A Long Flowering

New book celebrates the late poet Josephine Jacobsen and her `gift for happiness'

June 08, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

The poet Josephine Jacobsen, in an essay she wrote for The Sun almost 30 years ago, decried how hard it was to get inside things that should be easy to open (milk cartons, aspirin bottles), yet how quickly Americans seemed to expect personal intimacy.

Friendship, the Baltimore native wrote in her elegant way, should be a matter of "gradation - the stages by which acquaintance becomes congeniality, congeniality becomes intimacy. ... It is the flowering of long preparation."

Jacobsen, the celebrated author of nine books of verse who once served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a position later renamed U.S. Poet Laureate), cultivated many acquaintanceships during her 94 years. But readers will be especially grateful for one that blossomed relatively late in her life. In 1982, Jacobsen met a poet and professor at Goucher College, Elizabeth Spires, who would become a sounding-board, confidante, occasional editor and full-time friend.

This spring, Spires, 56, published what will probably be the last collection of Jacobsen's work: a 32-page "chapbook," packed with vigorous reflection, called Contents of a Minute.

"Sometimes, someone gives another person so much of herself," says Spires, who is still on the faculty at Goucher. "The [project] was partly literary, partly an act of gratitude. I wanted the poems to have a little home, and it seemed like the least I could do."

If friendship starts small, then flowers over time, so did Jacobsen. She was born premature in 1908, weighing just 2 1/2 pounds.

"I must have been a fierce particle," she marveled in a 2003 conversation with Spires.

Her life was a blossoming. She started writing poetry as a child (the family moved to Baltimore when she was a preteen) and kept at it during odd hours as she and her husband, Eric Jacobsen, raised a son. She published four books to little notice between 1940 and 1966, and first came to nationwide attention in 1971, when the Library of Congress tapped her for its top literary honor at 63.

Won acclaim

Jacobsen unfurled such lyrically truth-telling work in her 60s, 70s and 80s - most of it poetry, but some of it criticism, reviews, short fiction and essays. She became a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and other publications, and ended up with such honors as the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and admission to the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.

"Josephine Jacobsen's mind is exquisite and urbane," wrote the Washington Post, "which is not to say that it has confined itself to salon conversation or academic discourse. ... Formal and fastidious, [she] meditates on death - oh, not because she herself is aging, nothing even faintly vulgar like that - because of her apprehension of our fleshly frailty."

A friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith, called the late-blooming writer "post- cocious."

Jacobsen's friendships, too, started small and grew. Spires can't remember when she met the poet - probably at a reading, she says - and she recalls few grand events that propelled it.

"At first, [we met] in larger groups," says Spires, herself the author of five books of well regarded poetry. "She included me in a large circle of friends, including 10 or 15 women she had to lunches at the Hopkins Club. [Eventually], we started seeing each other one-on-one."

Jacobsen's work always reckoned with the big questions - she once called loss "the poet's motherlode," and ruminated on mortality from an early age - but she "had a gift for happiness," Spires once wrote, "and it spilled over to anyone fortunate enough to be in her orbit."

Jacobsen's longtime friend and secretary, Charlotte Blaylock, remembers her "loads of friends" and her entertaining, enlightened skills as a conversationalist. "It was a delight to listen in," Blaylock says.

Spires says that Jacobsen, unlike many in her field, was genuinely indifferent to public acclaim. "Josephine wrote because she had to," says Spires, who remembers her friend comparing poetry to a kind of surgery that brings one close to "an organ that is a life source."

Spires also admired the poet's sense of adventure. Jacobsen, a 1926 graduate of Roland Park Country School, started acting in the 1930s with the local drama troupe, Vagabond Players, and continued for years. She never tired of travel. (Even after she and Eric moved into Broadmead retirement home in Cockeysville, they continued summering in New Hampshire.)

A friendship begins

When the Jacobsens still lived in Homeland - not far from the home that Spires shares with her husband, writer Madison Smartt Bell - Spires visited her as a neighbor, sharing dry martinis, gossip and freewheeling conversation about marriage, family, mortality and art.

"No subject was off limits," Spires says. "Her directness could really startle you. I find friendships like that are rare." She calls Jacobsen, 44 years her senior, "the youngest person I knew."

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