The honors keep on coming for Baltimore poet

May 15, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

She was 27, a product of Roland Park Country School with an interest in writing verse and prose. So The Evening Sun paid a visit to budding North Baltimore poet Josephine Jacobsen in May 1935, and this is what the reporter found:

"Mrs. Jacobsen has been scribbling at verse since her early school days, and has been working at it conscientiously for about eight years. . . . She hopes that soon she'll feel something is good enough for the critical eye of an editor."

The reporter concluded that she was "a lady who writes as a hobby and who hopes to make her hobby a life work."

Nearly 60 years later, after the publication of dozens of poems and short stories, and the accumulation of many awards and honors, Mrs. Jacobsen listens as the reporter's words are read back to her. She makes a face of sorts, somewhat amused and somewhat annoyed. The word that friends always use to describe her is "gracious"; hearing those dismissive words of yore, she is hard put to remain so.

Finally, she shakes her head slowly and waves her hand in good-natured exasperation. "Why, I don't think even in 1935 that poetry was a hobby," she answers. "Even then, it was terribly, terribly important to me."

Mrs. Jacobsen is 85 now, afflicted by arthritis that makes a chore out of her long-held routine of rising early in the morning to write in undisturbed solitude. "The arthritis seizes me up so, I feel like the Tin Man clanking around," she grumbles good-naturedly in an interview at the Baltimore County home she shares with her husband of 62 years, Eric.

But she still writes; indeed, those who have watched her career feel she is writing some of her best stuff now. "On the Island: New and Selected Stories," was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1990. She had a short story published in the annual O. Henry anthology for 1993; the same year, a poem was included in the annual collection "Best American Poetry." She even has two poems in the recently published anthology "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friends: Women Writers on Baseball."

All together, there have been three collections of short stories; seven collections of poetry; and two books of theater criticism of which she is co-author.

Richard Hart, a Baltimore poet and former head of the Department of Literature and Languages at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, has known Mrs. Jacobsen for 60 years. From the beginning, he says, "I thought her gift was an extraordinary one, one that went far behind the usual local poetry."

Come Wednesday, Mrs. Jacobsen will get the ultimate accolade: She will be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in a ceremony in New York. She was astonished when she was named poetry consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 through 1973 (the post was later renamed poet laureate). But being named one of the 250 members of the academy is something she never hoped for, never dreamed of.

"They say it's the greatest honor you can give any author," Mrs. Jacobson says. "It means a lot that I'm following such other Baltimore authors as [novelists] John Barth and Anne Tyler, whom I like and admire."

A recent illness, the particulars of which she doesn't like to discuss, will keep her at home that day, though. "I just don't think I'd have the stamina to make the trip, and I regret it terribly," she says. "It's supposed to be a very grand and formal ceremony. But I expect to get back up to the academy soon anyway."

Her illness has forced certain concessions, she says, the most notable being that this winter was the first in 40 years that she and her husband, a retired tea importer, could not spend January and February in the tropics. It was to such places as Haiti and Grenada that Mrs. Jacobsen would repair to think and to observe. Many of her stories are set in tropical climates, with the protagonists often middle-class Americans who are thrust into situations in which they must make difficult moral choices.

"I've always loved travel -- the strangeness of a place has always fascinated me," Mrs. Jacobsen explains. "That's what I miss most by being sick -- it's been quite a blow."

Still, she has managed to write four poems since September, and she says one has been accepted by the New Yorker, which has published her frequently in the past. "They said it's a hot-weather poem, so it will probably run in the summer."

Though Mrs. Jacobsen has become increasingly aware of her physical limitations, she is not complaining. It's somewhat disconcerting, in fact, to read Mrs. Jacobsen's dark, brooding work and then meet the perfectly charming, delightful woman who writes it. She's a witty conversationalist who can talk seriously about her work (stories and poems "appeal to me because they're both immensely compressed -- you don't have the right or ability to maneuver as you do in a novel") and drop ironic, self-deprecating asides ("What's my greatest accomplishment? Sitting on this porch in 1994 at age 85").

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