Jean Valentine, "a former New York State Poet whose minimalist, dreamlike poetry was distinguished by crystalline imagery followed by an unexpected stab of emotion," died December 29, the New York Times reported. She was 86. Valentine, who published 14 poetry collections, received the 2004 National Book Award in poetry for Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003 and was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Break the Glass. Seamus Heaney once described her work as "rapturous, risky, shy of words but desperately true to them."
At 30, Valentine "had never been published and was about to give up on poetry when she won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1964," the Times noted, adding that the untitled manuscript she had submitted as her application was published a few months later as Dream Barker and Other Poems.
Valentine served as the New York State Poet from 2008 to 2010. She also collaborated with the Russian poet Ilya Kaminsky to interpret into English the work of Marina Tsvetaeva. In her 80s, Valentine was awarded Yale's prestigious Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. The judging committee wrote: "Jean Valentine is fearless when moving into charged territory. Without compromising substance or sacrificing a reckoning with painful reality, inequity and loss, there is solace and spirituality, and she radiates responsibility as a voice of clarity and compassion."
Michael Wiegers, her editor at Copper Canyon Press, said, "A Jean Valentine poem is often understated and quiet, yet is not impersonal. Entering her poems almost feels like a secret is being shared with you, a secret you've known all along yet which she is sharing as a reminder. A reminder that we are all here together with our collective senses. Her humility was in service to a desire for fairness and doing right, while her understated voice was an invitation to solidarity and companionship. Her poems remind us each that we belong."
From Valentine's poem "Sanctuary":
What happens when you die?
What do you dread, in this room, now?
Not listening. Now. Not watching. Safe inside my own skin.
To die, not having listened. Not having asked… To have scattered life.
Yes I know: the thread you have to keep finding, over again, to
follow it back to life; I know. Impossible, sometimes.