Quiet Attention: Some Reflections on the Poetry and Prose of Ralph J. Mills, Jr., with an Interview

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Though few people are aware of the fact, Ralph J. Mills, Jr., is one of the most acute literary critics and meticulous poets that Chicago has produced. Two recent publications offer an occasion to return to his work in both fields: Dalkey Archive has just published a retrospective Essays on Poetry, and in 2000 Asphodel Press issued his Grasses Standing: Selected Poems.

Born in Chicago in 1931, Mills has lived nearly his entire life in the city. His father's family were industrialists and inventors, with a factory on the far west side that manufactured vending machines, bottling machines, cup dispensers, and refrigeration equipment. Mills worked there in the summers during the 1940s. Such roots in industry recall those of other midwestern modernists: Hart Crane's father owned a candy factory in Cleveland; Sherwood Anderson was himself president of the Anderson Manufacturing Company (home of "Roof-Fix Cure for Roof Troubles") in Elyria, Ohio before he abandoned business for literature. In the shadow of industry, far from the coastal literary centers, Mills quietly found his way as a poet, critic, and teacher. Having received a doctorate from Northwestern University in Evanston, where he studied under the great modernist critic Richard Ellmann, Mills worked for the University of Chicago from 1962 to 1965. He was then hired by the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he taught literature and creative writing for the next three decades.

I like to imagine him, in those early days, walking to the El en route to work: perhaps, as the power of Robert Lowell's "killer kings" rang in his head, his eye was drawn to "Clouds swollen with rain / like a purple bruise," "weeds and branches," or "grains and leaf skeletons" (Grasses, 20). Increasingly, Mills turned to such immediate and familiar facts at the periphery of attention. In his work as a critic, he was drawn to poets who "cultivate their own inwardness as material for poetry" (Essays, 6). His own poetry, on the other hand, attends to pure perception and the world as it persists without us. Mills has practiced this strange and lovely discipline--a quietist art--for over thirty years. This contrast between the poetry and the critical enterprise is striking. Yet read together, they offer not so much a contradiction as a dialogue on the nature of the self.

Criticism: On the Personal Element

Since the Renaissance, at least, lyric has come to mean a personal, subjective expression in which every word and image stands in immediate relation to the self speaking. Our terms of highest praise for lyric poetry celebrate the originality or distinction of the poet's "voice." Though Language poets have succeeded in making us self-conscious of the term, we have hardly escaped from the association between an individual (and often idiosyncratic) speaker and the printed poem. That the lyric should ever have aspired to anonymity, as a song that anyone might sing, is difficult for us to imagine now. Clearly, this emphasis on the relation between private thought and public expression is not unique to poetry. As Lionel Trilling has argued, sincerity is a modern preoccupation, seeking some congruence between what we say and what we feel. If I recognize various roles in my social and working life, I also assume an interior space for the authentic self, "the downward movement through all the cultural superstructures to some place where all movement ends, and begins" (12).

Modernist poets recognized this change--this new element in our moral life--yet resisted it with great resourcefulness. Ezra Pound used personae and translation to suggest that interiority might be evaded. Even in his later turn to the writings of Confucius, he sought an external, social register of sincerity. T.S. Eliot celebrated "impersonality" in poetry, and the New Critics followed his lead by expunging biographical considerations from critical interpretation: "Anonymity is a condition of poetry. …