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.

The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People
The Singing Mountaineers by José María Arguedas, edited by Ruth Stephan
Like a River My Weeping from The Singing Mountaineers

José María Arguedas. The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People. Edited and with an introduction by Ruth Stephan. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957.

José María Arguedas. "Like a River My Weeping." The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People. Edited and with an introduction by Ruth Stephan. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957.

One of Ruth’s interests was the Peruvian people, especially the Quechua, the indigenous descendents of the Inca. Spanish conquistadors banned the use of the language, but to this day there are approximately 8,000,000 speakers of Quechua. During her time in Peru, Ruth collaborated with José María Arguedas on the first English-language collection of Quechua songs and tales. Arguedas and María Lourdes Valladares collected and translated the songs into Spanish; Ruth completed the English translations. The book is still in print.

Various Poems
Various Poems by Ruth Stephan
Tea in Ryokoin from Various Poems by Ruth Stephan

Ruth Stephan. Various Poems. New York: Gotham Book Mart, 1963.

Ruth Stephan. "Tea in Ryoko-in." Various Poems. New York: Gotham Book Mart, 1963.

Ruth’s own poetry, collected in this early volume, was beautifully lyrical and varied as the title of the book suggests. Ruth would often send books from Gotham Book Mart to the Poetry Center, so it is fitting that they published her poems.

Poems for Nothing
Poems for Nothing by Ruth Stephan
Poems for Nothing publicity notice

Ruth Stephan. Poems for Nothing. New York: The Gotham Book Mart, 1973.

In 1973, The Gotham Book Mart brought out a pamphlet of Zen verse entitled Poems for Nothing. The relationship between Frances Steloff and Ruth had come full circle since Gotham acquired Prelude to Poetry in 1946. Poems for Nothing was Ruth Stephan’s last publication.

The Tiger's Eye: The Art of a Magazine
The Tiger's Eye: The Art of a Magazine by Pamela Franks

Pamela Franks. The Tiger’s Eye: The Art of a Magazine. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2002.

Ruth published a magazine of avant-garde art and literature with her second husband, artist John Stephan. Among the literary contributors were Owen Dodson, Boris Pasternak, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jose Luis Borges. The art that was included was astounding, covering artists from the New York School such as Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, William De Kooning, and Adolph Gottleib. The magazine ran from Number 1 (October 1947) to no. 9 (1949). Ruth was deeply hurt by some of the criticism aimed at her Walgreen connection, calling her a dilettante. As it happened, she supported many of the artists in doing their best work. The magazine is one of the best art and literature journals of the first half of the 20th century.

Ruth in Japan
Zen in Ryoko-in by Ruth Stephan

Ruth Stephan. Zen in Ryoko-in. Ruth Stephan Films, 1971. Film.

In 1961 Ruth began the first of many visits to Zuiun-ken, a student house in Daitokuji, the great compound of Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto. She became friendly with Nanrei Kobori, the English-speaking abbot of Ryoko-in, one of Daitokuji’s constituent temples, and now one of the most famous. Kobori invited Ruth first to view priceless Zen art in his care and then to live with his own family at Ryoko-in, a rare privilege which she sought to communicate in an article (Harper’s Magazine, June 1962), a book of verse (Various Poems, 1963) and a documentary movie (Zen in Ryoko-in, 1972).

                                    —John J. Stephan, from “Ruth Stephan (1910–1974)”

Spoken Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 1, The Nineteenth Century; Vol. 2, The Twentieth Century
Spoken Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 1, The Nineteenth Century
Spoken Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 2, The Twentieth Century

Spoken Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 1, The Nineteenth Century; Vol. 2, The Twentieth Century. Tucson: The University of Arizona Series. 2 recordings, 1961/1965.

With Richard Shelton, Ruth edited two recordings of poetry and excerpts from novels read aloud. Included in Volume 1 are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. Volume 2 includes Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, and Marianne Moore, among many others.

Spoken Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 1, The Nineteenth Century; Vol. 2, The Twentieth Century

Spoken Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 1, The Nineteenth Century; Vol. 2, The Twentieth Century. Tucson: The University of Arizona Series. 2 recordings, 1961/1965.

Text for the Spoken Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 2, The Twentieth Century.

Marguerite Young
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young
Photograph of Marguerite Young in 1966 by LaVerne Harrell Clark

Marguerite Young. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. New York: Scribner, 1965.

Marguerite Young in 1966. Photo by LaVerne Harrell Clark.

Ruth Stephan passionately admired the work of Marguerite Young, whose novel Miss MacIntosh, My Darling was a success d’estime. Ruth wrote several times about Young, who did read in the Poetry Center’s Visiting Writers Series in 1966.

Letter from Ruth Stephan to Richard Shelton, July 3, 1965
Letter from Ruth Stephan to Richard Shelton, July 3, 1965, page 1
Letter from Ruth Stephan to Richard Shelton, July 3, 1965, page 2

Ruth Stephan. Typed letter signed to Richard Shelton. July 3, 1965.

Here, Ruth offers her son’s help in collection-building based on the model of the University of Texas Poetry Center. Also included are Ruth’s favorites, ice cream and baseball. The site of a reading series in the 1980s and 1990s featuring such notable poets as Joseph Brodsky and Gwendolyn Brooks, the UT's Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection continues to be accessible on the sixth level of UT's Perry-Castañeda Library. A group of faculty and librarians are growing UT’s Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection, building digital access to recordings of the vibrant national reading series of the 1980s and 1990s, and sustaining a new readings and broadside series with attention to Ruth Stephan’s vision of a Poetry Center.

Letter from Ruth Stephan to LaVerne Clark, October 28, 1965
Letter from Ruth Stephan to LaVerne Clark, October 28, 1965, page 1
Letter from Ruth Stephan to LaVerne Clark, October 28, 1965, page 2

Ruth Stephan. Typed letter signed to LaVerne Clark. October 28, 1965.

Ruth spent 10 years writing her novel My Crown, My Love. Five years following its publication, she authored a pamphlet on her research in European archives, which was sold at an 1966 Stockholm exhibition about Queen Christina. This writing was to be part of an ambitious nonfiction book project, an intellectual history of 17th-century Europe, which was never completed.

Letter from Ruth Stephan to LaVerne Clark, January 12, 1966
Letter from Ruth Stephan to LaVerne Clark, January 12, 1966, page 1
Letter from Ruth Stephan to LaVerne Clark, January 12, 1966, page 2

Ruth Stephan. Typed letter signed to LaVerne Clark. January 12, 1966.

Ruth was active in suggesting readers for the Poetry Center’s reading series, as this note shows. The 'Justin' of this letter is Justin Dart, one of Ruth’s three sons, who lived in Japan at the time. Dart, who later returned to the United States, was a well-known advocate for people with disabilities and was instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Ruth’s youngest son, John J. Stephan, is a Professor Emeritus of History of the University of Hawai’i. His tribute to Ruth has been consulted for this exhibit.

Ruth Stephan in 1971
Photograph of Ruth Stephan in 1971 by LaVerne Harrell Clark
Photograph of Ruth Stephan in 1971 by LaVerne Harrell Clark

Ruth Stephan at The University of Arizona Poetry Center on April 14, 1971. Photos by LaVerne Harrell Clark.

Ruth Stephan in 1971
Photograph of Ruth Stephan in 1971 by LaVerne Harrell Clark
Photograph of Ruth Stephan in 1971 by LaVerne Harrell Clark

Ruth Stephan at The University of Arizona Poetry Center on April 14, 1971. Photos by LaVerne Harrell Clark.

The Last Years

Ruth’s final project was a film entitled Wabi, which was unfortunately a critical disappointment. By this time (1974) Ruth had secluded herself with her third husband John Franklin in their Greenwich estate. On 9 April 1974 Ruth Stephan took her own life and was found beneath a pine tree on a hilltop. On 11 April her remains were cremated without ceremony. She had no memorial service. She has no grave.

                                    —John J. Stephan, from “Ruth Stephan (1910–1974)”

Poetry Is...

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

Poetry Is…

 

A penciled silhouette of words

To trace the song and flight of birds

 

A pedaled melody to flare

Indelible upon the air

 

A phrase that rings in answering cry

To wing a thought or stab a sigh

 

A pattern wrung from stars to make

The core of man articulate

 

—Ruth Stephan (Prelude to Poetry, 1946)

Arizona Board of Regents