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Poetry flows from with for new state poet

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Some people spend hours agonizing over pen and paper in their efforts to create memorable and meaningful prose and verse.

But it’s always come naturally to Ruth Stone — and sometimes at the most inopportune times.

“I remember when I was young, I’d be out playing and I would hear a poem way off — like it was way off in the universe, like it was coming toward me,� Stone said. “I’d rush in the house to see if I could get to pen and paper and write it down. If I couldn’t, it would go right through me and be lost forever. It was very weird.�

Weird, but the results are undeniable. At the age of 92, Stone, who divides her time between Goshen and Middlebury, continues to channel her seemingly boundless creative energy into poetry that has filled the pages of nine books and earned her numerous state and national awards. Her most recent accolade is being named Vermont’s State Poet by Gov. James Douglas, a fellow Middlebury resident.

“I am very pleased,� Stone said of the honor, which will be celebrated at a ceremony set for Thursday, July 26, at the Vermont Statehouse. “The governor called and told me about it. He was really sweet.�

While her age won’t allow her to be an active arts emissary, Stone will proudly wear the mantle of State Poet for the next three years.

“I’ll probably speak at some schools,� said Stone, who has dedicated a large part of her long life to academia. She served for many years as Bartle professor of English at Binghamton University — teaching well into her 80s — and previously taught at the universities of Wisconsin, Indiana and California, as well as at Harvard.

As a teacher, she’s tried to show students how to harness any writing talent they may possess.

“You can encourage (writing), but you can’t teach it; it has to come from the person,� Stone said. “It has to well up out of them.�

It’s a talent that has welled out of Stone as long as she can remember.

Indeed, many of Stone’s poems seem to flow from her in a virtual stream of consciousness. Capturing it has been the hard part.

“I’ve lost 99 percent of what I’ve created because I didn’t get it down and it’s gone out the window,� Stone said.

She’s tried to keep a pen and pad of paper handy, but that hasn’t always worked out.

“The worst time is driving a car,� Stone said. “You’ve got your mind on things and that’s when stuff would come pouring at you. I’ve often been driving and writing, and sometimes have had to pull off the road. I’ve had the police come and stop me and say ‘what are you doing,’ and had to tell them, ‘I’m writing a poem.’�

Stone had to stop driving during her late eighties after losing much of her eyesight. She is also hard of hearing, but her mind remains very sharp — even if her memory betrays her from time to time.

Only minutes after struggling to remember the name of her longtime employer, Binghamton University, she smiles broadly and somehow conjures up one of her favorite works from the depths of her soul. It is a poem about being the mother of three daughters who are anxious to grow up and find their way in the world. She has made the poem, “I Have Three Daughters,� into a song.

She recites three stanzas, including:

“I have three daughters,

like three cherries,

they sat at the window

the boys to please

and they couldn’t wait

for their mother to grow old

why doesn’t our mother’s brown hair turn to snow?�

Stone chuckles, noting that “My Three Daughters� would’ve been lost if one of her own three daughters hadn’t had a tape recorder to immortalize the poem. Two of her daughters — Abigail and Phoebe — have followed her footsteps into the artistic world. Her daughter Marcia Croll was a longtime guidance counselor.

Stone’s many works have covered a variety of subjects, including the universe, Goshen, relationships and nature. Her poetry also offers little vignettes of the many people she has either viewed closely or from afar.

There was a time when her late husband was the focus of many of her writings. Those writings, she said, were the product of a bittersweet exercise to heal her own mourning soul after his death.

“I didn’t enjoy writing it,� Stone said. “Because of my grief — I tried not to. It has been a big subject.�

Once she’s done with a poem, she’s ready to move on.

“I never think about what I’ve written later on, especially if it’s been published — I never even think about it again unless I have to read it,� Stone said.

Truth be told, poetry isn’t even Stone’s primary interest.

“I’m really more interested in science; I always have been,� Stone said. “Poetry — I don’t know where it comes from.�

She may not know where it comes from, but it keeps coming. Her tenth book, entitled “What Love Comes To,� will soon be published by Copper Canyon. It will feature new work and selected poems from her other books.

As long as she can still find a pen and notebook, Stone will keep writing.

“It’s not a plan,� Stone said. “It’s like, ‘are you going to breathe?’ It’s your response to life.�

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