Jean Valentine

(1934 - 2020)

Jean Valentine was born in Chicago, the daughter of a homemaker and a Navy man. She grew up in various places, including Boston and Orinda, California, as her family followed her father’s Navy placements. She earned her B.A. and M.A. from Radcliffe College. She married the historian James Chace in 1957; they divorced in 1966, then again in 1969 after a brief remarriage. The pair had two daughters, Sarah and writer Rebecca Chace.

In 1965, Valentine was an unpublished young mother ready to quit writing poetry when she won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first collection, Dream Barker. Twelve more books of poetry would follow, notably Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965–2003 (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. She also published three poetry chapbooks, edited The Lighthouse Keeper: Essays on the Poetry of Eleanor Ross Taylor (Seneca Review, 2001), and collaborated with Ilya Kaminsky on a translation of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry, Dark Elderberry Branch (Alice James Books, 2012).

Rich in imagery and emotion, Valentine’s poems often drew from her dreams, with a characteristic fragmentary feeling that Kaveh Akbar describes as “[like] footprints, insinuating a path more than paving them.” A poet’s poet, she was mentored by William Alfred and Robert Lowell and influenced by the work of Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath, among others.

Valentine was the Poet Laureate of New York State from 2008 through 2010. Her many honors include the Wallace Stevens Award, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Maurice English Prize, the Teasdale Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Prize, and an award for exceptional accomplishment in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, she also received awards from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York Council for the Arts, the Lannan Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.

Valentine lived most of her life on New York City’s Upper West Side. She taught poetry at many institutions, including Sarah Lawrence College, the Graduate Writing Program of New York University, Columbia University, Barnard College, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. She died on December 29, 2020.


More Jean Valentine

Text: Read four poems by Valentine at The American Poetry Review

Video: Valentine reads for the University Professors Program's Poetry Reading Series

Text: Read Hafizah Geter's in memoriam piece on Valentine at The Paris Review


Photo by Max Greenstreet.