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Former Vt. Poet Laureate Ruth Stone dies

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ruthstone.jpg
FORMER VERMONT POET Laureate Ruth Stone, seen here in a file photo taken in her Middlebury home in 2002, died in her Ripton home on Nov. 19 at the age of 96. Independent file photo/Trent Campbell

RIPTON — Award-winning poet Ruth Stone, whose career thrived late in life as her sharp insights into love, death and nature received ever-growing acclaim, has died. She was 96.

Stone, who for decades lived in a farmhouse in Goshen, died Saturday, Nov. 19, of natural causes at her home in Ripton, her daughter Phoebe Stone said Thursday. She was surrounded by her daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Widowed in her 40s and little known for years after, Ruth Stone became one of the country’s most honored poets in her 80s and 90s, winning the National Book Award in 2002 for “In the Next Galaxy” and being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “What Love Comes To.” She received numerous other citations, including a National Book Critics Circle award, two Guggenheims and a Whiting Award that enabled her to have plumbing installed in her Goshen home.

She was born Ruth Perkins in 1915, the daughter of printer and part-time drummer Roger McDowell Perkins. A native of Roanoke, Va., who spent much of her childhood in Indianapolis, Ruth was a creative and precocious girl for whom poetry was almost literally mother’s milk; her mother would recite Tennyson while nursing her. A beloved aunt, Aunt Harriette, worked with young Ruth on poetry and illustrations and was later immortalized, with awe and affection, in the poem “How to Catch Aunt Harriette.”

“I think all children are natural poets; it’s part of their language,” Stone told the Addison Independent in a 2007 interview. “They are playing around with the language.

“I started (writing poetry) when I was a kid, very young,” she continued. “It’s something I’ve sort of always done. I also write prose — I’ve had fiction and prose published in the New Yorker.”

By age 19, Stone was married and had moved to Urbana, Ill., studying at the University of Illinois. There, she met Walter Stone, a graduate student and poet who became the love of her life, well after his ended. “You, a young poet working/in the steel mills; me, married, to a dull chemical engineer,” she wrote of their early, adulterous courtship, in the poem “Coffee and Sweet Rolls.”

She divorced her first husband, married Stone and had two daughters (she also had a daughter from her first marriage). By 1959, he was on the faculty at Vassar and both Ruth and Walter were set to publish books. But on a sabbatical in England, Walter Stone hung himself, at age 42, a suicide his wife never got over or really understood.

In the poem “Turn Your Eyes Away,” she remembered seeing his body, “on the door of a rented room/like an overcoat/like a bathrobe/ hung from a hook.” He would recur, ghostlike, in poem after poem. “Actually the widow thinks/he may be/in another country in disguise,” she writes in “All Time is Past Time.” In “The Widow’s Song,” she wonders “If he saw her now/would he marry her?/The widow pinches her fat/on her abdomen.”

Her first collection, “In an Iridescent Time,” came out in 1959. But Stone, depressed and raising three children alone, moving around the country to wherever she could find a teaching job, didn’t publish her next book, “Topography and Other Poems,” until 1971. Another decade-long gap preceded her 1986 release “American Milk.”

Her life stabilized in 1990 when she became a professor of English and creative writing at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Most of her published work, including “American Milk,” “The Solution” and “Simplicity,” came out after she turned 70.

In 2007 she was named Vermont’s Poet Laureate.

Her poems were brief, her curiosity boundless, her verse a cataloguing of what she called “that vast/confused library, the female mind.” She considered the bottling of milk; her grandmother’s hair, “pulled back to a bun”; the random thoughts while hanging laundry (Einstein’s mustache, the eyesight of ants).

She told the Independent in 2007 that she was more interested in science than poetry. 

“I liked physics in school. I guess I just like to find out how things work,” she said. “I was always terribly interested in astronomy. I would lie out at night and look at the stars.”

Many of her poems have been about the stars, constellations and universe.

Stone’s poems often seemed to flow from her in a virtual stream of consciousness, she said. Seconds after cursing her failing memory, she smiles broadly and somehow conjures 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 the mother to grow old

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

“I think my work is a natural response to my life,” she once said. “What I see and feel changes like a prism, moment to moment; a poem holds and illuminates. It is a small drama. I think, too, my poems are a release, a laughing at the ridiculous and songs of mourning, celebrating marriage and loss, all the sad baggage of our lives. It is so overwhelming, so complex.”

Aging and death were steady companions — confronted, lamented and sometimes kidded, like in “Storage,” in which her “old” brain reminds her not to weep for what was lost: “Listen — I have it all on video/at half the price,” the poet is warned.

Stone was not pious — “I am not one/who God can hope to save by dying twice” — but she worshipped the world and counted its blessings. In “Yes, Think,” she imagines a caterpillar pitying its tiny place in the universe and “getting even smaller.” Nature herself smiles and responds:

“You are a lovely link

in the great chain of being

Think how lucky it is to be born.”

Editor’s note: This story was written by Hillel Italie of the Associated Press, with contributions from Addison Independent reporter John Flowers and AP writer Holly Ramer.

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