Director Nora Jacobson’s illuminating 2022 documentary Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind begins at the end. Over images of a ramshackle, isolated farmhouse in Goshen, Vermont, a reporter announces the death of poet and teacher Ruth Stone at the age of 98. We are told that the grounds of the house, where she lived and worked for much of her life, will also be her final resting place.
Most people have no idea who Ruth Stone is. Our modern society is too prosaic and lacking in subtle feeling to pay attention to poetry and the people who write it. Stone herself didn’t know how to promote her work, dooming her to become a “poet’s poet” whose works the wider world never found. Yet, in a short 77 minutes, Jacobson not only tells us who Ruth Stone was, but also why we should pay attention to her and her poetry.
Stone spent the first six years of her life in Roanoke, Virginia, moved with her family to Indianapolis, attended the University of Illinois without completing a degree, and eventually ended up in Goshen. Stone said Goshen felt like Roanoke to her, and that is one of the clues we have that she was exceptionally observant and attuned to her environment from an early age—both essential qualities to any writer, but especially to poets.
Her poetry spins on the central tragedy of her life—the death by suicide of her beloved husband Walter, a fellow poet and educator who was her greatest advocate. We hear part of her stark poem about Walter’s death, “Turn Your Eyes Away”: “The gendarme came / to tell me you had hung yourself / on the door of a rented room / like an overcoat / like a bathrobe / hung from a hook…” and several other poems in which she laments that he is not around to experience life with her.
Stone lived in poverty (also a regular topic in her poetry), not even managing to install a furnace in the farmhouse to warm her through many harsh Vermont winters. Somehow she managed through work as an itinerant educator at various universities, modest royalties from her 13 books, and several literary prizes, (two Guggenheim fellowships, a Whiting Award, a Wallace Stevens Award, a National Book Award, and others) to raise three daughters on her own.
Jacobson eschews a chronological telling of Stone’s life, preferring to interview her elderly subject, her children and grandchildren, and other people whose lives she touched, including other poets (former Vermont Poet Laureate Chard deNiord, Pulitzer Prize winner Sharon Olds, Toi Derricotte, Major Jackson, and Edward Hirsch); Bill Goodman, her editor at Harcourt Brace; and her students (professional poets and educators Yogesh Chawla and Major Jackson). She also interviews noted film editor Sidney Wolinsky, whose 1973 documentary about Stone she excerpts from liberally.
Ruth Stone was a complex person whose pleasure in writing the poems she claims were born through, not by, her is palpable. The sexism of the time likely was the biggest reason why she didn’t find secure backing from a major publishing house after Walter was no longer around to promote her work.
Nonetheless, nobody who came into Ruth Stone’s orbit ever forgot her or the permission she gave them to pursue their dream fearlessly. Perhaps the greatest tribute to her is that all of her children and grandchildren work in the creative arts (her granddaughter Bianca provided animation for Jacobson’s documentary) and that all of them can recite from memory Stone’s poems along with her. She is an artist we are fortunate to have brought from the edge of obscurity to enrich a world that desperately needs her voice.
PHOTO CREDIT: David Carlson