Poetic memories of Jacobsen
Tribute: Baltimore's nationally acclaimed poet will be honored by readings of her works tomorrow by HoCoPoLitSo.

By Phil Greenfield
Special To The Sun

October 9, 2003

"The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound -- that he will never get over it," Robert Frost said.

The lovers of the printed and spoken word who populate the ranks of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society undoubtedly would agree.

It is in the spirit of those immortal wounds that HoCoPoLitSo will celebrate its 30th anniversary tomorrow by honoring the memory of one of its dearest friends, the nationally known poet Josephine Jacobsen, who died in July at age 94.

"She was very encouraging and generous with us," said the society's founding director, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, remembering the poet's many readings in Columbia. "We loved her writing, we loved her, and we think she is somebody whose work will continue to interest people for years to come."

The Baltimore-born Jacobsen, who published her first poem at age 11, was something of a literary Grandma Moses, a woman whose writing would win her fame late in life.

At 63, she was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress -- a position that later became known as the library's poet laureate and was held by such luminaries as Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Brodsky and Stanley Kunitz.

It was in her 70s and 80s that Jacobsen won the Robert Frost Medal, the Poetry Society of America's highest honor, the Lenore Marshall Prize and a prestigious fellowship from the American Academy of Poets.

The citation electing her to the National Academy of Arts and Letters at the age of 86 extolled her observations of life as having "the dark resonance of great art."

"A piece of hers ran in the New Yorker magazine in September 2002, when she was 93 years old," said Kennedy. "She was a poet to the end."

Paying tribute to Jacobsen's extraordinary life and art at tomorrow's gathering will be three of the poet's admiring colleagues:

Lucille Clifton of Columbia, a former poet laureate of Maryland and a recent winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, who teaches at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

Michael Collier, Maryland's current poet laureate, who directs the creative writing program at the University of Maryland, College Park and is a frequent host of HoCoPoLitSo's cable television show The Writing Life.

Elizabeth Spires, poet-in-residence at Goucher College, who edited Jacobsen's lectures and occasional works of prose.
Also part of the tribute will be a rediscovered videotape of the writer reading her works before the local literary society in 1982.

These images of a poet still very much in her prime also will be part of a Writing Life segment to be taped with Clifton, Collier and Spires at Howard Community College's television studio and made available to six Maryland educational cable channels in December.

Jacobsen once referred to herself as a "short-range pessimist and long-range optimist," and her poetry abounds with those contrasting views.

In one moment, she awaits the arrival of a cousin "under blue sky, white cloud, grass, bird-call, stone angle in the green city of the dead."

Yet in another, a mockingbird is partnered: "Arrives, dips in a blur of wings, lights, is joined. Sings. Sings."

Either way, a wound to remember.

The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society opens its 30th season with a poetry reading and tribute to the late Josephine Jacobsen at 8 p.m. tomorrow in the new Instructional Lab Building at Howard Community College, Columbia. Admission is $10 and is free to students with identification. An on-site reception and book sale will follow the celebration. Information: 410-730-7524 or 301-596-6183.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun