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Ruth Stone dies at 96; American poet

Stone was inspired by tragedy and won widespread acclaim with her sharp insights into love, death and nature.

November 28, 2011|Times Staff and Wire Reports
  • Ruth Stone receives the 2002 National Book Award for poetry in New York.
Ruth Stone receives the 2002 National Book Award for poetry in New York. (Mark Lennihan, Associated…)

Ruth Stone, a leading American poet whose career was halted, then inspired by tragedy as her sharp insights into love, death and nature brought her widespread acclaim in later years, has died. She was 96.

Stone, who won the National Book Award at 87 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist at 93, died Nov. 19 of natural causes at her home in Ripton, Vt., said her daughter, Phoebe Stone.

The poet was poised to publish her first book of verse, "In an Iridescent Time," in 1959 when her husband, poet and novelist Walter Stone, committed suicide by hanging at 42.

Left with three daughters to raise, Ruth Stone struggled to feed her family, moving around the country to teach at a seemingly endless string of universities.

Yet his death both interrupted and informed her career. Decades later, Stone said she had never recovered from the suicide and considered her body of work "love poems written to a dead man."

He husband recurred, ghostlike, in poem after poem, through haunting and sometimes harsh images. In "Turn Your Eyes Away," she wrote of discovering his body: "on the door of a rented room/like an overcoat, like a bathrobe/hung from a hook."

In "All Time is Past Time," Stone was wistful: "Actually the widow thinks/he may be/ in another country in disguise."

Of course she'd "rather not have had the loss," Stone told the Boston Globe in 2003. "We cannot make that choice. Life makes it for us. You either go down … or you can express yourself."

The second of her 13 books was not released until 1971, and for many years she remained an important if relatively unknown poet until major awards put her in the spotlight. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2000 for "Ordinary Words" and the National Book Award in 2002 for her poem collection "In the Next Galaxy." Her many honors also include two Guggenheim fellowships.

Her poems were brief and cataloged what she called "that vast/confused library, the female mind." She wrote about milk bottling; her grandmother's hair; and of random thoughts while hanging laundry, which included Einstein's mustache and the eyesight of ants.

"I'm constantly amazed by this mixture of humor, profundity, pathos and sorrow in her work," Willis Barnstone, a poet and scholar, told the Boston Globe in 2003, when he called Stone "the best writer of poetry that we have today."

She was born Ruth Perkins on June 8, 1915, in Roanoke, Va., and spent much of her childhood in Indianapolis. Her father was a drummer and her mother made a point of reciting poetry to her.

By 19, Ruth was married and attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she met Walter Stone, a graduate student whom she later called the love of her life."You, a young poet working/in the steel mills; me, married, to a dull chemical engineer," she wrote of their early, adulterous courtship in "Coffee and Sweet Rolls."

She divorced her first husband, with whom she had a daughter, Marcia, married Stone and had two more daughters, Abigail and Phoebe. She is survived by her children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, according to the New York Times.

Walter was also an up-and-coming poet on sabbatical in London when he killed himself, a suicide that Ruth later said she never completely understood.

A primitive farm in Vermont became the family's refuge, an anchor to return to between her teaching assignments. Her teaching life became more stable in 1990, when she became a professor of English and creative writing at the State University of New York.

Upon winning the National Book Award, Stone said, "They probably gave it to me because I'm old. I've been writing poetry, or whatever it is, since I was 5 or 6 years old. I don't know why I did it. It was like a stream alongside me. It just talks to me, and I write it down."

news.obits@latimes.com

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