A Tribute to Jane Cooper
Jane Cooper, cherished writing faculty emerita and poet, died peacefully on October 26 from complications due to Parkinson’s Disease.
Cooper joined the Sarah Lawrence faculty in 1950, where she remained as a teacher and poet-in-residence until her retirement in 1987. Together with Grace Paley, Jean Valentine, Muriel Rukeyser, and others, she helped develop the College’s distinguished writing program. “She is the origin, she is the source, she is the wellspring of all poetry at Sarah Lawrence,” said poetry faculty member Thomas Lux.
Cooper received much recognition in her lifetime, including awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She wrote six acclaimed books of poetry and was named State Poet of New York for 1995-97.
But it was Cooper’s teaching that left a lasting mark on Sarah Lawrence. “Jane, with her sympathetic guidance and her utter devotion to other poets and to poetry itself, lent a kind of grace to those afternoons at Andrews,” said Marilyn Zuckerman ’71, a poet and former student of Cooper’s. “Jane’s poems are as necessary as bread, but it was her work at Sarah Lawrence that revealed the full measure of her genius.”
Here, Kate Knapp Johnson ’79, MFA ’81, director of the graduate program in poetry, remembers her first encounter with Cooper.
What I remember of that first meeting with Jane was that there was something very terrifyingly and wonderfully real about her presence, and I felt immediately that under her gaze, there was nothing or no one I could be but myself.
Unfortunately what I had with me was a brown spiral notebook with rat-like drawings all over it and a couple of poems, all of which had in them the same three things: horses, a woman in a nightgown, and lightning, which frequently was striking people.
So there was really very little Jane could do. But she was completely kind and gracious and never said anything to discourage me. She only said, “When you register for a writing course, don’t forget to put down an alternate.” By the fortuity of the Sarah Lawrence registration system, Jane was indeed spared, because her class was completely full, and I was given my third alternate choice.
It’s also the way I understand Jane, who taught us through times of exhaustion, through periods of illness, through various deprivations, but gave us nothing but her passion, her faith, and a love that passes any kind of ordinary understanding.
And it’s a good thing that I was older when I finally did get to work with Jane, because she was no slouch with the assignments. When it came time for the thesis, she would say, “Kate, I want you to go home, spread all the poems out on the floor, and put them in order.” I’d go back to her and she’d say, “Okay, that’s good. Why don’t you go do that again.” Over the entire year I think she made me do it about 24 times.
What I learned from Jane then is something I’m still learning. It’s very simple, and yet I’d never thought of it until I got here: To find the way in which something is true, and put that forward, and then to find the way in which the exact opposite of that is true, and put that forward, is a way of learning to embody paradox. It’s also the way I understand Jane, who taught us through times of exhaustion, through periods of illness, through various deprivations, but gave us nothing but her passion, her faith, and a love that passes any kind of ordinary understanding. To be touched by Jane is to be touched to the core.