Like so many creative endeavors, Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Feminine Spirit, a new film about a Vermont poet that deserves more attention, began as a simple conversation.
Poet Chard de Niord contacted Stone for a book he was working on, a collection of interviews with the most senior statesmen and women of American poetry, including Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly and Maxine Kumin. (The book, Sad friends, drowned lovers, stapled songs, was released in 2011.) After this first visit, de Niord stopped to talk to him every two weeks.
Stone, he realized, was a genius, a poet of such singularity and originality that she deserved to be more widely known.
“I was like, ‘This was a great opportunity to shoot Ruth in a movie,” de Niord said in an interview on Monday. In 2009, when Stone was 94, de Niord hired Norwich filmmaker Nora Jacobson, and she too was captivated by Stone.
The resulting feature-length documentary is an invitation to a poet whose low public profile is inversely proportional to the stature of her work. Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Feminine Spirit screened at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. The screening, a program of White River Indie Films and CATV, will be followed by a discussion with Jacobson and film attendees. Admission is by donation to a partnership between CATV and Telling My Story, a non-profit film and storytelling company in the Haute Vallée. Masks and proof of vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test will be required, and the event will also be broadcast live and rebroadcast on CATV.
The story the film tells focuses primarily on Stone’s time spent at her home in Goshen, Vermont, a small town nestled in the Green Mountains, and her work. It gives shape to her life, but doesn’t bother the dates too much. According to a 2002 profile of Stone in The New York Times, she was born in Roanoke, Virginia, to a family of artists and writers, in 1915. Ruth MacDowell grew up primarily in Indiana and was married to her first husband, a fellow student at the University of Illinois, when she was 19.
It was her second husband, the poet Walter Stone, who eventually shaped her life. Ruth, who never graduated from college, followed him to Harvard, where he was a graduate student, and then to Vassar, where he taught. They both have some success as poets. Ruth won a Kenyon scholarship and she used the money to buy the house in Goshen.
“There was an orchard, a stream, whatever I wanted,” she says in the movie, adding that Walter didn’t speak to her for a month afterward.
The family were living outside London in 1959 when Walter committed suicide at the age of 42. They had two young daughters, Phoebe and Abigail, and Ruth’s daughter from her first marriage, Marcia.
Walter’s death left Ruth both inconsolable and impoverished. She tried to work, but couldn’t, so she took the girls to Goshen. Her first collection of poems came out in 1959, but for years thereafter she wrote little. She became a wandering scholar, teaching for a year here and there, taking the girls with her.
When she returns to writing, her work is freer, less formal, wilder, characterized by raw honesty and a keen observation of herself and the world around her. Stone described writing as some kind of unconscious act. The muses inhabited his body.
“It’s not that she hasn’t worked on her poems,” de Niord said in an interview. “She certainly did. But it just went through her.
Her late husband was a constant subject. “Inside your skull there was no room for us,” she recites in a poem from the film. She titled a 1991 volume of poems Who is the widow’s muse?.
While directing the film, Jacobson had a few strokes of luck. Above all, Stone was a magnetic subject. DeNiord noted that she could recite of her work, all of it, with flawless recall. “Tell me how it goes,” she would ask, and when given the first line of a poem, she would go on.
Stone was someone “who could look you in the eye and recite, and there aren’t a lot of poets who can do that,” de Niord said.
“If she read with her head down, it would be so different,” Jacobson said.
But Jacobson also learned that in 1973, an aspiring filmmaker named Sidney Wolinsky, who had been Stone’s student at Brandeis University, brought a film crew to Goshen and made a short documentary. He had spools of unused material in his garage in Santa Monica, Calif., And some of that footage was incorporated into Jacobson’s film. (Wolinsky had a long career as an editor, including work on The Sopranos and other acclaimed TV series.)
For much of his life, Stone taught enough to keep the wolf away from the gate, but his home in Goshen was a bit run down, lacking central heating and potable water. His great successes came late in life. By 1973, she had published four collections of poems, but released nine after 1986, the year she turned 71. The State University of New York at Binghamton awarded him his tenure at 72. She won a National Book Critics Circle Award. in 2000 and 2002, won both a National Book Award and the Wallace Stevens Award, valued at $ 100,000, from the Academy of American Poets.
Stone was also a Vermont Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2011, the year of his death.
At the request of de Niord and others, Stone established a trust to protect his work. Bianca Stone, one of Ruth’s many granddaughters, and Bianca’s husband Ben Pease oversaw the restoration of the house. Ruth had wanted this to be a retreat for poets, and that’s what she has become. The film documents the transformation.
Although he focuses on his subject, Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Feminine Spirit is largely an Upper Valley production, between Jacobson and his collaborators including his sister Antoinette and co-executive producer Bill Stetson, also of Norwich.
Jacobson didn’t know much about Stone until he started filming 12 years ago. But there is power in Stone’s story.
“Even when terrible things happen, you can transform them,” Jacobson said. “Something can come out of it that enriches life and affirms it, rather than deadens it. “
So far, the film has screened at film festivals in Boston, where it has been one of five chosen to air on WGBH, the Hub’s public television channel, and in Vermont. But he will travel to New Jersey and Binghamton and Pittsburgh. Plans are developing.
“I really want to bring it out because I think not a lot of people know Ruth Stone and I want them to know that,” Jacobson said.
For more information on Saturday’s screening of Ruth Stone’s Sprawling Female Spirit Library, visit wrif.org.
Sharon’s Seven Stars Arts Center hosted a concert for Saturday night featuring a trio of Upper Valley musicians best known for other projects.
Calling himself Bigfoot Uprising, violinist Jakob Breitbach, of Wilder, singer-guitarist Kit Creeger, of Meriden, and singer-bassist Jim Murray, of Plainfield, plan to play a mix of country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. old.
Tickets cost $ 15, and there are few, with participation limited to 40 people. Masks and proof of vaccination compulsory. For tickets and information, visit www.sevenstarsarts.org or call 802-763-2334.
Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.