Ruth Stone, an award-winning poet for whom tragedy halted, then inspired a career that started in middle age and thrived late in life as her sharp insights into love, death and nature received ever-growing acclaim, has died in Vermont. She was 96.
Stone, who for decades lived in a farmhouse in Goshen, died 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 McDowell in 1915, the daughter of printer and part-time drummer Roger McDowell. 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.”
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 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.
Her poems were brief, her curiosity boundless, her verse a cataloging 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).
“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.”
Associated Press Writer Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.