Ruth Lilly, Patroness of Poetry

  • Arts & Culture
  • 2002

Ruth Lilly was a poet herself. She had grown up wealthy, but that wasn’t an advantage as she tried to express herself through verse. For years she sent samples to Poetry magazine using the pseudonym Guernsey Van Riper, but nobody was ever quite impressed enough to print what she wrote. That didn’t dampen her love for the medium, or her belief in the magazine that had printed most of the great American poets since its founding in 1912. Over time, the Indianapolis resident’s interest turned less toward her own poetry and more toward promoting poetry as such.

In 1986, she established the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $100,000 award to honor the lifetime accomplishments of living American poets. In 1989, she funded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships, $15,000 awards given to young up-and-coming poets to encourage their further study and writing of poetry. And in 2002, at age 87, she made her biggest splash, giving $100 million to Poetry magazine’s publisher, the Poetry Foundation. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, this transformed the organization “from the most highly regarded but also perennially penniless American poetry journal into the world’s largest foundation for verse.” The endowment allowed the foundation to expand the fellowships from one winner per year to five, to pay printed poets more than the paltry $2 per line it had been able to afford in the past, and to offer funding to deserving writers. This changed the landscape of American poetry, at least at the highest levels, offering a path in which success could actually pay. Lilly, who also gave $120 million to the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, died in 2009.