A Brief History of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

2017s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner, Joy Harjo
2017's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner, Joy Harjo | © Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Sarah Ashley

Every year, the Poetry Foundation awards one American poet the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The honor, which includes $100,000, goes to a living poet whose body of work stands out not only for its breadth but also for its beauty, complexity, and quality. Since the prize debuted in 1986, it has become one of the most prestigious awards a poet can earn. As one may guess, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize is not possible without philanthropist and poetry enthusiast, Ruth Lilly.

Born in 1915, Ruth Lilly grew up to be the single heir to her family’s pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly & Company. Over the course of her lifetime, Lilly would go on to donate roughly $800 million of her inheritance to organizations supporting causes in which she believed. These causes included education, the arts, and healthcare.

In the 1930s, Lilly began writing poetry. She loved the craft and tried several times to have her work published in Poetry magazine. Though Poetry never accepted her poems, Lilly maintained a strong adoration for poems and the artists behind the words. In 1986, she created the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize to honor poets for their lifetimes of exquisite work. Winners are chosen by a committee of four members who are well-versed in American poets and the craft itself.

Last year’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner was Joy Harjo, a poet, actor, musician and author who writes in-depth on matters like feminism and social justice. Harjo is a Native American and a member of the Muscogee/Creek Nation. Much of her work discusses and honors First Nation traditions.

Though Poetry never accepted Ruth Lilly’s submissions, the woman held no grudges. In 2003, she donated a generous sum to what was then the Modern Poetry Association. This gift made it possible for the MPA to transition into the Poetry Foundation and ensure Poetry magazine’s continued development and circulation. The Poetry Foundation now sits in the River North neighborhood of Chicago in a gorgeous building with a library containing over 30,000 titles.

The entrance to the Poetry’s Foundation Poetry Building in Chicago

Without Ruth Lilly, Chicago’s poetry scene wouldn’t be nearly as accessible, and America’s poets wouldn’t be celebrated as highly.

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