Online Exhibitions

A Penciled Silhouette of Words: The Creative Life of Ruth Stephan

The year 2010 marked both the 50th anniversary of the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the 100th birthday of our founder, Ruth Walgreen Stephan (1910–1974). Many people know about Ruth Stephan as the philanthropist who began our Poetry Center with gifts of property, books, and an acquisitions endowment, all of which have made ours one of the leading contemporary poetry libraries in the nation. But not as many are familiar with her creative work as a writer, editor and poet. Ruth once wrote, “The first great shock of my life came when I was eight years old and discovered that everyone did not write poetry.” Although her father, a successful and traditional businessman, did not encourage her interest in poetry, she was nonetheless “swept forward on its exciting current” from the time she began to read.

Ruth Stephan’s first poem to gain international recognition, “Identity,” was published in Harpers in 1937. Ten years later she launched a groundbreaking journal of experimental arts and letters, The Tiger’s Eye. Focusing on the creative process, she published both the work and reflections of writers and artists such as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Pablo Picasso, and Mark Rothko. By the time she started spending winters in Tucson in the early 1950s, she had already published her first book of poetry in Peru. Her ties with the University of Arizona deepened as she wrote two novels based on the life of Queen Christina, edited a book of songs and tales by the Quechua people (The Singing Mountaineers), and explored Zen in prose, film, and poetry while living in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Her poems of Kyoto, collected in Various Poems (1963), are, as she put it, “fired with the frequently frustrated wish to make the invisible within us visible.”

 

—Gail Browne, Executive Director, The University of Arizona Poetry Center

This exhibit, curated by Rodney Phillips and Wendy Burk, originally appeared in the Jeremy Ingalls Gallery of the University of Arizona Poetry Center from September 27, 2010 to January 3, 2011.

Ruth's Gift
"Mrs. Stephan of Greenwich Gives University Library," Greenwich Time, 1960

"Mrs. Stephan of Greenwich Gives University Library." Greenwich Time August 1960. Print.

During the 1950s, poet and novelist Ruth Stephan rented a four-room cottage on Highland Street. Stephan, born Ruth Walgreen, was one of the beneficiaries of the estate of Charles R. Walgreen. She was extremely generous to the University of Arizona. Over several years, Stephan gave the University two cottages and a core library collection, as well as an endowment to purchase books and periodicals for what was first known as the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center.

The First Home
Photograph of entrance sign at the original Poetry Center by Peter Balestro
Photograph of the exterior of the original Poetry Center by Peter Balestro

Entrance to the original Poetry Center on Highland Avenue. Photo by Peter Balestro.

Exterior of the original Poetry Center on Highland Avenue. Photo by Peter Balestro.

Through Ruth Stephan’s generosity, the first home of the Poetry Center consisted of two buildings. One was for the library, students, and Poetry Center staff, while the other was a guest cottage for visiting poets. Stephan decorated the guest cottage and even helped to sew the curtains. The Poetry Center remained on Highland Avenue until the widening of Speedway caused the Center to look for a new home, which was found at 1216 North Cherry Avenue.

The First Home
Photograph of the interior of the original Poetry Center by Peter Balestro
Photograph of the interior of the original Poetry Center by Peter Balestro

Interior of the original Poetry Center on Highland Avenue. Photos by Peter Balestro.

The First Home
Photograph of the original Poetry Center guest cottage by Tom Jensen

Exterior of the original Poetry Center guest cottage on Highland Avenue. Photo by Tom Jensen.

The Flight and My Crown, My Love
The Flight by Ruth Stephan
My Crown, My Love by Ruth Stephan

Ruth Stephan. The Flight. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

Ruth Stephan. My Crown, My Love. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960.

Ruth wrote two historical novels of the life of Queen Christina of Sweden, a remarkable 17th-century European monarch. In some ways, the books are also a psychological portrait of the author, who was working out her place in a male-dominated society. Both books are written in the form of Christina’s memoirs. 

Ruth’s son John Stephan put it this way:

Whether Ruth was fully conscious of it or not, she depicted a Christina whose life and character mirrored her own, the adulation of a strong father, an affinity for masculine pursuits and a disdain for feminine frivolities, restlessness in the face of family pressures and regal (corporate) conventions, abdication and flight to an emancipating environment, financial dependence on estranged relatives and—above all—a determination to see true art prevail over opportunism. 

Robert Frost and the Poetry Center Dedication
Letter from Robert Frost to Stewart Udall, April 5, 1961
Photograph of Ruth Stephan and Robert Frost at Poetry Center Dedication, 1960

Signed letter from Robert Frost to Stewart Udall dated April 5, 1961.

Ruth Stephan and Robert Frost at the Poetry Center's dedication ceremony, November 17, 1960. Photographer unknown.

The eminent poet Robert Frost joined Ruth to dedicate the University of Arizona’s new Ruth Stephan Poetry Center on November 17th, 1960. Frost delivered a lecture sponsored by the senior women of the Mortar Board and both Frost and Stephan were awarded Medallions of Merit. Frost also met Congressman Stewart Udall at the dedication, establishing a lifelong friendship and laying the groundwork for Frost’s historic reading at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Notes on Establishing and Maintaining a Poetry Collection
Notes on Establishing and Maintaining a Poetry Collection by Ruth Stephan

Ruth Stephan. Notes on Establishing and Maintaining a Poetry Collection, ca. 1961.

During the first years of the Poetry Center’s life, Ruth was very involved in building the collection. She would send notes to the staff about certain books, as well as sending her own books, eventually donating her own poetry collection of several hundred volumes. As part of her gift to the Poetry Center, Ruth wrote a document to help staff develop the collection. It is both very personal and very professional. The Poetry Center still maintains Ruth’s vision and uses her notes to guide the staff in selecting books and authors.

Honorary Doctorate of Letters
Photograph of Ruth Stephan with degree by LaVerne Harrell Clark
Photograph of Ruth Stephan, LaVerne Harrell Clark, and LD Clark

Ruth Stephan with Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1963. Photo by LaVerne Harrell Clark.

Ruth Stephan with LaVerne Harrell Clark, the first director of the Poetry Center, and LaVerne's husband L.D. Clark in 1963. Photographer unknown.

In recognition of her contributions as a poet, novelist, and editor, The University of Arizona awarded Ruth an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1963.

Ruth Stephan in 1964
Photograph of Ruth Stephan in 1964 by LaVerne Harrell Clark
Photograph of Ruth Stephan in 1964 by LaVerne Harrell Clark

Ruth Stephan in 1964. Photos by LaVerne Harrell Clark.

Prelude to Poetry
Prelude to Poetry by Ruth Stephan

Ruth Stephan. Prelude to Poetry. Lima, Peru: Editorial Lumen, 1946.

Ruth’s literary inclinations didn’t bear fruit until she was a little later in life than most poets. Her poem “Identity,” the first to receive widespread recognition, was accepted by Harper’s Magazine in 1937. Her poems then began to appear in other magazines such as Poetry and Forum. Her first book, Prelude to Poetry, was published in Lima, Peru in 1946 by Editorial Lumen, one of South America’s preeminent publishers. Ruth took 50 copies of the book to New York and showed them to Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart, who took all 50 copies.

Arizona Board of Regents