Lois Kerschen is a school district administrator and freelance writer. In this essay, she discusses understanding a Valentine poem through a knowledge of her methods and influences.
Poetry is often a part of English class that students dread, because they do not have a clue about how to read a poem or what it means. For the general reading public, the problem is much the same. Learning the elements of poetry and having an ear for the sounds of language that are so important to the genre will help a reader understand a poem. It also helps to know something about the poet, influences on the poet, and the characteristic style of the poet. Certainly, in the case of poetry by Valentine, it is useful to understand something about her mental process and intentions as she writes. Interviews with Valentine herself and analysis by experts who know her work provide this information.
Readers might be in the best position to understand a Valentine poem if they bring to mind how they feel during a dream or when just waking from a dream. It is from this viewpoint of dream logic that a Valentine poem makes the most sense. "Seeing You" first appeared in the collection The River at Wolf, published in 1992. In an article for Poetry magazine that reviewed that book, Steven Cramer comments: "A poem by Jean Valentine travels in two directions—inward toward the recesses of self and outward toward the reaches of otherness—via a single route: the dream." For Valentine, Cramer surmises, dreams provide not only insight but also revelation. Indeed, in an interview with Michael Klein in 1991, the year after the first publication of "Seeing You" in the American Poetry Review, Valentine says, "I feel more and more as if my poems are almost all from dreams, or written as if from dreams." She adds that the way "another poet might write from an outward experience is the same way that I would write from a dream."
In a review of Door in the Mountain (2004), which also contains "Seeing You," the poet and Rutgers University professor Alicia Ostriker, writing for American Book Review, describes Valentine's dream poems as "poems of profound imagination, delicate and sensual, fearless and magical," much like those of John Keats and Wallace Stevens. Ostriker quotes Valentine's fellow poet and close friend Adrienne Rich as saying that delving into a Valentine poem:
is like looking into a lake: you can see your own outline, and the shapes of the upper world, reflected among rocks, underwater life, glint of lost bottles, drifted leaves. The known and familiar become one with the mysterious and half-wild, at the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet…. It lets us into spaces and meanings we couldn't approach in any other way.
This description from Rich is especially helpful when reading "Seeing You," since this poem actually uses the imagery not only of looking into a lake but also of diving into one's mental lake of fear and love and finding brilliance at the bottom. To use Rich's description, the known and familiar emotions of fear and love become one with the mysterious brilliance at the bottom. The conscious and subliminal, or what is below consciousness, meet in the person of the lover. This meeting of two parts of the mind defies "rationality in ways that help us break through to another dimension of the real," concludes Ostriker.
The critic Carol Muske, writing in the Nation, feels that readers should recognize this new dimension from their own dreams as one in which "there are no unessential details—everything is given equal moral and aesthetic weight." Cramer adds that Valentine's "compact lyrics inhabit the thought of the unconscious … hard-edged in detail but elusive in total effect … as if the poet were simply taking notes." Ostriker agrees when she notes that Valentine writes with "an impulse toward the ardently and intensely chaste," in an austere and cryptic style in which "poems strike like the arrows of a Zen archer." H. Susskind, writing for Choice ,...
(The entire section is 8,743 words.)