In the first footage of the poet Ruth Stone with her family that we see in the documentary “Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind,” she is a nonagenarian, sitting in the living room of her Vermont home with her three grown granddaughters.
One of them recites the first line of one of her poems, and then all four spontaneously recite the rest of it — all 15 lines — together, from memory, relishing every word. It’s an amazing thing.
But as the Nora Jacobson-directed documentary, which will be streamed as part of the spring 2022 edition of the New Jersey Film Festival, makes clear, Ruth Stone lived and breathed poetry through her long life (she died in 2011, at 96) and instilled a love of poetry and art in general in her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her home became a haven for relatives, and students of hers, and friends, to immerse themselves in poetry.
Stone received some recognition in her life, publishing 13 books, winning prizes (including the National Book Award) and two Guggenheim Fellowships, and being named the poet laureate of Vermont as well as a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But she remains underappreciated, in many ways. Poet Sharon Olds says in the documentary that one of the reasons for that is the sexism that Stone, as a woman born early in the 20th century, faced: She never learned to navigate the “old boys’ club” of “pompous academics and poets and critics who didn’t respect her,” Olds says.
She also never promoted herself in the way that some of her contemporaries did. “Ruth never knew she had a career; she wrote her poems,” says one of her editors, Bill Goodman.
“She both wanted to be known and then she also would pull back and retreat to Goshen (Vermont),” says poet Jan Freeman.
Part of that retreating had to do with the suicide of her husband Walter Stone in 1959. He was also a writer and a teacher, and championed his wife’s work. “It was like a rock fell out of the sky,” she once said of that traumatic event.
Stone also published her first book in 1959. It would be 12 years before she would publish another one, as she focused on raising her children, and grieving. She did eventually start addressing Walter’s death in her poetry, though, and became a prolific writer once again. And she resumed teaching, becoming a tenured professor at SUNY-Binghampton and having a profound effect on generations of young writers whom she took under her wing.
Jacobson explores all of this, quite thoroughly, in her 77-minute movie, which benefits from the existence of footage shot by Sidney Wolinsky for a short film about Stone in the ’70s. Jacobson also benefits from a (no pun intended) poetic way to end the film, as she is able to show Stone’s rustic home, after her death, being converted into a gathering place for writers’ workshops.
“Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind” can be streamed, all day Jan. 29, as part of the New Jersey Film Festival; those purchasing it will then have 24 hours to watch it. The festival itself will last through Feb. 20. Visit njfilmfest.com for more on this film and other festival offerings.
Here is its trailer for “Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind”:
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