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Lesley Cissell: Late, great Jane Gentry Vance was, to me, so much more than just a poet

Jane always looked down those readers at you when making a point.  (Photo from Ky. Arts Council)

Jane always looked down those readers at you when making a point. (Photo from Ky. Arts Council)

I knew her before she was famous … before she was dean … before she was English chair … before she was Kentucky Poet Laureate. I knew Jane Gentry Vance when she taught my University of Kentucky Honors Program class in a hot attic room at the top of the old M.I. King Library and she encouraged us to use a mirror to write poetry.
This late and great teacher passed away last week in her Woodford County home from cancer.
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Praise from Jane was one of my loftiest goals as an undergraduate, then English graduate student and then adult writer, but it came really only twice as I recall.
The first was for the poem about looking up my nostrils I wrote in that library attic and the second was for an Honors Program thesis I wrote while visiting the Middle East for the first time. Both times her praise was about strength – “strong imagery, strong language, strong writing,” she wrote.
That word “strong” came to epitomize Jane for me in all forms in which I knew her. She was a strong professor, comfortably grounded in her own achievements and in her ability to call that forth from her students.
She was a strong woman having, like me, undergone the trauma of divorce and then, much later, of the pain of loss of a loved one.
She was a strong friend, never failing to say what you needed, not wanted, to hear.
She was a strong Poet Laureate, representing her state and its poets faithfully and frankly.
Several years ago, I bought from Jane a limited edition poem and illustration about illumination in times of darkness and despair. She had it, along with her books of poetry, at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort.
Just this past week, not yet aware of her untimely passing last Thursday, I pulled it out of a box where it lay a bit crumpled with other things I’ve long intended to frame. I laid the approximately 18-inch by 4-inch parchment across my knees and gently smoothed it out. I thought of Jane and how she encouraged me nearly 40 years ago this autumn.
I loved you then, Jane, and I love you still, and I’m sure they must need poets and friends of poets in Heaven. Now that you’re on the other side of the mirror, tell them what they need to hear.

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  1. Charles Warren says:

    My experience with Dr. Vance: She sought to win everyone over by being smilingly unprepared, wholly ignorant of her course content, and forever shooting from the hip. I was one of her honors program students at U.K. in 1990, when she’d assigned us a disconnected list of reading materials: Kafka, Eliot, Faulkner, and a very strange book tilted, “The Tao of Physics,” by Fritoph Capra. When one of our group questioned her on the relevance of this, she became apologetic. She suggested that it was a something of a novelty, and she probably wouldn’t use it anymore.

    In effect, it became clearer to us all along that she didn’t have much of a background in matters concerning literature, art, and history, and we concluded that her class had been a waste of our time.

  2. Janet G Stokes says:

    Jane was my cousin. Could you tell me the name of the Illumination poem you mentioned?
    my email

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