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.
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.”
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.”