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ORAL HISTORY INITIATIVE: A Conversation with Jean Valentine


During a residency at the MacDowell Colony in January 2017, I had the opportunity to commune with friend and fellow poet Jean Valentine. Towards the end of my stay, it occurred to me to play her the Woodberry Poetry Room’s earliest recording of her work, the reels of which were recently digitized and made available on the WPR Listening Booth. As it turned out, our listening session was Valentine’s first opportunity in five decades to hear the voice of her early mentor William Alfred.

In the recording I played for her, Alfred introduces her Morris Gray Reading at Harvard University in 1965. The moving and illuminating conversation that ensued was recorded on my iPhone and is accessible via SoundCloud (and transcribed in a revised, abridged form) below. The primary questions I asked her related to the mid-century history of the Poetry Room and its then curator John Lincoln Sweeney. The stories that emerged reveal a matrix of intersecting lives and poetries in the Cambridge of that period, including Adrienne Rich, Marianne Moore, Fanny and Susan Howe, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Robert Fitzgerald, and many more. 


William Alfred: “Most of the poetry written today strikes us as having been written by people with nothing at stake. It makes us feel like dismissing it, as Gertrude Stein once dismissed a bad story of Hemingway’s. She looked him in the face and she said, ‘Hemingway, remarks are not literature.’

That’s why it is an honor, as well as a pleasure, to introduce our Morris Gray reader today, Miss Jean Valentine, whose first published book, Dream Barker, is the 61st in a distinguished series of the Yale Younger Poets.

There are no mere remarks in these poems, no sentences written to make a parade of clever sensibility. These poems are charged with hard-bought impressions of life, expressed in a voice which is uniquely the poet’s own—brave in its candor, compassionate in its strength. There is no slackness in them: the flow of sound and the flow of feelings are one.

And lest I be guilty of making ‘remarks,’ I’d like to present Miss Jean Valentine.”

Christina Davis:
So, this was April 15, 1965. Do you have a sense if it was your first reading?

Jean Valentine: The first reading I ever did…. Might well have been. Yeah, might very well have been.

You were living in New York? Would you have given a reading at Yale, maybe, do you think, for the prize?

JV: Not that I remember…. No, I don’t think so. They did get me out for something….but it was years later. But I mean, the main thing, was Dudley [Fitts], you know?[1]

“I hadn’t had a poem published in my life,” Valentine recalled (in a followup phone interview in March 2017). This letter from Dudley Fitts—in which he jokingly asks if she is “a recluse” and advocates for her to publish more widely—was apparently how she first learned that her book had won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. “I walked my children home from the park, I had a letter in the mailbox, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. And, I still can’t. I was 30, but I had been writing for a while, and I was about to give up….” Letter from DF to JV, Houghton Library bMS Am1641.1 (59 )


CD: You remembered Bill Alfred saying “hard-bought.” It’s interesting that you still remember that. What did that say to you?

JV: Well, because he knew me before….

It said to me that he was respectful of me— and of my life and my—you know, he was that way with everybody. But he had been, and remained forever, one of my most important people. To have someone like that say something about you, it was a little more than a regular blah, blah, blah introduction, you know. It was very moving to me.

CD: I agree, it was such a brief introduction, but so compacted of feeling and thought…. Do you have any memory (and don’t worry if you don’t) of who was in the audience?

William Alfred, circa 2010. Photograph: Jon Chase.

JV: I do have a memory of someone who was in the audience, because that was Adrienne Rich, who I had never met.

CD: That was my next question! [laughter, abridged section]

JV: Well, you know, I probably told you the story about walking down the street when I first got to Radcliffe. Did I tell you that?

CD: Oh, and somebody recommended…

JV: … the old man on the street. [laughter]

CD: But who was the old man on the street?

JV: I have no idea. He was a person who lived there, he wasn’t related to Harvard, I don’t think, but you know people in those days, maybe now too, they are sort of interested in the university and keep track of things that interest them…. (It was so kind; I love this story so much.)

Walking down the street, a fall day, and he says, “How do you do. Are you a student here?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And he was an older gentleman in my eyes. He was probably about 60, but at the time he looked to me quite a bit older. And he said, “What do you think you’ll take up while you’re here.” (Isn’t that excellent? “What do you think you’ll take up while you’re here?”). And I said, “Well, I’m very interested in poetry.”

[the following section is an abridged version of the recording]

And he said, “Well, we have a very fine poet here who’s just had her first book published as an undergraduate. I wonder if you know her work?” I said, “Who is that?” And he said, “Adrienne Rich.” And I said, “No, I don’t.” So, he said, “Well, I’m sure they have it [Rich’s book] in the library.” He was such a lovely man. So I went straight to the library and found the book.

CD: But do you think he specifically recommended a woman to you? I’m curious about that—it’s very powerful that he recommended her– and when I think about it– that he understood what that might signify for you.

JV: Yeah, oh yeah. And an undergraduate, you know, coming along. It can be done.

Adrienne Rich, circa 1951. Photograph by Peter Solmssen. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library.

CD: Exactly…. That’s what I’m trying to understand: I know Adrienne wrote to you after you won the Yale?

JV: After Dream Barker came out.

CD: And then did she come all the way out from New York for this reading? I mean–

JV: Oh no, she was still living in Cambridge when that reading happened…. She wrote me and we had letters back and forth and even some phone calls. And then, I moved back to New York from wherever I had been at that time, and she and Alf were over on the Upper West Side with the boys. And James [Chase] and I looked for an apartment, and it was numbers away from where she was living. He said, “It’s a great location… the rent is something we can do.” And I said, “But Adrienne lives about two blocks away, probably. I think we have to call her and ask her.”

CD: That’s so respectful.

JV: I can’t remember if they [James and Adrienne] had met or not yet, but he knew who she was. Anyway I called and asked. Well, I didn’t know, you know? And I–

CD: You didn’t know that New Yorkers never run into each other! [laughter]

JV: And I didn’t really know her. I mean, we had this warm, respectful [acquaintance]– but we hadn’t hung out, you know. So I said, “What do you think? And we certainly don’t need to move here, there’s a lot of available apartments.” “Oh,” she said, “well, I’ll talk to Alf, but I think it’s going to be absolutely wonderful. I’ll get back to you.”

So she got back to me in about five minutes and she said, “We all think it’s going to be wonderful.” [laughter]

Dream Barker Cover Design. Houghton bMS Am1641.1 (49).

CD: I was also curious if Jack Sweeney was in the audience [at the Morris Gray]? Did he attend when you read that time?

JV: When I read at Harvard? I don’t remember.

CD: So you had met him during your undergraduate years—or when you came back [as a Bunting fellow]?

JV: No, I didn’t meet him when I was [an undergraduate]– no. I kind of thought maybe I should take that Irish class he’s teaching, but I didn’t take it. You know, it was one of those things that met at the same time or something, but–

CD: Oh, so do you have a sense of when you– because I’m really trying to get a sense of Jack Sweeney. He was so pivotal to sort of those foundational years of the Poetry Room, and I’m trying to give a sense of him as a human being….

John Lincoln Sweeney and his wife Máire. Sweeney served as WPR Curator from 1942-1967. Courtesy of Woodberry Poetry Room.

JV: Oh well, I know how I met him…. He and his wife, wonderful Maire, they had bought a house in Boston with a wonderful basement in it, and it was a house at 24 Chestnut Street in Beacon Hill.[2: Curator’s Correction]

CD: (That explains something else to me, okay. I’ll tell you in a moment.)

JV: My parents had lived in that house.

CD: No!

JV: Yes! They had moved from New York to Boston, and they had lived in that house and I had lived in it with them.

CD: Why had they come to Boston?

JV: Because his job changed from New York to Boston, and so I had lived in that house. So Jack Sweeney said, “Well, I’ll tell you how to get to our house.” And I said, “What’s the address?” And he told me, and I said, “I know how to get to that house, Jack. I lived there for a while.” And we all got goose bumps, and it was fun because he’s a wonderful man and he had set up a recording studio in the basement…

CD: That’s so helpful to me, because I understood that recordings were made in Beacon Hill in that period.

JV: Now you know the very house.

CD: I thought it was at a man named Stephen Fassett’s studio? Did you ever hear about him? He recorded Plath (for the Poetry Room) in the late 1950s.

Phonotape container, annotated by Sylvia Plath, affixed with Stephen Fassett’s address. Woodberry Poetry Room Collection, PS3566.L27 A6 1959x.

JV: I don’t know anything more than what I’ve told you, except this one wonderful thing. But I can’t remember the professor’s name (a professor at Harvard and his wife, a wonderful woman who loved poetry), but they had become friends with the Sweeney’s…  And, so Jack did something so smart: When he was going to record a poet, he invited her to come and sit there and listen to you. [3]

CD: I heard that– I’ve heard that a woman would sit there so that the voice would be directed towards someone.

JV: The main thing that it gave me was it relaxed me, because I was talking to one of the most sympathetic, empathetic people I’d ever seen, and she was loving it. So, I didn’t care if I was being recorded or not–

CD: So you made a recording for Sweeney?

JV: Yes, he recorded everybody who came through. I’m sorry you don’t have any of them?

CD: Oh, we do. And, in fact, we may have yours [from that period]… We’re sort of just still cataloguing and still going through some of these. They weren’t always catalogued fully at the time, so I’m going back to listen to them to try to identify certain voices and poems. So this is really helpful to know. [4]

JV: Well, that will be interesting to identify the voices…. You have to do that in sort of a hurry, don’t you, so that people will remember the voice. I mean living people. [laughter]

CD: Living people, that’s usually our audience.

JV: I know, I know you like working with us people.

CD: [laughter] So, you said that Jack was really helpful to–I thought to you, but maybe also to Adrienne Rich?

JV: Yes, what happened was Adrienne was so well known, she had won the Yale prize while she was an undergraduate, and also she was a brilliant student. And it was a smaller place in those days and everybody loved her… He [Sweeney] was building his poetry library, and she lived in Cambridge….

Well, we weren’t allowed to go into Lamont. No women were allowed into Lamont Library. And so Jack (for one thing, Jack adored women, he adored men, he adored people)—he was not of the generation that would have said women couldn’t go anywhere, you know. And so, he got to know Adrienne through different teachers and undergrads, probably, and he knew who she was and she had won the Yale prize already, and they weren’t letting her into the poetry library. So he said, “Any time you want to….”

CD: ….when you say “they,” would it actually be that a person would go to the door and try to get in?

JV: Well, not once we heard we couldn’t.

CD: Was it just an implicit prohibition?

JV: Oh no, no, it wasn’t implicit, no. It was very explicit. And what Jack did about it was absolutely wonderful. He said, “Adrienne, if you ever want to use this library, get the girl, or the boy,” I hope he said, “at the desk to call me up,” or the young man, whoever it was, “get them to call me and I will come down and we will go up to go up to the poetry library and we will stay for as long as you want any time.”

CD: Do you remember the first poetry reading that you ever attended, whether it was in New York or Boston? Or, maybe the most pivotal or surprising in your early life as a poet?

JV: They weren’t a feature of my life until probably I got to Harvard. At Milton, where I went to boarding school, Milton Academy outside of Boston, they didn’t go in for poetry much. They did perform– T. S. Eliot had gone there—“Murder in the Cathedral” regularly. With all respect, I do think it’s an amazing play, but every Christmas? It was getting to us. [laughter] But other than that, they had no interest in poetry or any of the arts at the time that I was there.

CD: That’s so interesting.

JV: It was a very civic school.

CD: Because Buckminster Fuller came out of there, too, I believe.

JV: I didn’t know that. I can’t say I’m an expert on the place, and I was glad to be there because I was glad to be among people my own age. But it was—it was more civic than anything else. And I think it’s very good in that way. I think it made good citizens of people. I loved the English teacher, and she got me through. But it wasn’t much for the arts, and I forget what that was in interest of….

CD: …. Oh, whether you had any memory of your first poetry reading you attended?

 JV: No, I don’t believe we ever had one at Milton, or in my parents’ lives at all…. So probably at college.

CD: You had said, maybe, Edwin Honig had recommended you go hear Marianne Moore?

JV: No, Bill Alfred. He said, “Marianne Moore’s coming this afternoon to read.” And they gave her an afternoon hour rather than an evening hour. And I’m saying that, he didn’t, but he said…

CD: ….Do you know why?

JV: Because she was a woman. That’s what I believe.

Marianne Moore reading at Lowell House. Houghton Blue Star b (Woodberry Poetry Room) MS Am 2753.

CD: I know she [Moore] was very nervous about that reading.

JV: I don’t blame her. Not very many people came. It’s very good that Bill told people to come, and I’m sure [Archibald] MacLeish did. Wasn’t it MacLeish she was working with?

CD: Levin?

JV: Harry Levin. And Harry Levin introduced her. But I don’t know if Harry– Harry would have been teaching a Shakespeare course at that time, so he probably told his students to go, but maybe they didn’t.

It wasn’t much of an audience, but it wasn’t awful, either. You know, it was a small college audience. Our whole class showed up because we’d do anything Bill Alfred said.

CD: Do you have any physical memory of her?

JV: Oh just, you know, she was so small. That’s my surprise about her because, you know, she always had the hat–

CD: Did she have the hat on for that—?

JV: No, not for us. But she was probably about my size now; I expected her to be bigger, you know? (I told you the very kind thing she did….)

She was very gentle. She said she was very glad that we were there and that we had turned out for this reading and she was very happy to be there and so forth. And then she said that she had gone to Bryn Mawr and she had taken a poetry class there and she had written a quite bad poem which she would like to read to us. (I mean, I know she referred to it as “not a very good poem,” maybe that’s what she said.) Because it wasn’t exactly broad humor, but it was sort of gently saying, “This is what I wrote when I was your age, and I’d like to read it to you.” And it was absolutely the wisest and kindest thing she could have done.

CD: She humbled herself.

JV: And it wasn’t very good, and we all felt it wasn’t very good, and “look at her” and “maybe we have hope,” which I’m sure is what she intended, you know?

CD: Did you have a sense, just curious, did you have a sense of how Modernists sounded? I mean, like do you remember being surprised by how someone like Marianne Moore sounded or were you prepared for that?

JV: I wasn’t surprised by that. But maybe I wasn’t surprised because it was all surprising to me, you know? All of it. I mean, the culture of poetry I had never put my toe into until I got there. And this was my Junior year, so I’d heard a few readings. But it might be that I just was—everything was so new to me, you know, wouldn’t have mattered if it had been Modernist or Tennyson. Probably it was all so new to me.

CD: What years were you there?

JV: 1952 to 1956.

CD: Do you think you heard William Carlos Williams when he came through?

JV: I didn’t, I’d know. But I heard Edith—

CD: Edith Sitwell?!

JV: Edith Sitwell, I heard her.

CD: Well, I was going to ask. Now, I want to tell you that I think Susan Howe was there to listen as well… one of the Howe’s.

JV: Very possible. Those were the girls we adored. Susan and Fanny [Howe].

CD: Wait! You knew them?

JV: Well, no, but we knew them by reputation. Everything—they’d say, “Have you heard now with Susan? did you hear…?” They were the most glamorous people we’d ever heard of.

CD: How?

JV: They weren’t there, they weren’t in the school. But they were living there. And they were– in my impression, and I’ve told Fanny this–

CD: (This is hilarious.)

JV: “We thought you were absolute goddesses. Everything we’ve heard about you was wonderful.” [Valentine mimics fellow students’ voices] “Well, I saw Susan sitting by the river reading poetry.” “And I saw Fanny walking with the handsomest man down the street.” I mean, they were just goddesses to us. The goddess-ness was that much greater because they weren’t in school. If only we weren’t in school, you know? [laughter]

Fanny Howe. Photograph by Elsa Dorfman. Courtesy of Fanny Howe.

CD: That’s fascinating to me…. Do you think it was through their mother being involved with The Poet’s Theatre?

JV: I hardly knew anything about them.

CD: They were just up the street.

JV: These were beautiful girls—about our age, who were living a free life in Cambridge. And we thought they were goddesses, completely. I don’t think I even– I may have known the mother and father were important people, but it was later, knowing Bill [Alfred], that he told me how important–

CD: Mary Manning Howe….

JV: Yes, Mary Manning. And he told me also that the father [Mark DeWolfe Howe] was great.

CD: A great civil rights advocate [and Harvard law professor].

JV: But at that time, we just knew they were– it was like Greek goddesses going across our path—

CD: Would they walk through Radcliffe Yard?

JV: I remember them in the Square more—or even, their legend.

CD: I had no idea. [laughter]

JV: Well, that’s how it was for us, for me, when I was that age, yes…. The hearsay of Fanny and Susan was just so exotic.

CD: It still is….

JV: Yeah, that hasn’t changed. [laughter]

CD: When you came back to Radcliffe, I think, in– was it ’68 or when did you come for–

JV: The Bunting Fellowship, yes.

CD: Do you have a sense of something having shifted in terms of women or poets on campus or—I mean, given the political period?

JV: You know, I wasn’t in the university, so I don’t really know.

CD: Was Robert Lowell there?

JV: Oh, he sure was. Yeah, I came and sat in his class. It was a miracle that I got there. I sat in on his class and—that’s how I first met Frank Bidart

CD: Anne Sexton, wasn’t she at some point?

JV: Yes, but not when I was there. She was earlier, and Plath, too [at Boston University]. But I thought he (you know, there’s all kinds of things said about him) he was a wonderful teacher. Do you know all the stories about his office hours?

CD: They’re famous but, I mean, it’s worth re-telling.

Robert Lowell. Photograph by Robert Gardner. Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room.

JV: Well, the reason he called them his “office hours” was because he was supposed to be teaching a course. And, he was teaching a course, but he called it his “office hours”…. He loved to be different, anyway. But this was a very interesting need he had.

He said, “They tell me I have to have office hours.” And I said, “Yes.” And he said (I mean, that wasn’t news to me, you know, or anyone else), “That means that a student comes in and we talk one-on-one?” And I said, “Yes.”

And he said, you know his accent, “That’s my idea of hell.” [laughter]

So, he had courses he taught, like he taught the Bible and he taught XYZ, really academic reading courses. And then he had his office hours: some of the students were grad students and some weren’t even students. Some just—he did a wonderful thing, he told everybody, “If you know of a poet who’s coming to town, tell them they’re welcome at our office hours. And it’s such and such at such and such a time.”

CD: Such a remarkable generosity.

JV: And people came in, you met more people there, you know. Somebody would come in from Iowa who knew him there once or knew him someplace else. They’d come to town, they might know a poet in town, and they’d ask what’s happening here in poetry? And they’d say, “Well, if you’re interested in going to Lowell’s office hours, they’re Thursday at two,” or whatever it was. And he said, “You mean I could go?” And they’d say, “Yes, everybody’s welcome there….” And Frank [Bidart], this is when I got to know and love Frank.

He would come and bring Lowell to the class. (Lowell was not having an easy time right then.) And after the class, Frank would come over and say, just like this, “Shall we go for lunch, Cal?” and, take him off…

It was so quietly done, you’d never know. You’d just think, “Gee, they’re good friends.” It was just a wonderful, wonderful human thing. And Lowell was never acting strange with us. He was so giving. He was an extraordinary teacher (I thought) of workshops.

CD: Do you have any memory of how he would teach? I mean, do you have a sense of workshops having changed or has it always been pretty much what we think of–

JV: …. We’d sit around this table, there weren’t that many of us, maybe 10 or 12. And he’d just say, “Who has a poem?” and somebody would read a poem and then he would– I couldn’t do it, but he did it and it was nice, he’d take the poem and say, “Would it be all right with you if I read this?” This would be the second reading.

We would have heard it first in the poet’s voice. And then he’d read it. And, of course, we were all dying just hearing our poetry read by Robert Lowell. [laughter]

“That would be okay, sir, yes.” We weren’t talking like that to him, but it was a great thing. And I thought it was helpful, too, because to hear it in another voice is always helpful. And, eccentric as his voice was, it was very moving to us because we all thought he was a very great poet and we were honored…. I felt that the whole thing was very mellow and that he was a very, very good reader.

Jean Valentine. Typescripts/MS with corrections. Published in Pilgrims (1969). Houghton Library bMS Am1641.1 (51).

CD: Do you remember any critique of– not critique in the negative sense, but any helpful critique?

JV: I was an extremely sensitive person. [laughter] And, I hadn’t had a teacher for god knows (decades or something) but I admired him hugely….

I don’t remember the exact words, but he would have a very gentle way of making a little bit of fun about something you were doing so that even I– the reason I said I was so sensitive was to say that even I could not have any quarrel with it. You know, I just thought, “Oh yeah, that is weird,” you know? I could take it. And I think if I could, anybody could because I was very super sensitive and probably with him more than with just any teacher, you know, because he was God and, you know, you had to pay attention. But he was a very good teacher, I thought, a very good reader. I think he had a blind eye towards some things, but I think when you–

CD: A blind eye to–?

JV: When he wrote the foreword to Sylvia Plath’s collection, I think he had somewhat of a blind eye. But, he also saw her.

CD: Exactly.

JV: So he was human, I guess.

CD: She writes in her diaries about meeting with Jack Sweeney, who made her first recording, as sort of this saintly grandfather figure.

JV: Oh, I’m glad. He was, he was, yeah. He went on to also remain very close to Ted [Hughes]. Jack Sweeney, yes, he had a very big heart.

CD: I can’t remember if I have any questions– were there any other memories that you had wanted to share in terms of Sweeney or Harvard?

JV: Jack Sweeney: about how he put the library together, are you interested in that?

CD: I am….

JV: He said what his brother James Johnson Sweeney did with MoMA in New York was when he heard somebody was good, he bought something by them. And when he thought himself that somebody was good, he bought something by them. And that’s how he did it at the Museum of Modern Art.

And so Jack said, “So, I did what my brother did. I thought he was doing something smart and so when I heard somebody was good, I recorded them.” And got them to read, or whatever he did. And so that’s how I wanted the library to be.

CD: I had never actually put together that parallel between the–

JV: Isn’t it interesting? He said, “Time will tell…. But if we collect everybody who we think is any good and that other people we think are good tell us are good, then time will tell.”


Recorded on January 24, 2017, at Calderwood Studio, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire.


[1] Curator’s Note: Dudley Fitts was the judge of the Yale Younger Poets prize that year. I recently confirmed through a letter sent by Fitts to Jack Sweeney that Valentine did give a reading at the 92nd Street Y in Fall 1964. Though not her first public reading, the Morris Gray (1965) may possibly be the earliest extant recording of her work.

Typescript of “Separation,” with JV’s note about John Berryman (in upper right corner) and “no complaint” jotted in Fitzgerald’s handwriting (in lower left). Houghton Library bMSAm 1641.

In addition to Fitts and Alfred, Harvard professor and translator Robert Fitzgerald was an immense advocate of Valentine’s early work. When, in a followup interview in March 2017, I asked her about some typescripts I’d encountered in the WPR collection, with the note “no complaint” at the bottom of each one, she recalled that she had somehow built up the courage to ask Fitzgerald to comment on her poems over his summer vacation. To which he had kindly said, “Yeah, I’ll just be over there translating Homer!” Of his “no complaint” commentary, Valentine said, “I took that as the highest praise.”

[2] Curator’s Correction: After this interview I double-checked the Poetry Room’s archives, and it does appear that the home she is referring to it is that of the audio engineer Stephen B. Fassett. Sweeney resided at 51 Beacon Street, Boston, Mass., a mere 2-minute walk away.

[3] Curator’s Note: Valentine later recalled that the professor she was referring to was Prof. Mason Hammond. His wife, Florence, frequently sat in on Sweeney’s recording sessions as a kind of professional listener.

[4] Curator’s Note: As a result of this conversation and a recent survey of our uncataloged LPs from this period (conducted by UMass-Boston MFA student Kate Glavin), we were able to ascertain that a vinyl disc of Valentine’s 1965 Fassett Studio recording does exist and we look forward to digitizing it shortly.


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  1. Pingback: “ARCHIVE OF THE MOUTH”: Tracing Baez, Plath, Sun Ra, Sexton, Et Al Back to a Single Pivotal Recording Studio – stylus

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