“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1870.
This week’s Poetry Moment resonates with Dickinson’s famous lines about the power of literature. Read by Baltimore’s own, the very proper Josephine Jacobsen, she titled her poem “Gentle Reader.” With a sly nod to the etiquette-wise mode of address in nineteenth-century novels–think Charlotte Bronté’s Jane Eyre—Jacobsen’s lines capture the shock of reading poetry in a way that is most ungentle.
With her cap of careful curls, her pastel jackets, and her soft tones, Jacobsen looked as ladylike as she acted, polite in a way that only native-born Canadians raised in Baltimore’s Roland Park are.
“I expect that if I look in the dictionary and see the word ‘lady,’ it will be Josephine’s picture,” said poet Lucille Clifton in the 2003 memorial tribute show from which this footage is taken. “She was always such a person who valued others and understood there were a lot of ways of being a good poet.
But this lady spoke about literature, particularly in ”Gentle Reader,” like a mystic, a lover, a cult leader.
In the first stanza, Jacobsen sets up a normal evening with city and stars, reading a poem. But by the end of the stanza, the poem’s speaker has encountered a poet, “dangerous and steep” and we’re about to head off the cliff with her. The poem “juices her like a press,” and eats her “gut and marrow.” Her ear’s lust, at the end of the poem, enthusiastically agrees with James Joyce’s Molly Bloom: “yes, yes, yes, O, yes.”
That ecstasy is not often equated with poetry. Sometimes it is necessary, however, to describe a visceral response to a good poem.
Not well recognized as a poet until she was in her 70s, and with no college education, Jacobsen wrote essays, op-ed pieces, poetry, and short stories most of her life. From 1973 to 1975, Jacobsen served as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, the position later renamed as the National Poet Laureate. In 1997, the Poetry Society of America gave her the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry.
Both joy and terror lived in Jacobsen’s poetry, and underneath lay a kind of mystery, which is likely the same source of Dickinson’s cold and Jacobsen’s “savage sight.” Jump off that steep and dangerous cliff with Jacobsen, and with HoCoPoLitSo.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Consultant and producer of The Writing Life