Birthday ode to first lady of verse

August 19, 1998|By Joseph Gallagher

WEIGHING NO MORE than the tiniest of the McCaughey septuplets born nine months ago today, she "leaped into the dangerous world" prematurely and unexpectedly in the vacation rusticity of Canada -- far from any medical niceties. Nobody but her determined mother, Octavia, expected her to live nine hours, much less nine days or nine weeks.

Today, in a retirement community outside of Baltimore, Josephine Boylan Jacobsen celebrates her 90th birthday. On this score, she has been uncharacteristically unbiblical -- embarrassing the assertions of the 90th Psalm: "Our years are three score and ten; eighty if we are strong."

Last November, at the governor's mansion, first lady Frances Glendening hosted a tribute to this woman who first made Maryland her home in 1922. In Baltimore, she met and married Eric Jacobsen, who died at 93, in the 63rd year of their marriage. Here she gave birth to her son Erlend. Here, at Roland Park County School, she began and ended her formal education.

Since then, she has been awarded honorary degrees from half a dozen colleges, including Johns Hopkins. In the past five years, the Hopkins Press has published collections of both her poetry and her fiction. Also, less than a year ago, the local poet Elizabeth Spires edited a collection of occasional pieces, a group of which first appeared in these pages.

The gracious Mrs. Glendening would surely agree to calling Mrs. Jacobsen the literary first lady of the adopted state she has so opulently honored -- though Mrs. Jacobsen declined a previous governor's offer to name her the state poet. In those days it was not a serious post.

Besides winning most of the major poetry awards in the country, she served an unusual double term as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (1971-1973) -- a national recognition, which today carries the title poet laureate. In the 35 years before her appointment, only three women had attained that dignity.

In the latter years of her "postcocious" fiction-writing career, she has achieved eminence also as a short-story writer, drama critic and essayist. She never wrote a short story that failed to find a publisher.

Today, however, because she is "of all sorts enchantingly beloved," her copious friends from all around the nation will be thinking of her primarily as an incomparable friend. Quietly nourished by deep undercurrents of religious faith, she is the quintessence of modesty, courtesy and generosity.

She could have doubled her literary output and sizably magnified her artistic presence on the American scene if she had not spent so much time and energy assisting other writers, who were often enough strangers.

A Sun writer once humorously dubbed her "God's gift to the bore," presumably with reference to her genius for finding anybody interesting, or at least charitably giving that impression.

My friendship with her began in 1961 when she wrote a kindly note about a sermon "to the Priest who had the 4 p.m. mass."

But I had been impressed by her poetry reviews in The Evening Sun. Her knowledge and word power were striking. But I was taken even more with her emphasis on the positive, and by the tact that kept her honesty from wounding.

Named in honor of her father, Dr. Joseph Boylan -- who died when she was 5, she has been an ardent addition to every scene she has graced: family, friendship, religion, literary life, longevity.

I have never known another human being who was so enrichingly all-giving in so many diverse directions.

Josephine Jacobsen was 10 when she first saw one of her poems published in a magazine she purchased in a New York City kiosk. The Aug. 17 issue of the New Yorker (which has purchased three more of her poems this year) carries her poem, "Distinctions." It ends with what is an accidental self-description: "A constant wonderer ... -- innocently astonished." And endlessly astonishing.

Father Gallagher, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, recently published "Statements at the Scene," a 50-year collection of his own poems.

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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