The Poet as Comet


In my first semester at Oberlin in 1973, I set to music a poem called The Knife, by Jean Valentine. By chance, the poet came to campus the following spring to give a reading. I walked up to her after her reading and showed her my piece. Not dreaming how impressed a famous poet might be by a young man’s adolescent homage, I hadn’t made a copy of the score, but she was so visibly touched by my effort that I impulsively gave her my only final copy. I’ve never minded the loss: it was an angularly atonal, poorly thought-out piece for soprano, flute, and piano, written under the influence of Berio’s Circles, and not a good imitation at that (though I must say that my schoolmates thought it an impressively noisy piece for a freshman).
This weekend I noticed that Jean Valentine – now the New York State Poet, it seems (anyone know who our state composer is?) – was giving a reading at Bard. I couldn’t resist going, walked up afterward and reintroduced myself. I managed to quote the last two lines of the poem, which seem typical ones for her:

And every molecule of every object here will swell with life,
And someone will be at the door.

I’m not sure she really remembered me, though she certainly remembered the poem, but she introduced me to her daughter, who teaches part-time at Bard. It turns out that Valentine’s first husband was the late James Chace, Bard’s star political historian for many years. I guess I can get used to her streaking through my life every 35 years.