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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Number 56: Josephine Jacobsen "Gentle Reader

Gentle Reader

Late in the night when I should be asleep
under the city stars in a small room
I read a poet. A poet: not
A versifier. Not a hot-shot
ethic-monger, laying about
him; not a diary of lying
about in cruel cruel beds, crying.
A poet, dangerous and steep.

O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;
this poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow
until I exist in its jester's sorrow,
until my juices feed a savage sight
that runs along the lines, bright
as beasts' eyes. The rubble splays to dust:
city, book, bed, leaving my ear's lust
saying like Molly, yes, yes, yes O yes.

-- Josephine Jacobsen

Hap Notes: Josephine Jacobsen (1908-2003) wrote fiction but her true love was poetry. This poem is a good illustration of that. Born in Canada she lived most of her life in Maryland. She attended no college and her first book of verse was published when she was 32. Most of her poetry was published after she was 50. She was part of no school or "set" or academic enclave or conclave. Her work is pristine and delicious. She wrote fine and thoughtful poetry criticism, too.

She was Poet Laureate (or "consultant" as they now call it and I sort of petulantly ignore from its business-like jerkiness) of the U.S from 1971-1973. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994 and was awarded the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in 1997. In her tenure as consultant she grieved the lack of African-American poets attending the Library of Congress events and the infrequency of their being published. She had a considerable outreach program to change that which was fairly successful.

In "Gentle Reader" she calls up Molly Bloom from James Joyce's Ulysses to describe her ecstasy at reading a poem. Here's a little piece of Molly Bloom's soliloquy:

"the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower"

Joyce has, maybe, two periods in the whole chapter in which Molly speaks, forming his own sort of prose-poem as you read it. (Breaking off briefly to say that this is the only kind of prose-poem you will read here. I don't understand the term very well because to me, there is poetic prose and there's poetry. I don't see the necessity of having another genre. I have read some wonderful prose poems, I just always lament that they didn't finish it. It's like going to a painter's house and seeing a bunch of primed canvases with a pencil sketches on them- you can see it's going to be an interesting painting. But why won't he/she finish it? If you want to sketch on canvas, that's fine but it isn't called a painting, is it? A prose poem is a prose sketch, isn't it? How is it a poem? Just musing....)

Much of Jacobsen's poetry deals with the experience of being human and the natural world.

Here's a good Jacobsen quote: "I don't really value very highly statements from a poet in regard to her work. I can perhaps best introduce my own poetry by saying what I have not done, rather than defining what I have done. I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group: I have tried not to force any poem into an overall concept of how I write poetry when it should be left to create organically its own individual style; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery. I have not confused technical innovation, however desirable, with poetic originality or intensity. I have not utilized poetry as a social or political lever. I have not conceded that any subject matter, any vocabulary, any approach, or any form is in itself necessarily unsuitable to the uses of poetry. I have not tried to establish a reputation on any grounds but those of my poetry."

You can find more Jacobsen here:

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