What is your favorite National Book Critics Circle finalist of all time? The first NBCC winners, honored in 1975 for books published in 1974, were E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, fiction), John Ashbery (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, poetry), R.W.B. Lewis for his biography of Edith Wharton, and Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory, criticism). In 2014 the National Book Critics Circle prepares to celebrate nearly forty years of the best work selected by the critics themselves, and also to launch the new John Leonard award for first book. So we're looking back at the winners and finalists, all archived on our website, and we've asked our members and former honorees to pick a favorite. Here's the fourth of dozens of choices in our latest in six years of NBCC Reads surveys. Ruth Stone's “Ordinary Words” won the NBCC poetry award in 1999.
It's virtually impossible to decide on a single favorite from the glittering list, but after scrolling through it several times, I will nominate Ruth Stone as perhaps the most fascinating (and among the most brilliant) of the prize winners. As you know, Ruth–who died a few years ago at the age of 96–won quite a few prizes in her lifetime, including not just the NBCC but the National Book Award and the Wallace Stevens Prize. But for incomprehensible reasons she remained, and still remains, relatively obscure, although she is an object of devotion to a widening circle of knowledgeable readers. Perhaps her troubles began when she was widowed in her early forties; her husband, Walter Stone, a novelist and poet, left her with three young daughters to raise, and, impoverished, she began a kind of wandering career as an academic temp at a number of campuses. Between grief and maternity, traveling (on what she once called “Desperate Buses”) and teaching in untenured positions, she didn't have a lot of time for Po Biz and published infrequently. By the end of her life, however, she was beginning to receive the honors she deserved, including the prizes I mentioned and, astonishingly, a tenured job at SUNY-Binghamton at the age of 75 (she retired when she was 85). And yet–and yet–to this day it seems to me that she hasn't been properly represented in the canon-forming anthologies of our time. I hope my vote for her here may help bring her to the attention of an even wider circle of insightful readers! I think she should be counted among the great American voices of the 20th century.