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Acclaimed Md. poet wrote with 'a pure lyric intensity'

Josephine Jacobsen, a critically praised lyric poet and short-story writer who had been poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, died late Wednesday of kidney failure at Broadmead Retirement Community in Cockeysville.

The former North Baltimore resident was 94.

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She wrote for more than eight decades, and her poems regularly appeared in The New Yorker, among other publications.

But major recognition came to Mrs. Jacobsen relatively late in life. It was not until 1971, when she was 63, that she became consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, a position now called U.S. poet laureate. At age 88, she became a National Book Award finalist for In the Crevice of Time.

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Critics mentioned that her poetry dealt with the problems and anxieties of humankind, but beneath that was a profound sense of optimism, based on her deeply held Roman Catholic beliefs, which included, as she once said, "belief in another chapter."

Mrs. Jacobsen described herself as a "short-range pessimist and a long-range optimist." She thought the imagination was "the active, secret subterranean life."

Weighing 2 pounds, Josephine Winder Boylan was born while her parents were vacationing in Ontario. She was 10 and living in New York when she first saw one of her poems appear in print, in the children's St. Nicholas Magazine. Years later, in a 1997 interview with The Sun, she recalled buying a copy at a news kiosk:

"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."

Her father died when she was a child. She and her mother lived in various places and then moved to Baltimore about 80 years ago. She did not attend elementary school and instead was taught by tutors. She earned a diploma in 1926 from Roland Park Country School after two years of study.

She did not attend college but was awarded honorary degrees from a half-dozen institutions, including the Johns Hopkins University, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Towson University and St. Mary's Seminary and University.

She and her mother became Roman Catholics when they were inspired by the sight of religious pilgrims in France who were climbing stone steps on their knees.

"She was quietly nourished by deep undercurrents of religious faith and was the quintessence of modesty, courtesy and generosity," said the Rev. Joseph Gallagher, a priest and friend. "She could have doubled her literary output and sizably magnified her artistic presence on the American scene if she had not spent so much time and energy assisting other writers, who were often enough strangers."

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In the early 1930s, she appeared with the Vagabonds theater troupe at the old Ford's Theatre on Fayette Street. She never relinquished her affection for the stage. Once a year she traveled to New York, met with other writers at the Algonquin Hotel for drinks and then saw as many plays over a week as time permitted.

In 1932, she married Eric Jacobsen, who owned a tea- importing business The couple lived for many years in Homeland and in an apartment off University Parkway. He died in 1995.

Her son, Erlend Jacobsen of Plainfield, Vt., said his mother initially followed her mother's advice and never touched alcohol, but she smoked heavily. After her mother's death, she quit tobacco "in one hour, cold turkey" and began having a nightly martini with her husband instead.

Of her working habits, Mrs. Jacobsen told a New York Times reporter in 1971, "I work better the more I am confined and the less I am distracted. My ultimate place would be a closet." An early riser, she often wrote in a small attic room.

Mrs. Jacobsen occasionally mentioned Baltimore places in her poems, such as "Linkwood Road," a 12-line work about an elderly man and woman walking along the North Baltimore street. She also set poetry and short stories in the Caribbean, where she spent part of each year.

"She never tried to be a poet. It was natural to her. She simply was. It was not assumed," her son said.

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Her collected works include Let Each Man Remember (1940), For the Unlost (1944), The Human Climate (1956), The Animal Inside (1967), The Shade Seller (1975), A Walk with Raschid and Other Stories (1978), Chinese Insomniacs (1981), Adios, Mr. Moxley (1986), The Sisters (1988) and What Goes Without Saying (1997).

In the Crevice of Time, a collection of her poems published in 1995, was nominated for a National Book Award.

"Her poetry has a muscular beauty and a deeply appealing gravity," Alice Quinn, poetry editor of The New Yorker, said yesterday. "Her use of vernacular speech is exceptional, and her dramatic sense is keen. A cherishing of the world -- birds, bees, flowers, 'the air that is hers and now' -- is ever present, along with a deep sense of reckoning with death as a supreme fact. And she's written marvelous poems about marriage and family bonds."

Themes of spirituality also pervaded her writing.

"For someone with a complex view of the world, her faith was direct and simple and pure," said the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, president and rector of St. Mary's Seminary and University. "She had a quickness in her intelligence that would pick up on things. There was an incredible precision in her speech and in her poetry. There was no decorative metaphor there. She had a matter-of-fact practicality."

Fellow writers recalled how her family figured in her writings.

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"She wrote poems of a pure lyric intensity," said poet Elizabeth Spires, a friend who lives in North Baltimore. "There is a quality in her poems that soars. She felt losses -- the death of her father when she was such a young child. There was always a double aspect, a balancing of life and death. I think her poetry was affirmative but there was also a recognition of the dark as well."

"She was one of the most important American poets of her generation," Ms. Spires said. "She was an inspiration to us. She was a modest person. She didn't spend any time making claims about what she'd written. She was very interested in other people. She was a lady, but she could be a little bit irreverent. She never became jaded or cynical."

"Poetry," Mrs. Jacobsen said in a 1990 article in The Sun, "is like walking along a little, tiny, narrow ridge up on a precipice. You never know the next step, whether there's going to be a plunge. I think poetry is dangerous. There's nothing mild and predictable about poetry."

Other friends recalled her conversational style and her distinctive traits.

"Josephine had the most brilliant mind of anyone I have ever known," said John Dorsey, a former art critic for The Sun. "She was also the most generous-spirited and kindest person I have ever known."

Poet William Jay Smith, writing in The Nation in 1970, said, "Her quietly articulated observations have the dark resonance of great art. With her careful attention to texture and her wide range of form and subject matter, Jacobsen is clearly one of the finest poets now writing in America."

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He also wrote, "Josephine Jacobsen is one of the few poets writing today whose stories are every bit as good as her poems. Deceptively simple and straightforward, they have a many-faceted precision and Mozartian clarity that are truly rare and wonderful."

Mrs. Jacobsen's many honors included three awards from the Poetry Society of America: the Shelley Award, the William Carlos Williams Award and the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry. She was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Friends recalled that she played a game of cribbage after lunch. She also a passionate Orioles fan. When her eyesight failed, she switched from televised games to radio. When her half-brother, the late sculptor John Skinner, made a bronze bust of her, she kept it in her room with an Orioles cap on top.

"She could have been a perfect diplomat," her son said yesterday. "She never said a bad word about anyone, often despite strong feelings to the contrary."

In addition to her son, survivors include five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

A memorial Mass will be offered in the fall at the College of Notre Dame.


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