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Monday, November 2, 2009

The Art of Ruth Stone: Poetry, Editing, and Collaborating with a Major American Woman Writer

The Art of Ruth Stone:

Poetry, Editing, and Collaborating with a Major American Woman Writer

Society for the Study of American Women Writers

Philadelphia, October 2009

Kandace Brill Lombart chaired this panel, a roundtable discussion on “The Art of Ruth Stone,” last weekend. Undertaking the tremendous task of compiling a bibliography of Ruth’s archives, from publications through manuscripts, photographs, videos, publicity materials, and more, Kandace must be the strongest channel working now—outside of the Stone family circle—for the understanding and preservation of the legacy of this legendary poet. Her description of her project was enlightening, amazing, and deeply moving, as we learned how long Ruth’s poetry has been in the public eye, how much she struggled, how widely she traveled, how far her influences have reached. I was, just today, surprised to find in an old manila folder with notes on Ruth from 1989—the year before I had a son, got a job, and moved to a new city—the urgently penned words: “Find Leslie Fiedler’s student who asked Ruth, ‘Who is the widow’s muse?’!” Twenty years later, there she was: it was Kandace who asked that question, and so started Ruth writing the poem cycle with that title, a work unlike any other in the American canon, one of a very few in the world to meditate on such experience, whose traumatic shock still inexorably moves so many women living out their lives.

As Martha Nell Smith finished her presentation, drawing from her years of research on Ruth, Emily Dickinson, and women’s poetic traditions, she read a few lines from a lullaby that all of us remember: “I Have Three Daughters.” It was the song I’d decided to start my talk by singing, since I knew it from a film called “The Excuse,” made by S. Wolinsky in 1973. Once you hear Ruth sing, you don’t forget it, and Martha and I sang it together then and there, as best we could.

The following is a edited transcription of my talk, which started out as ten minutes of hastily-written memoir from the night before the panel.

I studied with Ruth thirty-five years ago and visited often afterwards. Although I lost touch while in grad school from 1977-86, I asked her to write an introduction for Apple Perfume, the chapbook of my poems published for the Intuflo Series in 1989, and it’s become much easier to stay in touch, since many of the girls, grandkids, even great-grandbabies, are on Facebook. Nora's there, Walter's there; Bianca is running The Ladder Reading Series in New York City; Hillery's teaching at NYU; photos of Phoebe's studio are posted, and a profile picture of Abigail with Chloe.

A book here called Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker, came out from Iowa last year; obviously referencing Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, there’s no mention of Ruth and her students. But then, Ruth has a volume of her own—the 1990 The House is Made of Poetry, in which articles like Martha Nell Smith’s, Sharon Olds’s, and Jan Freeman’s offer much the same kind of tribute. I finally wrote up a memoir-homage, too, for her eightieth birthday, which appeared in time for her ninetieth, in the American Poetry Review, in 2006. And it’s nice how she’s gone a bit viral on the internet lately, with the lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) for (Technology, Entertainment, Design). Gilbert met Ruth a few years ago, and recalls how Ruth described her muse as a kind of locomotive: when she was a child, out working in the fields, she would feel and hear a poem “coming at her from over the landscape, like a thunderous train of air.” “She’d have to run like hell to the house” to write it down, but didn’t always catch it. Sometimes it would almost escape her, then she’d reach out and “catch the poem by the tail,” “perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first”

(<>; <>).

Some of what Ruth taught me about teaching is pretty standard: “Don’t bring your own work to the seminar; it’s not about you.” But the real work wasn’t in the classroom, anyway, and it was about her in the way in which we were all so in need of mirrors: how many magic mirrors are there, that will speak back something life-changing and memorable forever? As I wrote in that APR article, “Ruth Stone: A Gift from the Universe,”

Stone has always been a stunningly empathetic teacher for poetry seminars, funny and dead serious at once, masterful at the excruciating dance of giving immediate responses to first drafts of student work. This lifelong care for her students shows in "Entering the Student's Poem," from In the Next Galaxy, published when she was eighty-seven. To maintain a focus on her students, she strictly refrained from showing her own poems to classes, but there were plenty of readings both informal and organized, so we all came to know each other's themes and voices. And who else could have given us "Some Things You'll Need to Know Before You Join the Union," a hilarious look at "the poetry factory" in second-Hand Coat? I couldn't get away with my lonesome self-pity around her, because she permitted self-pity: she pitied me even more than I pitied myself, and pitied herself, too; pitied the dogs, the cats, the ants-it was all such a pity!-and then she would laugh out loud. myself, and pitied herself, too; pitied the dogs, the cats, the ants-it was all such a pity!-and then she would laugh out loud.


Does anyone know of an earlier source for the wonderful put-down “po-biz,” or did Ruth originate it? I heard it first from her in 1973.

Ruth’s kids were good at this kind of deflationary technique, too: I recall Abigail at age twenty—we called her Blue Jay then—mocking her momma’s poems. “In an Iridescent Time” begins, “My mother when young scrubbed laundry in a tub.” Abigail muttered, with a lilt in her voice, as she passed the potatoes, “My mother, when young, was laundry in a tub.” This gave me, a very staid bourgeouis suburban daughter, a considerable thrill: imagine not only being raised in a house so full of poetry, but even being able to make fun of it! Parody was really paradise. My head’s gotten full of her lines, now, too, but especially the lines making fun of herself and the human condition: growing those weird chin whiskers; the old body hiding in the kitchen and eavesdropping on the teenagers; the salt complaining about how degrading it is, the way they pinch her.

Ruth took a similar line with me, who needed a good shaking out, all Bouvard et Pecuchet as I was. When I first came to visit, in 1974, at her mountain cabin home in Goshen Four Corners, she asked me how I like her house: I, who’d never before seen mouse droppings, and when I answered, naiive and secure, ‘It’s kind of a mess, isn’t it?”—then, as her brow darkened, “. . . but, I mean, a creative mess”—she delivered a quick corrective talk to me, about a woman’s life in the art: hard work, danger, loss, being lost, cold comfort, and your children making fun of you at dinner. At ninety-four, she’s mellowed, though—I think. She’d appreciate the bioneurologist’s insight, that dopamine, accessed by a shock, makes neurons write to disk: if it hurts, you’ll remember it better.

It’s not enough to have talent, or time, or connections, or luck, or even five hundred a year and a room: you have to be able to hear that train a-comin’. Not everyone does, or can. It’s a spirit power.


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