Friends, Romans, Countrymen: a word of warning— If you’re a tyrant, you’d do well to beware the Ides of March. Four-hundred years after Shakespeare offered up that phrase to theater-goers, it’s still best to avoid friendly types who gather round waiting to stab a despot to death outside whatever Capitol he controls. Sic semper tyrannis, as John Wilkes Booth reminded another crowd of theater-goers in 1865.
Writers: Odds are you’re not in control of any Capitol (nor any capital) so forget the soothsayer’s voice rising above the crowd in Julius Caesar. Had the Bard been issuing a warning to his own colleagues, he might have said, “Beware the phrase ‘a writer’s writer,’ ” because those words are like a knife between the ribs, metaphorically speaking.
“A writer’s writer” implies that the readers who most appreciate your work will be other writers – high praise to some, low praise to many, almost certain poverty will ensue, and yes, it’s the kind of praise that can bury Caesar. Upon hearing that designation assigned to them, ambitious writers – those who hope to win over a wider range of countrymen and readers, and/or those who hope to make more money – might feel as Marc Antony did, as if their hearts are “in the coffin there with Caesar.” Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, quoting a review in the New York Times, said that the phrase “a writer’s writer” is “the definition of obscurity.”
Try searching the Web for the phrase “writer’s writers” and up the names will come, the generally-agreed-upon writers’ writers (wiggle-room acknowledged), mostly contemporary: Joseph Brodsky, Henry Green, Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, James Salter, Colm Toibin, William Maxwell, Elias Canetti, Richard Yates, W.G. Sebald, Mavis Gallant – these writers often have the phrase “a writer’s writer” attached to descriptions of their work. The list goes on, of course, and is not always short; people argue for the inclusion of a baker’s dozen more, or argue their exclusion. But the list settles down to those whose names get repeated often. Putting the wrong person on the list (try naming anyone who writes science fiction) generates guffaws among the cognoscenti. The phrase “a writer’s writer” suggests a level of craftsmanship – “the art of the sentence” – not generally associated with popular fiction, much less genre fiction. “Writer’s writer” tops off an amorphous category known as “literary fiction.”
If you narrow “a writer’s writer” to “a poet’s poet” – the phrase first used by Charles Lamb to describe Edmund Spenser – you’re taken into the backroom of an even more exclusive club (whether exclusivity is off-putting is a side argument): Elizabeth Bishop is on everyone’s list, I think, and names like Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur, Allen Grossman, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa and Allen Tate make the short list of 20th-century “poet’s poets” over and over.
The one I want to shine a light on here is Josephine Jacobsen, born Ontario, Canada, 1908, died Maryland, U.S.A., 2003, just one month short of her 95th birthday. Though she published well into her eighties, and received more attention in those later years, she remains even less well-known – less read and less anthologized – than most of the poets already mentioned.
Jacobsen’s poetry offers its readers three qualities most common to the category of “poet’s poet” – formal precision with the variety and musicality of her words, a freshness to her images, and a depth of subtext underneath the surface subject. All three of those qualities inspire repeated readings of any one of her poems; with each subsequent reading, her poems unfold and grow, unlike less complicated poems which remain relatively static each time they’re read. If you pay close attention to how she manages to do what she does, you do what good poets do, studying not just the surface of the poem but the craftsmanship behind it. Readers who want quick comfort from a poem rarely spend time with a poet’s poet because what they’re looking for is something easy. To be fair, quick comfort is sometimes nice and certainly serves a wider community. But the general public’s knowledge of the many tools a poet uses is minimal, so its desire for an “accessible” poem is maximized.
Jacobsen’s craftsmanship exceeded the abilities of less exciting poets as well as the capacity of readers in a hurry to understand. She was not “willfully difficult” as Wallace Stevens has been described. But she handled the tools available to a poet with more precision, complexity and grace than is the norm.
The mockingbirds, that pair, arrive,
one, and the other; glossily perch,
respond, respond, branch to branch.
One stops, and flies. The other flies.
Arrives, dips, in a blur of wings,
lights, is joined. Sings. Sings.
Actually, there are birds galore:
bowlegged blackbirds brassy as crows;
elegant ibises with inelegant cows;
hummingbirds’ stutter on air;
tilted over the sea, a man-of-war
in a long arc without a feather’s stir.
The mockingbirds are a pair. A pair
touches some magic marrow, lends
a curious solace. “Lovers” pretends
of course an anthropomorphic care
we know is specious. This is a whim
of species. Nevertheless, they come.
One, then the other, says what it has to say,
pours its treble tricks clearer
into clear air, goes; one, and the other.
In the palms’ dishevelment, the random day,
over the green hot grass, fellow to fellow:
the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.
What jumps out at you at once in the first stanza of Jacobsen’s “Of Pairs” is the pairing of words as a complement to the pair of birds being described. Hardly a line goes by without words being doubled or repeated – one/the other, respond/respond, branch/branch, one/the other (that phrase itself, repeated), flies/flies, sings/sings. The second stanza moves on to describe other birds, non-pairs, some as part of a multitude (blackbirds, crows, hummingbirds), some spared cross-species (ibis and cow), and one eerily singular (the lone man-of-war in his long arc over the sea.) The third stanza opens again by pairing the word “pair,” and adds a warning via the pairing of “specious” and “species” – we’re warned not to over-anthropomorphize the mockingbirds; in other words, we should work to understand this as similar to human behavior only when due caution is exercised. The fourth stanza, again, is all about pairing – one/the other (a third echo of that phrase), clearer/clear, one/the other (the fourth and final echo of the phrase), fellow/fellow, shadow of wings/wing’s shadow.
Unlike some poems where the echoes are less intense and less noticeable, it seems Jacobsen’s purpose here is to overwhelm the reader with pairings. The title of the poem itself announces her purpose. And nothing about the pairing apparatus is subtle, in keeping with the nature of the mockingbirds themselves, who not only pair up but who echo the songs of other birds – the pairing of birds, plus the pairing of words, plus the imitation (parroting, pairing) of one bird by another. A perfect matching of form to content.
All this Jacobsen does while sustaining the tetrameter rhythm (a four-beat line) through four six-lined stanzas, and creating a rhyme scheme of ABBACC – a pair of A’s, a pair of B’s, a pair of C’s – and what is rhyme if not a pairing of words? There are some full rhymes (wings/sings, pair/care, lends/pretends, say/day) but many more near-rhymes (perch/branch, arrive/flies, galore/air, crows/cows, war/stir, whim/come, clearer/other, fellow/shadow) which the ear picks up as both imperfect and interesting, as are the mockingbirds’ own imitations of other birds – similar, but not the same. Again, form and content “rhyme.” The noisy alliteration of those bowlegged blackbirds brassy calls – again, form (alliteration, almost always noisy) and content (blackbirds, ditto) pair up.
As for the freshness of images, who would argue that “bowlegged blackbirds” is a tired idea, or that hummingbirds stuttering and mockingbirds playing “treble tricks” are not fresh ways of seeing and hearing them? Who but a poet’s poet could come up with such an ending: “In the palms dishevelment, the random day, / over the green, hot grass, fellow to fellow: / the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.” This is what I mean by a poet’s “depth of subtext underneath the surface subject.” Depending on your circumstances at any given point in your life, these lines take on new meanings – so the poem must be read, re-read, and read again over the course of a lifetime. For each person, there is a way to weave these lines into individual experiences – what does “the palm’s dishevelment” mean in the context of a random day of happiness or sorrow? And so a fine poet releases the poem to her readers, she lets her readers make meaning, rather than the other way around. And she does it simply (though not as simply as it seems at first) by describing the mockingbirds. Musicality, fresh images, depth of meaning – each element expertly handled.
What’s even more amazing is that Jacobsen managed to sustain this level of effort and precision over a long lifetime of writing. William Meredith called her “post-cocious.” She never got lazy, she never just knocked one out or went for an easy laugh or an easy cry, as some poets do. Poor Billy Collins always comes up in discussions of accessibility; he’s the punching bag of the Formalists who don’t care for his prose-like work. I do like Collins’ quirkiness when he’s at his best – there’s no denying he brings a poet’s perspective to the world. But sweet as some of his work is, he is no poet’s poet. His lack of technical finesse and his prolific output inform how “tossed off” much of his work feels to poets who work within the restrictions of received forms. Collins charms the public, there’s no doubt about that. Poets like Jacobsen, however, charm the poets.
Effortful-ness, then, might also be a quality particular to the work of a poet’s poet, most often if the effort disappears inside the poem. Effort sustained over a lifetime, in combination with technical elegance – those are the trappings of genius. “Of Pairs” is included in Jacobsen’s last book, In the Crevice of Time, published when she was eighty-seven. Though I don’t know the precise year “Of Pairs” was written, it’s included in the section of poems written between 1975 and 1994, when the poet was already a septuagenarian (at least.) Compare it to “Terrestrial,” a poem published at the beginning of her career.
The day was made of dust,
The bright and lovely
And utterly perishing—
Nothing that we could trust, nothing worth cherishing.
No skeleton to stay and whiten,
No soul to escape—
The word was never,
Nothing like love, to frighten; dust, lost forever.
Moss, rainbow rock, fall apart,
the cold pools vanish
The alien human heart, strange to perfection
Understands this, its own:
Not past, not future,
Not truth, to enmesh us—
This was our dust alone, O ours, O precious.
Structurally, this has four four-line stanzas, with the first three lines short, and the last line comparatively long. Each last line has a caesura – a sustained pause within the long line – and the last word of the first line of each stanza rhymes with the last word before the caesura in each fourth line (dust/trust, whiten/frighten, apart/heart, own/alone.) In addition, the last word or words of each third line rhyme with the final word/words of each stanza (never/forever, resurrection/perfection, enmesh us/O precious.) Technically, Jacobsen has always done this kind of rhyming elegantly, using unexpected patterns. If you want a hair-pulling writing prompt, try to write a poem following that structure and rhyme scheme.
Though the poem seems grounded, literally, in dirt and dust, it’s filled with airy abstractions like “love” and “the soul,” the past, the future, truth – all words I would warn a student of poetry away from because abstractions tend to make a poem ungrounded – that is, they make nothing available to the reader’s senses. But are those abstractions airy? In an odd way, they feel heavier than the dust in Jacobsen’s poem – they stand as things to cherish and revere, and they impart a kind of biblical solidity – a religion of abstractions – that readers can get tangled in or bogged down by. Compare that abstract solidity to what is real and what the heart, maybe unwillingly, understands in Jacobsen’s poem: the ephemeral dust-to-dust nature of our bodies, ending without even “skeletons to whiten,” without perfection, without time – we are the “utterly perishing.” We own that condition, it’s ours, and it’s precious. Death is, after all, what makes life meaningful.
There – I’ve made sense of the poem in a way that satisfies me right now. Tomorrow or next year or in another ten years, I might read it again and make sense of it another way, possibly reinterpreting that word “resurrection.” That’s the gift a good poet offers us: a poem to slow down with, to re-read, to understand in a new way each time it’s read.
Though Jacobsen’s work is not well known, she did receive – finally – some of the honors her work deserved. She served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973. The Sisters, a poetry collection published in 1987,was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1988. She was given a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets and awarded the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Joyce Carol Oates, in the New York Times Book Review, compared her to Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Jacobsen also wrote well-received short fiction; her collection of short stories, On the Island, was nominated for both the Pen Faulkner award and National Book Critics Circle award, and eight of her stories have been included in the O’Henry Prize Stories series.
When asked to assess her own work, Jacobsen said, “”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.”
I hope you’ll search out Jacobsen’s books – In the Crevice of Time collects an astounding number of poems written over the course of sixty years, between 1935 and 1994; used and nearly new copies of the book pop up from time to time. It’s exciting to see the poems in their original volumes as well, and to judge for yourself how she developed as a writer. Don’t fail to find her book of collected essays and lectures, The Instant of Knowing, and check out her fiction to see if her achievements there measure up to her skill as a poet. I think her poems gained in strength and brilliance as she aged, and one of my favorites of her later poems – “Piazza di Spagna”— was first published in the Atlanta Review (Vol.II, No.1, Fall, 1995 – see note in comments) and then posthumously in Contents of a Minute as part of Sarabande Books’ Quarternote Chapbook Series. In the poem, Jacobsen uses the two characters from Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, to open up a short examination of the nature of poetry itself, placing at its core the small apartment in Rome where John Keats died.
Piazza di Spagna
Estragon says to Vladimir
(or vice versa) of happiness
recollected in distress: how
unpleasant that must be.
Ah, Estragon, ah Vladimir,
discussing loss, the poet’s
mother-lode. On the Spanish Steps
chill fingers the bone.
As the sun drops and drops,
stare across at the small,
cold, invisible room
where loss has reveled;
where loss’s aficionado
labored to grasp and hold
a green felicity,
Apollo’s summer look.
Loss has its son et lumiere
to show what it has got
and means to keep: a hundred poems,
bright blood, a girl.
It’s always risky to try to pin down what makes a poem a poem, and I like the elusiveness of this take on it – we really only hear about two essential elements, memory and loss. Maybe that’s true even today as post-Modernism pokes holes in received traditions. I’m not sure what I think of that. Jacobsen wrote another poem (“The Poem Itself”) which takes a look at how a poem “works,” and in it she offers this description: “On the shelf, by the clock’s tick, in the black / stacks of midnight: it is. A moon / to all its tides.” That, I believe completely. It saddens me to think that a poet can be undersung not because she is so bad, but because she is this good. Shakespeare gave his soothsayer in Julius Caesar a “tongue shriller than all the music,” and its true that something is needed to make certain voices rise above others. Luminous craftsmanship shines, but it doesn’t always make the loudest noise. Sic semper scriptores.