Ruth Stone, poet who won wide acclaim later in her life, dies at 96

November 27, 2011

Ruth Stone, an American poet who catapulted to fame at 87 when she won the National Book Award for her collection “In the Next Galaxy,” which, like much of her work, was infused with the agony of her husband’s suicide, died Nov. 19 at her daughter’s home in Ripton, Vt. She was 96.

Her daughter, Marcia Stone Croll, said Sunday that the cause of death has not been determined and that Mrs. Stone had been in good health.

A spate of honors followed Mrs. Stone’s National Book Award for poetry in 2002. In 2007, she was named poet laureate of Vermont, where she had spent much of life working in relative anonymity in a farmhouse in the town of Goshen. Two years later, her volume “What Love Comes To” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

In the view of fellow poets and critics who had admired Mrs. Stone for years, the recognition for her anguished, insightful work had been long delayed.

Mrs. Stone was in her 40s and about to publish her first book, “In an Iridescent Time,” when her husband, Walter Stone, also a poet, hanged himself during a sabbatical in England in 1959.

“I think my work is a natural response to my life,” Mrs. Stone 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,” she continued, “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.”

Over the next 50 years, with interruptions of long periods of silence, Mrs. Stone wrote more than a dozen volumes of poems that explored themes of grief, family ties, aging and, in a way, the promise of happiness.

In the title poem of “In the Next Galaxy,” she wrote:

Things will be different.

No one will lose their sight,

their hearing, their gallbladder.

It will be all Catskills with brand-

new wraparound verandas.

The idea of Hitler will not

have vibrated yet.

While back here,

they are still cleaning out

pockets of wrinkled

Nazis hiding in Argentina.

But in the next galaxy,

certain planets will have true

blue skies and drinking water.

Critics praised Mrs. Stone’s combination of simplicity and depth.

“Her poems often attend to the everyday — yard work, observing the weather,” poet Melanie Rehak wrote in the New York Times in 2003. “What prevents them from becoming simply catalogs of regularity is her will to reveal the existential within the ordinary.”

Mrs. Stone, with her henna-dyed hair and alluring eyes, also had a witty side. When she won the National Book Award, she said, “I certainly wasn’t expecting this. I think you probably gave it to me because I’m old.”

Ruth Swan Perkins was born June 8, 1915, in Roanoke and grew up in Indianapolis. Her grandmother kept a huge dictionary on a stand. Her father, a drummer, taught her rhythm, and her mother read to her from Tennyson.

“I think that did it,” she once told the Burlington Free Press.

Mrs. Stone often said that poems raced toward her like a train. Sometimes they were faster than she was. She was quoted as saying that when she couldn’t commit the words to paper quickly enough, the poem sped on its way, looking “for another poet.”

She attended the University of Illinois and, after divorcing her first husband, John Clapp, she married Walter Stone. She said that she never understood why he killed himself — their family led a happy life — and she often described her writings as “love poems to a dead man.”

At about age 85, Mrs. Stone retired as a professor of literature and creative writing at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York. Before finding steady work there in 1990, she taught at schools across the country, including Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the University of California at Davis, as she struggled to raise her three daughters.

Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Marcia Stone Croll of Ripton; two daughters from her second marriage, Phoebe Stone of Whiting, Vt., and Abigail Stone of Middlebury, Vt.; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Stone’s volumes of poetry included “Topography and Other Poems” (1971), “American Milk” (1986) and “In the Dark” (2004). She received a National Book Critics Circle award and two Guggenheim Fellowships. The Academy of American Poets presented her with the Wallace Stevens Award.

“I have had a life of enormous happiness,” she told the New York Times in 2002. “It is just beautiful. I think I’ve been fortunate. Though I lost Walter.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
Most Read Local