Ruth Stone


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.

She was born Ruth Perkins in 1915, the daughter of printer and part-time drummer Roger 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."

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 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).

"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."


Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

Guest Book

Not sure what to say?

Was honored to have had her as my professor at Binghamton in the early 90's. She inspired and amazed; as she still does; love and miss you Ms. Stone.

I connect to all free spirit
poets, past or present.

Each of them has opened
a door into the interiors
of my imagination. What
a beautiful gift.


I was a student of Ruth's at SUNY Binghamton back in the early 90's. As a sour and over-sensitive 22 year old, I was both mystified and awed by how much love for life she seemed to hold. She was very gentle, very supportive, and a complete riot. I never turned out to be much of a poet myself, but I thought I'd share the poem I wrote for her that year. The strength it has comes from her own lovely words. Thank you, Ruth, for all you shared with us.

Unfinished (It's Been a Week Since...

Wish I had known you. You would have really touched my life of suffering and help me put it into words.

I met Ruth almost twenty years ago, when I had just started writing and needed encouragement. This is how she inscribed the book I bought that day: "Darling Rob- What a wonder, your poems! It's the reality--the touch to touch of our lives. Love from Ruth Stone" Well, my poems weren't really all that good, but they became better because I continued writing thanks to Ruth. I know my story isn't unique. She must have helped thousands like me over her long career. We were blessed,...

My condolences to the Stone family. May you find a measure of comfort in that "God is healing the broken-hearted ones; And is binding up their painful spots" (PSALMS 147:3)

May the God of comfort strengthen you through your grief,my condolences goes out to the Stone family.