Jane Cooper, poet and teacher, marked the lives of many poets and instilled an intense care for the making of poems in all of us. I have contributed to the anthology Jane Cooper, A Radiance of Attention, eds. Martha Collins & Celia Bland, University of Michigan, 2019, a long-awaited tribute to this beloved poet and teacher who was my advisor, shared w Jean Valentine, over the course of my MFA at Sarah Lawrence. To paraphrase what one of my MFA pals from those days said, tongue in cheek, about Jane: she ruined our teaching, because of her fantastic care. Jane made it impossible to look at any poem or effort towards a poem without hope or without love. My essay, “Jane Cooper: Seventeen Names for Necessity,” offers a vision of Jane Cooper’s complex, changing resolve towards how she meets the world responsibly in her poetry. For the anthology, I looked at her poetry over her life, and thought a lot about her path, her care. Here are a few of my conclusions, drawn from my essay.
First, I think of her way of seeing: life is filmic—speech, changing light—pulsing in dynamic juxtaposition as she takes on her White, Southern histories; dream’s power and her own single, determined, woman’s life as part of “the fragile human settlement–” (157).
Burning through, her clear- eyed observation, becomes her life-long teacher: “But to change one’s images is like trying to revolutionize one’s dreams. It can’t be done overnight. Nor … effected by will. … Now I think you build it out of necessities—“ (“Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Be Used in the Manufacture of Bread,” 119).
Jane Cooper’s poems define the first passion as survival. To speak of survival first is to enter questions of necessity, since Jane Cooper was not supposed to live past the age of seven. She comes to questioning through a heightened sense of her life possibilities and the lens of illness. As a five and six-year-old, Cooper takes in her situation and the weight of what the adults say, or don’t say in “The Children’s Ward.” (218). How to survive is a dogged answer, and isolation is companion to illness. This focused her principled doubt and tense resolve, including the choice to be ruthlessly fair-minded beginning in childhood. This early knowledge of everyone having “something” becomes the world of the poem, born to Jane, carefully constructed to share meaning as seeker.
If the early love poems portray anger, they move through the world seriously confronting the destabilizing effects of war on love, and her own fierce desire for autonomy.
Cooper allies with Rosa Luxemberg’s imagination in “Threads: Rosa Luxemburg from Prison” and achieves a marriage of history and interior. Doubt and a need to engage with the world and love develop into the profound statement of passion for life on this earth in this extraordinary long poem drawn from letters of Luxemberg’s, as she observes the bird migration overhead and seasons of small greening with utmost tenderness from her high prison cell window. Because this poem, a call from inside a history and a life, demands to be heard personally as a plea for “This lovely world!” (165). It takes a visionary to teach us, when faced with no evidence of love. Jane Cooper serves the forms of praise and grief faithfully. Jane Cooper is the person who can imagine what it is to reach towards transformation of consciousness through the lessons of a woman’s lifebody.
As Luxemberg decides to be open to wonder, her life is dismantled by war. Cooper asks us to wonder if we can possibly do the same. And why not? What does she tell us about ourselves, our necessities? Must we dream our questions? Her images will bring news and our own history will question us.
Jane Cooper quotations from The Flashboat, Poems Collected and Reclaimed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.