Essay

From the Archive: Ralph J. Mills, Jr.

Ralph J. Mills, Jr. died on August 18, 2007, in Chicago, Illinois, his place of birth and longtime residence. This October, Poetry celebrates the life of a beloved local by revisiting several of Mills' reviews from the sixties, brimming with his singular intelligence and the passion of a life devoted in poetry.


Already a promising academic, Ralph J. Mills, Jr. made his name in the sixties reviewing books for Poetry, applying his sharp eye to seventy new volumes over the course of the decade. As critic-of-the-month in Poetry's January 1969 issue, Mills displayed the catholicity and courage that made him a respected figure in the poetry world for over forty years. While infusing the entire review (thirty-one books in all) with his enthusiasm for verse itself, Mills didn't shy away from pointing out the "poor diction, weak rhyming, and abstract philosophizing" of Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Eberhart's latest book. Three pages later, Mills championed the debut of a young, unknown experimentalist named Bill Knott, claiming "[we] are not likely to get a better new poet for some time."

In these wide-ranging Poetry reviews, Mills spotlighted writers as different as Lucille Clifton and Kenneth Rexroth for the larger readerships their work would come to achieve. Mills praised Clifton's "poised lyricism moving with the directness of finely turned speech." Of Rexroth, he wrote: "So many readers are bent on making him an overgrown beatnik that they forget...[he] is able to write on Gnosticism or the Kabbalah or Chinese poetry....Some hipster!" Like Rexroth, Mills contributed to poetry in a host of different ways: as critic (author of ten books of critical essays), teacher (longtime English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago), editor (Mills compiled the letters and prose of Theodore Roethke), and poet (Mills' book, Grasses Standing: Selected Poems, won the William Carlos Williams Award in 2001).

Despite Mills' critical efforts to shed light on many under-read poets, his own poems have remained relatively in the dark, never attaining the wide audience that their masterful syntax and vivid natural descriptions deserve. Mills, in his later work especially, proved himself one of the true inheritors of "Objectivism," celebrating life's particulars — a cloud formation, a tangled vine (and the "dots, threads,/flecks" within that vine) — in exacting, unpretentious language. Enlivening the everyday moments in which nature thrives amid urbanity, Mills' poems remain "startling as a blood/rush/come among/this grey scrawl."




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Originally Published: October 1, 2007

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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