Poet, fiction writer, and critic Josephine Jacobsen was born in Ontario, Canada, to American parents on vacation. Her father died when she was five, and afterward she and her mother moved around frequently, while Jacobsen was taught by private tutors. They settled in Maryland when Jacobsen was 14, and she would live there until her death almost 80 years later. She received the Shelley Memorial Award and the prestigious Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America and served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in the early 1970s.
Fiction writer Joyce Carol Oates compared Jacobsen with John Crowe Ransom, Emily Dickinson, and Elizabeth Bishop, all of whose poetry is “fastidiously imagined, brilliantly pared back, miniature narrative that always yields up a small shock of wonder.” Her poetry takes many forms, ranging from traditional structures to free verse, and it centers on the mysteries of being human and the relationships between the physical and the spiritual realms. An example is “The Edge” from The Sisters: New and Selected Poems (1987), in which Jacobsen observes that the regularity of the physical act of breathing evokes a sense of the eternal while at the same time serving as a reminder of mortality. In Contemporary Poets, Julie Miller commented that Jacobsen’s poetry “rejoices in words for their own sake, not for the sake of the objects or ideas to which they refer. Words themselves become metaphors for the inexplicable tangle of body and spirit’. ... Through words we are identified. They allow us to recognize and name the human experience.”
Jacobsen gained critical attention with the publication of Let Each Man Remember (1940). This volume, which features 15 love sonnets and a section of metaphysical lyric poems, reveals her ability to compose poetry within disciplined forms. The Human Climate: New Poems (1953) contains intensely personal verse in which Jacobsen conveys through direct and incisive language her views on the injustices and hypocrisies of the world. Her next work, The Animal Inside, displays Jacobsen’s range of subject and form. This collection contains poems about animals, including a sestina on hummingbirds, which poet William Jay Smith deemed one of her finest poems. The book also includes meditative pieces probing love and death. Included in this volume is the poem “Painter in Xyochtl,” which depicts the ritual murder of an American artist presumed to be the devil by a tribe of Central American Indians. Jacobsen’s rendering of this event was praised for offering a sensitive portrait of the primitive mind. Commenting on the book as a whole, Smith wrote that the poet’s “observant eye and varied interest, reflected in a broad range of skillfully handled stanza forms, makes for a most attractive volume. ...”
In The Shade-Seller: New and Selected Poems (1974), Jacobsen further reveals her interest in primitive natural forces. Claire Hahn of Commonweal commented: “[Jacobsen’s] awareness of the wild, harsh beauty of the primitive inevitably invites comparison with D.H. Lawrence. ... [She] shares with him the authoritative power of expressing an acute perception of other modes of existence than the human.” James Martin of Poetry described the collection of poems as “not only pleasurable to the ear, but almost tense with demands that the reader comprehend, relate. ... [Jacobsen] celebrates love and language and helps us see that we belong, that our common interests are more important than our individuality.” In her next collection, The Chinese Insomniacs: New Poems, Jacobsen examines the role of language in building and maintaining human relationships and community. In many of these poems, she employs a detached tone and minimalist structure to emphasize the themes.
Jacobsen commented in Contemporary Poets, “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.”
Jacobsen is also highly respected for her short fiction, which is collected in four volumes, including A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories (1978) and Adios, Mr. Moxley (1986). Set in such diverse locales as Baltimore, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and Morocco, the stories in these books are considered powerful in their examination of loneliness, betrayal, oppression, illness, and dishonesty. Jacobsen’s stories often end unresolved, leaving the reader to speculate about the future of her characters. Critics attribute the impact of Jacobsen’s short fiction to her skillful characterization and evocative prose. A Walk with Raschid was deemed “first rate” by a Choice critic who also wrote, “the stories, conventional in form, emphasize plot and character. They are both moving and disturbing; their impact is wonderful.” In a review of Adios, Mr. Moxley, Stephen Goodwin wrote that Jacobsen is certain of “what is and is not important, and why. These stories, consequently, have a bracing rigor about them, a keen independence, and the clean ring of truth.”
Jacobsen was very interested in the theatre, and acted with the Vagabond Players in Baltimore. She earned honorary degrees from Goucher College, Notre Dame of Maryland University, Towson University, and the Johns Hopkins University. She died in 2003.