Born: February 9, 1941 – Lexington, Kentucky
Died: October 2, 2014 – Versailles, Kentucky
When professor, poet, and scholar Jane Gentry passed away, Jeff Clymer, chair of the Department of English at the University of Kentucky, said, “Jane wrote with insight and grace of family, of the intricacies of our emotions, and of the ironies of everyday life. Her moving and elliptical poetry gave us new ways to think about life’s complexities, often with a dash of ironic humor.”
Jane Gentry grew up on a farm near the Fayette County community of Athens, where her ancestors in the Gentry and Bush families had lived since the settlement of nearby Boonesborough in the 1770s. Her deep roots in Central Kentucky became a guiding force in her work.
“When I was a child it was usual to see a team of mules in a field plowing or pulling a mower or a rake,” she recalled to Gurney Norman, a friend and colleague. “Everybody had a milk cow. Everybody had chickens that they gathered eggs from. By the time I was 20 you didn’t see that anymore, but I feel really lucky to have a gotten a feel for what that was like in that time before that turning.”
Gentry earned degrees in English literature from Hollins College (B.A., Phi Beta Kappa), Brandeis University (M.A.), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Ph.D.). At Hollins, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., founder of the Hollins creative writing program, became her mentor. “He had the gift of being able to see clearly what a writer is trying to do and to tell her what she needs to do to make the work better,” she said.
Gentry also studied under novelist William Golding and poet Howard Nemerov while at Hollins.Nemerov was later the subject of Gentry’s doctoral thesis. Fellow graduates of Hollins’ creative writing program in that era included Sylvia Wilkinson, Lee Smith, and Annie Dillard.
Gentry joined the University of Kentucky in 1972 and became a respected professor. She served for more than 40 years as a faculty member in the English Department, where she conducted poetry-writing workshops and taught courses on the history of ideas in the university’s honors program. Gentry’s work as a poet was the heart of her career, beginning with the publication of her poem “Bird and Bear” in The Sewanee Review in 1964 when Gentry was 22, and culminating with the posthumously-published The New and Collected Poems of Jane Gentry, edited by Julia Johnson, a fellow UK professor and Hollins poet.
During her lifetime, Gentry published two full poetry collections and a chapbook. Her poems appeared widely in journals, including, in addition to Sewanee Review, Hollins Critic, Harvard Magazine, New Virginia Review, Southern Poetry Review, and The American Voice. As a literary critic, she published numerous reviews, interviews, and essays. Gentry’s work brings together a keen sense of place, an unflinching focus on grief and loss, and a mystical habit of mind.
Gentry received two Al Smith Fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council and held fellowships at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Lynchburg. She won the UK Alumni Association’s 1986 Great Teacher Award. Her other awards included Hollins University’s Distinguished Alumnae Award (2013) and induction into the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame (2013).
From 2007 to 2008, Gentry served as Kentucky’s Poet Laureate. In 2008, she organized and participated in a reading of Kentucky poetry at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and in 2009 performed an original at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washingtonpoem honoring the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
Gentry was a longtime resident of Versailles, where she served as a member of the vestry at St. John’s Episcopal Church. She had two daughters, from her marriage to P.T. Vance, which ended in divorce. Her companion of 10 years was the photojournalist William H. Strode III of Louisville, who died in 2006.
A Garden in Kentucky. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1995.
A Year in Kentucky. Lexington: Press 817, 2005.
The New and Collected Poems of Jane Gentry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017.