This Old Poem #89:
Jean Valentine’s X
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/10/04

  Sometimes a poet or a poem become so intertwined with an event or thing in someone’s life that the person cannot separate the quality of the poet/poem from that event/thing that they represent, or remind 1 of. Such is the case with poet Jean Valentine. Not with me, but with an artist pal of mine named Art Durkee. Art is someone who came to many UPGs over the year it was held, & his general knowledge of life & poetry, as well as the breadth & depth of his reading, is without question. Yet, there’s seems to be 1 poet he esteems well beyond her reputation. JV is that poet.
  Even more puzzling is that he has often tried comparing her favorably to Edna St. Vincent Millay- a far more consistent & excellent poet. The crux of Art’s beef with ESVM seems to be that he thinks her imagery is & subject matter is stale. With this I cannot totally disagree, for ESVM was a Classicist by inclination- meaning she purposely engaged older (& inevitably triter) themes. Yet, her skill with form is truly peerless. The same cannot be said for JV- a woman who is not a terrible poet, but not a particularly good 1 either. This is manifest to most, thus my ideas on Art’s motives re: his JV ardor having to do with some early love.
  Nonetheless, JV does have her own website-, from which I cull this info:


  Jean Valentine was born in Chicago, earned her B.A. from Radcliffe College, and has lived most of her life in New York City. She won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book, Dream Barker, in 1965.
  Author of eight other books of poetry (listed below), she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and awards from the NEA, The Bunting Institute, The Rockefeller Foundation, The New York Council for the Arts, and The New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as the Maurice English Prize, the Teasdale Poetry Prize, and The Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Prize in 2000.
  She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, the Graduate Writing Program of New York University, Columbia University, and the 92nd Street Y.


  Including this gem of a blurb:


  ‘Looking into a Jean Valentine poem is like looking into a lake: you can see your own outline, and the shapes of the upper world, reflected among rocks, underwater life, glint of lost bottles, drifted leaves. The known and familiar become one with the mysterious and half-wild, at the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet. This is a poetry of the highest order, because it lets us into spaces and meanings we couldn't approach in any other way.’- Adrienne Rich


  JV writes short poems with a nature orientation. This smacks of an Eastern/Mystic bent, but her poems are quite a bit more prosaic. Like this one:


The Welsh Poet

The Welsh poet
said of his mother
who "left the world"
last week
"She was never dead
in or out of it."
He shows me a beautiful Indian bird
red with yellow dots on it:
Happiness. Beauty. Art.
--That bird seems to like you.
--Yes, that bird knows
there's not much time.
The mother has a gold body now.

  This poem is a rather blasé attempt to show the transformation from life to death. The imagery is not striking, the music is nil, & the metaphors have nor real heft- they are simple imagery & rote transfiguration motifs. Here’s another:

Mare and Newborn Foal

When you die
there are bales of hay
heaped high in space
mean while
with my tongue
I draw the black straw
out of you
mean while
with your tongue
you draw the black straw out of me.

  I don’t know enough of barn life to know if this represents a real scene. But personifying the animals does what? The imagery is muddled & the poem just sort of lays there like the afterbirth it’s presumably referencing. Here’s another poem:

The Second Dream

We all heard the alarm. The planes were out
And coming, from a friendly country. You, I thought,
Would know what to do. But you said,
'There is nothing to do. Last time
The bodies were like charred trees.'

We had so many minutes. The leaves
Over the street left the light silver as dimes.
The children hung around in slow motion, loud,
Liquid as butterflies, with nothing to do.

  OK, a dream of wartime. What is accomplished? Is there any strong music? Is the imagery unique or startling? Does the title add enigma? Only the phrae ‘Liquid as butterflies’ has any heft. This is typical of most of JV’s oeuvre. Nothing too bad, & nothing particularly interesting. 1 does not stub a toe on a JV poem, merely graze it.
  Let’s now look at the poem in question:



I have decorated this banner to honor my brother. Our parents did not want his name used publicly. --from an unnamed child's banner in the AIDS Memorial Quilt

The boatpond, broken off, looks back at the sky.
I remember looking at you, X, this way,
taking in your red hair, your eyes' light, and I miss you
so. I know,
you are you, and real, standing there in the doorway,
whether dead or whether living, real.  --Then Y
said, "Who will remember me three years after I die?
What is there for my eye
to read then?"
The lamb should not have given
his wool.
He was so small. At the end, X, you were so small.
Playing with a stone
on your bedspread at the edge of the ocean.

  Note- this is the worst poem we’ve read yet. It’s mawkish, even if we remove the epigraph, but with it it’s an abomination. Why are the lines broken as they are? Why does JV need to reinforce the ‘precious’ aspects of asserting the preciousness of life? Obviously because she does not trust the reader to get the depth & seriousness of death, & more so if it comes from AIDS. Let’s remove the pabulum & try to make this poem a bit more taut:


The boatpond, broken off, looks back at the sky.
I remember looking at you this way,
taking in your red hair. I know,
you are you, and real, standing there

in the doorway, dead or living. 

"Who will remember me three years after I die?
What is there for my eye to read then?"
The lamb should not have given
his wool. So small. You were
playing with a stone on your bedspread,

the edge of the ocean.


  So, what was done? The epigraph is a nice dollop of yucky oozing sentimentality removed. Sentiment is now in its stead. We also do not need the X & Y designations in the poem since a 2nd personage will naturally be Y, + the X of the title now means more than just the named speaker. The break into 2 stanzas helps delineate the rewrite better. Stanza 1 is the scene setting- something that is missed- probably a person. The condensed 2nd stanza allows for the imagery to flow more naturally. We do not need extraneous phrases like ‘and I miss you/so’, or ‘At the end, X’. The poem now is far more universal, & a bit more touching than the mere AIDS-based original.
  Let me quote 2 pieces from an interview JV has online that are cogent. Here’s #1:


Interviewer: What is your relationship to revising?


JV: I used to revise for a long period of time. And I used to really tear my hair--over writing and revising, actually--much more than I do now.


Interviewer: Have you reached a point where you can put something down and feel it's more or less there?


JV: No. [little laugh] No, it's not quite to that point. Things come usually over a period of months. But the difference is the level of anxiety. When I was a drinker, my level of anxiety was much higher. Also my level of depression. Both. When I got sober, my whole self was being reorganized, you know? For five years--I couldn't write at all during that time.


  JV reveals that since 1987 her style of writing is to not really revise. Also her admission of alcoholism is telling since it puts her more in line with the PC Elitists than the nature poets of her earlier days. Is it any wonder whatever early promise may have existed was snuffed out?


JV: So I always had that identity, and it was a saving identity [as a Poet & Writer]. Then, when I stopped writing for five years, I no longer had it. I had also, by then, developed the identity of being with a guy. I'd had that since college, a little bit in high school maybe. I was going to be with some guy, that'd be part of my identity. And I wasn't, then, for these five years.


Interviewer: When was this?


JV: My writing started to peter out in 1981 and '82, and I started again in '87. I got into recovery in '85, and I got much more grounded in myself then. But those years, between '82 and '87, I wasn't with a man, and I wasn't writing poetry. And what I found out--this was the good part--was that I was still there. Without these things that I thought were me, I was still there. And that was important.

  If this kind of banal self-revelation has not made you cringe pat yourself on the back. Still, it’s these moments that most likely make bad poets bad, & make even those should know better like their bad poems. Ecce homo!

Final Score: (1-100):

Jean Valentine’s X: 45
TOP’s X: 65

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