Josephine Jacobsen 

(1908 - 2003)


Image of Josephine Jacobsen  from Maryland Women's Hall of Fame program.

"A constant wonderer... Innocently astonished", reads the last line of Josephine Jacobsen's poem, Distinctions, published in the August 17, 1998, issue of the New Yorker, provides an accidental self-description.  Ms. Jacobsen is a poet whose work is noted for its spare, elegant language and broad range of form and subject matter. She explores such concerns as identity, isolation, communication, and the relationship between the physical and the spiritual in verse imbued with animal and nature imagery. According to the 1988 edition of Contemporary Literary Criticism, although Ms. Jacobsen often examines dark and mysterious elements of life, she is regarded as a poet of affirmation, who articulates her themes with intelligence and conviction.

Ms. Jacobsen also is noted for her acute and generous capacity for listening to the work of other writers. She has attended to unknown writers struggling into print and has published reviews of the works of hundreds of other poets helping to bring their work to light. Her power to respond to the work of other poets was never more evident than during her tenure as a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Richard A. Macksey, PhD., Library of Congress, reports that many of her peers (in a profession not noted for its generosity) have acute ear for the excellence of others, a shrewd critical intelligence, and an understanding heart.

Josephine Jacobsen is Maryland's-indeed the nation's-Grand Woman of Letters. Now 91 years old, Ms. Jacobsen is a distinguished author, who has lived in Maryland for 77 years. She moved to Baltimore from New York at the age of 14 and has called Maryland home ever since. 

Her extraordinary writing career spans an amazing eight decades. Ms. Jacobsen published her first poem in a children's magazine at age 10. Though most widely recognized as a celebrated and much honored poet-with nine published volumes-Ms. Jacobsen also is a successful short story writer and well-regarded literary critic. Her nonfiction writing includes reviews, lectures and essays for such publications as Commonweal, The Nation and The Washington Post. For several years in the late 1970's, she regularly contributed op-ed and travel essays to the Baltimore Sun.

Over the past four years, Ms. Jacobsen has won a writer's version of the Triple Crown. Since 1995, the best of her poetry, fiction and nonfiction has been collected and published in three separate volumes. Maryland's own distinguished publisher, The Johns Hopkins University Press, published her collected poems In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems, in 1995 and in 1996, the University's Press also published her collected short fiction, What Goes Without Saying: Collected Stories. Her collected nonfiction work was published in The Instant of Knowing: Lectures Criticism, and Occasional Prose by the University of Michigan Press in 1997.

One of Ms. Jacobsen's most notable literary accomplishments was serving as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973, the most distinguished post an American poet can hold, recently retitled National Poet Laureter. In 1988, she won the L. Marshal Award for the best book of poetry, The Sisters, published the previous year. In 1993, Ms. Jacobsen received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and in 1994 she was elected to the Prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, the only poet and only woman elected that year. Additionally, the Poetry Society of America awarded her its highest honor, the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, in 1997.

Although women make up a majority of the poets in this country, relatively few have received the recognition accorded to Ms. Jacobsen. Her success as a poet, particularly between the ages of 65 and 85, serves as a model for women's advancement. Ms. Jacobsens' achievements, in the later part of her life offer inspiration for the continued application of one's talents and faculties throughout life and speak to the critical importance of the mature voice in the world of expressive arts.


© Copyright Maryland State Archives, 2001