Daughter of John C. and Martha Marvel Cooper
Although Jane Cooper worked "strenuously and perfectly seriously on a book of poems" between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six, she did not publish her first book until she was in her mid-forties. Since then, she has published several collections of poems and a long poem, Threads: Rosa Luxemburg from Prison (1979).
Cooper lived until she was ten in Jacksonville, Florida, and spent summers in the North Carolina mountains. In 1934 she and her family moved north to Princeton, New Jersey, where she attended Miss Fine's School (1934-42). She studied at Vassar College from 1942 to 1944 and received a B.A. in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin in 1946, completing an honors thesis on García Lorca's "vocabulary of images." The following year, Cooper attended the first Oxford (England) Summer School, where she began to think about writing "a book of war poems from a woman's point of view." Some of these poems appeared in a section of Maps and Windows (1974) called "Mercator's World (Poems 1947-1951)." After a stint of freelance editing, Cooper began teaching literature and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in 1950 and remained a faculty member there until 1987. She spent a year at the University of Iowa (M.A., 1954), where she worked on her poems and did a creative thesis with Robert Lowell and John Berryman.
The structure of Cooper's books is architectural, like a house she has built to which she keeps adding rooms and wings. Her own "vocabulary of images" includes many doors, windows, roofs, and walls. Cooper has always seen her poems as parts of a larger whole, and all of her books have included earlier poems reprinted from previous books as well as new ones. Her poems often use architecture as metaphor, and two of her books use the language of building as a title, Maps and Windows and Scaffolding (1984). As in Emily Dickinson's poems, the house in Cooper's work is also the body. People often appear in the protective shells of their houses—"Houses, houses, we lodge in such husks" ("Souvenirs," 1971)—and in the context of their "fragile human settlement" ("The Blue Anchor," 1978). The language of house construction serves for both private and public spaces—both our mortal bodies and the imperiled world.
Cooper's first book of poems, The Weather of Six Mornings (1969), won the Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets (then a first-book prize) in 1968. The award gave Cooper's work the approval of some of the leading male poets of the 1960s (the judges included Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, and James Wright) and brought her critical attention. Cooper was also at this time part of a vigorous and supportive group of women writers whose companionship and guidance she has continued to acknowledge in all of her works. They included Sarah Appleton, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, and Jean Valentine.
The poems of The Weather of Six Mornings show the tension of a generous political vision struggling with anger and of an imagination struggling to work freely despite the press of the diurnal. In the title poem, Cooper addresses the courage it takes for a woman writer simply to come to speech at all: "I try to speak / of what is so hard for me."
Maps and Windows includes poems from 1947-51, new poems, and the first printing of Cooper's essay, "Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread." Here she writes of "the sort of upper-middle class education that encourages writing, painting, music, theater so long as they aren't taken too seriously," and poses a central question about her early work: "Why, then, didn't I publish? And why, even more, did I give up writing poems?" In this essay, Cooper traces her "poetry of development," which the poems themselves demonstrate, and confronts honestly women's need to be modest or generous at the expense of full creative exploration.
Scaffolding (published in England in 1984 and republished as Scaffolding: Selected Poems in the U.S. in 1993) includes most of the poems from her two earlier books as well as five "Reclaimed Poems" from 1954-1969 and new poems from 1970-1983, including her long poem "Threads: Rosa Luxemburg from Prison." Cooper does here the feminist work of retrieval on herself by resurrecting poems she had earlier discounted as unfinished or unimportant. Welcoming the "opportunity to see my work arranged chronologically," Cooper wrote "Scaffolding gives a sense of the continuous journey the work has been for me all along."
Her fourth collection, Green Notebook, Winter Road (1994), is in the author's words, "a book that is meant to be very fluid, as the private and public worlds intersect." While a melancholy undercurrent weaves the poems together, critics assert that there remains a balancing sense of hope. The works make Cooper's maturity her greatest strength by pulling the present into the light of the past. Her newest venture, The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed, was not yet published in late 1999.
Cooper has also coedited and authored forewords for a number of publications, including Senior English Reading (1980, with Malcolm Cooper), Extended Outlooks: The Iowa Review Collection of Contemporary Women Writers (1981, coeditor and author of introduction), The Sanity of Earth and Grass: Complete Poems (1994, coeditor and author of foreword), and The Life of Poetry (1997, author of foreword). Her work is also found in periodicals like the New Yorker, Transatlantic Review, and American Poetry Review.
Cooper's many awards include grants from the Guggenheim Foundation (1960), the Ingram Merrill Foundation (1971), the National Endowment for the Arts (1981), and a Bunting Fellowship from Radcliffe College in 1988. In 1978 she was the corecipient of the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Award. She has frequently been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Blue Mountain Center. She received the Maurice English Poetry award for a book of poems by a writer in her sixth decade or older for Scaffolding. Honors continue into her seventies. Cooper earned an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts in Letters in 1995, and was chosen New York State Poet for 1996-97. Green Notebook was also a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
Cooper's poems document a journey in search of "necessary truths." In his juror's statement for the English award, poet Galway Kinnell wrote, "Looking at the whole body of Jane Cooper's work, one sees an artist who changes: who confronts unsettling experience and learns to see the world and herself in new ways." Never afraid to take the next surprising turn, Cooper has written, "If my poems have always been about survival—and I believe they have been—then survival too keeps revealing itself as an art of the unexpected."
CA (1977). CA Online (8 May 1999). CANR (1986). CP (1985, 1991).
Belles Lettres (1985). Booklist (15 Sept. 1994). Parnassus (1989). WRB (1986).
The Academy of American Poets available online at poets.org/LIT/POET/jcooper (8 May 1999).
UPDATED BY CARRIE SNYDER