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

By Johnston, Devin | Chicago Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Johnston, Devin, Chicago Review


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.