photo copyright © by Helen Mills, 1974
Ralph Mills, poet, essayist, critic, teacher was a man I was always happy to see in Chicago: usually
at his home, over a beer and a sandwich, as in latter years it was difficult
for him to move far. After a long illness, bravely borne, that he
should go "gently, mercifully, in his sleep", as his wife Helen wrote to Peter Manson, seems just. I shall not be alone in missing him.
Eirik Steinhoff, San Francisco, California, August 19th. 2007
In a Chicago Review,
Winter 2005, at the beginning of an interview with Ralph, Devin Johnston wrote:
"To understand the self, Mills's poetry suggests, we might imagine the world without us.
In the face of extremity and noise, he turns to unoccupied corners of the world;
his is a perception cleansed of intents and purposes. Almost without exception, his poems
record ordinary occasions and average moments, full of the weather and what natural life
can be glimpsed in an urban environment."
That quote from DJ especially poignant / "we might imagine the world without us": now the world without Ralph.
Devin Johnston, St.Louis, Missouri, August 19th. 2007
I had not heard of this yet, though I just returned from Chicago
yesterday. Ralph was a kind and generous friend from my first visits
with him, lunches on the top floor of Macy's department store on
Michigan Avenue, walking back to his house on the tree-lined streets
talking of trees, around twelve years ago. He was an extraordinarily
Joel Felix, Chicago, Illinois, August 19th. 2007
I had not heard either. I met him at the end of his teaching tenure and
was a kind of local confidant to his passions and his broad history in poetry.
Maybe not too many students came through that hung on his words. For a couple years
we walked around the campus and sat in the Jane Addams Hull House garden to talk.
I knew dreadfully little about poetry and less about life so never felt quite ready
for the ways he encouraged me. He told me to write Hilda Morley at her Sag Harbor home.
I did and received lively generous hand written notes about Black Mountain and poetry
then and now. The sensibility Ralph showed to me was as sharp as it was gentle - he could
talk about how the ice storms in Chicago had changed, the ice pellets themselves incrementally
more full of grit, in a way that felt like his imagination was turned away from other
dynamics, then change subject to the swiftly decaying culture of the university he had
taught in for I think 30 years, or to the falsity of the affection (he felt) the language
poets showed for Eigner. His work cut poetry into a finer grain each year.
Nothing could be more instructive to young poets than to be shown this economy.
Ah! I'm going on too long. You're right Tom, Chicago has lost a lot.
Peter Manson, Glasgow, Scotland, August 19th. 2007
I just got the sad news that Ralph Mills has died: an undersung but very
fine Chicago poet, born in 1931. I used to correspond regularly with Ralph
back in the days of Object Permanence magazine, and remember a generous,
funny, and utterly independent spirit. He read everybody. Ralph had
Parkinson's for the last several years and we'd lost touch, but I traced him
after visiting Chicago earlier this year, and we exchanged a couple of
emails and some books before he died. My thoughts are with his wife Helen,
his family and friends. Here are three of Ralph's poems and a translation,
all from Object Permanence.
Taken from Peter's message to the UK Poetry List.
Peter O'Leary, Chicago, Illinois, August 20th. 2007
Sad news. I've been out of town, so I just heard this. What a drag.
I'm not sure that I believe with any conviction that literary community exists
beyond friendships well tended, like tea leaves allowed to bloom in a pot, but
I've always felt Ralph's work was more Chicago than any other Chicago poet.
With August Kleinzahler, he was the first "big" poet that we sought to publish
in LVNG. One of those poems remains a favorite - the first poem in In Wind's Edge.
Another tribute to add to this already pleasing little set list.
Michael O'Leary, Chicago, Illinois, August 20th. 2007
I think of "March One's" without fail every March 1st and "Right Now" as often
as my memory permits, which is usually jarred by an inaccurate association of that poem
with forsythia. I would bust out with another one of my favorites if all my books weren't
packed up for the move.
I only shook hands with Ralph once at a reading of his at the library downtown (I think)
where you Tom described his poetry as having "something going on in there." For years, I've
been taking in the wisdom and decency of Ralph through the anecdotes of Joel and Devin. I went
for about five years without reading much of his poetry when notice of a new book of essays
arrived in the Flung box and I went back to In Wind's Edge. Something going on for sure,
from word to word, all the way down the page. Like nobody's business.
William Fuller, Chicago, Illinois. August 23rd. 2007
Was reading through Ralph's Selected on the train this morning,
relishing the keen and cleansing humility rendered through his words, and thinking how
difficult it is to clear away the excess to concentrate, and how consistently his work
offers this as its gift:
someone else has left with
no notice: doors in his
Pater Makuck, North Carolina, August 24th. 2007
I've been on the road for a few weeks and just heard the sad news of
Ralph Mills's death. We never met, but I was touched by his generosity when I founded
Tar River Poetry in 1978. Having very few connections, I was desperate for contributors
with a national reputation to give the fledging journal some visibility and credibility. I
wrote to writers whose work I admired, soliciting poems. Many did not even answer, but Ralph
was quickly forthcoming, along with Bill Stafford, Phil Dacey, Sam Hazo, and a few others.
Ralph not only contributed poems over the years, he wrote some fine reviews for me and we
corresponded to a limited degree. No sooner did I once tell him that I was looking around
for his Cry of the Human (then out of print) than I receive a copy. It was unsigned,
perhaps out of modesty, but his note reads: "My former student - now owner of a 2nd hand
bookstore and a book collector himself - came up with this copy for you. No charge. He & I do
endless trade-offs - I'm glad to get this to you. Fondly, Ralph." I treasure that note. I've
never gotten over his generosity. Needless to say, I love his poems and essays and was very
fortunate to have had him as a contributor to my journal.
Beth Branchaw, Seattle, August 30th. 2007
Last Saturday, Aug 18, I went to the Roethke Readings, a cabaret at ACT
theatre, and had a great time enjoying poetry, music, and energy. Afterwards, I was feeling
nostalgic for people I used to share and enjoy poetry and music with... I thought of classmates,
teachers, friends, Chicago, Iowa. I decided I needed read more Roethke. I logged into the
public library catalogue and browsed. Half way down the first page I recognized the name of
one of the very people I'd been reminiscing about, Ralph Mills. He edited a book of Roethke's
letters that was currently on the shelf. I smiled. I searched his name on google. First hit
read Ralph J. Mills, Jr. 1931 - August 18, 2007.
Ralph Mills was my advisor, mentor, teacher, confidant during a brief and difficult time in
my life. I'm sure he had no idea what an impact he made on me in his most kind and gentle of
ways. When I shipped off to grad school straight after receiving my BA, I had no idea how my
life was about to drastically change. It wasn't that I was starting school. That I knew and knew
well. It was the unexpected death of my father in the middle of the first semester. The
bottom of my life dropped out and everything I ever knew changed. I almost withdrew from
the program, but I didn't. I resolved to finish what I'd started no matter what... but resolve
is just fuel.
It was Ralph, master of line breaks and diplomacy, who kept me on track. I still have numerous
scraps of paper, drafts of poems, with his handwritten edits and notes to me in the margins.
I can quote a few of those notes better than my own verse. I remember sitting in his office
on numerous occasions discussing my final manuscript and sometimes, when I could actually
speak of it out loud, life. His smile and concern was a comfort to me.
It was/is a privilege and a gift just to have known Ralph Mills.
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