When Ruth Lilly died in late December, I got a call from a reporter whose first question was about what I felt. I thought I was prepared for any question, but this one—the most obvious one, you might think—gave me pause.
When Ruth Lilly died in late December, I got a call from a reporter whose first question was about what I felt. I thought I was prepared for any question, but this one—the most obvious one, you might think—gave me pause. As readers of this magazine will know, Poetry—and poetry—have benefited greatly from Ruth Lilly’s generosity and love of the art. Even before the immense gift to this magazine eight years ago, she had created fellowships for younger writers, established a major prize for a poet’s lifework, and endowed a permanent chair for a poet at Indiana University. Not everyone has approved, though. “Willy Lilly Nilly” was the title of one piece about Ms. Lilly’s bequest in 2002, which Slate inexplicably reprinted as a kind of callous obituary this past January. The New York Times notice of her death seemed equally off-track and condescending. Behold the whims of the rich, these writers implied, floating so dreamily, so untouchably above us all.
There are some sufferings, though, that money can’t protect you from. Depression is one of these, and by all accounts Ms. Lilly was afflicted in a major way. It is easy to concentrate on the suffering, or on the eccentricities that were produced by it—easy, and lazy. For somehow while buried in her own despair, which was so intense and oppressive that for the bulk of her life she hardly left her home, Ruth Lilly began to give away her billion-dollar inheritance. It was a trickle at first, and centered on educational and cultural institutions; then that trickle became a flood. It would take me several pages to list all the recipients of her largesse. She gave millions of dollars to found one of the first hospice programs in the country, and millions more to create a shelter for battered women and children. She funded a rehab program for developmentally disabled adults and children, and a separate one for people with brain injuries, and the construction of sports facilities for inner-city youths, and . . . well, you get the idea.
Is there not something supremely admirable, even heroic, here? To have inherited a fortune and an illness at the same time, to have fought off the latter in order to give away—perhaps by means of giving away—the former; to have transformed one’s own abstract and overwhelming unhappiness into the concrete and lasting happiness of others; to have done all this and asked for nothing in return? Depression intensifies, even as it poisons and deadens, one’s sense of self. Anyone who has experienced this, or even been around someone experiencing it, knows how excruciatingly difficult it is to make the least gesture toward the world. And here is a life of such gestures. Here is a heart that, though blighted with sadness, yet flowered in thousands of others.
I am one of those others. In my mid-twenties I received a Ruth Lilly Fellowship that kept me afloat and able to write for twelve crucial months. That program, which was established by Ms. Lilly in 1989, has now grown to support five young writers a year. I was also at the event in 2002 when news of the gift to Poetry was first made public. I had no idea then how my own life would be bound up with that gift, nor how real and far-reaching its effects would be. The Poetry Foundation, which was formed in 2003, now brings poetry into the lives of some nineteen million people a year. (See our website for a detailed list of our programs.) Even as I write this, construction is beginning on a home for the Foundation, a public space that will be in Chicago for good, in every sense of that phrase.
A few of us from the Poetry Foundation traveled to Indianapolis for Ms. Lilly’s memorial service. News was just coming out that yet another two hundred million dollars would be going to charitable causes upon her death, which meant that she’d essentially given away her entire fortune. The memorial was packed, perfectly choreographed, and quite beautiful, but it was also impermeable in a way: you couldn’t quite put your finger on the emotional tenor. We are all in some ultimate sense opaque to each other. A public image compounds that opacity. Solitude and illness compound it further. Sitting there in that sober cathedral, I felt glad that, by all accounts, in her last years Ruth Lilly had found some degree of relief and contentment among friends and family. I felt shocked and thankful that, because of the will of one woman, the great roaring engine of American capitalism had been made to serve the interests of learning, healing, and art. And I felt—as all of us from the Foundation did, and do—lucky and proud to have a small part in passing on this generosity.
Poet, translator, editor, and essayist Christian Wiman was raised in West Texas and earned a BA at Washington and Lee University. A former Guggenheim fellow, Wiman served as the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013. He received an honorary doctorate from North Central College. Making use of—and at times gently disassembling—musical and...