A lifetime of writing continues Books: Josephine Jacobsen's works in prose and poetry gain new notice. Y: John Dorsey

Catching Up With Josephine Jacobsen

November 09, 1997|By SUN ART CRITIC

Josephine Jacobsen has been a published poet for 79 years, since the children's magazine St. Nicholas printed a poem when she was 10 years old. Many years later, in an essay about becoming a poet, she remembered the never-to-be-equaled experience of going down to the newsstand, buying a copy of the magazine and opening it to her first published poem:

"I stood on the sidewalk, obstructive, stunned, looking at my words, naked, displayed to the world, and happily I did not know that this deflowering would be a climax never reached again. For I was purely satisfied."

The last three years, however, have seen another professional climax of sorts for this distinguished poet, short-story writer, critic and resident of Baltimore. In 1995 the Johns Hopkins University Press published "In the Crevice of Time," her collected poems, and it was nominated for the National Book Award. In 1996, Hopkins published "What Goes Without Saying," her collected short stories. And just this past week, the University of Michigan Press has published "The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticism, and Occasional Prose."

Modesty and surprise

Now significant collections of Jacobsen's writing in poetry, fiction and nonfiction are available at once. With customary modesty, she expresses some surprise that a publisher was found for the just-published book of nonfiction writings, edited by fellow poet Elizabeth Spires.

"When Beth Spires, whose judgment I respect and who I think is a fine poet, said she wanted to collect some of my shorter pieces, I didn't think she would be able to do anything with them," says Jacobsen. "She did all the work, every bit of it. She sent them herself out to the University of Michigan. She even did the typo reading, and so far I haven't found one single mistake. It's very nice for me to have them brought together. And I've been astonished that people really are interested in them."

In fact, "The Instant of Knowing" may find a wide audience. It contains Jacobsen's major lectures on poetry and essays on leading literary figures such as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and Samuel Beckett. But the largest single section is devoted to 21 pieces she wrote for The Sun's op-ed page between 1977 and 1980. These delightful short essays are taken directly from experience. In one, Jacobsen sees the snow-covered top of Mount Kilimanjaro come out of the clouds just at midnight on New Year's Eve. In another, she raises an eyebrow at those English people who express amazement when an American seems the least bit civilized.

"I enjoyed these pieces," Jacobsen says, "because I could say anything I wanted to say. It was really like talking to myself. Some I felt quite seriously about, some were lighthearted, some were just things I wanted to comment on."

Building to climax

They exhibit the poet's ability to condense and the fiction writer's ability to tell a story, and they can build to a moving climax.

In "More White than Feathers," at a bus stop on the Caribbean island of Grenada, Jacobsen encounters a woman who questions her about snow. Is it whiter than sand, more white than feathers? Does it lie on the ground after it falls? Can you walk over it? And suddenly, through the wondering questions of the woman, Jacobsen sees something she has taken for granted all her life in a new way. She writes: " 'Yes,' I said, somehow ashamed, like someone who had missed her chance. 'I've walked right over it.' "

She says now: "I was mad with myself. I thought, 'You have never even seen snow.' This woman's imagination and her awe of this stuff that would come and lie on the ground and you could walk over it like a royal carpet -- it was so touching."

While they can be read for pure pleasure, these brief pieces have deeper meanings, too. They explore issues that Jacobsen has dealt with elsewhere, in poetry, fiction or essays. This one, for instance, is about finding strangeness in the familiar. Elsewhere in the book, in a longer essay, Jacobsen identifies the creative impulse as precisely the finding of strangeness in the familiar. Others among the op-ed pieces deal with order and disorder, time and the timeless, and other themes she has explored through the years.

Although she has been writing for eight decades, major recognition came to Jacobsen relatively late. It was not until 1971, when she was 63, that she became for two terms Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Other honors include the Lenore Marshall prize for her book of poems "The Sisters" in 1988; in 1994, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters; earlier this year, the Robert Frost Award of the Poetry Society of America in honor of lifetime achievement in poetry. This afternoon she will be honored by a tribute from her fellow writers at a private ceremony at the governor's mansion in Annapolis.

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