Josephine Jacobsen Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Josephine Jacobsen was a writer who wanted to be instructed by everything that is in the world. She wanted to learn the lessons of time in order to see what, if anything, can survive time’s natural ally, death. She was an observer of nature, of culture, and perhaps most of all, of human behavior. Joyce Carol Oates wrote that Jacobsen’s work “attempts to calibrate, in exquisite, polished and unfailingly intelligent language, the wonders and horrors of the interior landscape.” Even the puzzlement of sleep, or lack of sleep, can induce a crisp response, a reason for writing. In her poetry, there is seldom the flash of the screaming image or the pouring forth of raw feeling. She was not a confessional poet, and yet she was smartly modern and curiously enduring, even if not widely known. She was protean; she was a traveler in her thirst for knowledge. Laurence Lieberman stated that she was “gifted with the power to get outside her own personality and assume the identity of the subject that absorbs her.” Her use of irony and sharp wit can lead to a certain detachment. Yet her goal was to invite the reader into the world, to see it clearly for the first time—as if for all time.

In In the Crevice of Time, she sifted through her own work, hewing to a rigorous standard by which she meant to preserve a record of what poems she thought should last. The poems are sorted around years and decades, not titles of former collections, as if part of one large book—a continuous dialogue with the reader.

“Lines to a Poet,” “Gentle Reader,” and “The Monosyllable”

Throughout her career, Jacobsen struck a cautionary tone concerning poets’ responsibility toward their craft, readers, and other poets. Poems such as “Lines to a Poet,” “Gentle Reader,” and “The Monosyllable” seem to explore and state Jacobsen’s ethics about the craft, purpose, and result of making a poem.

In “Lines to a Poet,” the opening line, “Be careful what you say to us now” has the beguiling reversal of the audience instructing the poet. The authority and puck are Frost-like in tone. Yet the world revealed is urban, not rural. Street lamps, jagged windows, and a fountain litter the landscape, not to mention a dead body.

A poem such as “Gentle Reader,” wherein the poet is both audience and writer, looks into night thoughts “Late in the night when I should be asleep/ under the city stars” and finds comfort and ecstasy in literature’s embrace. Jacobsen’s refined yet complex tastes led her to poets who are “dangerous and steep.” Her fellow companions seem to be Emily Dickinson—“O God, it peels me, juices me like a press”—and James Joyce:...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)