Josephine Miles Essay - Critical Essays


Josephine Miles’s poetry reflects both her political involvement in liberal causes and her intense concern with the sounds and structures of English. Over the decades of her writing, the poems became less formal and closed as their political content increased. Her topics shifted from minute observations of daily activities to analysis of the poet’s role in the chaotic contemporary world. Nevertheless, even her most strident political poems show careful craftsmanship and attention to sound.

Miles’s first published poems are tightly structured and intellectually dense. Her often-anthologized “On Inhabiting an Orange,” published in the anthology Trial Balances in 1935, precedes her first collection. “All our roads go nowhere,” the poem begins. “Maps are curled/ To keep the pavement definitely/ On the world.” Because of these conditions, people’s plans for “metric advance” must “lapse into arcs in deference/ to circumstance.” The poem develops its single metaphor with clarity and sureness, using common metaphysical geometric images to provide the pleasure afforded by this kind of poetry. It is not surprising that her first work received two awards, the Shelley Memorial Award and the Phelan Memorial Award.

Lines at Intersection

Her first collection, Lines at Intersection, is a series of poems of everyday events arranged by time of day—morning poems, noon poems, evening poems. The individual works are mostly formal in structure, but they are more impressionistic than the early poems, and their music is subtler. These poems incorporate such devices as internal rhymes, unusual metrical patterns, Dickinsonian slant rhymes, and incremental repetition. The poems are personal but not intimate, providing new perspective on such familiar things as the morning paper, the door-to-door salesman, baseball games, and theater performances. A few of the poems still show her preoccupation with mathematics and geometry, while others foretell one of her future concerns: the world of business, which was to become a major metaphor for the contemporary world. Lines at Intersection was well received, with favorable reviews in Poetry and elsewhere.

Poems on Several Occasions

Miles’s second collection, Poems on Several Occasions, shows a marked divergence from her earlier work in content. These poems, too, are arranged by time of day, and they also represent the life cycle from birth to death; moreover, these poems use the same stylistic devices as those of her earlier collection. This group, however, begins to define Miles’s social commitments. By this time, Miles was becoming more aware of the inequalities, injustices, and false promises of contemporary America. Her titles show her new perspective: “Market Report on Cotton Gray Goods,” “Committee Report on Smoke Abatement in Residential Area,” “Committee Decision on Pecans for Asylum.” The United States in these poems is as unattractive as that depicted by Allen Ginsberg in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and often for the same reasons. Business transactions take the place of personal contact, and there is a vast gap between what society would provide and what people want and need. Yet the poems are by and large wistful and do not actively suggest interference with the processes of oppression.

Local Measures

Local Measures marks a change in style: These poems are more conversational and irregular than Miles’s earlier works. Their subjects include daily observations, social topics, and the relation of art to life. More of these poems are free verse or highly individualized forms. Dancing and motion pictures are analogues to poetry; the collection, written while Miles was working on her analysis of poetic forms in different periods of history, reflects her own search...

(The entire section is 1588 words.)