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Literary Treasures: Jean Valentine Reading Her Poems at the Library of Congress, March 22, 2001

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The following is a guest post by Eliza Browning, an academic-year intern in Literary Initiatives.

This post is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Photo of poet Jean Valentine
Jean Valentine, 1934-2020. Photo credit: Max Greenstreet

Jean Valentine was one of the most prominent female poets of the 20th century. Known for her imagistic, minimalist language and all-encompassing approach to both personal and political issues, Valentine was awarded some of the most prestigious poetry prizes in the United States, including the National Book Award for Poetry, the Shelley Memorial Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, and the Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. She died in New York City on December 29, 2020.

Winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for her 1965 debut collection, Dream Barker, launched Valentine’s career into the spotlight, but as I read reflections of her life and work upon her death, I wondered why she was not as well known as other poets of her generation—poets such as Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich. Though understated and sparse, Valentine’s poetry never failed to leave a lasting impact, packed full of searing emotion and dreamlike lucidity.

On March 22, 2001, Valentine read her work alongside fellow poet Cornelius Eady in the Montpelier Room at the Library of Congress. This recording was recently released as part of the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature online collection, and is now available to stream. Jennifer Rutland, who introduces Valentine during the event, states that “Jean Valentine’s poems have often been described as spare, but they do surprise. We need to read her poems slowly and aloud and more than once. Perhaps the essence of her craft is the way she uses her words and her silences, the spaces between, to create poems that are so dense and so intense that they often make us shiver.”

Valentine has often been characterized as a minimalist poet, one who uses the economy of language to reveal deep and often surprising truths. Hearing Valentine read her work aloud is integral to the experience of encountering her fragmental poetry, her voice lending emotion and inflection to her sparse, taut imagery.

In this recording, Valentine reads poems from her recently published collection, The Cradle of the Real Life (2000), as well as some of her unpublished poetry. She begins with several haunting poems focusing on animals: “Mare and Newborn Foal” (04:38) is a dialogue between a mother horse and its baby about death, while “The Labrador” (05:10) chronicles the speaker’s helplessness at coming across a dog stuck in a trap: “I left him.”

She continues onto a series of poems exploring historical or contemporary events. Although Valentine did not identify herself as a political poet, her writing reveals a consciousness of major 20th century concerns distilled into private, personal poetry. Her poem “In the Public Library” (09:25) explores how tragedy can be memorialized, and just as easily forgotten, by ordinary individuals, following a woman reading about the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in a library book: “she gets to the fire / the noise  to the locked doors   the death room / The librarian says she has to stop.” Valentine often displays sympathy for those rejected by society, such as a poem about her injured elderly neighbor, “Margaret” (09:58), and the prisoners she taught in “The Women’s Prison” (08:54): “The women in the prison / are combing mannequin’s heads of hair / for Beauty Care. / It’s cold in there / a prison necklace of noose and lies.”

Through this approach, Valentine conceives of poetry as a way to elegize the outcast and forgotten. Her poem “The Orphanage Landing” (11:55) was inspired by her time spent living in Ireland in the 1990s, when horrific abuse at a local orphanage in Goldenbridge, Dublin, run by the Sisters of Mercy, was exposed. She explores the role the local community played in covering up the abuse, engaging in a collective process of denial and disbelief:

All night the young girl waits
on the orphanage landing as Sister told her
till she comes      down the stairs
with a strap     with scalding water

In the morning the local doctor
covers the wounds up over and over
(“called to the orphanage 71 times
in that year”)

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWhite wolves
run in: No no this never happened.

Invoking the “white wolves” of the community who deny the abuse from the safety of their homes, Valentine reminds us of the role collective silence and inaction has played in the tragedies of history.

Masterfully combining the personal and political is a haunting poem that embodies what The New York Times described as Valentine’s “minimalist, dreamlike poetry distinguished by crystalline imagery followed by an unexpected stab of emotion.” Her poem “1945” (05:57) focuses on Valentine’s father, who worked aboard an aircraft carrier during World War II and struggled with PTSD. Valentine compares his young pilots who never returned from their missions with herself and her siblings, who suffered from their father’s trauma and rage:

We lived
for the day he came back.
The day he came back

he raged like Achilles

the day    the year    years

we flew off

one off a bridge        one into a book
one a note
into a bottle.

we never came back.

With this comparison, Valentine illuminates how all are victimized by the enduring effects of war.

Michael Wiegers, Valentine’s editor at Copper Canyon Press, described her as “a poet, and a person, whose grace, delicacy and dignity are rooted in a fierce moral conviction and purpose. She was unfailingly inclusive and attentive to those around her. This attentiveness along with an ability to listen carefully was made invitingly evident in her poems.”

Even after her death, Valentine’s voice continues to resonate as a source of clarity and compassion.