(Music) RUTH STONE: Coming up this hill, there's this moment of anticipation before I come around the curve to see if the house is still there.
And there's always that same amazing feeling.
I feel like this place waits for me, you know, to take me in again.
And when I leave, I say goodbye to it, and I say goodbye to the books.
You know, "I'm going now, goodbye, I'll be back."
(chuckling) WOMAN 1: I forget how it goes.
RUTH: What are you looking for?
- We're looking for that poem you were just trying to recite?
Do you remember what it was called?
- How did it start?
- How did it start... - It didn't start "Now I'm old?"
OVERLAPPING VOICES: No, no - Now I am old.
All I want to do is try RUTH (joining): But when I was young, ALL: if it wasn't easy I let it lie, Learning through my pores instead, And it did neither of us any good!
(laughing) For now she is gone who slept away my life, And I am ignorant who inherited, Though the head has grown so lively RUTH (solo): That I stamp - "Come look, come stomp, ALL (resuming): "come listen to the drum."
RUTH (solo): I see more now than then; But she who had my eyes, Closed them in happiness, and wrapped the dark In her arms and stole my life away, Singing in dreams of what was sure to come.
I see it perfectly, except the beast GRANDDAUGHTER (joining): Fumbles and falters, RUTH (solo) until the others wince.
Everything shimmers and glitters and shakes with unbearable longing, The dancers who cannot sleep, - and the sleepers who cannot dance.
(wistful guitar melody) (crickets sing) (footsteps) MAN: Ruth was giving a class in poetry and I took her class.
I loved her poems and went up to Vermont and shot a documentary.
It's all here.
It's basically... these cans.
Truthfully, I didn't know much about what I was doing at that time!
But uh, I did my best and came up with what I came up with.
Well, like, how can you sum up a person?
But among other things...
I had a love affair which I don't think that I could duplicate.
- And not only that, that I'm a very strong person and that probably nothing affects my art.
BIANCA: All right.
Let's see... - What are you working on?
- Well, I wanted a stop animation that captured her, um... iconic... hair-do.
So a lot of the pictures... have this - What is that called when it bunches in the front like that?
Like a swoop.
It's pinned, it probably has a name.
I guess it was '40s... style.
And she just had the same hairstyle for her entire life.
(clock ticks) (whimsical music) RUTH: Where is that?
What was I going to read you?
Oh, yeah, right.
SIDNEY: I came there with a sound man and a camera man.
I had an Eclair, I think, and a Nagra.
And I had to bring all these cans of raw film, and changing bags, and the whole megillah.
(chortling) SIDNEY: What are you working on, Ruth?
We recorded a bunch of interviews and poems what poems were about and how she thought them up and what they meant.
NORA: Whatever she was doing, poetry would be going through her mind.
And whenever she had a dull moment when people would... now turn their phone on or something, she would - start scribbling.
RUTH: God, I can't think of a word which will behave in the way that goldfinches do when they're disturbed, a flock of them.
And you know, they will, they will, they will rush up.
And of course, they rush up... glittering, ahh, you know?
Uh - Oh, glitter!
Maybe, no, but that's not really it.
SANDRA: Oh, she wrote constantly.
She would be staying here, she stayed in my son's room one time, he was away at school.
And she would just sit at that, what used to be his high school desk, writing poems.
And then she wrote a poem about sitting at his high school desk writing poems.
RUTH: They're twittering too, then they drop down again, you know, if they're disturbed.
EDWARD: There's something intuitive, I think, in her, that's very ancient in poetry, which has to do with the idea of the muse, or inspiration, or in breathing, where you can locate that inspiration either outside of you from the wind that's blowing past you, or from the irrational that comes up inside of you.
SANDRA: Then I would take her to the bus station and put her on a bus to the next place that she was going to go, and I would see her sit back on the bus.
And she would be in another world.
And you know that the Muse was somehow... inhabiting her in this extraordinary way.
RUTH: My hazard wouldn't be yours, not ever; But every doom, like a hazelnut comes down to its own worm.
So I'm rocking here Like any granny with her apron over her head Saying, lordy me.
It's my trouble.
There's nothing to be learned this way.
If I heard a girl crying help, I would go to save her; But you hardly ever hear these words.
Dear children, You must try to say Something when you are in need.
Don't confuse hunger with greed; And don't wait until you are dead.
WILLIS: Very much like Emily Dickinson with respect to her poetry, there is a flow... as in Dickinson, yet always the unexpected word.
And Ruth's poetry is like that.
CHARD: Ruth travelled around the country from this house, California, Illinois, Wisconsin, Virginia, to teach and always come back here.
- It was an old farmhouse and things looked like they just appeared there and stayed there for 100 years.
- Everything was always just a big sort of mess inside.
What Ruth used to call "The Vast Library of the Female Mind."
(guitar notes) - I think it was a philosopher poet's life.
RUTH: All my family are poets, artists, poets, musicians, writers... GRANDDAUGHTERS: Photographers, seamstresses... RUTH: All the arts.
HILLERY: Chloe knows poems, right?
CHLOE: Yeah, I know, poems.
- Yeah, let's hear one.
HENRY: Hey, I have some too.
- You have some too?
Let's hear it.
(reciting together) In winter, I get up at night And dress by yellow candlelight.
In summer - HILLERY: We were encouraged to do all sorts of different things.
We could paint, we could take pictures, we could write stories, we could write poems, we could sing, we could play any instrument, and none of it had - there wasn't an end in anyone's mind, I think, in terms of what we should become, (reciting together) And I should like so much... PHOEBE: We learned how to write through osmosis, listening to poetry, hearing poetry, hearing the sound of words, going to readings.
Every time my mother wrote a poem, she read it to us.
But she never made me feel, ever - or my sister Abigail, who also writes and is a wonderful writer - She never made us feel like it wasn't open to us too.
SINGING: ♪ Happy birthday to you... ♪ Happy birthday to you... ♪ Happy birthday dear Ruth / Grandma ... ♪ ♪ Happy birthday to you.
(Blowing, clapping, cheers) (whimsical xylophone) (solo performer singing) ♪ But it's a long, long while, ♪ from May to December, ♪ and the days grow short... BIANCA: Grandma slept out here a lot of times, sat out here in these wicker chairs... And she loved wind chimes (rattlling a bamboo chime) so whenever I hear wind chimes (tinkling a metal chime) I think of Goshen.
I bought this house with the Kenyon fellowship money.
- I know.
- I bought this house, this is my house.
I answered an ad in the New York Times.
I came up over the hill, and I saw this house and I said, "I'll take it."
It had an orchard and a brook, and everything I wanted.
Walter didn't speak to me for a month, because I did that.
(guffawing) He didn't want it!
MARCIA: People got nothing back then for teaching at Vassar, for gosh sakes.
So - he was, really disturbed (laughing) that she bought it, but, it was the best thing that ever happened.
And then they'd go up there and they had fun.
And he tarred the roof and wrote a lot of poems It was wonderful.
RUTH (singing) ♪ I have three daughters, ♪ like greengage plums.
♪ They sat all day, sucking their thumbs.
♪ ♪ And more's the pity.
They cried all day.
♪ ♪ Why doesn't our mother's brown hair turn gray?
♪ - That's so beautiful.
- Thank you.
PHOEBE: In the summer, it was so wonderful.
Mother's students would come up and huge groups of people would spend the summer, and they were always writers.
And every evening we would have a get together you know, spaghetti dinners and wine and... heaven.
Absolute heaven all through my childhood.
(buoyant conversation) SHARON: The social freedom of her house, the deregulation, the passion, the spontaneousness of that was very new to me when I was 15, 16, 17, 18.
This was a different kind of tribe.
The living room: Main base for hanging out.
You have to play.
- You do the poetry game.
That's a fun game.
Everyone puts in a word and then you have to use it in the poem.
RUTH: Give me a word.
Give me a word.
Give me a word.
And that's how I met David, he was a student of mother's and I ended up marrying him.
DAVID: She kind of treated you like an equal it wasn't like a professor or student relationship.
- What's the next word?
Is that okay?
- It's the leg, T-A-R-S-U-S, It's the leg of a bird.
STUDENT: You've not a Tarsus to stand on.
(chortling laughs) Nor mood to debate.
And they keep it going, keep it going.
And amazing poems would come out of this.
RUTH: How to you spell it?
DAVID: She was different than a lot of professors probably, Things were always a little wild and hectic in her life (students giggling) Ruth!
- Wake up Ruth... (laughter echoes) RUTH (voice echoing): I...heard this...noise like a great locomotive, roaring, and I heard it coming up the mountain and it just got closer and closer and closer and then it just burst over us.
(thunder rumbles) Think what it must be like to hear the water of a broken dam coming toward you.
(rolling thunder) NORA: She had a lot of anxious thoughts probably from... her husband killing himself, like that shock.
She then thereafter always had awareness that catastrophe strikes at random when you don't expect it.
(low reverberations) (performer singing) ♪ And these few precious days ♪ I'll spend with you (birds chirp and chitter) ♪ (twittering, crow caws) YVONNE: Her big tragedy came so suddenly and without any preparation, the death of her husband.
And there she is across the ocean in England.
They had traveled to Europe during Walter's sabbatical from Vassar.
It was an Eden, in smoky, tea ridden London with a lot of good people having the time of their life.
- We bought a new car.
And it was waiting for us in England.
- Oh god.
- And it was a little white car and we drove everywhere in it.
(car honks) And we'd be in the backseat, fighting and caterwauling and having fun looking out the window, and mom and dad were in the front seat.
CHARD: They were actually living north of London, but Walter had an office in London, and... died in London.
He hung himself.
Oh, I was so enraged when he died because I kept thinking, no one ever told me... that that could happen.
Mom was blown out of the water.
It was unimaginable.
- He was on the cusp of a serious career.
You can think of cheap ways of talking about it.
Fear of possible success, which is harder to bear than fear of failure, which you're used to.
- So many rejection letters, and I was there when he got his first poem published in the New Yorker, when the letter came in the mailbox.
We were in Goshen for the summer.
And we, I was with him.
I - even with him as he went to the mailbox and he opened the mailbox and it was a letter of acceptance, his first acceptance.
And he cried.
And he said that, um... he told me, and I was ten at the time, he said, "Thank God," he said, "I was gonna kill myself "if I didn't get published by age 40."
And this is my grandfather's book.
Um... As far as I know, the only book that he published.
(reading) Rains wet his manuscript, The notes fell from the staves.
The letters ran like waters, Paternal music dripped.
My grass fell into graves.
I shall descend in daughters... - He called us a harem.
He had three daughters, and he wanted a son.
(rueful chuckle) He kept getting daughters.
- Scatter me among women, In harems of winding hair, Who clothe them in my dollars, And lay me there, man brimming Amidst their golden stare.
- That's a telling poem, isn't it?
I don't know, he then killed himself and we don't know whether it's because he was under pressure to produce a novel that he wasn't able to do, or if the fame sort of died in his hands because it - It wasn't what he had hoped it to be.
Or... if there were other issues from his childhood that my mom and all of us weren't aware of.
He was kind of a theologist And so...I think he was already fascinated in the stages of existence, life, death, heaven and hell.
And that's why I wonder about my grandmother... Not being so shocked to get that phone call.
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.
When they forced the door open, your feet pushed against the floor.
Inside your skull, there was no room for us... - My mother and I have spent zillions of hours sitting in front of that fireplace in Goshen, you know, talking about why, why, why, why did he do it?
It is a violent act.
Let's admit that.
It's an act of violence.
But on the other hand, we all have a limit to what we can endure If you think committing suicide is a rejection of me, you're wrong, it's a rejection of his own life, not mine.
SIDNEY: I know, I know, but, I mean... - By the time he got 'round to doing that, Sidney.
- Oh, I'm burning the food.
By the time he got around to doing that he'd forgotten me.
- That's not rejection.
- Well, at some level he decided not to be with you.
- He decided not to be with himself.
Clearly if she had not wanted to talk about it, she was... free not to talk about it, but she was very open about it.
You know when someone loves you.
He, he didn't not love me.
- They had an extremely close relationship.
So I can't imagine... Ruth didn't know more about why that happened.
(pop, squeak) RUTH: Let's see, Walter.
I met Walter kind of accidentally through some friends or something.
And he looked over at me and he said he fell in love.
You know how kids are.
It was just electrifying.
I don't know.
What is it?
(laughing) - In terms of handsome, he wasn't.
He had a pock-marked face and ears that stuck out.
- He wasn't classically... - He was gorgeous, yes, he was.
- But, he was a lot more attractive than almost any man.
I mean, I thought he was much more attractive - - He was tall and skinny, and - - He wasn't tall!
- Yes, he was.
He was huge!
- He was 5' 10".
(chortling) - Yeah, but he was skinny.
- He was skinny.
- So there, suddenly, Ruth was with no husband and no income and three daughters.
- We came back on the boat.
And it was all very surreal.
My youngest sister Abigail didn't know my dad had died.
She was five.
And I think that was a mistake not to have included her in that.
- My mom has really never recovered from that time.
It was really confusing, and one of the hardest things was that everyone was together in this grief and... comforting each other, without her.
We came back and my mom pretty soon got a job at My Weekly Reader.
So it was a combination of everything was okay, and everything was not because she also cried, a lot.
and if it hit her, that grief, would tell the grocery store people, anybody who was around, and they would be devastated and she would be devastated.
It was like she couldn't not... She couldn't hold it in when it was coming out.
So to speak.
- Ruth didn't handle it well.
For a long time.
- She was a good mother, and a difficult mother.
You know something?
My daughters (crying and laughing) think the most amazing things about me.
They love their Mama.
- Oh, a lot of daughters don't love their mamas.
- Actually I don't love you.
It's your work.
- I love... - And that I'm afraid to say is true.
(laughing) It's hard to love me.
- She wasn't always easy.
- I'm very difficult.
- She wasn't always an easy mother.
She worried a lot.
- I worried all the time.
I was afraid I was gonna lose somebody else.
- In a way I feel like Ruth's giant grief was very much like a part of our whole family dynamic.
It was sort of our own myth that we lived in and still live in.
I carry in me a real sense of... something terrible could happen just, in a split second, and take my life down.
- I mean, I'm named after a man that hung himself by his tie, so that can make your mind go to a - a dark place that you kind of associate... with... suicide.
But I don't think there's a family out there that doesn't have some sort of tragic inheritance that they pass on to their children to carry.
After daddy died, I decided you had to be crazy to be a writer, that I didn't want to open myself up in that way, that I wasn't at all willing.
And so I didn't do it anymore because you do have to be... willing to be open in a way that I wasn't.
That was a funny conclusion to come to, wasn't it?
- I don't know... - But it was one you made.
It's weird to feel like you sort of inherited somebody else's grief, The sort of endlessness of it.
But what I've learned with animation so far is that you can't be impatient.
And the cool thing too, is that each attempt that I do, it sort of leads to another thing.
So I've been playing off grandma's amazing elegy poems and poems about mortality and the body after it's dead.
And a lot of people don't want to look at that.
And she did in her grieving, RUTH: You are coming toward me.
We are balanced like dancers in memory, I feel your coat, I smell your tobacco.
You almost touch me.
MAJOR: That intensity, what appears to be a kind of constant mourning is owed to, I think, being haunted, being haunted by one's material.
(Footsteps) (mournful music) This is - was my grandfather's study.
And of course, became grandma's, too.
And it's one of those rooms where a lot of things stayed where they'd been put for many years.
The papers... the poems... the letters.
They married at the end of World War Two, and they'd been writing hundreds of letters to each other.
But after Walter died, Ruth didn't write for a while.
RUTH: I know how I put it to myself, very specifically.
I just remember saying to myself, the bird has died, has died.
And I meant the bird and myself had died.
But all of a sudden I woke up and I realized, Oh, my God how dull everything looked.
How dull the world was.
- She began to write in a much more kind of free verse manner, as if to say she just needed to talk very plainly about her grief and what she was feeling, and found her style.
The summer I was twenty-four in San Francisco.
You and I.
The whole summer seemed like a cable-car ride over the gold bay.
But once in a bistro, angry at one another, We quarreled about a taxi fare.
- His death inspired her first great book of poems.
She was writing before that, but it pushed her on as negative things often do.
Typography and Other Poems.
This is the second book of hers I published.
RUTH: Something so overpowering, you know, about love.
I think what I lived in before was, you know, some sort of dream.
As though I was asleep.
And then after Walter died, living without love, well, maybe it's just simply knowledge.
I see more now than then, but she who had my eyes, closed them in happiness and wrapped the dark in her arms, and stole my life away, singing in dreams of what was sure to come.
I see it perfectly.
Except the beast fumbles and falters until the others wince, everything shimmers and glitters and shakes with unbearable longing, the dancers who cannot sleep and the sleepers who cannot dance.
I suppose that art functions sometimes it seems to me just simply as an opening or an, or an honesty.
It is another way of... enduring the rawness of existence.
- And I don't know, maybe that was part of the poetry too, is being able to turn terrible things into art.
- She always dealt with that.
She always loved him, wrote poems about him until the very end, made it funny, witty, loving, crazily... authentic.
She knew what to do with it.
And she knew what its value was.
RUTH: While only a day or so ago, you let me win at chess, while you felt my dress around the knees.
That room we went to 50 miles away, have those bus trips ended?
I think if anything, what she models is - is how to stabilize oneself in one's - in one's art.
And I think that's what she did.
It was like her, her rock, her anchor.
- I mean, I think there's only some things that poetry can do.
It doesn't give you back your loved ones.
But it gives you a way to think about it.
And to, maybe, keep the - the demons at bay as a result.
- So here was a poet who clearly believed that poetry was for singing our deepest feelings.
They didn't have to be positive, they didn't have to be pretty.
Her capacity to write beauty was extraordinary.
And her capacity to write suffering and loss and extremes of feeling was very important for me.
- I was a child when you married me, A child I was when I married you.
But I was a regular mid-west child, and you were a Jew.
My mother needled my father cold, My father gambled his weekly gold, And I stayed young in my mind, though old.
As your regular children do.
I didn't rah and I hardly raved.
I loved my pa while my mother slaved, And it rubbed me raw how she scrimped and saved When I was so new.
Then you took me in with your bony knees, And it wasn't them that I wanted to please- It was Jesus Christ that I had to squeeze; Oh, glorious you.
Life in the dead sprang up in me I walked the waves of the salty sea.
I wept for my mother in Galilee.
My ardent Jew.
Love and touch and unity.
Parting and joining; the trinity Was flesh, the mind and the will to be.
The world grew through me like a tree.
Was it I who was old when you hung, my Jew?
I shuffled and snuffled and whined for you.
And the child climbed up where the dead tree grew And slowly died while she wept for you.
Goyim wept for the beautiful Jew.
(elegy music) Yeah, so I think Ruth was giving Walter some existence and some recognition and some praise and some grief when he was no longer here to receive it himself.
- I think poetry is like a moth to the flame and Ruth Stone had the guts to go towards that rather than away from it.
Well, she's always been that way.
RUTH: Seems like I was always observing.
No matter what was going on, I was looking at it.
- She didn't avoid lots of the pains of life that I definitely do avoid thinking about.
I had a train phobia when I was young.
So on my way to school, I had to cross the railroad tracks.
And I'd heard sirens in the night.
And I looked down on the track and there was blood and skin and teeth.
- Oh my god.
- I remember picking some up, and putting in my pocket and brought 'em home, put 'em in my drawer in my desk or something... And my mother found it.
She was horrified.
- She had the unflinching gaze about death that very few people have in our time.
BEN: Her candor was large.
She was happy to add in the things that would maybe kind of make people a little bit uneasy.
RUTH: Something wrong with me, haha!
BEN: There's this poem about a pig.
Even people in the family, they love the poem, but it's kind of a terrible incident that happens.
Once you saw a drove of young pigs crossing the highway.
One of them pulling his body by the front feet, the hind legs dragging flat.
Without thinking, you called the Humane Society.
They came with a net and went for him.
They were matter of fact, uniformed; there were two of them, their truck ominous, with a cage.
He was hiding in the weeds.
It was then you saw his eyes.
He was trembling.
After they took him, you begin to suffer regret.
Years later, you remember his misfit body scrambling to reach the others.
Even at this moment, your heart is going too fast; your hands sweat.
This poem doesn't have too many surprises, right?
This poem is told in a very familiar... way that stories are told.
And then that happened.
And this happened.
Tell me what makes this an effective poem, then?
STUDENT: I just immediately thought of like how relatable this poem is, like doing something and later regretting it, - Yeah.
- and thinking it's the right thing to do in the moment and later regretting it.
- She realizes that while she's trying to save the pig, it was trying to fight for its own chance of survival.
And by her interfering, it meant that probably the pig would be put down, and it's suddenly so... devastating.
- The beauty of her clarity became, for me, an ideal in a way.
The fact that people who aren't necessarily educated in poetry could understand her poems, I love that.
MAJOR: How gorgeous is it that the poem that starts off in the past tense, suddenly shifts to the present tense?
That's often what poets do.
They write about the past, but with keener insight.
It was then, after, years later, even at this moment.
And I love that you.
When you enter into the poem, you're grounded.
And I think that groundedness is useful for a number of readers, particularly those who feel as though poetry is some sort of... of puzzle.
- Her poetry is extremely accessible, and funny, and terrible.
- She wrote a book called "Who Is The Widow's Muse?"
But she was the muse for so many of us.
(chuckle) (upbeat music) RUTH: Vermont is like the childhood I spent in Virginia.
And it reminded me of Mill Mountain and Roanoke, and it seemed like... coming home.
- You want to look at the kitchen?
It looks okay now.
- It looks good, doesn't it?
- And the back porch has been swept and I threw the garbage away.
- You think you did most of your writing here?
The countryside, everywhere is so beautiful.
But you certainly do have a lot of notebooks upstairs, Ruth, of unpublished poems.
- Oh, yeah.
And a lot eaten by mice.
You pull a drawer out and it's just full of - (clicks her tongue) chewed up paper.
I said the mice are full of poems.
(laughing) Cuz it's, you know, it's right in the middle of the country, you get field mice.
That was a yummy poem.
That was a good one.
I'm not sure she was religious in any way.
But she had a kind of belief in this... power of intuition, which had a mystical quality to it.
Do you think that there are other... universes?
I suspect there are.
If an ant, crossing on the clothesline from apple tree to apple tree, would think and think, it probably could not dream up Albert Einstein.
NORA: Her sense of herself as part of the universe was really amazing.
Because she was really into science.
So she was reading about physics and reading about the beginning of the universe and black holes.
- I remember writing that poem because it began coming to me while I was hanging the laundry, and the ants were crossing on the clothesline.
It's all true.
So I ran upstairs and grabbed a phonograph record and it had a hole in the middle.
So I wrote around the hole.
And there in the dark is Albert Einstein with his clever formula that looks like little mandibles digging tunnels into the earth and bringing it up, grain by grain, smiling at you, his shy bushy smile, along an imaginary path from here to there.
- The poems would come to her whole.
And sometimes she said that they would come backwards.
They'd come from the bottom up.
BURGESS: Ruth drove around in this old beat up English Ford.
And bouncing up and down the road, the floor would be littered with crumpled up pieces of paper.
And every time I'd pick them up, and say, "This is a great poem!"
She goes, "No, no, no, leave that alone."
From her point of view, they were works in progress.
But they were wonderful.
RUTH: I'm not conscious of writing.
Ah, let's think how I do it.
It comes, I feel it coming way off in the universe, whatever it's gonna - And it goes through me, and if I don't catch it and write it down, it goes out and it's gone forever.
- She was embodying one of the most ancient ideas of poetry, that poetry traditionally had been associated with the wind.
And with inspiration.
D. H. Lawrence has a line, Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
that the poet is actually a vehicle for something.
Inspiration means "in breathing."
I have been writing all my life and I hardly know what I've written.
(laughing loudly) Run off at the pen, as they say.
(pen scratching) (upbeat music) I mean, going through these boxes is like... you know, there's a cat toy and checks...
But I have to look at every single piece of paper.
Because I'll find....
This is - This is a poem!
- Read it.
- Again, rejected all night by my dead husband.
He's so indifferent.
The dreams, so real, haunted all day by the night before.
I make my elaborate cup of coffee.
Then it's my cousin's phone number.
But grandma was really proud of her... her library... You know, as any writer is, or reader.
And that's why it's so important to have a space you can always come back to.
There was nowhere else!
Every other place was a, you know, apartment somewhere.
RUTH: Listen, last night I am on a crying jag with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams, "No pets!
I become my Aunt Virginia, proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
It's like that time, remember, when I ran into our living room naked, to get rid of that fire inspector.
See what you miss by being dead?
- See what you miss by being dead... - What came out of her, those poems are so different from anybody else's poems.
There is no style that is like Ruthie's, She didn't copy anybody!
(chuckling) Where I Come From.
My father put me in my mother but he didn't pick me out.
I am my own quick woman.
- And the way she lived, you know, she lived poor.
She lived like a poor person.
When Burgess was living up there, he had a little job in town, and he would bring home food from the restaurant where he worked.
And that was what we were eating.
But she never complained.
I can't remember Ruth complaining about a thing.
RUTH: Well, what else do I need?
Even if you're really rich, you can't eat more than one meal at a time, drink more than one glass of something at a time.
- She was generous about giving her money away, but not about treating herself.
Picking clothes out of the Goodwill bin.
If that's what you have to do, that's what you have to do.
- In her poem Bargain, for instance, she says, "Who will have me?"
"I will," said poverty.
- I mean, consider the titles of her work: Cheap.
They're all poems about living on the edge, living in obscurity, where the only place that she has and that she really loves is this really rather ramshackle, wonderful old farmhouse on a mountain, where she says she's like a possum up a tree.
She's clinging to her place in the branches.
- One thing that a lot of people I don't think understand or know about Ruth is that she never went to college.
So it was obviously difficult for her to get a teaching job.
She ended up getting a lot of teaching jobs.
WILLIS BARNSTONE: And she spent the next 40 years as a roaming Professor, like a minstrel poet should be.
(whimsical music, ticking) She traveled constantly from job to job, mostly she would get a one year temporary lectureship.
- I don't even want to tell you what we offered Ruth Stone to come and teach.
I'm ashamed of it.
But she didn't have a job at that time, and there was this particular job that was open of a visiting poet, and it had this particular salary attached to it.
Can you imagine me asking Ruth Stone to come and be a visiting poet in her 80s?
And she would take it?
(upbeat music) RUTH: I worked, alright.
And traveled and traveled and worked and worked and drove.
But it gave me a certain kind of freedom.
And I had a freedom with students because I wasn't anybody.
- It wasn't until her late 70s and early 80s that she received tenure at Binghamton, SUNY, where she'd been teaching for a while, despite the fact that she didn't have a college degree.
YOGESH: I'd always remember, she'd always be late to class, and I'd always be late coming to class.
And I'd always be seeing her driving her old car and she would be just driving fast through the parking lot and swerving around.
And then she'd look out the window and she would wave to me.
I would come into class, and then she would come into class a few minutes later.
It was one of those classes you never wanted to end.
And I actually remember Ruth was retiring and she was leaving the university.
And on the last day, she was walking to her car, and she was like the mother duckling.
And all us little students were like the little ducklings, just following her and following her and following her.
And when she finally got to her car, it was like, we didn't know what to do.
She like, got in, and kind of drove away.
And we weren't really saying much.
But we knew that we were being - (bus honking) I don't know, bumped out of the nest, and it was our job to take what we learned in class and apply it to the real world.
- That's lovely... - Yeah, people just blossomed.
But I saw that she had a hard time in the world with the old boys club.
There were plenty of pompous academics and poets and critics who didn't respect her.
- One of my colleagues asserted that her poetry was women's poetry, and was not serious poetry.
That it didn't take up the big questions.
- And Ruth being 20, 30 years older than I am, had it 20 or 30 times worse.
It was so powerful a part of one's life.
I couldn't get my people at Harcourt to do another book of hers.
- Did you want to?
- Yes, I did.
I would've published anything of hers.
- So what did they say?
- They said, "They haven't sold.
And we've done enough."
I said, "Well, I think this book would probably recover its costs."
We're not gonna do it."
- Speaking of myself as a poet, you know, I'm an African American poet.
And in the '80s, when I was in graduate school, I never read a black poet.
I never read a woman poet.
We read Sylvia Plath.
So... historically, there are a lot of silences and blindnesses in literature.
And because she was an older woman, a widow, somewhat eccentric, she simply didn't have access to all the editorial and publicity mechanisms that, believe it or not, make a poet's life.
But Ruth knew exactly what was going on in terms of class and snobbery and contempt.
- She makes fun of men.
And... male poets did not like that, at all.
- She was not exactly inhibited.
RUTH: I don't know if I'm a feminist, but I think women ought to be given a fair treatment and equality.
- In our generations, you didn't do things for yourself, you didn't do things for your art, you did things first for the family.
And she did a lot for her family.
But she also never gave up on the poetry.
- I mean, that's really great about social media and the internet age, I mean, now we have so much opportunity to put our work out there for free.
And that's really - - Great!
- I mean - - Where's the money?
I knoooow, where's the money?
But that's, it's not about money.
You know, it's like, I mean, the money will come... - Poetry rarely recovers the expense of printing it.
Why then is it published?
Because... good editors in good houses, have literary consciences.
And it's part of our job to promote good work.
- I mean, it's really interesting, because our experience with the poetry world is so different now than Grandma's was, you know.
Imagine if like Grandma was like posting selfies from the brook.
(laughing) Well, she loved the computer.
(chuckling) - She was essentially a shabby, older woman with a sort of crazy hair-do, who was a widow who hadn't stopped grieving, and who had raised all these daughters, and that's who she was, and that's who she was going to be.
She wasn't going to be anyone else.
- How does she compare with other poets of the 20th century?
Forgive me, but that's a stupid question.
Talent in poetry grows by itself in the dark.
The people around her, the poets in her generation, Adrienne Rich being the most well known, but Adrienne Rich was a superb manager of her own career.
Ruth never knew she had a career.
She wrote her poems.
I didn't write them.
I didn't write them!
They came through me.
I did not write them.
- So what is it?
That she lived in Vermont and not in New York?
And so she was kind of out of the center?
That she... was not all that polite to some of the great male, white poets?
CHARD: But Ruth did win the Guggenheim and she did get an NEA, so she was being recognized.
She also won the Wallace Stevens Prize, which is a $100,000 prize.
HILLERY: She won the National Book Award.
And I was with her, which was really special.
And suddenly people were saying, Wow, that was your grandmother who just won the National Book Award in poetry.
- So, she did receive the attention she deserved at the end of her life.
But she always wondered.
I remember her asking me this question many times when she was lying in bed at her daughter Marsha's house, "Do you think I'll be remembered as a great poet?"
- People are known by their accolades.
And Ruth did not project either a longing for those.
And then when they all came, I'm not sure how much it mattered.
I think great poets don't live to be known.
That isn't what their work is about.
Their work - their work actually keeps them alive.
- She never admitted she was gonna die.
But one day she, I think she might've been feeling bad.
And I said, "Write a poem," and she couldn't see and she could hardly write.
But she got this look on her face.
It was a smile, a sneaky kind of smile when I said write a poem and she started thinking about it, it was like, the most delicious thing she could think of to do.
RUTH: When I am sad, I sing, remembering the red winged blackbird's clack.
Then I want no thing except to turn time back to what I had before love made me sad.
When I forget to weep, I hear the peeping tree toads creeping up the bark.
Love lies asleep and dreams that everything is in its golden net; and I am caught there, too, when I forget.
- And the last thing she said before she kind of didn't say anything more, although she lived for some hours afterwards, was, "Everybody has to die."
She's buried right there, actually.
Ruthie said she wanted to be buried in her backyard.
- It's one of those things, you know.
You're on social media and then the next thing you know, there's a New York Times article that pops up that says, Ruth Stone passed away.
And it was kind of a feeling of shock.
When Ruthie died, and Marcia called me and invited me... and I drove there.
And I'd get on these little roads, and there'd be nobody.
And you know, you'd come to these edges and precipices, and I'm scared of heights.
But when I got to the house, there was... Ruth's... casket.
It was this plain pine box.
- Mom and I, mostly mom, made the casket.
Right here on this table.
(chuckling) And then, um... of course we had to put Ruth in it!
(laughs) And um, she was... she was in the garage!
For a couple of days.
But it was cold.
They had, you know, washed her and wrapped her like swaddling, like a child, and you could see her face, and she had like a little gray curl sticking out.
It was really an emotional time trying to figure out what to do with the body, it was really a creepy learning experience on what happens when somebody does die.
And what you're... expected to do, what you can do... And you know, I'm an undertaker's daughter.
So it's not like I haven't been around death.
But this way, not in an embalming room.
- It was a wet, cold day, very raw.
We carried her coffin behind the house to the burial site, where we then lowered her coffin into the ground.
(mysterious music) - They were playing on an old tape deck, Ella Fitzgerald singing September Song, because that was her favorite song.
(song plays) ♪ As time went along... ♪ - We read some poetry.
We were just there with her and with each other, and there she is.
Still on the land, still with us there.
- Bianca was the most emotional to the point where I wondered about the depth of her grief.
And it was, it just seemed bottomless to me.
(song plays) ♪ But it's a long while... BIANCA: I'd spend every summer here, with Grandma.
So I've always loved this house.
Makes me miss her so much.
- It does leaves questions about... what is supposed to happen when great poets die?
- She was never going to have a will... but she did want the house to be used for artistic work.
Writing and drawing and... poetry!
- So we started hashing out specifics of making sure that her poems stay in print and fixing the house finally.
Because it's always been in need of fixing.
And making it what it was at its peak, when lots of people were coming and going and making things here.
This is like a door that was meant to lock the main door.
(Construction sounds) - It's a lot like what used to happen here ever since Grandma bought the house.
Like, students and friends would show up, and she'd say, "The water's not working."
And they'd be like, "Well, all right.
I'm gonna try my hand seeing if I can help you!"
- We want to make our own little space that's more inclusive for other people.
- Just places for people to write and be together, commune style.
- So the sign is up.
And it's so cool.
Cuz when we're here, we see people stopping to read it.
Grandma would be so excited about this!
Lots of people coming.
I've heard a lot about this place.
My first time here.
So welcome to our first workshop at the Ruth Stone House.
(giddy squeals) Our first one!
(clapping) Let's just jump right in, because we've got a lot of poems to read.
And we just had to bring in some... iconic Ruth Stone Goshen poems.
- All right.
That summer, from the back porch.
we would hear the storm like a train, the Doppler effect compressing the air; the rain, a heavy machine, coming up from below the orchard, rushing towards us.
My trouble was I could not keep you dead.
"Speculation" In the coolness here I care Not for the down-pressed noises overhead.
I hear in my pearly bone the wear Of marble under the rain; nothing is truly dead, At my center The bone glistens; of wondrous bones I am made.
(Crickets and soft music) (Elegiac music) RUTH: I'm just a child of 50.
You know that?
♪ I'm just a child who grew to be fifty.
♪ ♪ And summer after summer came swiftly.
♪ ♪ I told my mom and dad I'd make it home safely.
♪ ♪ Days of my heart, now what does my heart say?
♪ ♪ And fifty summers swing around the sun ♪ ♪ in the blue sky.
♪ ♪ Don't say that I didn't try.
♪ ♪ I laugh and I cry.
♪ (humming) ♪ ...dancing child ♪ ♪ who never dances tomorrow.
♪ ♪ Where do the old children go?
♪ ♪ When time says goodbye.
♪ (drum beat and cymbals) BIANCA (singing) ♪ I can't recreate the wind... ♪ ♪ Blows cold and clear on the green mountains ♪ ♪ and this old house I live in isn't haunted.
♪ ♪ That's all that I ever really wanted.
♪ ♪ This winter's killing me.
♪ ♪ This winter's killing me.
♪ ♪ I work all the time, and every bone bends.
♪ ♪ I make good money, I can't save a red cent.
♪ ♪ This winter's killing me.
♪ ♪ No more... ♪