Josephine Jacobsen, Lauded Md. Poet, Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2003; Page B06

Josephine B. Jacobsen, 94, a widely honored writer whose short stories and poems plumbed her Catholic faith and existential anxieties, died July 9 at a retirement community in Cockeysville, Md. She reportedly had kidney failure.

Mrs. Jacobsen, who lived in the Baltimore area much of her life, was twice appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. That position, which she held from 1971 to 1973, is now called U.S. poet laureate. The job includes helping the library acquire manuscripts and traveling to promote the written word.

Although her first poem was published at age 10 in a children's magazine, Mrs. Jacobsen attained much of her renown beginning in the mid-1960s.

In addition to poetry periodicals, her work was published in the New Yorker, the Saturday Review and the New Republic, earning her a wider audience.

Her stories were included in several O. Henry Prize anthologies, and she was a National Book Award finalist for "In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems" (1995).

She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994 and received the Poetry Society of America's Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in 1997.

As she wrote about human yearning and struggle, critics praised her effective use of a vernacular style and natural imagery, such as in her poem "The Sea Fog":

"The bell

for the bulkhead doors to open, woke us.

Everything had been reconnected; sun to the sea,

ship to the sun, smiles to our lips, and our names related to our eyes.

Who could -- in that brassy blue -- have stillness to harbour the memory of being relative to nothing; isolated; responsible?"

Josephine Boylan was born in Ontario, Canada, and grew up in New York and Baltimore. Her father, a doctor, died when she was a child, and she was educated by private tutors.

In a 1997 Baltimore Sun interview, she recounted the moment she saw her first poem published: "I stood on the sidewalk, obstructive, stunned, looking at my words, naked, displayed to the world, and happily I did not know that this deflowering would be a climax never reached again. For I was purely satisfied."

She published more than 10 volumes of poetry, including "Let Each Man Remember" (1940) and "For the Unlost . . ." (1946).

She was involved in theater groups and co-wrote critical studies of playwrights Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett.

She contributed book reviews to The Washington Post, and her travel articles for the Sun complemented her fiction.

Reviewing her collection "On the Island: New and Selected Stories" (1989), novelist Michael Upchurch wrote in The Post that Mrs. Jacobsen convincingly used exotic locales to explore stories about racism, class and faith. He called her writing "extraordinarily lithe and illuminating."

Reflecting on her eight-decade career, Mrs. Jacobsen said poetry remained a vital experience, one she hoped young people would simply enjoy instead of deconstructing to death.

"The center of everything is the poem," she wrote. "Nothing is important in comparison to that. Anything that in some valid way is not directly connected with that current of energy which is the poem is dispensable."

Her husband, tea importer Eric Jacobsen, whom she married in 1932, died in 1995.

Survivors include a son.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company