Josephine Jacobsen didn't just write any old poems; that is, she didn't write easily readable poems, perhaps because she was aware that poetry's audience, which could really stand to be more populated, just wasn't. She once reflected, "Many people who are fully able to enjoy the subtleties of a short story would nevertheless balk at reading poetry, and so there's a curious kind of freedom in writing poetry - you don't expect a wider audi­ence."  Her poems are dense, complex, rich, and rewarding. When you read a Jacobsen poem, you have to think. You have to make connections. You have to explicate. You have to live within the poem to understand its deep and often myriad meanings. Yet Jacobsen could explain simply what infused her poetry: "There is an action and tension in my poems. Something happens."  Something certainly happens in "The Terrible Naive," the ten­sion-and-action-embodying poem republished in this issue of WordHouse (see the back cover). "Naive" has always been one of my favorite Jacobsen poems, one I talked to her about many times. In 1996, in a Maryland Poetry Review article, I wrote: "In a brilliant poem that should become an anthem for this age, in which too many glory in their status as victim, Jacobsen presents a gem of a reminder to those who would be taken in by such emotional flamboyance." Save yourself, not them, is Jacobsen's wry and savvy conclusion.  Jacobsen never formally taught or studied poetry. This most eloquent and complex of poets said, "I don't think you can be taught to write poetry." As to her writing habits, Jacobsen wrote everything in longhand but couldn't revise a poem until it had been typed. Like many of us, she struggled with the piles of work that always seemed to be facing her and which often kept her from her writing. Referring to just such organization and disorga­nization, she wrote me in August 1991 from Whitefield, New Hampshire, "I'm sure that if I were more efficient I could handle things better, & take refuge in my 83 birthday yesterday," and she went on to marvel "How a couple of poems & a short new story ever crashed through the cement like weeds, I'll never know." She never shied away from the truth and was very willing to talk about things other poets of her stature had difficulty acknowl­edging. For instance, she and I often talked about the importance for a writer of a "reputation," something she felt sorry not to have understood and tried to acquire earlier in her life. And, in November 1991, know­ing that I wanted to publish some work of hers in Maryland Poetry Review, she wrote me to discuss a piece she had, which she thought appropriate. "It is a story of the inevitable gulf that is clumsi­ly bridged between the process of poetry and the poetry Biz it inevitably enters later." She was equally exacting about facing personal truths; in the same letter, she wrote excitedly, "Something absolutely weird in my own experience has been happening recently-I have been getting requests for work that I haven't been able to fill. Part of this is a terrible production record, even for unprolific me, and part a small wave of interest which would have been pure joy when I was a sprig of 60, but is somehow a little scary at the moment." Another time, when she served on a panel judging an important poetry contest (she read every entry in every contest thoroughly, even when there were over a hundred submissions), she wrote of the com­promise necessary: "It is obvious that I am not going to have my first choice-but it has all been as courteous and formal as a first class duel-and if I don't get just what I'd like, I'll get what I can honestly live with."  Josephine Jacobsen was a woman to whom true affection for others was a daily practice. She'd often say to me, as I'm sure she did to countless others that she'd just have to sing me "a fight song" to get me to get my own work out into the larger arena.  Most importantly, she understood communication to be an unavoidable responsibility. She once noted of communication that it "is the single thing we're here to do." A 1987 Baltimore Sun profile contended that her poetry always contained "the conviction of an ultimate significance to life, of order and meaning to the universe that is reflected-or ought to be-in the individ­ual life."  By the baby boomers and their chil­dren's generation, Josephine Jacobsen should be seen as a model of remarkable, enduring stamina, a trait that writers often have a hard time embodying. At ten, she first published a poem. At twenty-seven, she was featured in an Evening Sun article which characterized her as "a lady who writes as a hobby and who hopes to make that hobby her work." In 1994 on the occasion of Jacobsen's induction as one of 250 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Tim Warren writing in The Sun reminded her of that article and elicited from her the response, "Why, I don't think even in 1935 that poetry was a hobby. Even then, it was terribly, terribly important to me." Later Warren quotes her saying, "It means a great deal to me that the academy, in its citation, said I've done my best work between the ages of 65 and 85."  I have paused often during the writing of this memoir to read her poems. Each time I do, I sigh; they are so beautiful and filling; her poems do not leave me hungry or wanting.  Now that Josephine has passed into what she once described as "the flawed dark," I hope that she, in addition to her beloved family and friends, has found lively conversation and a thermos of cold martinis in that celestial world, and here on earth I wish for this writer of gorgeous, life-altering poetry, this recipient of the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award for lifelong achieve­ment, a continuing, ever-increasing, appreciative readership.

 

 

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Reprinted from an article in Wordhouse, September 2003  Volume 9 Number 1.  Photo by Barbara Simon courtesy of Maryland State Poetry & Literature Society.