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Josephine Jacobsen

An American ClassicÓ Grace Cavalieri remembers, and honors, Josephine Jacobsen in this interview aired on public radio. Josephine Jacobsen was born in Ontario Canada in 1908. She authored many books of poetry including The Chinese Insomniacs, and The Sisters which won the Lenore-Marshall Award. Her career spanned more than six decades. The American Academy of the Arts Citation celebrated her as a recipient of "almost every major poetry award." From 1971-1973 she served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. This interview celebrated her ninth book, In the Crevice of Time, New and Collected Poems in 1995. Josephine Jacobsen died earlier this year, 2004.

Josephine how does it feel to look at the retrospective of your life within this book?

Well it seems an awfully long time, Grace. 88 is a formidable time from which to look back I can tell you. And it goes actually from my 10th or 11th year so it?s a tremendous number of poems and it sometimes astounds me that I really have written as much as I have; and I've discarded a great deal. I?m very critical of my own work and I have never sent a poem out to be published -- I was going to say that I wasn?t satisfied with but I don?t think any poet is ever satisfied -- maybe I should say -- that I didn?t feel was the best that I could do with that particular poem. So I?ve written a great many more than the large number, (200 or so) poems that have been published.

Some say you are an enduring voice in American poetry, a woman who gives others permission to go on.

Oh, I would be embarrassed.

I have in my hand a new anthology about Formalism entitled A Formal Feeling Comes, and I think that is an important topic for us in talking about your work. Elegance is one word used in reference to your poetry. What does that mean. If elegance is the way we contain aesthetics within the poem, if it is about style, would you say that craft and form are important to you.

Well it?s very important to me. Not necessarily conventional or rhymed poetry but structure in poetry is to me very, very important. The whole question of rhythm, it?s like breathing and the seasons and the sun and moon. It?s basic to poetry. And I never have acceded to the idea that this is the time to write rhymed poetry; this is the time to write free verse; this is the time to do something else, ever. I have written unrhythmed poetry even early, when I was working on lyric poetry; and today I do some rhymed work. But not in the majority of cases. I?ve never felt any compulsion so that a poem I?m working on has to take a specific form -- other than what it wants.

Since you write prose as well as poetry then we know that you?re not in a locked-step mode of thinking.

Well I'm alarmed. I just read today, just this morning where somebody was commenting on the fact that there seems to me an idea among some people that if you take a prose statement and chop it up and print it in irregular lines that you?ve necessarily created a poem. And though, as I say I have never been part of a mode or a trend, I do think that craftsmanship is essential in poetry and also structure is essential.

Marilyn Hacker said 'when I see a ...writer .... counting syllables on her fingers, or marking stresses... I'm pretty sure we'll have something in common, whatever our differences might be.' Is that what this book of "formal" poetry is about. What of your own poems in this book.

I'm partial to one entitled "The Limbo Dancer" about the death of the dancer.

I knew you must have written that in Granada where you escaped winters.

Well the experience certainly was. I?m not absolutely positive whether the poem was actually finished in Granada but it was a totally Granadian experience and actually the Caribbean is the only place that I think that you still get limbo dancing. And this was very, very vivid to me and when I came back I was shocked, the next year, to find he was a relatively young man and I am sure this was a perfectly terrible death. Some people even have muscles cut. It?s a dramatic, fantastic performance but it has its own threat and it was very sad that the guests were back and the hotel was back and the sea was back and the limbo dancer was gone.

That?s an important theme of yours. Beneath the polished surface, danger everywhere.

I wrote in a very, very early poem ...and there are not many lines from very early poems I would want quote... but it said something about the tissue paper between the foot and the plunge. That's how we go through life, over the tissue paper between the foot and the plunge -- and that line I will still stand by.

We will too. I think Nelson Mandela in his 1994 inaugural address said something significant which I thought about while driving over here. It was - to paraphrase - that we are not afraid of our inadequacy, it is our power we're afraid of. In reviewing your life, do you see your power? And was that what made you able to support all those fledglings along the way.

Well that?s rather an ambitious way of putting it Grace. I think I knew from very, very early on that I was a poet for better or worse, good poet, bad poet, whatever. But I did know that at an extremely early age it was a drive that was not going to stop, that it was something that could be done no other way, and I did know that even when I was a child.

You've been called ' poet of affirmation.' In your canon is a much-quoted poem Let Each Man Remember.Ó Why do you think it?s surrounded with so much interest and why do people remember the poem so much.

Well one reason I like it and it has a particular place in my affection is that, it is a poem that somehow in its own way has specifically helped specific people. I have had experiences with that poem both from people I knew and from perfect strangers who have written and have said 'this helped me to get through something' or 'this is something I kept on my bed table' and that is so beyond anything you have a right to expect. The greatest thing that you could feel about a poem is that it is really has helped another human being in a really bad time.

That is one thing that poets don?t always say first,' I've made a difference in someone?s life.' Yet they do. You've been honored by the Poetry Society of America and you?ve won the Lenore- Marshall Award, given by Nation Magazine -- a big deal, very competitive, also the Shelley Memorial Award. I think that meant a great deal to you at that time, and of course the Academy of American Poets has honored you. If there are other awards -- if they?re anywhere out there we?ll take them. Back to 1971, and it seems like a minute ago, that?s what worries me, you were Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress... you gave an air of comfort and conviviality to the Poetry Office. And you commuted from Baltimore! What is it that you thought that job would be was before you entered "the halls," and what is it you felt that you could give to that place?

Well actually that was a very happy period for me. I thought it was a wonderful job. I thought it was a job which was whatever the holder made of it. Some people have said, 'what difference did it make.' It made tremendous differences in many, many areas. James Dickey said something that I think is so true. After his tenure he said the most important thing is possibly that the job has produced an incredible collection of poets reading their own poems. And if you go back and think of the past -- think what it would have meant, well let?s say to hear Keats read La Belle Dame sans MerciÓ or Shakespeare reading some of the sonnets. It?s mind -boggling and a huge net was cast. There is no question we probably have some people in there whose work is not going survive but it was a wonderful conception and a wonderful effort and it?s going to be a priceless heritage, I think for the Library. Another thing was that the Library seemed to be a focal point in so many people?s mind for poetry in America. I can?t tell you the number of young people from other cultures, from other countries who came into the poetry office. The first thing they wanted to know was what was happening in poetry in America. Then they wanted to talk about what was happening in poetry in their own country. I could go on and on about the facets of that job. It was a wonderful job.

You had fun

I had a great deal of fun. At first I was petrified as you are in any new job, especially with the national exposure; It?s very terrifying. I had wonderful assistants Nancy Galbraith and Jenny Rutland, wonderful supporters in the office, and as soon as I felt empowered, (I think is the word we all use,) I began to enjoy it very very much. I was responsible for the poets who came there to read. I was able to do one thing that I wanted to do, and that was to see if we could gather more black poets reading their work there -- who were of course invited because of their work -- but I thought that could be done and it was done while I was there. And there were so many things that I felt that I could do.

I see you with new poems coming out in periodicals all of the time! Now you always say 'this is the last one,' but the last three issues of the New Yorker, not sequentially, because I have them in a pile, to get around to, but I?ll pick one up and say' There is Josephine' so I have a number of new poems that I have not read before, to look forward to. We see that one has just come out, well let me see, in the Atlanta Review and there are some reviews coming of your new book I believe in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the New Criterion and the Plum Review. So there is still a flurry of literary activity everywhere you go. There are reviews coming out. There are new poems being published. What do you think about this burst of energy. Is it something which has been consistent in your life or does it happen in clusters.

My dear Grace I wish I could describe it as a burst of energy. I think the energy comes from the poems. It?s like a baby that?s going to be born, it?s just going to be born. It?s not my energy. I used to have a lot energy but going on 88 I would not say that that?s a real possession. But poetry is very violent in its determination to create itself and I think what?s happened is I haven?t got energy to resist it. So that?s the way it works out.

One thing you are known for is your perception about human behavior, about people. Before they called it psychology, artists were always able to tab what we did and why we did it and how we treated each other and that?s been one of the things that you have been wise about in your work, in your prose I think especially. There is a poem in your new book In the Crevice of Time which is of course from a former book, which begins with your uncle. And I mention that because it makes my point about your observing people and how they behave.

I?ve always thought the term "second childhood" was infinitely pathetic and during a very very long illness in my family I was so well able to observe it. The poem which resulted is called " My Uncle a Child."

I wanted to tell you that our mutual friend Robert Sargent read it aloud to me and we had a moment where we talked about our own lives through this. It is that ability you have to catch the warped, the unnatural, the painful and to put it within a bigger frame so that it actually comes out about love in the end anyway. Ad then it makes me wonder about you life and frankly I think we all would like to know about your beginnings. Mark Halperin once said a nice remark: schooled in the school of the love of my family.Ó I think you had to come from a very interesting family. Take us back and tell us about the little girl Josephine Jacobsen. In what kind of a household.

Well a very peripatetic household as a matter of fact. My father died when I was five years old and my mother loved to move around. She was not a domestic type. She was a wonderful mother and brilliant and beautiful woman but she was not for digging in roots particularly and between my fifth year and my fourteenth year we traveled pretty continuously. Our basis was an apartment in New York City but we were in Connecticut often in the summer and in North Carolina often in the winter. Mother was restless if she stayed too long in one place and then she decided that I didn?t need to go to school. I didn?t go to school at all until I was 14 years old and she belatedly thought that it might be a little difficult for me when I got there so she decided we had relatives and friends in Baltimore. She decided that she should settle down now at this stage of my life and I came here and went to Roland Park County School where confusingly I loved and was very happy. Usually they say if a child doesn?t adjust when she?s very early and comes into school late and has never had this experience, that it?s a very traumatic experience, and I can only say I don?t know why it wasn?t but I loved the school I was extremely happy there and I was there for four years. Mother belonged to the generation that thought it was important for a girl to make her debut. It was interesting that it was assumed my brother would go to college. The idea of my going to college was never mentioned and I was too dumb at that point to discuss or think about the choices. It didn?t seem to be something particularly appealing and it so it was only years later that I realized that there was a tremendous amount I had missed. So I graduated from school, and a few years later got married here in Baltimore to a born and bred Baltimorean and have lived here ever since, though we too have done a lot of traveling.

And two other places you've called home have been New Hampshire and Granada.

Yes, when our son was a very little boy, I mean 3 or 4 years old, he had terrible asthma and we were given the choice of going out to Arizona or going up to a pollen-free area, at least theoretically pollen free, up in New Hampshire, which we did, we bought an old farm house up there for that purpose; and then became so attached to it, that we kept it for 55 years. We only sold it five years ago and then of necessity because it had gotten too much to handle.

How long have you been married to Eric Jacobsen?

We were married in 1932 and I?m going to let you do the arithmetic. 64 or 5 years. (note: Eric Jacobsen died , December 1995, at the time of this writing.)

In the Crevice of Time comes on the crest of many books of fiction and poetry and a life in the service of poetry. You must have witnessed a history of poetry in the 20th Century. And what have you seen, where has it been, and in your view, where do you see it going?

Well one thing that please me now is the fact that I think it is generally acknowledged that you cannot say that poetry is disgraced if it is in a particular form or is not in a particular form. I think Richard Wilbur commented on that. He has continued, gallantly, to write formal poetry through all periods and I have always felt that was very strong; and the good news is now I think this "formal feeling" as it?s describe in the anthology we discussed, is coming up everywhere. My worry is that this too can swing the other way and become a straitjacket. But I don?t think people would ever go back to that. So I think it?s a very good thing now. The poet can ask the poem that has been given him or given her, what form it wants, and discard if necessary. I have discarded many poems because I found I had started the wrong way, the way different from the way the poem wanted to be written.

I?d like to go right now to a recent poem in the New Yorker which I brought here to have you talk about. I?m interested in the progress this poem made from your desk to the magazine. It's from July 18th, 1994. "Noon" gives us a tranquil scene, until the last four lines when a frigate dives down to its prey.

Well I am really a much more cheerful person than lots of my poems would indicate and this particular poem which I think has often been misunderstood, shows that. It is a poem titled "Noon" about peace, total peace and of course - in the literal sense I don?t believe that total peace can exist anywhere. I think what Keats said about negative capability is so important and to me, in the animal world, the non human world, we?re all tied up in certain experiences and if you want really total peace, if you want a moment when nothing is suffering, where nothing is happening that is bad for any creature, it just doesn?t exist. So I wrote this poem in the most pacific environment that could be imagined and some people immediately grasp what I?m trying to say and others have complimented me, ' oh that?s such a lovely, relaxing poem. Whenever I get tight or tied up I like to read that poem.' On the other hand my granddaughter who is a good poet and a very perceptive person said she could hardly bear to reread it. She said when the beak comes down, it?s awful.

And that is actually in keeping with some of your themes which are the natural beauty of the world, the terror possible within that beauty, the animal and bird life which you've spent a life observing -- all topics for your poems. Your primal attention to the other species -- the animal kingdom is key in your writing. What is it that draws your attention to the animal and to the bird?

Well actually the shoe is almost on the other foot. I have always been dumbfounded that anyone can move through life in a world inhabited by these multiple, fascinating forms of life and really think and act as if the human were the only living creature there. I?m so aware of these innumerable lives going on around us all the time, that are so inscrutable to us, that we have no bridge by which to communicate except in the case perhaps of domestic animals. But these fascinating lives are going on all around of us and are just as part of the daily world as we are and yet often just totally ignored as if they didn?t exist.

Another poem in the New Yorker the same year. I think you had three there that year. This is entitled First Woman,Ó about Lucy.

I?ve always been fascinated by the early, early stages of human life. I read about Lucy with great interest and I read a lot about the various ages and stages that the world has gone through and I?ve often wondered about animals, when the young ones the first year, when they live in a world of summer and then all of a sudden the world around them totally changes. Do the older animals remember what they lived in, and think then it will come back, that it?s a recurrent thing, or do they think 'this is gone for good.'

Actually you've written so much more than was contained within a collected work but the new book does focus your work which has honored language and has honored the highest form of ourselves. Let's move now to another poem, which was in the Kenyon Review. Now I?d like to ask you, when your editors choose poems, what do you think they like about them?

Well when I wrote this poem I was really doubtful as to where to send it first because it was a very offbeat poem indeed and thought that it might misfire but it was taken the first time I sent it out with very very warm comments and it?s a strange poem. It?s called "The Blue-Eyed Exterminator. "

What form is that in?

Well it?s not in any.

It?s an example of a Josephine Jacobsen poem where you cannot identify the fact that it's really an architectural poem. I think every second line rhymes. I haven?t counted through. It's not a sonnet, it is your voice and this is the cadence of your voice. But if I wanted to analyze that, we could come up with the scheme. There are definite rhyme patterns.

There's a lot of interrelation in the structure of the poem. I wanted it to have a certain impressiveness because when you write about death, and my point is we all step on ants everyday, the death of an ant is not an obvious subject for a poem -- though Robert Frost of course did a very wonderful one on that -- but I?m writing about the greatest emperor and that requires to me a sort of formal approach.

So you honor your subjects by the house you build to put them in.

There were eight or nine sonnets that came out originally in Let Each Man Remember. And when I was preparing this book of collected poems, I went back to them and found I thought they stood up much better than I would have expected, having been written at a very early age and so I selected three of them that seemed to me to have possibly come off best. This was part of my dream fantasies. I haven?t built much with the poetry of dream but this was a place and a location in my mind that was not realistic in the sense of having been physically experienced. It was a fantasy world and there was a thread that went through it. There were 7 or 8 of the sonnets, originally and the first three from the group are reprinted. The title of the whole sequence was Winter Castle

What were the themes you were working with.

Those sonnets were written at a time when I was thinking about the possibility and preservation of love in the awful reality of the world and they were poems of both refuge, apprehension and triumph.

In regard to how we reach one another, the simple topic of communication is your keynote. In these poems you watch your husband sleep, knowing that there are some places that we don?t belong. That's on just the first level of that. But there is the mystery, our inability, the possibility, our potentiality -- and yet our distance is all there. So there is a lot of tragedy within the surface of that poem.

Well the personal end of it was so happy. At point I was very much in love and I was really wondering if love is something that can be preserved and held in the present world and in the present time. And to my joy I found out that for me it could.

At 88 years of age, you always claim 'oh this is my last poem, this is my last poem'. Well I call them your next-to-last, always. Another of the next to the last poems was also premiered in a recent New Yorker and was located in the Caribbean, What of this poem "Voyage."

One of my many Caribbean poems. I wandered across the skeleton of a boat, beautifully put together but abandoned and for years it must have lay in the back of my mind as a kind of symbol of untaken voyages which I think a very sad subject -- an untaken voyage. So I wrote this very recently but the boat that started this I saw maybe 10 or 15 years ago. .

There is so much motion in that poem for the subject of a beached ship. Where did you get the idea of the vines coming through, still growing. "The vines are coming...the vines are coming..."

Well the ship was gradually encroached on from foliage in the bush in every direction. It was almost as an assault on its last intention. You knew that in a few years it would be more or less be buried and the vines really, truly were coming. And of course I think that happens in life, as you get older, you know, the vines are coming, the vines are coming and that moment when the tendril touches the keel, one hopes that the poet stops writing and doesn?t produce warmed over versions of something already written.

I don?t think you need to worry about that because the critics are saying that the past decade of your writing life is your best. But, I speak technically because another poet could have said "covered with green vines," the way it remains, but you knew to make it an action. You knew to make it something impending and you knew to use time. So that the motion we get in a small poem is something that uses the past, the present present, present future, present past and you take all of those things together -- of course I?m sure without knowing it, because if you did it consciously it wouldn't work. I guess this is what comes from writing for a lifetime.

Well I think that?s absolutely true and I think the amazing thing is the gestation time of poems are so absolutely inscrutable. You may suddenly have a poem appear and it?s almost in a rush. I don?t mean that you don?t have to go back and come to terms with details but it?s there. It practically writes it, well not writes itself but it?s on paper in a matter of hours and another poem like this, the seed is sown and comes to maturity years and years later. I?ve had that happen all the time. And I?ve heard other poets agree that it is really very inscrutable, the timing of poems because some take years and some take minutes.

Do you keep a journal then and accumulate images?

No I don?t and I know that I should. I know that I probably have lost a lot of things by not keeping a journal. But this just was a germ in my mind and whenever I thought of certain failures in life or certain things or aspirations that were unfilled or voyages people wanted to go on, it came back to that little match stick abandoned boat on that beach.

A boat blessed by memory. I need to ask about the gestation of how long it gets a poem from being accepted to being printed in the New Yorker.

Well as a matter of fact, my experience with the New Yorker has been that they are unusually prompt. More so than most magazines. I?ve heard a lot of people say that they take maybe two years or a poem is held for years before it?s published. My particular experience has been the reverse. To begin with, they respond immediately. They respond with an acceptance and a check immediately and after that it has never been more than a matter of months and sometimes weeks. I think it?s largely a matter of structure and ability to handle the thing because a lot of very good non-commercial magazines, if you can make that distinction, take a tremendously long time. I mean some of the small magazines really take forever.

When Alice Quinn accepted these poems, did she say what she liked about them?

No, she?s just been very supportive, very enthusiastic. She?s called up a couple of times to say that she liked them. We haven?t discussed what made her decide to use them or not.

In my hand is the Atlanta Review. And there is quite an interesting poem here and the magazine has just been issued with a lot of names we know on the cover, Michael Harper, Maxine Kumin, Linda Pastan, Charles Wright, Steven Dunn who is another favorite of mine, and Josephine Jacobsen so let?s see what you've written

It's about loss. It' takes place in a piazza in Spain.

In this poem you say that loss is the mother lode for poets. What can we preserve Josephine. What can we preserve through your work.

Well I'm afraid years will have to solve that. I don?t know Grace at all. I mean anyone who's interested in the poems for any reason will find that time and loss and communication are the three constantly recurrent themes.

Another poem here which everyone has read I think who knows your work is called "Midnight Moose." Because that has to do with communication. We get so interested in story there that we don?t realize what we?re floating on, and that is the adjusted inner rhyme and the extended rhyme in that poem, and I have a feeling that because the poem sounds so easy, it must have taken many, many drafts.

Well I?m very bad. I hate revision. It?s a labor I loathe but I practice it always. I don?t think I have ever sent a poem out to be published that hasn?t been kept on the desk for at least two weeks, possibly a month because the poem that you read a month after you?ve written it, is not the poem that you think you?ve written. You think 'what! Somebody has come in the middle of the night and tampered with my work of genius. This can?t possibly be what I wrote.' Because things spring to your eye that you should have seen at first and didn?t; and so though I dislike revision intensely -- It?s like operating on somebody while they?re alive -- I do practice it always before I let a poem go on its own, for better or worse.

Are there poems right now on your desk in various state of dress.

There are no poems on Josephine Jacobsen?s desk. I literally at this point do not own one poem or one line of a poem. I have one still coming out in the New Yorker but that was written some months ago, so I?m old Mother Hubbard. Absolutely nothing on me. My cupboard is bare.

I just wanted to get that on record so we could let you hear what you said later, and then you'll say, 'oh my goodness did I say that right before those next poems came out.' Back to "formalism." You said something in a recent anthology

I can't remember which of my work is in what. There are so many anthologies...

Do you know it?s getting to be a cottage industry, and I don?t know what it means to poetry yet. In the book A Formal Feeling Comes, I'll read what you said: ' As I wrote poems of a non formal structure in the relatively rare instances in which it seemed to me that it was what the specific poem required, I continued to write poems of a varied formalness during a prolonged period when which was in many quarters deemed totally unacceptable - and managed to survive, poetically speaking.' That's your quote.

Yes, I think many poets got really discouraged, many poets who were really just naturally lyric poets got discouraged during that long period where it was frowned on as the kiss of death. But I have felt free, I have always felt free from that kind of compulsion. The one thing I have never done is tailor a poem to the things that were waiting for it. Never.

When did Josephine Jacobsen write her first poem and when did she published it?

Well I?m not absolutely sure when I wrote the first poem but I know when I published it. When I was 11 years old in St. Nicholas magazine. And I have said once before and I?m afraid it?s true, that was the high spot of ecstasy in the poetic profession. I remember so well the magazine was coming in at a little kiosk in New York around the corner from us and I was allowed to go out on the street alone which I never allowed to do, to get the copy of St. Nicholas and to look down and see something that had been intimately inside me in print with people coming up and paying for it and taking it and going away with it. It was the most amazing feeling. I thought ' I?m a professional poet at the age of 11,' you know. That was a special occasion.

Did it ever get any better than that?

Well of course, but I mean there were many more reasons, the wonder, really the wonder I think than was more intense then any other time. The wonder that something that I had secretly thought should appear on a street in New York in a magazine. It still seemed to me a kind of a miracle. I got a little more used to that.

There have been a few lawnmowers go by as we speak, and there has been a little hammering in the distance, but through that all is a very clear, very resonant voice of a woman who is quite sure of herself. When you published that first poem and you were 11 years old, how were the women poets who were out on the horizon? Were there very many?

Well if there were I would not have known about it. I really didn?t make the acquaintance of poets working until I was considerably older than that. My mother was one of the most widely read people I?ve every known in my life, but poetry was not one of her particular interests and my early reading was such a melange of wonderful things and awful things and different kinds of things, I mean, Keats and Robert Service and you know, everything mingled up together. I hadn?t sorted anything out at that time at all. But I think I read very little poetry. I mean the poetry naturally came out of me, even though I did not read much poetry as a young child. Mother read to me endlessly and I read all the time, and as I got older I began foraging in poetry but at an early age I was writing poetry before I knew what it was or why I wanted to write it.

Did your mother live long enough to see you gain recognition?

Not to the degree that I have it now. Not that?s its major at any point. But mother has been dead well over 25 years.

After this new publication, someone referred to you as First Lady of American Letters.

Grace, don't you dare

I can't help it Josephine. I'm just telling you what someone said.

Grace Cavalieri is the author of several books of poetry, the latest a children?s book, Little Line.Ó She has written 21 plays produced on American stages. Her program The Poet and the PoemÓ now enters its 31st year on public radio recorded at the Library of Congress and distributed to public radio.