Cooper, Jane (Marvel)

views updated

COOPER, Jane (Marvel)

Nationality: American. Born: Atlantic City, New Jersey, 9 October 1924. Education: Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1942–44; University of Wisconsin, Madison, B.A. 1946 (Phi Beta Kappa); University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.A. 1954. Career: Professor of literature and writing, poet-in-residence, Department of English, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1950–87. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1960; Lamont Poetry Selection award, 1968; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1971; Creative Artists Public Service grant 1974; Shelley memorial award, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1982; Maurice English award, 1985; Bunting fellowship (Radcliffe College), 1988–89; American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature, 1995; New York State poet, 1995–97. Address: 545 West 111th Street, Apt. 8K, New York, New York 10025, U.S.A.



The Weather of Six Mornings. New York, Macmillan, 1969.

Maps and Windows. New York, Macmillan, 1974.

Threads: Rosa Luxemburg from Prison. New York, Flamingo Press, 1979.

Scaffolding: New and Selected Poems. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1984; as Scaffolding: Selected Poems. Gardiner, Maine, Tilbury House, 1993.

Green Notebook, Winter Road. Gardiner, Maine, Tilbury House, 1994.

The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed. New York, Norton, 1999.


Editor, with others, Extended Outlooks: The "Iowa Review" Collection of Contemporary Women Writers. New York, Macmillan, 1982.

Editor, with others, The Sanity of Earth and Grass: Complete Poems of Robert Winner. Gardiner, Maine, Tilbury House, 1994.


Manuscript Collection: Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

Critical Studies: "An Ecstasy of Space" by Rachel Hadas, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (New York), 15 (1), 1989; "The Practiced Hand" by Jan Clausen, in Women's Review of Books, 7, 1995; interview with Eric Gudas, in The Iowa Review (Iowa City), 25(1), winter 1995.

Jane Cooper comments:

(1995) Green Notebook, Winter Road deals with friendship, aging, the lives of girls and women, the humor and "complex shame" of a white Southern heritage, illness, and the enduring mysteries of art. It is a book that is meant to be very fluid, as the private and public worlds intersect, the present is opened out by glimpses of the past (and not just the personal past but the inherited or hearsay past as well), and song exists side by side with speech (long lines, prose lines). The book has an epigraph from Emily Dickinson's Letters, "My friends are my 'estate,'" but I suppose the real quest is to find out who the self is—to delve deep into the wisdom of the body, intuition, and dreams and at the same time to record accurately, with loving if sometimes skeptical attention, details of social life, history, family, race, class. Someone complained that there is too much death in the poems. Not at all. I am 70, and I celebrate "ongoingness."

(2000) Now, in the year 2000, what is there to add? The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed continues the same adventure, asking the same questions in a somewhat larger context. Or, as one poem has it, "I'm trying to write a poem that will alert me to my real life."

*  *  *

Jane Cooper's Maps and Windows of 1974 pulled a group of twelve poems from the decades-old oblivion of an unpublished manuscript, just as in 1984 Scaffolding reached back to acknowledge yet other early work, reclaiming a group of five poems written between 1954 and 1969. The rescued poems became part of Cooper's drive to make her own chronologies match a constantly changing but governing preoccupation with historical patterning. Never quite synchronous, the author's life and her awareness of its shaping forces moved in charged interchange, and within each successive book an older self of the writer confronted the current self, soberly and self-consciously rearranging its canon to reflect different urgencies, newly promising directions. In 1994, against time's mounting losses, Green Notebook, Winter Road continues and triumphantly intensifies this prodding and testing of Cooper's relations to persons, places, and traditions as the poet reorders the psyche's props for survival, altering the earlier confrontation of self against self to reflect instead a greater concern for the fit of the writing self within a tradition of women artists. Packed densely with reference to works and lives, Cooper's short, clustered jewel-like lyrics dedicated to Georgia O'Keeffe ("The Winter Road") and Willa Cather ("Vocation: A Life") speak about the inevitable sexual and psychosocial crises and conflicts that existed so painfully for these women who were primary makers.

The earlier Scaffolding put Cooper's need to contextualize in place. Within a sequence entitled "Dispossessions" Cooper quotes from Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge: "it is not enough/to have memories, they/must turn to blood inside you." While people die, houses remain husks, and things speak mutely only as things, poetry remains the constant. Yet the troubled search for vocation, for its lifeblood, becomes the fluid scaffolding of Cooper's poetry.

Scaffolding includes an essay, rather formidably entitled "Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread," in which the Cooper of 1974 traces the growth of her poetry away from its initial focus on war and heroic themes to what she calls "the poetry of development." The impulse of both the essay and the collecting process is recursive and meditative. The whole of Scaffolding insists stubbornly but without vanity on tracing the particular figure of a career shaped by the facts of gender, culture, and history, refusing to fracture the tender sinuosities of the life it records.

As Cooper draws the connecting links in both prose and poetry, her early work and its intentions bear witness for a generation of American women growing up directly in the aftermath of World WarII. It was a generation of women writers for whom, she comments, "The men's lives seemed more central than ours, almost more truthful. They had been shot down, or squirmed up the beaches. We had waited for their letters." Sojourning as a student of twenty-two in Oxford in the summer of 1947, Cooper marked the years as the opening of a struggle to sustain herself as a poet, a struggle sharply linked to the cultural circumscription of women's lives: "'Didn't anyone ever tell you it was all right to write?' asked the psychiatrist who came along much later. 'Yes, but not to be a writer,'" she says. In "The Knowledge That Comes through Experience" she asks sardonically,

   When shall I rest, when shall I find myself
   The way I'll be, iced in a shop window?

Failing to find herself reflected as the edible woman desired by her time, she concludes,

   Meanwhile I use myself. I am useful
   Rather foolishly, like a fish who yearns
   Dimly toward daylight. There is much to learn
   And curiosity empties our rewards.
   It seems to me I may be capable,
   Once I'm a skeleton, of love and wars.

The poet remained a woman who, strip as she might, could never divest herself of a problematic feminine creativity bound to collide with cultural convention. "Obligations" blends sensuousness and watchful sobriety as it tracks "the dark home of our polarities/And our defense, which we cannot evade."

While a number of early poems dealing with gender relations have their own quietly wicked bite, others have the glassy good manners of the 1950s. All of the poems are solid affairs, with skillful construction and impeccable diction, and if they are occasionally too elliptical and understated, the personal and domestic themes are always perceptively treated.

After the more tentative 1950s an appealing rawness and fresh innocence dominate Cooper's middle and later work. In both prose and poetry there is a plain, stripped, almost severe speech whose truthfulness is always enhanced by delicacy of feeling. The poems press meaning through pauses and silences, through the white spaces of short lines and brief stanzas. Cooper's poems continue to represent the conflicts between our needs as separate people and the claims that we necessarily allow others to make on us as friends, lovers, family members, and citizens. There are scalding poems about childlessness. Several of the best, like "My Young Mother" and "Hunger Moon," practice a curious detachment in which a disembodied poet-speaker moves back before her own birth or observes a stage set with past selves. This characteristic gesture, used with an eerie flash, concludes the 1985 poem "Estrangement": "You watch your own back growing smaller up the beach."

Scaffolding closes with "Threads: Rosa Luxemburg from Prison," a dramatic monologue written as a sequence. "Threads" stretches the poet's early absorption with war, recovering the heroic for a perspective now both emphatically female and pacifist. It is Luxemburg's voice speaking persuasively from beginning to end, but it is Cooper's achievement that from within poems both restrained and passionate continuities of style and vision weld the sequence to the rest of her own writing life.

By 1994 Cooper's meditations on the trajectory of female lives touched on colleagues and writing friends, most notably Muriel Rukeyser. The spine of Green Notebook, Winter Road is elegy. The same empathy, insight, and imaginative historical intelligence that were joined with lyricism in "Threads" now freely and authoritatively move back and forth between prose and poetry, and a new comic deftness leavens the pieces about Cooper's Jacksonville family. The poet's probes into the ongoing trauma of her troubled health also expand the emotional compass of her work, and both the internal and external perspectives increasingly enlarge and brighten to produce a poetry more compelling and interesting with each subsequent book.

—Lorrie Goldensohn

About this article

Cooper, Jane (Marvel)

Updated About content Print Article