On Ruth Stone and Being Chased by a Poem


This week I read for the first time the work of Ruth Stone, an American poet who wrote poems of extraordinary honesty and insight for nearly nine decades.  In the above video, Stone, age 93, recites several poems by memory, including “The Talking Fish”, one of my favorites.

Stone’s works exhibit a simplicity of diction that allows for an emotional immediacy and directness, a subtle tenderness that impacts the reader in a visceral way.  Her poetry is also marked by a unique musicality.  In this reading, she even sings one poem, “I Have Three Daughters”.

Even more notable to me, however, is the patience Stone shows in her writing, a willingness to slow her gaze enough to capture the poetic in each object, in each interaction.  This skill is one I strive to develop in both poetry and in life.

Stone often spoke of poems as things received, parts of the universe that she had to catch lest the lines slip away.  Elizabeth Gilbert elaborates on this:

As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out, working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming…cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, “run like hell” to the house as she would be chased by this poem.  The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she would be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it, and it would “continue on across the landscape looking for another poet.”

(Listen to Gilbert on her encounter with Stone here.)

My professor remarked today that sometimes he likes to imagine the poems he writes are ones Stone didn’t get to quickly enough or somehow missed, ones that then found him instead.  Isn’t that a lovely idea?