Thursday, 19 February 2015

POET OF THE MONTH #25: Josephine Miles



All our roads go nowhere.
Maps are curled
To keep the pavement definitely
On the world.

All our footsteps, set to make
Metric advance,
Lapse into arcs of deference
To circumstance.

All our journeys nearing Space
Skirt it with care,
Shying at the distances
Present in air.

Blithely travel-stained and worn,
Erect and sure,
All our travelers go forth,
Making down the roads of Earth
Endless detour.

Trial Balances (?1960)

The Poet:  'Her work may begin,' critic David Shapiro wrote of American poet, educator and academic Josephine Miles, 'with an appearance as diminished or domestic as the doily, upholstery or curtains, but it ends as much moreIt is generous and full.  Abundant and not merely copious, it reminds us that the domestic scene is as rich as any wilderness.'  Another critic, Stephen Mooney, noted that Miles' poetry is 'always content to know reality on a human scaleThey are the words of a survivor.'  

Miles was definitely a survivor.  Born with a degenerative arthritic condition which forbade her from using a typewriter, drinking from a cup and even being left alone inside her own home, she nevertheless went on to forge successful careers as both a poet and an academic, eventually becoming the first woman to receive tenure from the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley.  In addition to publishing many highly regarded works of literary criticism –– including studies of William Wordsworth, John Donne and Ralph Waldo Emerson –– she also published twelve volumes of poetry between 1939 and 1983, including a Collected Works which included poems dating back as far as 1930.

The poet was born in Chicago on 11 June 1911 and moved to San Francisco soon afterwards when her father, an insurance agent, received a promotion which obliged him to base himself in that city.  Noticing that her hips were crooked, her surgeon grandfather operated on her to correct the problem when she was nine months old –– an operation which led to further complications after an intern failed to bandage a incision properly, causing infection to spread throughout her body.  Her father's employer soon transferred him again –– this time from California to the much colder state of Michigan, which saw Miles's damaged body suffer further depredations as the arthritis which was to plague her for the rest of her life now manifested itself and rapidly worsened.  Following a brief return to Chicago her parents moved again, this time to the warmer climate of Los Angeles where she was placed in traction, unable to sit normally or lie down for a year.  Her condition also prevented her from attending school, obliging her mother to tutor her until a suitable professional tutor could be found.  This proved to be an educational challenge for the super-intelligent Miles, as the majority of her tutors chose to regard her as an invalid, ignoring the fact that she had a sharp and lively mind and was, by the age of ten, a discriminating and wide-ranging reader.

Miles's condition improved enough by her teenage years to allow her to attend high school in a wheelchair.  She graduated in 1927 and enrolled at UCLA the following year, receiving a Bachelor's degree in English Literature in 1932 before moving north to complete her post-graduate degree at UC Berkeley.  She earned her PhD in 1935 and became an instructor at Berkeley in 1940, one year after publishing Lines of Intersection, her first book of poetry.

Being an English Professor at a 'progressive' campus like Berkeley brought Miles into contact, via her students, with poets either directly or indirectly aligned with the emerging Beat movement.  One of the first 'new' poets she met was Allen Ginsberg, who had traveled to California from New York to give readings of his work and to consider the possibility of enrolling as a graduate student at the university.  Ginsberg did not become a student but he did give Miles a copy of Howl, a new poem he told her he had recently completed.  When another visiting New Yorker, the scholar and poet John Eberhardt, asked Miles to recommend a new poet to him, she gladly gave him her copy of Ginsberg's soon-to-be notorious poem.  Eberhardt was impressed and wrote a glowing review of Howl for The New York Times –– a review which in turn encouraged a small, San Francisco based press known as City Lights Publishing to publish a short selection of Ginsberg's work.  Many critics still believe that the 1956 publication of Howl marked the beginning of mainstream literature's grudging acceptance of what, until then, had been viewed as nothing but a passing fad if not some kind of sick literary joke.

While she never became a Beat herself, fully accepted by the movement as one of its own, Miles did become influenced by the work of poets such as Ginsberg and her fellow Californian Gary Snyder.  'I think my poetry has gotten looser and freer in form than it was,' she once confided to an interviewer.  'I think I don't write as many clear endings.'  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s she continued to combine writing poetry with her academic activities, publishing many papers and book length works of criticism in addition to founding and editing several magazines devoted to poetry and other intellectual pursuits.  Her moderate political views made her something of an anomaly in Berkeley during the 1960s, when the struggles for civil rights and, in time, women's rights saw its students and her fellow faculty members become increasingly outspoken and, in many instances, politically and socially radicalized.  She served as an important link between the radical and conservative elements on the campus and, after becoming Berkeley's first tenured female Professor of English in 1972, took a leading role in the campaign to ensure that more women would be hired to serve on its faculty.  

Miles herself was named Professor Emerita in 1978, one of many honors –– including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, The American Council of Learned Societies and The Guggenheim Foundation –– awarded to her throughout her long and distinguished career.  She continued to live and write in Berkeley – in the house she bequeathed to the university which is now used to house the visiting Roberta C Holloway Lecturer in the Practice of Poetry –– until her death from pneumonia on 12 May 1985.  The PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award recognizing achievement in multicultural literature was established in her honor in 1991.

Click HERE to read more poetry by JOSEPHINE MILES at

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #18: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
POET OF THE MONTH #22: Fay Zwicky 
POET OF THE MONTH #20: Anna Swirszczynska 

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