducts the selection process by convening an advisory and selection panel. The appointee must have a primary residence in Vermont, have published poetry that "manifests a high degree of excellence"; have produced a "critically acclaimed body of work"; and have a "long association" with Vermont.* Stone more than meets the requirements of the job.

* * * * *
A poet looks at the world
as a woman looks at a man.
~ Ruth Stone+

Photo Credit: Jane Lindholm

Asked at age 89 whether poets improve with age, Ruth Stone answered, simply, "There's no question." Her astonishing output is her real answer.

Born in 1915 in Virginia and a resident of Vermont since 1957, Stone is a prolific poet. Her collections date from 1959, when she published In an Iridescent Time; they include What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2008, with a foreword by poet Sharon Olds), In the Dark (Copper Canyon, 2007), In the Next Galaxy (Copper Canyon, 2002), Ordinary Words (Paris Press, 1999), Simplicity (Paris Press, 1997), Who Is the Widow's Muse (Yellow Moon Press, 1991), Second Hand Coat: Poems New and Selected (1987), Cheap: New Poems and Ballads (Harcourt, 2nd printing 1975), and Topography and Other Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt P, 1971). 

Stone's In the Next Galaxy was the first of her books of poetry I read; I received it through Copper Canyon Press after making a donation. Soon after completing it, I purchased What Love Comes To, which was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. As I read more of Stone, I marveled at how she writes so lyrically and profoundly, also humorously, about some of the most mundane aspects of our everyday lives, and about our unease and discomfort with what we do not know and cannot anticipate or predict. An example:

In someone else's house
you are not exactly at ease.
It's a matter of protocol.
That is, sequence.

There are unspoken rules.
Some of the rules are
under the rug—
so to speak.

You employ
a mechanical mouse
to investigate.
~ "What to Do" in What Loves Comes To

Now in her mid-nineties, Stone has seen and lived and learned a lot, all of it reflected in one or another of her poems. Love, memory, aging, loss (her husband Walter committed suicide in 1959, leaving her with three daughters), change, experience: These are themes eternal. They stand out in Stone's poems, in words that are tangible, unpitying, grounding, sensible but also sometimes anxious and intimate in a way a family is when it's gone through a lot together. At their most moving, Stone's words tell us how love lasts, and longing, and of secrets women hold deep, as here:

Eggs, eggs, eggs in secret muted shapes in my head;
Hundreds of unborn wizened eggs.
I think about them when I think of you.
~ From "Codicil" in Cheap (In What Loves Comes To)

I hid sometimes in the closet among my own clothes.
It was no use. The pain would wake me.
Or like a needle it would stitch its way into my dreams....
~ From "Loss" in Cheap (In What Loves Comes To)

Crow, are you the widow's muse?
You wear the weeds.
Her answer, a caw.
Her black beads:
two jet eyes.
A stick fire
and a thorn for her body.
Into the wind, her black shawl.
~ From Who Is the Widow's Muse? (In What Love Comes To)

There's familiarity we recognize in time past:

Then the butter we put on our white bread
was colored with butter yellow, a cancerous dye,
and all the fourth grades were taken by streetcar
to the Dunky Company to see milk processed; milk bottles
riding on narrow metal cogs....
~ From "American Milk" in Second-Hand Coat  (In What Love Comes To)

Can it be that
a memory is useless,
like a torn web
hanging in the wind?....
~ From "Memory" in New Poems from What Love Comes To

I could cite example after example of what makes Stone one of our greatest poets. Read her; I think you'll agree.

Published in many anthologies, poetry magazines, and literary journals, Stone has received numerous and prestigious poetry awards, including the Wallace Stevens Award in 2002, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Whiting Award, and the 2002 National Book Award. Her In the Dark won the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. Her work is the subject of House Is Made of Poetry: The Art of Ruth Stone, edited by Wendy Barker and Sandra M. Gilbert.

Stone also has received several Guggenheim Fellowships and had been honored with the Vermont Cerf Award for lifetime achievement in the arts. 

Stone taught at State University of New York/Binghamton, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, University of California/Davis, and Brandeis. 


Photo Credit: Jane Lindholm

* Library of Congress history of position

+ This is Stone's play on poet Wallace Stevens' words, "A poet looks at the world / as a man looks at a woman." See Stone's poem "Words". provides information on Vermont poets.

In the Library of Congress, Stone's Cheap, American Milk (Here Press, 1986), and Enjoyment of Poetry. The Image in Poetry (a sound recording) are in the Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room.

Sound recordings of Stone reading her poems also can be found at the Library of Congress, along with a 1981 reading at the Coolidge Auditorium and a 1958 reading at Vassar College.

An interview with Stone is published here. NPR filmed her on her 89th birthday. See and listen to "The Imagined Galaxies of Ruth Stone".

Stone is filmed reading her poem "Be Serious" in USA The Movie.

An entire issue of Paintbrush: A Journal of Poetry and Translation (Vol. 27, 2000/2001) has been devoted to Stone's poetry.

Stone's poems "Lighter Than Air", "How It Is", and "The Porch" are featured in PoetryDispatch (No. 290, July 30, 2009).

An excellent feature article on Stone appeared in The Guardian in July 2009.

The trailer for Ruth Stone: A Portrait (it's delightful and moving, especially the shots of Stone reciting her poems with her granddaughters and making her 94th birthday wish):

Ruth Stone trailer, revised 7/20/09 from Nora Jacobson on Vimeo.

A video of Ruth Stone, age 93, reciting her poetry on location in Vermont, where in September 2008 she was filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce:


M.L. Gallagher said...

Maureen, you keep introducing me to the most amazing writer and artists and I keep being astounded!

Thank you!


n. davis rosback said...

oh my, i dare say, she's a full package.

Lori Anne Parker said...

I love Ruth Stone. I did my graduate work at SUNY Binghamton and never had the chance to work with here. I did hear her read once, and she was absolutely phenomenal!

Terresa said...

She is a legend. Thank you for sharing this.