Ralph J. Mills

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Ralph J. Mills Jr. (December 16, 1931 – August 18, 2007) was an American poet and critic. A uniquely Chicago voice, his poetry was in the objectivist style, dependent on evocative natural imagery, presented in terse but beautifully layered poems.

Ralph J. Mills Jr. in his study.(photo by Helen Harvey Mills)


Ralph Joseph Mills, Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 16, 1931. His father was Ralph J. Mills, President of the Mills Novelty Company in Chicago (inventors and makers of vending, gaming and slot machines, one of the largest in the country) and his mother was Eileen McGuire, whose family owned Beloit Dairy in Chicago. He and his sister Anne Mills Canter grew up in Chicago and Lake Forest.

His first job was with his family’s Mills Novelty Company in the summer 1950, working the lowest position at the factory, hauling compressors. He graduated from Lake Forest College,[1] and Northwestern University, with a master's degree and PhD. He attended Oxford University, and taught at the University of Chicago, from 1959 to 1965. He taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1965 until 1997.[2]

In 1959 he married the former Helen Harvey, a descendant of Fred Harvey who started the Fred Harvey Company chain of roadside restaurants. They had two daughters, Natalie Mills Bontumasi and Brett Mills, and a son, Julian Mills. He was also the grandfather to Lucian Bontumasi and Eliot Bontumasi.[3]

He died in Chicago on August 18, 2007.


Ralph J. Mills, Jr. graduated from Lake Forest Academy in 1950, Lake Forest College in 1954, Northwestern University in 1956 with an MA in English. He also attended Oxford University from August 1956 - May 1957. Mills later received a PhD from Northwestern in 1965 (under Richard Ellmann, noted scholar of James Joyce and W.B. Yeats) and an Honorary Degree in Letters from Lake Forest College, 2004.

Professor and Critic[edit]

Ralph Mills Jr., was an acclaimed poet, scholar and professor. A teacher and critic known for the precision of his observations and the generosity of his praise, Mills first taught at University of Chicago, 1959–1965, and was also Associate Chairman of the Committee on Social Thought. He then taught modern literature, poetry and creative writing in the English Department at University of Illinois at Chicago for thirty-two years, 1965–1997, where he was the first director of graduate studies in English. At UIC, he taught a range of classes, but in later years focused on poetry. He had the ability to break down complex poems and "didn't demand his students be carbon copies of who he was," said Michael Anania, a poet and colleague of Mr. Mills' at UIC. "He was an absolutely dedicated intellectual, but you'd never hear any statement that seemed intellectually immodest or off-putting."

His literary ambitions dated to his college years at Lake Forest College; he studied English and published his early work in Tusitala, the College’s literary magazine. After graduation, Mills earned an MA and PhD in English from Northwestern University and studied at Oxford. He led a distinguished academic career, teaching first at the University of Chicago and later becoming the first director of graduate studies in English at the University of Illinois–Chicago, where he taught modern literature and creative writing for more than 30 years.

Mills committed himself to poetry scholarship early in his career; he edited the letters of the great American poet Theodore Roethke and the notebooks of David Ignatow. His interests were diverse — including poets such as Wallace Stevens and William Butler Yeats, experimental writers such as Samuel Beckett, and French men of letters such as René Char and André Michaux. Mills’s scholarly essays and reviews have appeared in the most distinguished literary and academic journals, but he has also written with great verve and clarity for a popular audience in the Chicago Sun-Times. He edited the famous anthology Contemporary American Poetry, which introduced a generation of American college students to the best contemporary poetry.

Between 1963 and 1975, he published numerous critical articles, monographs, eight books of criticism and two volumes of essays on contemporary American poets, as well as edited Theodore Roethke’s letters and selected prose, and David Ignatow’s Notebooks. His essays and criticism concentrated on 20th Century poets such as Roethke, Edith Sitwell and Wallace Stevens. His critical work was used in numerous classrooms and workshops over the years and reprinted in textbooks and a compilation of his well-received criticism, Essays on Poetry, was published in 2003.

Within the world of Chicago writers and academics, he was widely respected for his piercing intellect and the breadth of his knowledge. He had a great enthusiasm for poetry and never wrote a negative review. "He enjoyed more poets, more poems, more criticism of poetry than anyone I know," said novelist and former University of Chicago professor Richard Stern. Mills was a rare beacon of benevolence in a field where most participants "love to try to spike each others' eyes out," Stern said. He was also poetry reviewer for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun Times, Poetry, Christian Century and American Poetry Review in the late 1960s.


A highly respected and published critic, Mills was a distinguished poet in his own right. His focus turned more seriously to his own poetry when he was in his early thirties, prompted by the death of his father. Much of his poetry was in the objectivist style, "dependent on images, tersely presented," said fellow poet Michael Anania. His command of the written word was always paramount, but his work got tighter over the years. "His poems were not always easy to parse, some of the thoughts he was trying to get across were complicated thoughts," said novelist Ward Just, a classmate of Mr. Mills' at Lake Forest Academy. He worked in a third-floor den of his home, writing in longhand and revising frequently before moving to a typewriter.

He published thirteen well-received volumes of poetry and won such nationally recognized awards as the Carl Sandburg Award in 1983 and the William Carlos Williams Prize in 2000. His final selected of poems, Grasses Standing, appeared in 2000 as a capstone to a truly impressive creative career. It won the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Poetry Society of America.

Ralph J. Mills, Jr's published volumes of poetry:

  • Door to the Sun (1974)
  • A Man to his Shadow (1975)
  • Night Road/Poems (1978)
  • Living with Distance (1979, awarded Society of Midland Authors Prize for Poetry)
  • With No Answer (1980)
  • March Light (1983, awarded Carl Sandburg Award)
  • For a Day (1985)
  • Each Branch: Poems 1976-1985 (1986)
  • a while (1989)
  • Nine Poems (1993)
  • A Window In Air (1993)
  • In Wind’s Edge (1997)
  • Grasses Standing: Selected Poems (2000, awarded the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Poetry Society of America)


  • 1979, 1984 and 1987 Illinois Art Council Award for Poetry
  • 1980 Society of Midland Authors Prize for Poetry
  • 1984 Carl Sandburg Literary Award
  • 1999 Selected as part of the Poetry in Motion for the Chicago Transit Authority
  • 2000 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America




External links[edit]