JACOBSEN, JOSEPHINE (1909-2003) Josephine Jacobsen's quiet, formal poetry deals with the problems and anxieties of humanity, but beneath that is a profound sense of optimism, based on her deeply held Roman Catholic beliefs, which include a fervent certainty in an afterlife. In her subjects and language, her poems claim what she described as "high ground." She wrote, as she remarked, "in a formal idiom and elevated tone" (338). Influenced by Robert frost and T. S. eliot, many of her nature poems have a steady focus and observation comparable with Elizabeth bishop; they could also be reflexive and reflectively literate, as typical of Marie ponsot.

Jacobsen was born in Coburg, ontario, Canada, and was raised in Baltimore. Her first poem was published when she was 10, but she did not achieve widespread recognition until her sixties. Her first book, Let Each Man Remember, was published in 1940. She was appointed in 1971 consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994. She received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1994 and in 1997 its highest award, the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in poetry.

Jacobsen's poetry has a muscular beauty and a deeply appealing seriousness. Her use of vernacular speech is exceptional, and her dramatic sense is keen. Her poems revere the world with its birds, bees, flowers, marriage, family bonds—often heightened by a wise sense of reckoning with death as a supreme fact.

Marilyn hacker has observed that Jacobsen is "a compassionate and unsparing participant in the human predicament she observes. Her poems are extraordinary instances which reverberate with imagination while eliciting new awareness in the conscience" (213).

In "Pondicherry Blues" (1979), Jacobsen re-creates the death of an old woman, in a slightly formal and chillingly effective way, using a form that moves between the tone of Philip Larkin and W H. auden and a spoken blues: "She troubled herself about her soul, / yes, she was concerned about her soul," but the priest she calls for, whom she has earlier exasperated with tiresome academic questions of the nature of sin, has no time for Mrs. Pondicherry. Instead he chooses to spend his time tending to the lonely and the poor of his parish. The poem concludes with the priest not making her last rites, and "she stopped her breath in a lonesome slum of death / that dark trashy street of death." Jacobsen's work demonstrates that enduring poetry is not spun of mere craft but a kind of auditory earnestness, a preference for depth and precision over sheer charm and beauty.


Jacobsen, Josephine. "Lion under Maples." In The Instant of Knowing, edited by Elizabeth Spires. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 336-339. Hacker, Marilyn. "Editor's Shelf." Ploughshares 21.68 (winter 1995-96): 213.

Gerald Schwartz

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