Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1588
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 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 for a form appropriate to herself and her time. The mutual reflection of art and life is a theme approached again and again, as in “Redemption.” Films, dances, even the jewelry that appears in these poems show Miles’s attempts to define and thus master the process of creation.
Prefabrications combines her concerns for art and the social world. This rich and varied collection of sixty poems demonstrates the sense of community and continuity she was developing in the poetic theory on which she was working at the same time. Some of these poems, such as “The Plastic Glass,” express the belief that the essentially human transcends the shabbiness and emptiness of life’s surfaces. Others, such as “The Student,” seek a source or definition of that humaneness, often using metaphors and images that are accessible to all but particularly compelling to academics. Indeed, in this and other poems in the collection, the academic life itself becomes a metaphor of the teaching-learning dialogue with the world. Some of the poems are about art. “Two Kinds of Trouble,” a long poem, compares the social structures that made it hard for Michelangelo to communicate his vision with the problems of contemporary artists—a different kind of trouble.
Miles’s Poems, 1930-1960 included selections from all her earlier books and a new group of poems, “Neighbors and Constellations,” for the most part negative assessments of the possibility of meaningful intercourse among members of the human community. These poems, however, marked a turning point in her attitude, and the next collections showed a more active involvement in causes combined with a belief in the possibility of success.
Civil Poems and Kinds of Affection
Civil Poems and Kinds of Affection show that Miles was in and of Berkeley in the 1960’s. These two collections center on pollution, poverty, destruction of beauty for purposes of greed, experimentation with animals, gun control, the war, the bomb, technology. An index to these poems would please nostalgia buffs, but the poems are less calls to action than expressions of the notion that social involvements are in fact ways of loving, or “kinds of affection.” Among references to Dag Hammarskjöld, Molotov cocktails, and other hallmarks of the time, Miles returns again and again to the subject of commonality, the sharing underneath that survives all divisions.
Fields of Learning
Fields of Learning does not diverge greatly from the previous two collections, but it includes more science and slightly less politics. The world of these poems is filled with deoxyribonucleic acid, free neutrons, and gravitational electromagnetic fields. Yet despite their heavy freight of theoretical physics and technology, these poems are still accessible. They communicate a sense of human potential that exists not because of, but in spite of, technological advancement.
To All Appearances
To All Appearances, while still political, is in many respects a return to earlier themes. Many of these are quiet poems of family and friendship. Their form is (usually) free verse, but in content the work is often reminiscent of Local Measures. One of the most memorable of the group is “Conception,” which begins:
Death did not come to my motherLike an old friend.She was a mother, and she mustConceive him.
The poem elaborates on its controlling metaphor, as do some of Miles’s earliest poems, but here the appeal is as much emotional as it is intellectual. In general, these poems seem more direct than her earlier work. She uses “I” often in poems of reflection on her experiences inside and outside the university community.
Coming to Terms
Miles’s last major collection (exclusive of her Collected Poems, 1930-1983) was Coming to Terms in 1979. This powerful collection gathers together the many strands of her lifelong preoccupations and weaves them into a single fabric. These are poems of social and aesthetic interest, asking the broadest questions and providing penetrating answers. The critics received the work with highest praise; Miles’s last years were filled with honors and awards. More than one reviewer found the long poem “Center” to be Miles’s strongest work. The poem poses the question “What are we here for?”—“we” being poets, creators, and humane visionaries. Her answer, not unlike that of the God in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1838), is that we are here to make the best mistakes:
Give us to errGrandly as possible in this completeComplex of structure, risk a soulNobly in north light, in cello tone . . .
The result of such risk and error is a re-vision, a new perspective from which to view the possible. Human creativity in all its forms becomes a medium “To take, as a building, as a fiction, takes us,/ Into another frame of space/ Where we can ponder, celebrate, and reshape.” Miles’s late view of poetry as process, or becoming, is similar to Wallace Stevens’s final aesthetic. In this poem, Miles shows her own adjustment of vision, from the downward glance at the fatal curve of Earth in “On Inhabiting an Orange” to the upward and outward vistas of the possible from “the center.”
Collected Poems, 1930-1983
Collected Poems, 1930-1983 gives an overall view of Miles’s development and includes her last poems, for the most part scenes of Berkeley and of the university. (She lived only about a year after the appearance of this volume, which was popular as well as critically acclaimed and earned her the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.) Her careful craftsmanship and metrical felicity can be appreciated in this final publication, a well-edited work that illustrates the range of her poetic gift. Her “search for a common language” antedated Adrienne Rich’s better-known one and combined some of the same ingredients. This collection shows how her hopes for community within human society paralleled her search for what she called “commonality” in language. Her intellectually and emotionally persuasive metaphors, her subtle music, and the potency and optimism of her later work make Miles a significant contributor to twentieth century American poetry.
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