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$100-Million Gift Is Pure Poetry to Magazine

Times Staff Writer

Growing up in a secretive family of almost unfathomable wealth, driven to school by Pinkerton guards who took a different route each day to throw off would-be kidnappers, Ruth Lilly explored the world mostly through poetry.

As she grew up, she began to write poems of her own, publishing a few, under a pseudonym. They were pretty good, a top editor would say later, but not great. Over the years she began making her contribution not with words but with dollars, creating several prizes, including one of the poetry world’s jackpots, the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Frail now at 87, and requiring a nurse to help her finish reading longer poems, the last surviving great-grandchild of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly has changed the landscape of American poetry publishing with a single gift. Her $100-million endowment has instantly turned Poetry magazine from the most highly regarded but also perennially penniless American poetry journal into the world’s largest foundation for verse.

This is after editors at Chicago-based Poetry returned Lilly’s own poems, along with kind but clear rejection letters, time and again.

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As word of the reclusive billionaire’s latest generosity spread over the weekend, poets expressed the thanks of those who know they will always struggle to earn a living. “This is wonderful,” said Campbell McGrath, 40, the recipient of MacArthur, Guggenheim and several other prestigious awards.

“Most poets live paycheck to paycheck, but the paycheck is from another job, it’s not from writing poetry,” McGrath, who teaches writing at Florida International University, said Monday. “I hope that, as much as possible, [Poetry magazine] will find a way to call up individual poets and say: ‘You’re not going to believe this, but we’re going to give you money.’ ”

Since poets who make it into the magazine currently earn $2 a line whether they are Nobel laureates or graduate students, editors said they expect to pay more and still have money for endowments, to move out of their cramped space in the Newberry Library downtown and to make a home for thousands of largely forgotten books of poetry, among other projects.

For years, Lilly submitted poems to the magazine, only no one knew it, not until recent years. The envelopes came from Indianapolis, from a Mrs. Guernsey Van Riper Jr., Lilly’s name before she divorced.

Even if she had gone by Lilly, and even if the editors had figured out she was that Lilly, it wouldn’t have mattered a whit, said Joe Parisi, who has edited Poetry for 26 years and probably wrote many of Lilly’s rejection letters. The magazine, after all, has published -- and rejected -- poems from virtually every giant of 20th century verse, from Robert Frost to Carl Sandburg to William Butler Yeats.

“I think maybe the fact that we judged works on their merit and not on who wrote them, that may have had something to do with her giving us this gift,” Parisi said. “I think she might have decided we would continue to be responsible, discerning.”

Founded in 1912 by onetime Chicago Tribune art critic Harriet Monroe, the monthly publication is the oldest and, many believe, preeminent poetry journal in the English language. The magazine, with a paid circulation of just 10,000, published the first seminal poems of Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound and others.

It is, however, a poetry journal in the land and time of the “poetry slam,” which, even with stage lights and considerable shouting, seems unable to attract an audience. So while Poetry magazine receives 90,000 submissions annually, there are just four staff members to read them. Those four also do the typesetting, run the magazine’s Web site, write grants and otherwise plead for money -- which has left the publication on the precipice of failure at least eight times in its history, more than once with less than $100 in the bank.

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Then the staffers must edit the poems to be published, which often means fighting with, and then massaging the egos of, the poets. And finally they send out those 89,500 or so rejection letters each year. “Oh, in the old days, some editors were just ruthless in their responses. I am the very essence of sweetness and light,” Parisi said.

It is not clear when Lilly decided she’d been rejected enough by Parisi and his predecessors at Poetry, though it probably came sometime before those letters were written, and kept, on computer. Parisi doesn’t remember any of Lilly’s poems, and he’s never met the woman.

But, with a touch of seriousness in his voice, he says he would have been kind regardless. “I often write that it’s probably my fault the poem didn’t make it, that I’m sorry for being so dimwitted. I get letters from people thanking me for my rejection letters.”

Thomas Ewbank, who has worked with the Lilly family since the 1960s and is Ruth Lilly’s personal lawyer, says his client was “not offended” by Poetry’s repeated rejections. But by the early 1980s, his reclusive client, who still lives outside Indianapolis, had grown less interested in her own poetry than in funding the form, especially modern American poetry.

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“Her goal has been to try and build up the amount of public support and public notice of poetry,” Ewbank said. In 1986, she established the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which started at $25,000 and grew to $100,000. She then began sponsoring two $15,000 fellowships through Poetry magazine, and a professorship at Indiana University.

Parisi announced Lilly’s latest offering at a quiet dinner for the art community here Friday night. By midday Monday, a woman from Tennessee was calling the magazine saying she had some poems, would they please send money?

The deal is complicated, involving six accounts and payments spread over 30 years. As publisher of the magazine, the Modern Poetry Assn. will have to change its status with the Internal Revenue Service from tax-exempt to that of a private foundation. The $100-million figure is an estimate, and a conservative one; depending on the performance of Eli Lilly stock, the value could turn out to be closer to $150 million.

Many poets were happy to leave the details to Parisi, who said he was thrilled at the notion of never having to beg for money again.

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This year’s recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Lisel Mueller, has enjoyed extraordinary success as a poet, including winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for her book “Alive Together: New and Selected Poems.”

Still, the 77-year-old resident of an assisted living home in Chicago could never have written what she’s written had she been responsible for paying the rent. “My late husband worked, thank goodness,” the German-born Mueller said. “That’s why I could write. It’s a dark time for poetry, but it’s very encouraging to hear somebody has that much faith.”


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