Josephine Jacobsen Jacobsen, Josephine (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Josephine Jacobsen 1908-2003

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

Jacobsen did not publish her first volume of poetry, Let Each Man Remember (1940), until age thirty-two, and her work was not recognized until she was appointed, at age sixty-three, to two consecutive terms as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (now Poet Laureate) in 1971 and 1972. Jacobsen is known for her spare, elegant verse which centers on the relationship between the physical and the spiritual and the mysteries of being human. Her consistent and empathetic style and her exploration of such themes as pain, identity, faith, isolation, and the nature of time and loss continues to earn her admiration from critics and readers alike.

Biographical Information

Jacobsen was born in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. Following the death of her father when she was five years old, Jacobsen lived with her emotionally unstable mother and brother. Jacobsen's brother, a talented writer and artist, suffered a nervous breakdown and her mother was prone to states of manic depression. Jacobsen found solace in the poetry of Robert Service and Rudyard Kipling, writers she continually cited as inspiration for her first attempts at crafting verse. Jacobsen was educated by private tutors at home before attending the Roland Park Country School. She graduated from high school in 1926, but did not attend college. This limitation on her education was a source of deep regret for the poet. Jacobsen married Eric Jacobsen in 1932 and had one son. She published her first poetry collection, Let Each Man Remember, in 1940. While continuing to produce poetry, Jacobsen collaborated with Dr. William R. Mueller on two critical studies, The Testament of Samuel Beckett (1964) and Ionesco and Genet (1968). Official recognition by the literary world did not occur until 1971, when Jacobsen was named the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, a position she held until 1973. She subsequently became honorary consultant in American letters from 1973 to 1979. During this time, Jacobsen published her first collection of short stories, A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories (1978), which was selected as one of the Fifty Distinguished Books of the Year by Library Journal. In 1974, she received the Prairie Schooner award for fiction, and published her fifth volume of poetry, The Shade-Seller, which was nominated for a National Book Award. Jacobsen served as a member of the literature panel for the National Endowment of the Arts from 1970 to 1983. The publication of her lectures titled The Instant of Knowing (1974) and One Poet's Poetry (1975) led to her appointment as the lecturer for the American Writers Program annual meeting in 1984. Jacobsen received many awards, including the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for Service to Literature in 1982 and 1984. She also received the Shelley Memorial Award for lifetime service to literature and the Lenore Marshall Poetry prize. Jacobsen was nominated for the PEN-Faulkner Fiction award, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994. One of her highest accolades came in 1997, in which she received the Poetry Society of America's Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. In 2003, Jacobsen died of kidney failure in Cockeysville, Maryland.

Major Poetic Works

Jacobsen's first collection of poems, Let Each Man Remember, contains a section of traditional love sonnets entitled “Winter Castle.” These sonnets highlight Jacobsen's penchant for formalism, which is evident throughout her oeuvre. This collection also features a section of metaphysical poems, which is equally representative of Jacobsen's body of work in its contemplation of transcendental themes of faith. Her next volume of poetry, The Human Climate (1953), is more personal in language and tone, addressing subjects of hypocrisy and injustice in the world at large. Although The Animal Inside was published in 1966, some of the seventy poems collected in the volume date back to 1953. As indicated by the title, many of these poems center on animals, yet range in form and subject matter from a sestina on hummingbirds to meditations on love and death. The Shade-Seller, a collection made up of poems from four previous volumes as well as new work, continues to probe Jacobsen's interest in the primitive forces of the natural world while also incorporating recurring themes of travel, history, and religion. Jacobsen employed a detached tone and minimalist structure in The Chinese Insomniacs (1981), in which she examines the role of language in building and maintaining human relationships and community. The Sisters (1987) contains poems of the natural world which explore the mysteries of the human condition. Jacobsen's ninth and final collection of poetry, In the Crevice of Time (1995), assembles sixty years of literary output. Critics consider the poems in this volume to be characteristic of Jacobsen's best work, highlighting the humanity and precision with which she crafted her verse. Among the most highly regarded is “Instances of Communication,” a poem that contemplates Jacobsen's primary themes of communication and faith. The first three stanzas are made up of specific scenarios in which the narrator/poet finds herself surrounded by disturbing scenes of failed human communication, while the last two stanzas shift to the mystical language of divine communion. Critic Elizabeth Spires notes that in this poem “the world of imaginative experience and the world of religious experience brilliantly intersect and momentarily become one.”

Critical Reception

Jacobsen's work is well known to her peers, but has not been widely read or anthologized. Despite this, critical reaction to Jacobsen's poetry has been positive and enthusiastic. Reviewers often cite the disciplined and unpretentious nature of her poetry, whether in its earlier, more formal stages, or her later and more personal verse. Though she has been compared to other female poets including Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Marianne Moore, as well as contemporaries such as Theodore Roethke, Archie Ammons, and W. H. Auden, Jacobsen is credited with creating her own, independent sensibility outside of academia. In fact, critics often point to Jacobsen's idiosyncratic and individualistic approach to writing as an underlying reason for her relative obscurity. Jacobsen's critical reputation grew in her later years, and continues to do so. As stated by critic Robert Shaw, Jacobsen's body of work “will continue to be taken from the shelves to be read when many another weightier one is taken down only to be dusted.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Let Each Man Remember 1940

For the Unlost 1946

The Human Climate: New Poems 1953

The Animal Inside 1966

The Shade-Seller: New and Selected Poems 1974

The Chinese Insomniacs: New Poems 1981

The Sisters: New and Selected Poems 1987

Distances 1991

In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems 1995

The Testament of Samuel Beckett [with William R. Mueller] (criticism) 1964

Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence [with William R. Mueller] (criticism) 1968

From Anne to Marianne: Some Women in American Poetry (lecture) 1972; published as Two Lectures: Leftovers: A Care Package by William Stafford. From Anne to Marianne: Some Women in American Poetry by Josephine Jacobsen (lecture) 1973

The Instant of Knowing (lecture) 1974; published as The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism, and Occasional Prose (prose) 1997

One Poet's Poetry (lecture) 1975

A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories (short stories) 1978

Adios, Mr. Moxley: Thirteen Stories (short stories) 1986

On the Island: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1989

What Goes without Saying: Collected Stories of Josephine Jacobsen (short stories) 1996

James Martin (essay date May 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin, James. “Questions of Style.” Poetry 126, no. 2 (May 1975): 103-15.

[In the following excerpt, Martin provides a favorable evaluation of The Shade-Seller, praising Jacobsen's natural and affirmative style.]

In any century or era, there are ideas and images which become temporarily conventional, but beyond these, or possibly within them, there are more basic ideas, bound by neither time nor nationality, which should be written about. These basic ideas constitute our myths, our shared experience, and will always pre-occupy the human mind, without the popularity of fad and fashion. Through time, they have proved either too strange or too...

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Josephine Jacobsen (essay date October 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobsen, Josephine. “Three Poems of Salvation.” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 32, no. 4 (October 1975): 284-87.

[In the following excerpt, Jacobsen examines her poems “The Shade-Seller,” “The Lovers,” and “In the Crevice of Time.”]

Talking about one of my poems makes me healthily nervous—it is such dangerous work. Dangerous to the poem, which may be destroyed by imputing to it more than it can justify, or by denigrating its irreducible core of mystery; dangerous to the poet, who can become pontifical in retrospect where she was honest in practice. Brevity can do much to curtail both dangers.

I chose these...

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Josephine Jacobsen, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, and R. G. Collins (interview date 12 October 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobsen, Josephine, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, and R. G. Collins. “Interview with Josephine Jacobsen.” THALIA: Studies in Literary Humor 2, nos. 1 & 2 (spring/fall 1979): 5-15.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on October 12, 1979, Jacobsen and Tavernier-Courbin, with the assistance of R. G. Collins, discuss literary influences and tastes, differences and similarities of verse and prose, and the role of humor in poetry.]

[Tavernier-Courbin]: You have, over a period of time, produced several volumes of poetry, a couple of books on modern French dramatists, and your latest book is, I believe, the collection of short...

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Robert Hudzik (review date 1 October 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hudzik, Robert. Review of The Chinese Insomniacs, by Josephine Jacobsen. Library Journal 106, no. 17 (1 October 1981): 1930.

[In the following review, Hudzik lauds Jacobsen's The Chinese Insomniacs, deeming the volume “richly musical.”]

Jacobsen's first collection since The Shade-Seller (LJ [Library Journal] 4/15/74), a National Book Award nominee [The Chinese Insomniacs], is a richly musical volume composed of both rhymed and free verse. The quiet tone at the center of these poems derives from a spare, meditative style. In the title poem, a private “sorrow, or not” distracts two Chinese poets, living 900 years...

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Josephine Jacobsen (essay date October 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobsen, Josephine. “Poetry's Slant Vision.” Writer 95, no. 10 (October 1982): 12-15.

[In the following essay, Jacobsen outlines her personal views on the art of writing poetry and delineates the challenges and rewards of well-crafted verse.]

Poetry is the most honored and least read form of literature. Many intelligent and highly literate readers haven't read a poem since leaving college. The most common complaint is, “I'm just not up to poetry. I honestly don't feel that I understand it.” Usually added: “I wish I did.”

The same person will attribute this impenetrability to the difficulties of modern poetry, saying or implying...

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Josephine Jacobsen and Nancy Sullivan (interview dates 15 October 1984 and 18 September 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobsen, Josephine, and Nancy Sullivan. “Two Interviews with Josephine Jacobsen.” 13th Moon 10, nos. 1-2 (1992): 158-78.

[In the following interview, the first part conducted in 1984 and the second in 1991, Jacobsen and Sullivan address the author's position as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, her techniques for writing poetry, and the increased productivity of her later years.]

I first met Josephine Jacobsen at the MacDowell Colony. Her energy, her devotion to important literary causes, her productivity, and the impeccable quality of her poetry and fiction are remarkable. She is a generous, complicated and vital woman: a rare personality for...

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Nancy Sullivan (essay date April 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Nancy. “Power as Virtue: The Achievement of Josephine Jacobsen.” Hollins Critic 22, no. 2 (April 1985): 1-10.

[In the following excerpt, Sullivan evaluates the technique, themes, and vision of Jacobsen's poetry, citing her work as demonstrating a “persistent and humane power.”]

The energy and quality of Josephine Jacobsen's work in poetry, fiction, and criticism, as well as her public service on behalf of poetry, are remarkable. She has dedicated years of her long life and enduring talent both to her own writing and to the cause of literature. Josephine Jacobsen has always demanded a high standard of excellence of herself and has rejoiced in...

(The entire section is 2530 words.)

Josephine Jacobsen and Betty Parry (interview date May 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobsen, Josephine, and Betty Parry. “Josephine Jacobsen.” Plum Review 9 (May 1995): 59-72.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1986 and published in Belles Lettres, Parry inquires about Jacobsen's literary influences, beginnings as an author, and methods of writing.]


[Parry]: You once told a fascinating story about Japanese artists who, after they became famous, changed their names and started fresh. Where is this from?

[Jacobsen]: A book by Matisse called Jazz. He writes that an artist should never be a prisoner of style, of reputation, or of success. He...

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Rosemary Deen (essay date 22 May 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Deen, Rosemary. “Eyes That Do Not Sleep at Dawn.” Commonweal 114, no. 10 (22 May 1987): 322-23.

[In the following essay, Deen presents Jacobsen's poetic themes and images through an analysis of ten representative poems.]

Any moment now Josephine Jacobsen's seventh volume of poems will be out: The Sisters: New and Selected Poems, (South Carolina: The Bench Press, 1987). Her first book, Let Each Man Remember, appeared in 1940, so this makes her forty-seventh year as a public poet. She has just returned from a gathering of the Poetry Consultants to the Library of Congress, a position she held from 1971 to 1973. She has done her stint of work for...

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Lawrence Rungren (review date 1 June 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rungren, Lawrence. Review of The Sisters, by Josephine Jacobsen. Library Journal 112, no. 10 (1 June 1987): 116.

[In the following review, Rungren declares Jacobsen's The Sisters to be a work of “careful craft.”]

Jacobsen's strengths have remained constant through 40 years of work in a variety of forms. Hers is a poetry of careful craft, of a quiet delight in the natural world and a painterly appreciation of light and color. She often employs relationships of distance and circumstance to probe the mystery at the heart of the human condition, whether it be in the finely calibrated closeness of the sisters of the title poem or in the greater...

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Josephine Jacobsen and Evelyn Prettyman (interview date summer 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobsen, Josephine, and Evelyn Prettyman. “The Mystery of Faith: An Interview with Josephine Jacobsen.” New Letters 53, no. 4 (summer 1987): 41-56.

[In the following interview, Prettyman discusses specific motifs in Jacobsen's poetry, as well as the author's early career and childhood.]

Josephine Jacobsen's work has for the past 40 years been among the most distinguished published in America. She's the author of seven books of poetry, two critical studies and two collections of short fiction. Her stories, exemplified by “Mr. Meadows' Cup,” have been included in Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Stories, Fifty Years of the...

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Robert B. Shaw (review date April 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Shaw, Robert B. Review of The Sisters, by Josephine Jacobsen. Poetry 152, no. 1 (April 1988): 40-1.

[In the following review, Shaw commends Jacobsen's poetry for “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 [in The Sisters] 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...

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Rosemary Deen (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Deen, Rosemary. “Josephine Jacobsen, Archeologist of Metaphor.” 13th Moon 10, nos. 1-2 (1992): 151-57.

[In the following essay, Deen highlights Jacobsen's use of insomnia as a metaphor for consciousness, death, and darkness.]

Josephine Jacobsen is a serious, witty poet in a classic/contemporary line of lyric truth. Born a year after Auden, her first collection of poems came out in 1940. In 1987, marking her 47th year as a public poet, she brought out her seventh book of poems, The Sisters. She has two collections of short stories and two volumes of drama study. She's been vice-president of the Poetry Society of America, Library of Congress Poetry...

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Elizabeth Spires (essay date November 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Spires, Elizabeth. “Joy & Terror: The Poems of Josephine Jacobsen.” New Criterion 14, no. 3 (November 1995): 28-33.

[In the following essay, Spires summarizes Jacobsen's poetic career, characterizing In the Crevice of Time as honest and direct.]

Art is long and life is short. Or is it the other way around? On the evidence of In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems, a 258-page volume that spans sixty years of poetic productivity, both art and life have been long and rewarding for Josephine Jacobsen.

The collected poems of a greatly gifted poet may not offer the suspense of a well-plotted novel, but there is still a...

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David Mason (essay date spring 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mason, David. “Poetry Chronicle.” The Hudson Review 49, no. 1 (spring 1996): 166-75.

[In the following excerpt, Mason admires the “precision” and “formal affirmations” of Jacobsen's poetry, but criticizes its sometimes awkward and opaque language.]

Josephine Jacobsen, on the other hand, has been trying hard all her long life; her new collection [In the Crevice of Time] charts both her restlessness and her achievement. While Charles Wright's work takes on a formal and intellectual uniformity that becomes fruitlessly repetitive, Ms. Jacobsen has never fallen into such a rut. Born in Canada in 1908, but long a citizen of this country, she has...

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F. D. Reeve (essay date April 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Reeve, F. D. “Of Shoemakers and Snails.” Poetry 170, no. 1 (April 1997): 37-51.

[In the following excerpt, Reeve illustrates the ways in which Jacobsen's poetry has adapted to different social climates throughout her career.]

Sixty years is a long life in poetry. Not many manage thirty—Berryman, Jarrell. Others, no matter how long they're on earth, have even fewer—Thomas, Blackmur, Dugan. Josephine Jacobsen's [In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems] gathers her work into more than 250 pages in five sheaves of 15, 15, 5, 5, and 20 years from the mid-Thirties to the mid-Nineties. In those first, desperate years,

If you...

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Josephine Jacobsen and A. V. Christie (interview date summer 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobsen, Josephine, and A. V. Christie. “A Conversation with Josephine Jacobsen.” Image 23 (summer 1999): 45-61.

[In the following interview, Christie appraises Jacobsen's stance on the craft of poetry, her public recognition, and literary accolades.]

Josephine Jacobsen's books include nine volumes of poetry, two of criticism, and four collections of short stories. Her honors include the Lenore Marshall Award, a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, and the Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. On the Island: Short Stories was nominated for the PEN-Faulkner award; others of her stories have been included eight times in...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Brainard, Dulcy. Review of In the Crevice of Time, by Josephine Jacobsen. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 17 (24 April 1995): 66.

Laudatory review of In the Crevice of Time.

“Josephine Jacobsen.” Glasgow Herald (12 July 2003): 14.

Comments on the career and death of Jacobsen.

Hacker, Marilyn. Review of The Sisters, by Josephine Jacobsen. Nation 245, no. 18 (28 November 1987): 644.

Praises The Sisters and the short story collection Adios, Mr. Moxley.

Heller, Michael. “Owls, Monkeys and Spiders in Space.” New...

(The entire section is 294 words.)