Obituary: A. C. Jacobs

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The Independent Online
Arthur C. Jacobs, poet: born Glasgow 30 May 1937; died Madrid 17 March 1994.

A. C. JACOBS was to Scotland what Dannie Abse is to Wales, a highly individual poet with a distinctive non-metropolitan voice, writing directly out of the experience of his imaginings and the imaginings of his experience.

Jacobs was one of the best poets of Jewish inspiration writing in English, and an exceptionally gifted translator from the Hebrew. His output was small: one book of poems, The Proper Blessing, which my Menard Press had the honour of publishing in 1976 and which was reissued recently in an expanded version by Tim Gee Editions, and a translation of David Vogel's poetry, The Dark Gate, also published by Menard. There was a pamphlet from the smallest of small presses, John Rety's Hearing Eye Editions at the Torriano Meeting House, in Tufnell Park - a centre for regular poetry meetings of which Jacobs was an active member.

Jacobs was a shy and retiring man but he often appeared more woebegone and self-deprecating than he really was - and his lifelong asthma did not help matters. He could be very funny and was sharply perceptive about fellow writers. Another unexpected trait which became more noticeable over the years was his assertiveness about his work and, above all, his absolutely proper awareness of his own worth and seriousness as a poet.

I can see him now, at poetry readings and publishers' parties, standing quietly with a drink on the margin of the gathering, 'at a slight angle to the universe' (as Forster said of Cavafy), never at the centre of the social whirl. I can see him too at the small party I arranged at home to mark the publication of his wonderful book. The guests included Donald Macrae, the eminent Scottish sociologist and occasional poet, who told me later that he and his wife often read Jacobs's poems to each other late at night over a proper malt whisky. This best of all compliments to a poet delighted Jacobs of course.

Jacobs was a student in Glasgow of that legendary godfather of poets Philip Hobsbawn, and the best of his early work was published in Stand by another nurturer of young talent, Jon Silkin. Many of Jacobs's poems celebrate Jewish life or honour Jewish death, sometimes with a tartan tinge, always with a clear eye and keen wit, occasionally leavened by agnostic anxiety. Sprinkling the bread of affliction with the salt of hope, he drew on the psychohistorical resources of two minority heritages. Provincial in the best sense - ie with a deep awareness of the universal implications of local specificity - he was never parochial. 'Yom Kippur' ('the covenant / that keeps me fasting / but not in synagogue') is perhaps his most famous poem, and it has been published in several anthologies including the Yom Kippur prayerbook of the Reform Jewish movement. Prolific he was not, but his work projected a true voice of feeling, through a subtle synchromesh of sound, syntax and metre.

Born in Glasgow in 1937, Jacobs grew up in a traditional Jewish family and remained very close to his parents throughout his life. He lived variously in Israel, Scotland and Spain, as well as London. He never married but he had close friendships with several men and women, who appreciated his warmth, who honoured his strangeness, who mitigated his loneliness, who admired his hard-won work which survives him and will survive us.

(Photograph omitted)

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