Jacobsen, Josephine (Winder)

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JACOBSEN, Josephine (Winder)

Nationality: American. Born: Josephine Winder Boylan, in Coburg, Ontario, Canada, 19 August 1908. Education: Privately, and at Roland Park Country School, Baltimore, graduated 1926. Family: Married Eric Jacobsen in 1932; one son. Career: Poetry consultant, 1971–73, and honorary consultant in American letters, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1973–79. Vice president, Poetry Society of America, 1979. Member of the literary panel, National Endowment for the Arts, 1979–83. Awards: Borestone Mountain award, 1961, 1964, 1968, 1972; MacDowell Colony grant, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1981, 1983; Prairie Schooner award, for fiction, 1974, 1986; Yaddo grant, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1984; American Academy award, 1982, 1984; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1987. L.H.D.: College of Notre Dame, Baltimore, 1974; Goucher College, Baltimore, 1974; Towson State University, Baltimore, 1983. M.Div.: St. Mary's Seminary College, 1988. Honorary degree: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1993. Address: 13801 York Road, Cockeysville Hunt Valley, Maryland 21030–1825, U.S.A.



Let Each Man Remember. Dallas, Kaleidograph Press, 1940.

For the Unlost. Baltimore, Contemporary Poetry, 1946.

The Human Climate: New Poems. Baltimore, Contemporary Poetry, 1953.

The Animal Inside. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1966.

The Shade-Seller: New and Selected Poems. New York, Doubleday, 1974.

The Chinese Insomniacs. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Adios, Mr. Moxley. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Jackpine Press, 1986.

The Sisters: New and Selected Poems. Columbia, South Carolina, Bench Press, 1987.

Distances. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University & The Press of Appletree Alley, 1991.

Collected Poems. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Recording: Selected Poems, Watershed, 1977; The Poet and the Poem, Library of Congress, 1990.

Short Stories

A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Jackpine Press, 1978.

On the Island: New and Selected Stories. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1989.

What Goes without Saying: Collected Stories of Josephine Jacobsen. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.


The Testament of Samuel Beckett, with William Randolph Mueller. New York, Hill and Wang, 1964; London, Faber, 1966.

Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence, with William Randolph Mueller. New York, Hill and Wang, 1968.

From Anne to Marianne: Some American Women Poets (lecture). Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1973.

The Instant of Knowing (lecture). Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1974; as The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism, and Occasional Prose, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1997.

One Poet's Poetry (lecture). Decatur, Georgia, Agnes Scott College, 1975.


Manuscript Collection: Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.

Critical Studies: "Poetry and Preaching" by Hugh Kerr, in Theology Today (Princeton, New Jersey), October 1964; by Richard Ohmann, in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (Madison), Autumn 1965; "The Matter and Manner of Beckett" by David Helsa, in Christian Scholar (New York), Winter 1965; "Enduring Saturday" by Anthony Burgess, in Spectator (London), 29 April 1966; "The Human Condition," in Irish Press (Dublin), 11 June 1966; "The Essential Q," in Times Literary Supplement (London), 30 June 1966; by John Logan, in Epoch (Ithaca, New York), Autumn 1966; "Art in Transition" by Laurence Lieberman, in Poetry (Chicago), March 1967; by Rosemary Dee, in Commonwealth (New York), 20 December 1968; "The Mystery of Faith: An Interview with Josephine Jacobsen" by Evelyn Prettyman, in New Letters (Kansas City, Missouri), 1975; in Library Journal (New York), 16 October 1981; in Epoch 32 (Ithaca, New York), 1, 1982; Commonweal (New York), 24 September 1982; in Nation (New York), 16 October 1982; "The Melody of the Quotidian" by Sandra M. Gilbert, in Parnassus (New York), 11 (1), Spring/Summer 1983; "Power As Virtue: The Achievement of Josephine Jacobsen" by Nancy Sullivan, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), 22 (2), April 1985; Josephine Jacobsen: Commitment to Wonder (dissertation) by Evelyn Savage Prettyman, n.p. 1986; "The 'Terrible Naive' and Others: Anatomy of Evil in Josephine Jacobsen's Work" by Nancy R. Norris, in Maryland Poetry Review, 11, Spring/Summer 1992; "Josephine Jacobsen, Archeologist of Metaphor" by Rosemary Deen, in 13th Moon, 10 (1–2), 1992; "Joy & Terror: The Poems of Josephine Jacobsen" by Elizabeth Spires, in New Criterion (New York), 14 (3), November 1995; "Josephine Jacobsen: An American Classic" by Grace Cavalieri, in Pembroke (Pembroke, North Carolina), 30, 1998; interview with A.V. Christie, in Image (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania), 23, Summer 1999.

Josephine Jacobsen comments:

I do not really value very highly statements from a poet in regard to her work. I can perhaps best introduce my own poetry by saying what I have not done rather than defining what I have done. I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group. I have tried not to force any poem into an overall concept of "how I write poetry" when it should be left to create organically its own individual style. I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance that would limit the flexibility of discovery. I have not confused technical innovation, however desirable, with poetic originality or intensity. I have not utilized poetry as a social or political lever. I have not conceded that any subject matter, any vocabulary, any approach, or any form is in itself necessarily unsuitable to the uses of poetry. I have not tried to establish a reputation as poet on any grounds but those of my poetry.

*  *  *

Josephine Jacobsen's publication career spans more than fifty years and encompasses poetry, short fiction, and literary criticism. Despite her critical acclaim as a short story writer, Jacobsen has said, "There is nothing that compares to poetry." Poetry attempts to articulate that which cannot be articulated. Throughout her books of poetry, which range from traditional forms to free verse, Jacobsen's works evoke the mystery of being human. In an interview with Evelyn Prettyman in 1975, Jacobsen said, "As I get older and life gets more complex and more confusing, the expression of it has to get simple. You can't be diverse and wander; you have to take the gist, the seed, the one vital core." The "simple" expression of her poetry is not in any way easy or reductive; rather, its concern is the essential in subject and language, in tone and form.

A key element of Jacobsen's poetry is the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, which she sees not in opposition but in symbiosis: "I believe in the inexplicable tangle of body and spirit; the spirit is encased in the physical." This mysterious tangle becomes the subject of many of her poems, as in "The Edge" from her 1987 book The Sisters:

   The edge? The edge is:
   lie by the breath you cannot
   do without; while
   the breather sleeps.
   Precious, subtle, that air
   comes, goes, comes.
   The heart propels it. It has
   its thousands of hours, but
   it will not last as long
   as the sun, the moon's subservient
   tides. It will stop, go back
   to the air's great surround.
   But now, subtle, precious,
   regular as tide and sun
   it moves in the warm body, lifts
   the chest, says yes.
   Listen to it, through the night.
   If you wish to know the extent
   to which you are vulnerable
   only listen.
   This is called the breath
   of life. But it continues
   saving your life
   through the dark,
   since this engine that drives your joy
   is unrenounceable.
   Listen, listen. Say,
   Love, love breathe so. breathe so.

The breath of the sleeper, the life source for both the beloved and the lover, becomes a metaphor for the spirit that enables us to love, the spirit that makes us human. The physical act of breathing, "regular as tide and sun," affirms the eternal at the same time it reminds us that time is passing. The spirit endures; the body does not.

While this essential mystery, or "one vital core," can be written about in essays and in fiction, poetry attempts not just to write about the mystery but to become it. Jacobsen's poetry gives a physical presence to an intangible; mystery breathes in her poems. "It moves in the warm body, lifts /the chest, says yes." The language of these lines is deceptively simple. We read and understand them rationally. Yet they quietly assert their physical presence in the comfort of their vowels and soft consonants, through the shapes our mouths make in saying them and through their quiet control of our breath. These are the doors through which the mystery arrives.

Jacobsen's poetry rejoices in words for their own sake, not for the sake of the objects or ideas to which they refer. Words themselves become metaphors for the "inexplicable tangle of body and spirit." They are tangible as we sound them on our tongues; they are intangible in their complex roles as symbols. In a poem titled "Arrival of My Cousin" from The Animal Inside, Jacobsen writes,

   But I speak of the token, the image
   I was given for identity;
   that word of flesh, like a name, a sound,
   is what I speak of.

Through words we are identified. They allow us to recognize and name the human experience. In Jacobsen's poetry words are both flesh and names, and they constantly assert the mystery of themselves.

—Julie Miller