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Radcliffe Was a 'Crossroads' For Free-Verse Poet

By Rachel L. Pollack, Crimson Staff Writer

When poet Jean Valentine ’56 was an undergraduate at Radcliffe, she says the campus was “a much more divided world.”

At the time, she recalls, women were not allowed into Lamont Library, which houses poetry recordings on the fifth floor.

It wasn’t until Valentine returned to Cambridge in the fall of 1967 as a Radcliffe Fellow that she was able to listen to the recordings that she had longed to hear as a student.

“I think it was a conservative world that had been there for many centuries, and a man’s world...a conservative white man’s world,” she says.

Valentine has since published 10 books of free-verse poetry and has been honored with nearly a dozen writing awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Her latest book, “Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems,” won the 2004 National Book Award Prize in Poetry.

With nearly 40 years of teaching experience, Valentine now leads courses at Sarah Lawrence, New York University, and Columbia University.

AT A CROSSROADS

As long as she can remember, Valentine “always seemed to just love” poetry.

When she was about nine years old, she carried around poetry books wherever she went and began writing her own poetry a few years later. “I was encouraged by my school teachers, and then I was encouraged in college,” she says. “That made a huge difference I think.”

Valentine’s first encouragement at Radcliffe came in 1952 when she met Dean of Instruction Wilma A. Kirby-Miller.

Valentine says the dean told her not to worry about choosing a concentration and instead to “just take courses at your whim because that’s what poets do.”

At Kirby-Miller’s advice, Valentine took classes in several disciplines. “I dabbled in this and I dabbled in that,” Valentine says, concluding that she only enjoyed her small writing and literature seminars.

While a member of the Radcliffe Choral Society her freshman year, Valentine says her extracurricular involvement was limited.

“I was trying to figure out the things you try to figure out at that age—who I was in my family, where I wanted to live, being with men at the first time…many, many things,” she explains.

For the next three years, Valentine lived off-campus, first with her family in Boston and then with her older sister in Cambridge.

Valentine says that an open writing course with playwright and English professor William Alfred solidified her love of poetry.

“I was at somewhat of a crossroads in my life,” Valentine remembers. “His encouragement was very important to me.”

Valentine says that Alfred, simply called ‘The Professor’ by generations of students, was “so sensitive to our sensitivity” that he would read every student’s work to the rest of the class without saying who had written it.

A VOICE OF HER OWN

In the decade after graduating from Radcliffe, Valentine married and stayed home to raise her two daughters.

In 1965, she published her first book, “Dream Barker,” which received the Yale Younger Poets Prize, an award given to the most promising young American poet.

Valentine says works by Elizabeth Bishop and “confessional poets” such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath influenced her early writings. But after her first collection, she says she began to “develop a voice of [her] own.”

During the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, Valentine says she tried to write anti-war poems, but always felt like she “wasn’t very good at it” and shied away from addressing political themes directly.

Valentine also warns against trying to understand artwork “too rationally or too literally right away.” Instead one should just listen to the sound of the words, she says, quoting the Mexican writer Octavio Paz: “Listen to me as one listens to the rain.”

Her more recent work has become increasingly spiritual with frequent references to dreams and phenomena beyond our world.

Valentine says that contemporary culture is less receptive to poetry than in the fifties when she started writing.

“The interesting serious literature in this culture is declining fast, and that includes poetry because poetry is one of the first to go,” she says, mentioning that poetry offers little chance for financial gain.

Free-verse poetry seems especially impractical, she says, because “there’s nothing much you can do with it.”

“It seems useless,” she says. “That offers it a little protection in a way because no one is interested in it.”

THE PROFESSOR

In spite of poetry’s declining popularity in mainstream culture, Valentine does her part to keep the genre vibrant in the classroom for new generations of writers.

Valentine held her first teaching position at Barnard in the spring of 1968, in the midst of political tumult.

After a month of classes, Vietnam protestors at Columbia shut down the university, she recalls.

“It was a very interesting time to be a student and to be a teacher. And to be a human being for that matter.”

Valentine credits much of her teaching style to her old mentor, William Alfred, and says that she tries to listen to and encourage her students in the same way that he did. “I just took it straight from him, as much as I could.”

Like Alfred, Valentine likes to listen to students’ work read aloud in class. She also brings in other poets’ work to “enlarge the room a little.”

At her 50th Radcliffe reunion next week, Valentine will read poems from her new manuscript, tentatively titled “A Bowl of Milk,” set to be published at the end of 2007. The reading will be held on June 6 at 2 p.m. in Sanders Theatre.

—Staff writer Rachel L. Pollack can be reached at rpollack@fas.harvard.edu.

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