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Rolf Jacobsen (1907-1994)


Norwegian poet and journalist. Rolf Jacobsen's career as a writer spanned more than fifty years. He was one of Scandinavia’s most distinguished poets, who launched poetic modernism in Norway with his first book, Jord og jern (1933). Central theme in his work is the balance between nature and technology – he was called "the Green Poet" in Norwegian literature.

"The special quality of Jacobsen's poetry has to do with his probing examination of the ways of the modern world. He may be critical of what he sees, but the rich implications of his poetic language show that there are no easy solutions, no simple attitudes. At times his language is almost clinical  the poems are simply a list of images, comparisons, contrasts; at times it is filled with compassion and love for the seemingly unimportant and small things around us, without which life would be even more lonely." (Hans H. Skei in Contemporary World Writers, edited by Tracy Chevalier, 1993)

Rolf Jacobsen was born in Oslo (then called Kristiania), the son of Martin Julius Jacobsen, who had completed both medical and dental school, and Marie (Nielsen) Jacobsen, a nurse. At the age of six he moved with his family to Flisa, in the munincipal district of Åsnes, where Martin Jacobsen had obtained a post as a school dentist. Rolf was educated by his mother, who had completed one year of teacher's training. In 1920 he returned to Olso, where he entered a private school. During these years he was looked after by his uncle, a railway engineer. Jacobson continued his studies at the University of Oslo for five years without graduating. In 1927 he served in the Norwegian army for six weeks.

Jacobsen's Jord og jern (Earth and Iron), written in free verse, introduced the urban world, racing cars, airplanes, and electrical turbines. The title of the collection, Earth and Iron, also suggest an interlinked relationship between nature and technology. Because of the choice of his subjects, Jacobsen's work was connected to Marineti and futurism, but his view was all but romantic. He did not feel euphoria over modern inventions, the beauty of "a roaring motorcar, which runs like a machine-gun," but saw the relationship between machines and human civilization more complex.  Vibrating telephone poles, which capture the signals from space, appear beautiful on the outside but inside they convey agonizing thoughts.

Jacobsen returned in 1934 to Flisa to take care of his father. He had joined a socialist intellectual group, Clarté, and in Åsnes he became a member of the Labor Party Leadership for Hedmark County. Jacobsen worked for the daily newspaper Kongsvinder Arbeiderblad, which was supported by Labor. Jacobson's second collection of poems, Vrimmel (1935), revealed his underlying dismay at the modern civilization. He rejected Marinetti's manifesto, "We wish to glory war...", but predicted the ominous emergence of the gas masks and machine guns. Jacobsen's early diverse literary and other artistic influences included the poetic Edda, Carel Capek's play R.U.R., and Carl Sandburg's poetry. After Wrimmel Jacobsen fell silent as a poet for 16 years.

"I am the one you have loved for so many years.
I walk beside you all day and look intently at you 
and put my mouth against your heart
though you're not aware of it."
(from 'Guardian Angel,' in Hemmelig liv, 1954)

In 1940 Jacobsen married Petra Tendø; they had two sons. When his parents'  marriage did not succeed, Jacobsen's own marriage was harmonious. His wife died in 1985. In his last book, Nattapent (1995), Jacobsen recalled their life together: "Whoever loves for years / hasn't lived in vain." Mostly due to these touching poems, the collection became a bestseller.

World War II was a dark period in Jacobsen's life. Norway was invaded by Germany in 1940. Vidkun Quisling, who had close ties with German Nazi leaders, was appointed prime minister by the Germans. Norwegian population remained firmly anti-Nazi. Quisling was later executed for high treason. During the war Jacobsen signed and published in Kongsvinger Arbeiderblad editorials that supported the German occupiers. He was also a member of Norwegian National Socialist party. It is probably true that Jacobsen never accepted the cult of the Führer or the Holocaust. When Norway was again free from the Nazis, Jacobsen was convicted of treason and sentenced to three-and-a-half years at hard labor. He wasn't the only author condemned – the Nobel writer Knut Hamsun was arrested for some time, and transferred to a psychiatric clinic in Oslo.

After the war and hardships, Jacobsen settled in Hamar, a city about 60 miles north of Oslo, where he spent much of the rest of his life. He worked as a bookseller for ten years, and then as a journalist and night editor for the newspaper Hamar Stifstidende. In 1950 he converted to Roman Catholicism. Jacobsen's third collection of poems, Fjertog (Express train), came out in 1951. The poems were traditional in form. In this work and in Hemmelig liv (1954), Jacobsen expressed his troubled compassion of the world around him. "The age of the great symphonies / is over," he wrote in a poem. New themes were the rough and lonely Norwegian scenery and the vulnerability of the nature. 'Landscape with Steam Shovels' became one of his best-known pieces: "They're eating up my woods. / Six steam shovels came and started eating up my woods. / God help me! what creatures they are. Heads / without eyes and eyes in their rumps."

Jacobsen praised the blessings of little, unfashionable joys and viewed ironically consumer society: "The glass person lives in the kingdom of light, / full of beauty, but sterile / as an aesthetician." Sometimes he used humor, sometimes his poems had hymnlike solemnity. In Hamar Jacobsen lived in an old wooden house near Lake Mjøsa and the railroad. These surroundings he also described in his poems. Railroads inspired Jacobsen from his first collection, which did not go unnoticed by the Norwegian State Railway – as a response to his work, Jacobsen received a pass for a free trip each year.   Jacobson's later books include Pass for dørene - dørene lukkes (1972), Pusteøvelse (1975), and Tenk på noe annet (1979). In the course of his long career, Jacobsen received many honors, among them membership in the Norwegian Academy of Language and Literature, the Doubloug Prize (1968), the Grand Nordic Prize (1989) from the Swedish Academy. – Jacobsen died on February 20, 1994. His poetry has been translated into more than twenty languages.

For further reading: Stier med lavmælt lys: om Rolf Jacobsens diktning, ed. by Hanne Lillebo (2007); Kjente jeg deg?: en bok om Rolf Jacobsen by Trond Tendø Jacobsen (2007); Encyclopedia of the World Literature, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Rolf Jacobsen: en dikter og hans skygge by Ove Røsbak (1998): Ord må en omvei: En biografi om Rolf Jacobsen by Hanne Lillebo (1998); Rolf Jacobsen. En dikter og hans skygge by Ove Røsbak (1998); "Forundring, trofasthet": poetisk tenkning i Rolf Jacobsens lyrikk by Erling Aadland (1996); World Authors 1985-1990, ed. by Vineta Colby (1995); Rolf Jacobsen: en stifinner i hverdagen by Olav Vesaas (1994); A History of Norwegian Literature, ed. by H.S. Naess (1993); Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); 'Interview with Rolf Jacobsen' by Olav Grinde, in South Dakota Review, 21;1 (1982).  Note: quotations from Jacobsen's poems are from The Silence Afterwards (1985) and The Roads Have Come to an End Now (2001).  See also Finnish Fururism: Mika Waltari and Olavi Paavolainen.

Selected bibliography:

  • Jord og jern: dikt, 1933 [Earth and Iron]
  • Vrimmel: dikt, 1935 [Swarm]
  • Fjerntog: dikt, 1951 [Express train]
  • Hemmelig liv: dikt, 1954 [Secret life]
  • Sommeren i gresset: dikt, 1956 [Summer in the grass]
  • Brev til lyset, 1960 [Letter to the light]
  • Stilheten efterpå...: Dikt, 1965 - The Silence Afterwards: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen (tr. Roger Grenwald, 1985)
  • Dikt i utvalg, 1967 [Selected poems]
  • Headlines: Dikt, 1969 [Headlines]
  • Pass for dørene - dørene lukkes: Dikt, 1972 [Watch the doors - the doors are closing]
  • Samlede dikt, 1973 [Collected poems]
  • Pusteøvelse: Dikt, 1975 - Breathing Exercise (tr. Olav Grinde, 1985)
  • Den ensomme veranda og andre dikt, 1977 (illustrated by Finn Graff)
  • Twenty Poems, 1977 (tr. Robert Bly)
  • Tenk på noe annet: dikt, 1979 [Think about something else]
  • Samlede dikt, 1982
  • Nattåpent: dikt, 1985 [Night watch]
  • Samlede dikt, 1986
  • Alle mine dikt, 1990 (illustrated by Anne-Lise Knoff) [All My Poems]
  • Liv laga, 1991 (with Dag Hoel)
  • Night Open: Selected Poems, 1993 (tr. Olav Grinde)
  • Night Music: Poems by Rolf Jacobsen, 1994 (tr. Robert Hedin)
  • En liten kvast med tusenfryd og fire rare løk: ukjente dikt og tekster 1925-1993, 1996 (ed. Hanne Lillebo) [A little cluster of daisies and four strange bulbs]
  • Did I Know You?, 1997 (translated by Roger Greenwald)
  • Samlede dikt, 1999
  • The Roads Have Come to an End Now: Selected and Last Poems of Rolf Jacobsen, 2001 (tr. Robert Bly, Roger Greenwald, and Robert Hedin)
  • North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen, 2002 (bilingual edition, tr. Roger Greenwald)

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