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Josephine Jacobsen

By William Jay Smith

Josephine Jacobsen did not begin school until she was fourteen and she never attended college. She came to poetry therefore free of the constraints that the academy so proudly and often disastrously provides. Like Theodore Roethke, a poet she admired, she acknowledged as her masters Auden and Yeats; she believed as Roethke did that true poetry must spring from fierce energy. In Gentle Reader the poet she describes might well be herself:

Late in the night when I should be asleep
under the city stars in a small room
I read a poet. A poet; not
a versifier. Not a hot-shot
ethic-monger, laying about
him; not a diary of lying
about in cruel cruel beds, crying.
A poet, dangerous and steep.

She told us that when young she wanted to be both an actress and a poet. From the theater she retained a dramatic sense that informed her poems as well as her stories. Both poems and stories are filled with people, young and old, pompous and pious, energetic and dying, and she observes them all in dramatic situations from the cradle to the grave. The poet sees the two sisters of her poem The Sisters as two aspects of her own psyche, projections of the ordinary woman she seemed to be and the muse who inspired the extraordinary poems she produced. “The muse of poetry is a very fierce muse indeed,” Jacobsen said. “I think of Stevens’ image of the poem: ‘The lion sleeps in the sun. Its nose is on its paws. It can kill a man…’ Poetry is energy, and it is poetic energy which is the source of that instant of knowing that the poet tries to name…It is the kind of energy which burns away the debris. The muse is not fond of decoration.”

There is little decoration in Josephine Jacobsen’s work: her spare diction combines the passionate commitment of Louise Bogan with the precision and compactness of Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. And she exhibits fully two qualities, reticence and reverence, that were the very fabric of Moore’s poetry. She is a religious poet, a moralist whose points are made with subtle, swift rapier thrusts and not with dull hammer blows. I followed her work for many years and I must say that her early poems, carefully written though they were, gave little indication of the power that she would achieve in the final two decades of her life.

Although she received considerable recognition, being one of the few women named Poet Laureate, she was for years overlooked by almost every major anthology simply because she had not followed the current trends but had gone her own way. “It is not hard for the poet to run counter to uninformed pressure,” she said. “It is sometimes very hard indeed to hold a course which may temporarily steer him counter to the informed pressure of his peers’ direction, though from time to time he may find himself under the necessity to do just that. His own demon has got to say, ‘Yes’; after all the humility, and openness, and gratitude, it is his demon which must speak. If he has connected with the source of energy, his poetry will be alive, and intimately related to the most distant truth; if not, it is born dead, though it be as factually relevant as today’s headlines.”

Josephine Jacobsen’s poetry is intimately related to distant truth; she is an old-fashioned poet whose old-fashioned virtues and a belief that poetry must have structure and music and must communicate are again becoming fashionable. Like Emily Dickinson, she seeks to tell the whole truth but “to tell it slant.” And it is her cool, observant eye, her clear angle of vision, that make her poems unique. And what a marvelous ear she possessed: Listen to the vowel sounds in “The Shade Seller”; the cool “silver key” that in it unlocks the hot metal box. Josephine Jacobsen’s quietly articulated observations have the dark resonance of great art.

for A. R. Ammons

he asked us from his little booth. And shade
we bought to leave our car in.

By noon
the sand was a mealy fire; we crossed by planks
to the Revolcadero sea.

One day
we were later and hotter; and he peered out
and “No hay sombra!” he told us.

That day
when we came back to our metal box, frightened
we breathed for a terrible instant

the air
fiery and loud of the hooked fish:
Quick! Quick! Our silver key!

now I dream of the shade-seller; from his dark
he leans, and “sombra…”I tell him.

There is
candescent sand and a great noise of heat
and it is I who speak that word

and wide and green. O may he never
answer my one with three.

Josephine Jacobsen has found that shade, “heavy and wide and green,” and with her fierce energy and imagination she has in her poems given it to us all.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 13, 2003.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters