Jean Valentine was born on April 27, 1934, in Chicago. She received a BA from Radcliffe College in 1956 and lived most of her life in New York City.
In 1964, Valentine’s first book, Dream Barker (Yale University Press, 1965), was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. She authored several other poetry collections, including Shirt in Heaven (Copper Canyon Press, 2015); Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), which won the National Book Award; and Home Deep Blue: New and Selected Poems (Alice James Books, 1989). She also edited The Lighthouse Keeper: Essays on the Poetry of Eleanor Ross Taylor (Seneca Review, 2001).
Though her work is frequently identified as having a political subtext, Valentine did not see herself as a “political poet.” She explained:
I felt I was more in line with somebody like Elizabeth Bishop, who wouldn’t talk about it usually very directly. She wrote a lot that had a political nature, especially after she was in Latin America, but she would never have described herself as a political poet. “Political poet” means to me that there’s something present in the work, and in the poet, that isn’t in mine or in me.
Valentine received grants and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Bunting Institute. In 2000, she received the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America. She is the recipient of the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. In 2017, she was awarded Yale University’s Bollingen Prize for Poetry.
In response to a question about writing and revising, Valentine said,
It seems to me to be a process of looking for something in there, rather than having something and revising it. I don’t consider that I really have anything yet—except inchoate mess. As I work on it, I’m always trying to hear the sound of the words, and trying to take out everything that doesn’t feel alive. That’s my goal: to take out everything that doesn’t feel alive. And also to get to a place that has some depth to it. Certainly I’m always working with things that I don’t understand—with the unconscious, the invisible. And trying to find a way to translate it.
Valentine taught at New York University until 2004, and also taught workshops and seminars at the 92nd Street Y, the University of Pittsburgh, Sarah Lawrence College, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Columbia University.
Jean Valentine died on December 29, 2020, in New York City.