This is from the New York Times. I’m reblogging it for all the readers of Ruth Stone, not to mention Philip Levine. It is a marveloudly fitting homage.
Ruth Stone, b. 1915
By Philip Levine
Must have been nearly 20 years ago, and I was scheduled to give a noon poetry reading in Paterson, N.J. My host, the poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, picked me up on a sunny September morning across from the big post office on Eighth Avenue, and through the tunnel to Jersey we went. It was then that Maria told me I was only half the show; the other half was a woman named Ruth Stone. I would get the same “honorarium” (we are so pretentious in the poetry world), so not to fret. I’d never heard of Ruth Stone, and I figured she was an upstart from the corps of 10,000 American poets younger and better than I. We stopped at a humble house deep in a civilized part of New Jersey. When Maria honked her horn, nothing happened, so I was dispatched to go to the door. An elderly woman answered. She seemed out of breath or nervous or both. (No, I’ve never had that effect on elderly women, or on younger ones either.) “We’re here to pick up Ruth Stone,” I said. “Is this her house?” It was the right house, and the elderly woman I was speaking to — actually she looked to be about my own age — was Ruth Stone herself. “I must finish dressing,” she said. “Have a seat.” Up the stairs she went. I heard a door close, then another, then a toilet flush, and down the stairs she came, looking exactly as she did when she answered my knock. “And who might you be?” she said, knowing damn well who I was, and then she gave me a moment of her marvelous laughter.
Photograph by David CarlsonI realized later Ruth was neither out of breath nor nervous: she was excited to be giving a public poetry reading and to be paid for it. Excited to be finally honored for the work she’d done for decades in an America that rarely honors or pays its poets. The reading took place in a modest, filled-to-capacity room in what appeared to be a school building in downtown Paterson. The schedule called for me to read last, but I insisted that I go before Ruth, that we observe the rule of the alphabet. Really, I just wanted to get it over with before I became nervous. And I also knew that if Ruth read before me, I’d be busy plotting my own reading and unable to focus on her work.
I do not remember what I read, and I expect no one in the audience does, either. Ruth simply became the show, and not because she was an especially good reader. In fact, that day her voice was ragged, almost strident. So what made her the unforgettable one? The amazing things she said between the amazing poems she read. On the surface, she seemed to be having a hell of a good time, moving effortlessly from poem to poem, barely pausing between them, never quite allowing you to digest what you heard before she moved on. Her chat and her poems were loaded with pugnacity, sass and humor, but they were also painful and desperate. She read and spoke of betrayal, rage, suicide, loneliness, despair. There are some poets who, when they read, leave at the end of each poem a little silence to be filled by the sighs of the audience as it recoils from so much wisdom in such an exquisite package. Ruth was not one of them. I think we all felt her need to unburden herself of an enormous weight of language and imagery. She’d already waited too long.
Why at 65 was I just discovering one of the truly significant poets of my era? Let me give two self-serving answers to justify my ignorance: we have never had an effective means to discover the best poets among us — think Emily Dickinson — and Ruth never learned how to play the game. Perhaps she took Whitman seriously when he urged the poets of the future never to humble themselves to anyone.
When I heard that Ruth died, I went back to my journals to see if I’d written anything about that incandescent afternoon all those years ago. In my notes I found some random lines of poetry that I must have copied as Ruth read: “and then the apple trees were new,” “it was the same worm eating the same fruit,” “they barely let you through the checkout line,” “the shock comes slowly as an afterthought,” “now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.” I kept looking for the line “Things will be different,” but I didn’t write it in my journal. Whenever I think of Ruth, I don’t think of the hennaed hair or her beautiful features bearing the lines of age and grief. I think of that line and the time I first heard it.
Ruth lived in the only world of poetry that matters, the one without publishers, awards, prestige, competition, jealousy, money — the one we might call “poetry eternal,” the same world the great poems live in. Now she is there forever.
Philip Levine is the poet laureate of the United States.