Josephine Jacobsen Jacobsen, Josephine (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Josephine Jacobsen 1908–

(Born Josephine Winder Boylan) Canadian-born American poet, short story writer, and critic.

The following entry provides an overview of Jacobsen's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.

Josephine Jacobsen's poetry is noted for its spare, elegant language and broad range of form and subject matter. She explores such concerns as communication, pain, identity, isolation, and the relationship between the physical and the spiritual in verse often imbued with animal and nature imagery. Although Jacobsen often examines dark and mysterious elements of life, she is regarded as a poet of affirmation who articulates her themes with intelligence and conviction. Critics note that her poetry derives its power from her skillful use of metaphor, irony, and understatement blended with wit and compassion. Jacobsen is also highly regarded for her short fiction, particularly such stories as "A Walk with Raschid," "The Mango Community," and "Nel Bagno."

Biographical Information

Jacobsen was born in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. Her father died when she was five, and after his death she lived with her mother and brother, both of whom were emotionally unstable. Jacobsen has described her mother as "passionate and intense, either elated or depressed." Her brother was a talented writer and artist but eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Initially educated by private tutors, Jacobsen later attended Roland Park Country School, graduating in 1926. Although she did not attend college because at the time women were not expected to get a higher education, Jacobsen has stated that "I have wished passionately that I had been to college or that I had had the opportunity to decide if I wanted to go." She married Eric Jacobsen in 1932 and had one son. Jacobsen gained some critical attention with the publication of her first poetry collection, Let Each Man Remember (1940), but she remained outside the literary world until 1971, when she was named consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. She remained in this position until 1973, when she became honorary consultant in American letters, an appointment she held until 1979. Jacobsen has also served as a member of the literature panel for the National Endowment for the Arts from 1970 to 1983 and has belonged to such organizations as the Poetry Society of America and PEN. In addition to winning many literary awards, including an Acad-emy of American Poets fellowship, the Lenore Marshall Poetry prize, and numerous O'Henry prizes for her short stories, Jacobsen was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994.

Major Works

Jacobsen's first poetry collection, Let Each Man Remember, features fifteen love sonnets, collected under the title "Winter Castle," and a section of metaphysical lyric poems. The Human Climate (1953) contains intensely personal verse in which Jacobsen conveys through direct, personal, and incisive language her views on the injustices and hypocrisies of the world. Jacobsen's next poetry collection, The Animal Inside (1966), includes seventy poems dating back to 1953 and displays her range of subject and form. This work contains poems about animals, including a sestina on hummingbirds, as well as meditative pieces probing love and death. In The Shade-Seller (1974), Jacobsen further reveals her interest in primitive natural forces and explores such themes as history, travel, and religion. The Chinese Insomniacs (1981) examines the role of language in building and maintaining human relationships and community. In many of these poems, Jacobsen employs a detached tone and minimalist structure to emphasize her themes. The Sisters (1987) spans fifty years and comprises representative poems from her previous verse collections as well as new works. In the Crevice of Time (1995), which includes poems dating from the 1930s to 1994, won the Shelley Memorial Award, the William Carlos Williams award, and was a National Book Award finalist. Jacobsen's short fiction is collected in A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories (1978), Adios, Mr. Moxley (1986), On the Island (1989), and What Goes without Saying (1996). Set in such diverse locales as Baltimore, the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and Morocco, Jacobsen's short stories often end unresolved, leaving the reader to speculate about the future of her characters. In "The Mango Community," for example, an unmarried American couple are caught up in revolutionary politics on the island of Ste. Cecile. "Nel Bagno" is the story of writer Jane Glessner, who, minutes before she is to depart for Italy, finds herself stuck in her bathroom with nothing more than an Italian phrase book. In addition to writing poetry and fiction, Jacobsen has also collaborated with William R. Mueller on two critical studies, The Testament of Samuel Beckett (1964) and Ionesco and Genet (1968).

Critical Reception

Although Jacobsen's work is not widely read or anthologized, critical reaction to her writings has been positive and enthusiastic. Reviewers have consistently praised her poetry for being disciplined, intelligent, unpretentious, and personal and have compared her verse to that of such noted poets as Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, and W. H. Auden. Her short stories have also been positively received, with critics lauding her skillful characterization, evocative prose, and use of simple plots to address such complex themes as loss, age and youth, and the conflict between the sexes. Although Jacobsen treats universal themes, critics note that her work is unique and individualistic and is therefore not easily categorized. Jacobsen herself has noted: "I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery." While praising Jacobsen's commitment and dedication to her craft, critics have suggested that her idiosyncratic approach to writing has contributed to her lack of prominence. In recent years, however, Jacobsen's works have attracted more attention, and critics speculate she will gain the reputation she deserves. Marilyn Hacker, for example, has stated that "the work of Josephine Jacobsen is one of the best-kept secrets of contemporary American literature," and Joe Osterhaus, in a review of In the Crevice of Time, has declared that "Jacobsen aspires to the rarest of statures—the poet whose originality and power force us to rethink the accepted categories of poetic excellence."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Let Each Man Remember (poetry) 1940
For the Unlost (poetry) 1946
The Human Climate: New Poems (poetry) 1953
The Testament of Samuel Beckett [with William R. Mueller] (criticism) 1964
The Animal Inside (poetry) 1966
Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence [with Mueller] (criticism) 1968
From Anne to Marianne: Some American Women Poets [editor] (poetry) 1972
The Instant of Knowing (lecture) 1974
The Shade-Seller: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1974
One Poet's Poetry (lecture) 1975
A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
The Chinese Insomniacs: New Poems (poetry) 1981
Adios, Mr. Moxley: Thirteen Stories (short stories) 1986
The Sisters: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1987
On the Island: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1989
Distances (poetry) 1991
Collected Poems: New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1995
In the Crevice of Time (poetry) 1995
What Goes without Saying: Collected Short Stories (short stories) 1996

Robert B. Shaw (review date 4 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Sisters: New and Selected Poems, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. LLII, No. 1, April 4, 1988, pp. 40-41.

[In the following positive review, Shaw critic states that "what is striking and admirable in Jacobsen's work is the consistency with which she unites firmness of technique with intelligence and feeling."]

How many poets do we have who can make a moral point without pomposity? The answer is: Not many. Josephine Jacobsen is one of the few. An especially fine instance of this ability of hers comes in "An Absence of Slaves," when she describes her Greek tour guide boasting that the Parthenon was built with free labor, The poem ends:

… she said: "The city
sent a slave
to each man's yoke,
oil press and furrow,
to free for toil the free Greek:

the free raised these!" she cried
to the blue sky and honey-
veined columns. "This is
no pyramid." And I saw
the loins and wrists
and bones and tendons of those disprized
who in absence reared the great frieze.

Together with the ethical clarity of this, the beauty of description and the precision of diction are also typical of this poet. (How perfect the word "disprized" is here.) What is...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Michael Heller (review date 12 June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Owls, Monkeys and Spiders in Space," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 93, June 12, 1988, p. 15.

[In the following excerpt, Heller praises Jacobsen's use of language in The Sisters: New and Selected Poems.]

Josephine Jacobsen's poetry has always been a matter of the cool ear over the fanciful eye. The Sisters, which gathers poems from nearly 50 years, demonstrates not only scrupulous verbal craft but a kind of auditory seriousness, a preference for depth and precision over mere charm or beauty. In "Winter Castle" (1940), she conjures up a picture of "the owl that … shall serve as nightingale." In a later poem, she writes of "the shade-seller," a...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Steven G. Kellman (review date 27 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Human Archipelago," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 94, August 27, 1989, p. 20.

[The following is a positive review of On the Island: New and Selected Stories.]

"The distinction between poetry and prose writers," wrote Shelley (in prose), "is a vulgar error." The vulgar fact is that 81-year-old Josephine Jacobsen, the former Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, is known primarily as a writer of poems. One of them, "Instances of Communication," begins with the ambiguous declaration: "Almost nothing concerns me but communication." And, at first glance, the 20 exquisite stories she has collected in On the Island seem to concern...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Erin McGraw (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Landscape of Story," in Georgia Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 170-76.

[In the following excerpt, McGraw positively reviews On the Island, praising Jacobsen's treatment of the themes of loss and isolation and her unsentimental characterization.]

The stories in Josephine Jacobsen's On the Island don't fall immediately into overarching categories. The collection is new and selected work published over the past twelve years, and the stories cast a wide net encompassing age and youth, the battles between men and women, and the battles we carry on to know ourselves. But Jacobsen relies on place to a striking degree for activating her...

(The entire section is 848 words.)

Dulcy Brainard (review date 24 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In the Crevice of Time, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 17, April 24, 1995. p. 66.

[Below, Brainard provides a positive review of In the Crevice of Time.]

One turns to Jacobsen's poems [in In the Crevice of Time] not for flashy, egotistical juggling, but as to an old friend, for her dependable, philosophical voice, rich in technique and free from cliché. She imagines eliminating the "monosyllable love" from our language in the hope that someone "will enunciate a syllable / of force" to replace it. "What small / metaphors we set / ourselves," she laments elsewhere, and in poem after poem proves this need not be the case. Her...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Mason, David. Review of In the Crevice of Time, by Josephine Jacobsen. Hudson Review 49 (Spring 1996): 168-69.

Positive review in which Mason stales that "In the Crevice of Time is worth buying and going back to."

Osterhaus, Joe. Review of In the Crevice of Time, by Josephine Jacobsen. Boston Review (1997).

Laudatory review of In the Crevice of Time. Osterhaus also discusses Jacobsen's development as a poet.

Review of What Goes Without Saying, by Josephine Jacobsen. Publishers Weekly 243, No. 47 (November 18, 1996): 64.

Brief positive review in which the critic calls the short stories in the volume "small, highly polished gems."