When Adrienne Rich received the inaugural Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1986, she had been associated with Poetry for over thirty-five years. First appearing in the January 1951 issue as Adrienne C. Rich, the poet had gone on to win the magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize and the Bess Hokin Prize. The Ruth Lilly Prize drew together three institutions with equally long connections to Poetry. The Newberry Library, where the award ceremony was held, had first served as the magazine’s home in 1954 and was again from 19862003. The Modern Poetry Association, formed in 1941 by longtime donors to replace the old guarantor system that Harriet Monroe devised, had financed Poetry’s publication and, with an initial gift from Ruth Lilly, helped establish the Prize. A subsequent gift from Lilly in 2003 transformed the Association into today’s Poetry Foundation. Also playing a part in the establishment of the award was the American Council for the Arts, an advocacy group that was later absorbed into Americans for the Arts. Worth $25,000 (today $100,000), the Ruth Lilly Prize far surpassed other awards in the support it offered poets. Rich gave the bulk of it to political causes and organizations she favored while keeping some to “buy some space and time to write.”

Originally Published: July 2nd, 2012

Paul Durica is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and the founder of Pocket Guide to Hell Tours and Reenactments.

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