by R. S. Stewart
The number of poems composed and published and not long afterwards forgotten in this country is astounding. Unless a poet is anthologized frequently, taught multiple times, and written about in scholarly essays and books, the poet risks oblivion, especially in these times when literature is losing favor to computer science, when poetry as an art form suffers in a hectic and rushed society with little time set aside for studying the true pleasures of a finely-wrought poem, and when many poets are too busy writing, publishing, and promoting their own work to appreciate and ponder poets of previous generations.
Ruth Stone (1915-2011) is a poet deserving a second look and remembrance. Even though she won the National Book Award for her 2002 volume The Next Galaxy, her name, itself poetic, doesn’t “ring a bell” with many readers. Her poem “In an Iridescent Time,” first published in The New Yorker under the title “Laundry” in 1958, has been a long-time favorite of mine for many reasons. Copyright regulations prohibit me from quoting the fifteen lines in full, but you can find it complete at http//www.small-ruth.blogspot.com/2013/08/in-iridescent-time.html
The most appealing aspect of her poem is that it is about something that all humans have need of. Who is not (we all should be) on the receiving end of clean, fresh laundry? Poetry rises over most other art forms in being able to have as its subject matter virtually anything, including a single object, among all of the varied and dazzling subjects that poetry encompasses. A painting can have as its subject a lone piece of fruit, as can a poem. But a novel? A play? An opera? A ballet?
The opening line, “My mother, when young, scrubbed laundry in a tub,” announces not only its topic but also simple but lush-sounding words that will comprise the entire poem: “scrubbed” echoing with “tub” and “young,” and “young” also with “when” and “in.” This pattern is carried throughout the vividly described scene of four sisters doing laundry, not in a modern machine, but outdoors under the apples trees on a bright spring day on a “rainbow” scrub-board, with bees buzzing and wrens “making talk” and a Jersey calf with “big brown eyes and bullish head” roaring beyond the fence.
The lines and their music create a joyous picture of a labor of love in doing what must be done. After rinsing and starching, they “shook” the garments “from the baskets two by two,/And pinned the fluttering intimacies of life/Between the lilac bushes and the yew:/Brown gingham, pink, and skirts of Alice blue.”
Some intellectuals who believe that poetry must do more than merely describe, that it must puff itself up around some kind of philosophical concept, will easily dismiss Ruth Stone and her poem. Such a move brings on the old questions: not only “What is poetry?” but also the nagging issue of who poetry is written for. More power to Ruth Stone and poets like her who discover beauty in the ordinary and the necessary.
R. S. Stewart is a volunteer consultant in the Writing Center at Chemeketa Community College.