The Strange But True Story of the Lady Who Caught A Poem Backwards

and became a finalist for a Pulitzer at age 94

Linda Caroll
Jul 11, 2019 · 5 min read
photo from pixabay. hey, someone else has my hair!

Do weird things pop into your head at the strangest times, or is that just me? It can’t be just me, of course, but it happens to me all the time.

And there it was. A story waiting to be told. So I pulled on pants, grabbed a notebook and pen and plopped myself in the sun, still all bare feet and mop haired. Neighbors be damned, there’s a story to be written.

I’m writing madly before the story slips away and from the corner of my eye, I can see the muse grinning at me. But I know… Don’t look, or she’ll disappear.

Remember when you tagged that guy and he lost his damn mind?
Write that, she whispers.

I make a note in the margin and keep writing about Mama’s tattoo and the old lady that scowled at her when she said tit. Because proper ladies don’t say tit.

The muse whispers again. Remember Carla?
More notes in the margins.

She shows up at the oddest times, the muse, like when she presses her face against the shower so I have to scramble, naked, grabbing a towel and running for pen and paper and wishing for a waterproof whiteboard in there.

If I had a waterproof whiteboard, there’d be no more ideas in the shower.

You know why all the good ideas show up when you’re wet, right? Because you aren’t staring at a blank paper or screen willing them to show up.

It reminds me of the lady who caught a poem backwards…

Ruth Stone was her name, and she told a delightful story to Elizabeth Gilbert.

She lived in rural Virginia, raising 3 girls herself. She’d be out working the fields when she’d hear a poem coming at her. Thundering at her over the landscape and there was only one thing she could do at that point.

Run like hell.

Run, because she had to get to paper and pencil fast enough to get the poem down or she’d miss it and it would thunder right past her and go find some other writer to write it down, or at least that’s what she said.

In some cases, she said, she almost missed it.

Reached the paper and pencil just in the nick of time and grabbed the poem by the tail. And in those cases, she wrote the entire poem backwards from the last word to the first and then had to reverse it all once she’d caught it.

Caught that one by the tail, she’d say and I love that story.

Incidentally? It’s a true story.

Ruth Stone wrote 13 books of poetry before she passed at age 96. She won many awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and more.

In 2009, at age 94, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Age 94!
She gives me so much hope.

When I read her story, I didn’t wonder about why she didn’t just bring a notebook with her out to the field.

Because the words wouldn’t show up if she did. Catching the muse is part of the game, I suspect.

She seldom shows up when we’re looking for her, and I know because I can sit with paper and pencil or a blank screen for days and never once come up with anything worth taking out of draft mode.

But when you’re not ready, and your mind is busy looking at something else? There she is. Doesn’t much matter if that’s a shower or a field, I suppose.

Sometimes, when she’s been quiet too long, I go looking for her. Never in a pen or paper or blank screen for I’ve long ago learned that she seldom sees fit to favor me there.

No, she hides in the shadows and laughs. Waits for me to be busy. But I’ve found a way to trick her. Or maybe it’s tricking myself. I’m not entirely sure.

But I do know that if if I go into the forest and walk long enough to forget about her entirely, to forget about writing or muses and just marvel at the moss and the birds and oh look, an abandoned nest — that’s when she’s most likely to appear, peeking out between the trees or over the edge of that twisted branch halfway up the old maple tree.

Down by the water, too.

Oh, how she loves the beach, where she can splash in the water and soar on the backs of the gulls and hawks and when I gaze up, one hand over my eye and half blinded by the sun, there she is. Grinning and whispering ideas.

She’s a bit like an errant child who makes you half crazy not calling when they ought to, but just when the real worrying begins, there she is with a hug and a grin and all is well in the world again.

And so for the rest of my days I will look for her in the glint of the sun and the songs of the birds. Missing her when she’s gone and kissing her when she dances back. She carries my heart in her pocket, my muse. And I let her.

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write. — Saul Bellow

xo Linda

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