“A poet, dangerous and steep”: reintroducing Josephine Jacobsen

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In the thirty years of her greatest renown, between 1973 and her death in 2003, poet Josephine Jacobsen won dozens of prestigious national awards, grants, and honors. Now she has almost disappeared from mention. This is our loss, but we can make it right.  


I was idly thumbing through my Twitter feed when something stopped me. It was probably a poem. I always stop for poems because I’m occasionally rewarded for doing so, and rats given rare, intermittent rewards will die pressing the lever just in case. At any rate, what I saw was stunning, and it was by some poet named Josephine Jacobsen, whom I’d never heard of.

It’s not at all unusual for me to “discover” a good poet who turns out to be well-known to other poets. What is unusual is to find a poet who was, in her recent lifetime, widely honored and admired by her peers and readers, but is now seldom mentioned. Well-read friends of mine had never heard of her. Her name and poems rarely appear on social media or in any other media.

The swift disappearance of Josephine Jacobsen from the modern poetic landscape is a mystery and a shame. Her poetry is everything I hope for when I take a chance reading a poem: intelligent, confident; musical with meter, rhyme, and assonance; wry, rich with metaphor, filled with wonder and gratitude, and serving no agenda other than poetry’s. That’s a lot to hope for, and she never disappoints.

Mississippi Anatomy

This land is red, its body is colored of blood,
It is lonely and red,
Only pines spring up. From this barren and scarlet mud
Indifference is bred.

These stretches will form no alliance with starlight or noon;
With a sullen glow
This repulses the sun, it refuses the moon
And is ignorant of snow.

It proffers no proof of its nurture, no cornfield, no spire,
Not a dog, not a cart;
Silent, it draws with confused and reluctant desire
The inscrutable heart.

(from Let Each Man Remember, 1940)


Josephine Winder Boylan was born in 1908. Her father died when she was five. Her mother had bipolar disorder, traveled widely with her daughter, and educated her solely through tutoring and the encouragement of voracious reading (even refusing, later, to let the girl attend college). They settled in Baltimore when Jacobsen was fourteen, and she lived there the rest of her life. She was a practicing Catholic and daily communicant, was married for sixty-three years, and died quietly in the same retirement community in which she had lived with her husband.

She was hardly a slow starter as a poet: her first collection was published in 1940 when she was thirty-two, and she followed it with three more strong collections by 1966. Until she was in her sixties, however, her steady career never caught fire. (Not that she seemed to care about that.)

The combustion happened in 1971, when the U.S. Library of Congress named her Consultant in Poetry—what is now the Poet Laureate. After her term ended in 1973, when she was sixty-five, the fame, awards, and grants started rolling in like a house afire. The awards included five from the McDowell Colony, five from Yaddo, and, in 1997, the Poetry Society of America’s highest award: the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. She was awarded honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters from four schools, including Johns Hopkins University. She published, in all, ten exceptionally fine collections of poetry (one posthumous) and four well-received collections of short stories, and in the 1960s she co-authored two books of criticism. “Post-cocious” is what her friend William Meredith—also a Poet Laureate—called her, referring to her late-in-life recognition.

Jacobsen employs sleight-of-hand in her poems. Consider “Mississippi Anatomy,” published in her earliest collection. It fools us until that hard turn at the end reveals that we might have been wrong about where the poem was headed. True, many poems fool us at the end, but often it’s because they disappoint, ultimately giving us less than they had promised. Here, the outcome opens a sudden universe of possibilities not hinted at in the first ten lines. The language is almost entirely negative. It would be off-putting to readers if it weren’t so soberly intentional, and must surely have dismayed the Mississippi tourism industry. Even the last two lines—the surprise, the shift, the volta—the rabbit out of the hat—use unromantic language. This is a love poem that’s all sharp knees and elbows and pokes in the eye. What in the first ten lines can possibly be loved, and who could love it? Is Mississippi what the poem is really about? Such a short poem to bear such a heavy burden of mystery.

The simple rhymes, the strong accentual meter, the blunt and almost violent vocabulary: all of this really should be read out loud. Jacobsen is a consummate wrangler of language, but this poem is not about showing off. Her poems never “show off” anything, including technical skill or ideology. Here’s what she says in “The Instant of Knowing,” a pamphlet published by the Library of Congress in 1974 and containing her 1973 lecture at the end of her term as U.S. Poet Laureate.

“Great poems are innocent of neither ideas nor technique. But poetry which becomes ideas or techniques has diluted to the danger point the process of poetry. As a poet advances in sophistication and technique, this danger dogs him.”

She was advanced in sophistication and technique by her early thirties. This danger must have dogged her all her long writing life.

The unifying element of “The Instant of Knowing” is a preposterous-but-true chain of events that unfolded itself to Jacobsen over time and perfectly illustrates her philosophy—and practice—of poetry, which is contained in a trinity of truths:

* “The center of everything is the poem.”
* “Poetry names…. It imposes identity.”
* “Certain words, in a certain arrangement and with a certain cadence, start up a chain reaction explained by nothing in the words themselves or in their content.”

Délire des Profondeurs 

In the deeps, depths, sea’s night of noon,
In the slow-motion silence and sliding slip
Of weed, wash, fish, in the night motion
Heavy with fathoms’ lapses from the sun,
The diver in the black clasp of his ocean
Flares instantly, lit like a salty god,
In delirium. Breaks free as flame
From the pearl or plan or message of his mission;
May hand a shark his helmet, lose his name,
Cut the earth’s cord . . .
……………While far far far above,
Light lights the sea’s blue pleasure—
Boat, sky, sun; the hissing swans of foam.
Love, love, these depths we seriously measure
All unprotected, the chart has showed
Unsounded. Yet so far our trove
Comes up, our blaze of treasure.

(from The Animal Inside, 1953)

Jacobsen approaches something like Hopkins’ heady, pressurized, tongue-tangling language here. This, too, is a love poem, but notice: the first thirteen of the seventeen lines do not allude to love at all. The rhythmic language is full of nearly concealed rhymes placed like stepping-stones just below the surface. We wade into the water happily, revel in the music of it, pity the poor maddened diver—then suddenly and without warning we’re dealing with human passion rather than nitrogen narcosis.

Oh, the wrenching pang of the perfect metaphor: the lovers serious, exploring and learning each other “all unprotected,” in depths that have not been previously sounded, and finding a “blaze of treasure.” The narcotic early stage of love is exactly like divers’ “rapture of the deep.” Euphoria, disorientation, trouble concentrating, poor judgment: it’s all there. Jacobsen names it without naming it, calls it up out of our own memories with that devastating metaphor—and then leaves it there, leaves it alone, in all its glory. Today it’s acceptable for poetry and fiction to slither up to and across the line—sometimes of pornography, sometimes of clinical detail. Those poems leave no fun for us. It’s true that there are few if any taboos in poetry, but there is a consequence for every poetic choice. Jacobsen, every time, goes for the mysterious chain reaction leading to epiphany. She is a lady, and has no intention of reducing the grandest and holiest of human acts and emotions to mere reportage.

There’s an old Sam Harris cartoon showing two physicists standing at a blackboard. A long equation runs across the board—except in the middle, where one of the physicists has written, “Then a miracle occurs.” The other physicist says to him, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.” It’s impossible, in poetry, to be explicit about what happens when a poem takes on life, when both poet and reader suddenly know, in a flash, something important they had forgotten. Calling that miracle a “chain reaction explained by nothing in the words themselves or in their content,” as Jacobsen does, may be as close as we can get. The chain reaction, if and when it happens, results in “the instant of knowing.” “The instant of knowing” is poetry. And Jacobsen knows how to encourage it. First, the poem must be the focus. Here’s the more complete version of the first of her poetic rules.

“There are so many good things which hover on the periphery [of poetry]: the setting, the methods, the supportive structure, human relations, social relations, the hope for lack of pomposity, availability to genuine need, the mastering of the shapes of time and effort. The center of everything is the poem. Nothing is important in comparison to that. Anything which in some valid way is not directly connected with that current of energy which is the poem is dispensable.”

(from “The Instant of Knowing”)

I love her “hope for lack of pomposity” not only because I can’t think of a single Jacobsen poem that is pompous but also because it’s such a humble hope for a virtuosa to have. Jacobsen was highly allergic not only to pomposity—her own or anyone else’s—but also to anything predictable, clichéd, forced, self-involved, or in any other way unworthy of poetry. And she is hardest on herself.

A Blessing

I rejoice in the poems not written:
the cruelly discarded: the crippled,
the asthmatic, the anemic: the poem

about a photograph; about what love
is like: about how strangely I
felt that day: about something about me,

noticed. Bless you, go on the ash-heap,
that fine compost from muscle, blood, bone,
which fuels surely the green slick stalk.

(from Contents of a Minute, 2008 [posthumous])

Only a mature poet, of a certain age, could write such a mocking poem about her own precious inclinations. Discarding or not writing those poems has a cost: they are made of her own “muscle, blood, bone.” This is sacrificial love. And from the ash heap their compost “fuels surely the green slick stalk.” The sleight-of-hand volta—the coin from behind the ear—of that final line! And “green slick stalk”: what a messy, unattractive, perfect metaphor for the life force, generative and wild with juice. All of this happens in nine short lines.

Words are what poets are given to use in the service of poetry. But it’s tempting for a poet to try to use words—or poetic renown—for some other purpose or toward some other end. Jacobsen diligently avoided doing that, as she explains in Contemporary Poets (1985):

“I don’t 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 which 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 on any grounds but those of my poetry.”

She rarely fails to live up to her trinity of truths. Her poems do not preach, proselytize, scold, or shame. She does not use them to “do” anything. She is not an activist. She does not have an agenda. She is a poet.

The Blue-Eyed Exterminator

The exterminator has arrived. He has not intruded. He was summoned.
At the most fruitless spot, a regiment
of the tiniest of ants, obviously deluded,
have a jetty ferment of undisclosed intent.

The blue-eyed exterminator is friendly and fair;
one can tell he knows exactly what he is about.
He is young as the day that makes the buds puff out,
grass go rampant, big bees ride the air;

it seems the spring could drown him in its flood.
But though he appears modest as what he was summoned for,
he will prove himself more potent than grass or bud,
being a scion of the greatest emperor.

His success is total: no jet platoon on the wall.
At the door he calls good-bye and hitches his thumb.
For an invisible flick, grass halts, buds cramp, bees stall
in air. He has called, and what has been called has come.

(from In the Crevice of Time, 1995)

Look at that too-long, attention-seeking first line. Jacobsen is making eminently clear, wants to leave no doubt, that the exterminator has not come uninvited. The efficient, capable, “friendly and fair” blue-eyed exterminator: I imagine him handsome, smiling, clean, and quite pleasant. Yet he carries a whiff of Nazi menace. Death comes eagerly when he calls it. The exterminator has solved a problem, done exactly what he was asked to do—but the outcome is not altogether pleasing to the person who called him to kill and saw it done so swiftly and easily. That person, in fact, is slightly appalled—but by what? by whom? All of nature notices the death and pauses, as do we.

Poets name, but the naming is not a straight line and, more often than not, will feel like failure to the poet.

“The naming of things, which is the poet’s function, is not, like a science, progressive. It is circular, and each passage of the circle is unique. The process will also be, to whatever degree, a record of failure. There will be good poetry, and poorer poetry, and bad poetry, or rather stuff which is ersatz, which is not poetry at all. I have quoted before Auden’s comment, ‘Poetry is not a horse race,’ and the difference between the poem the poet felt within his grasp when he began to translate it into writing and the poem he finally has on paper is so much sharper and more bitter than the difference between his written poem and a lesser poem, that no one can be said to have won.”

(from “The Instant of Knowing”)

Still, victories are possible. If Jacobsen did not always, or often, feel that her translation of reality onto paper was successful, well, the world disagreed with her. To name is to impose identity is to create meaning. And often the most powerful naming is naming-without-naming. We call this metaphor.

The Things

My mother’s gold serpent bit its tail.
Its tiny rubies stared along its back
to the flat gold head that held themselves.
All gold, and meaning forever.

Lopsided in red chalk, still the heart
under the feet is pierced by a smudged
red crooked arrow: clearly meaning
impacted pain, or pleasure.

Thing made word—blameless uncheating
speech: clear as those hasty sticks
the solder crossed and held, high
in the rosy smoke for Joan.

(from The Chinese Insomniacs, 1981)

In the first stanza, Jacobsen remembers something personal.  In the second, she describes a nearly universal symbol. (The reader does not expect it to mean “impacted pain” as well as pleasure, but who can deny that it’s true?) And in the third stanza, something that may or may not have happened in battle with Joan of Arc, there in that ancient “rosy smoke,” becomes, like the pin and the sidewalk heart, “blameless uncheating speech”: true in the truest sense, because it has become metaphor. (Also please notice that this poem, which does not rhyme, feels as though it does. That, friends, is metrical finesse.)

All true love poems clarify, in some way, the relationship between love and death. Every poem in this essay is a love poem. Jacobsen yearns but also rejoices in what is real. She receives what is, gratefully. This is a common characteristic of the best Catholic writers (see Flannery O’Connor, see Gerard Manley Hopkins): an understanding that reality, what really is, such as it is, is a gift from God Who created everything. Here’s a love poem that joyfully celebrates, even while grieving, what Bishop Robert Barron calls “the radical contingency of the world.”


This day was made of dust,
The bright and lovely
And utterly perishing—
Nothing that we could trust, nothing worth cherishing.

No skeleton to stay and whiten,
No soul to escape—
The word was never,
Nothing like love, to frighten; dust, lost forever.

Moss, rainbow rock, fall apart,
The cold pools vanish
Without resurrection.
The alien human heart, strange to perfection

Understands this, its own:
Not past, not future,
Not truth, to enmesh us—
This was our dust alone, O ours, O precious.

(from For the Unlost, 1946)

Finally, I offer what may be Jacobsen’s most widely shared poem. If a poem of hers does happen to pop up on social media, chances are good that it’s this poem.

Gentle Reader

Late in the night when I should be asleep
under the city stars in a small room
I read a poet. A poet: not
a versifier. Not a hot-shot
ethic-monger, laying about
him; not a diary of lying
about in cruel cruel beds, crying.
A poet, dangerous and steep.

O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;
this poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow
until I exist in its jester’s sorrow,
until my juices feed a savage sight
that runs along the lines, bright
as beasts’ eyes. The rubble splays to dust:
city, book, bed, leaving my ear’s lust
saying like Molly, yes, yes, yes O yes.

(from The Shade-Seller, 1974)

The magic here makes me want to whoop and holler and pound on drums. This poem is perfect in its imperfection. The second-stanza rhymes are flawless: ABBCCDDA. But look at the first stanza: ABCCDEEA. “Room” and “about” have no rhymes at all. The length of lines three through six is shorter than the first two lines lead us to expect. It’s ragged, that first stanza: intentionally ragged, contemptuous in its raggedness. It’s a dismissal. A snub. For these sub-par “poets,” Jacobsen, it seems, does not even condescend to manage her own prosody.

But in the second stanza she flares from the inside out, like someone face-to-face with the burning bush or the angel Gabriel, overwhelmed and full of gratitude and receptivity and yes. And eventually it becomes clear that the raggedness and impotence of the first stanza are not only part of the power of the second stanza, they magnify that power. You are reading “a poet, dangerous and steep.”

Josephine Jacobsen published astonishing poetry for more than sixty years. She was the equal of any American poet of the twentieth century, and more gifted than most. She belongs in the pantheon of poets who do not grow stale or outdated—who, in fact, take on meaning with every reading and every decade. We need such poets. We love such poets. Let’s bring her back.