Miles, Josephine 1911–
Miles is an American poet, critic, dramatist, and editor. A respected scholar as well as an accomplished poet, she produces poetry noted for its quiet understatement and simplicity of style. The reserved quality of her verse has often prompted Miles's detractors to criticise what they perceive to be a narrowness of poetic vision. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
One of Josephine Miles's earlier poems is called "On Inhabiting an Orange." This poem, as much as any other in Miss Miles's early work, establishes a way of looking at the world that has made the total work possible up to the present. The world. Reality is too big to see all at once. But successive views of Reality are possible through the perusal and contemplation of segments or aspects or steps, and the poem can find a form within philosophic Reality without letting go of the tangible world at all. (p. 21)
[Miles's poems are] crisp and kind, modest but sometimes gnomic, and always content to know reality on a human scale. There is nothing superhuman in the poems. They are the words of a survivor. The superhuman goes down; the human seems to continue.
Josephine Miles's particular segment of the globe is America and, more particularly, parts of California, chiefly the cities. Proper names are abundant….
Josephine Miles travels in and out of stores, harbors, streets, skies. The people in her poems (perhaps it is one person) buy shoes, look at beauty parlor signs, turn their attention to the sky, consider the smoke abatement problem, and discover housing projects. What kind of consciousness comes of turning the external globe around and watching it with so much human attention? Nothing didactic, nor programmatically social. Rather, we find the sense of a world grown inward, accepted for itself with...
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Kinds of Affection comes to us as a confirmation and an extension of Josephine Miles's best work. In this … book we again confront a poetry that is confident and skilled enough to consider no field of knowledge hostile to poetry and no poetic type sacredly or safely defined. The poems are at ease in a world that increasingly has had to acknowledge the sciences and social sciences as bedfellows of the humanities. As the poems hover between parable and conceit, and lyric and dialogue, they indicate how easy they can be with the shifting faces which the world may put on.
The poems in this … volume reveal the same scrutinizing delineation of Miss Miles's earlier verse. Such delineation, frequently taking the form of linguistic or metaphysical play(fulness), moves toward a poetry of vision in which seeing is made to accommodate things strange and even unpleasant. And the measure of that accommodation is the peculiar way in which the poet comes to her world….
Josephine Miles has always proceeded, or given the impression of proceeding, obliquely in her world. But when the poems in Kinds of Affection utilize an attraction of mind to abstract exercise and conundrum, they do so in connection with the release of a fund of feeling conspicuously absent or too implicit in some of her earlier poems. To a manner of proceeding has been joined a sense of increasing substance and cost. The poems in Kinds of...
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[Josephine Miles's] "To All Appearances" (keep your eye on the title as you read her) is a noteworthy publication, especially for critics who may have taken Miss Miles too readily at her own word in the past: the empiricist prepared to eliminate from her verse all the felicities save those of the denotative voice. She had her tongue in her cheek. Among the new poems in this collection are some scarlet with indignation, if you read them properly. Miss Miles is excruciatingly personal, never solipsistic; she is engagé but not yours for the keeping; her accent is mid-west; she sees ghost goal-keepers. (p. 592)
Vernon Young, "The Body of Man," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975…76, pp. 585-98.∗
Josephine Miles's new and selected poems ["To All Appearances"] show a quirky commenting mind still finding things of interest in the American scene, reliving in verse the Berkeley riots…. There is a need for more poems of this sort, poems, so to speak, of the day's news, now largely a preserve of interested propagandists. But Miles can also be metaphysical, as in her fine poem on teaching, "Paths," about "going out into the fields of learning":
Ant labors, hopper leaps away;
too early for the bee,
The spider's silk hypotheses
"The spider's silk hypotheses" is worthy of Emily Dickinson, whose voice, in its dryer tone, has entered Miles's voice as well; but Miles is more humane than Dickinson in her parables, of which my favorite is about the drowning man (in a poem called "Family") who hollers "help," caught in the undertow, while his unconscious family reply blandly:
Hello, they will say,
Come back here for some
For all its comedy and factuality (two qualities present in all Miles's verse) the poem has the ring of moral truth…. Miles has strict expectations of the world, a comic sense of her own unrealistic hopes, a stern judgment of her own failings, and an observant birdlike interest in classes of people unlike herself. She lacks the sweeter side of verse (or when it comes, it has an uncertainty about it) but her enterprise and sense of art are sure…. [Miles's poems] are almost too well-wrought, without yet having the inevitability of the best-wrought, but they never lack intelligence or feeling. (pp. 32-3)
Helen Vendler, "A Quarter of Poetry," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1975, pp. 4-5, 29-38.∗
Parables, according to [theologian C. H.] Dodd, are "illustrations … designed to provoke thought rather than to close the question." Many of Josephine Miles's New and Selected Poems would fit Dodd's description very well. The didactic freshness of her poems makes them a complex pleasure, because, for her, pleasure itself is complex…. Her work may begin with an appearance as diminished or domestic as the doily, upholstery or curtains, but it ends as much more than a remark or perception, but rather as a little sermon without a pulpit. Her demotic phrases may be daunting, but her poetry is concerned with the value of fact and the fact of value. It is a rich collection and capable of a Dantesque fierceness. (pp. 230-31)
Josephine Miles's poetry is generous and full. Abundant and not merely copious, it reminds us that the domestic scene is as rich as any wilderness…. Laurence Lieberman has remarked on the poet's desire for and belief in a "community of the heart" and in Josephine Miles's best work the slowly revealed parable is a model for such cohesiveness, and slowly unveiled intimacies. Her poetry speaks of the ambiguities of unity, in which it is possible to question, sadly and fully: "Am I going away to your nearest distance?"
In Josephine Miles, the satisfactory and the unsatisfactory, as topics, the traditional resource and our agonies of resourcelessness, mingle and make a moderate poetry. Our favorite notion is that of a poetry open and flexible and never merely free, a poetry of wholeness conjuring up that recalcitrant old concept of sophrosyne. This maximalism in an age of competing minimalisms might be our curiously unprogrammatic programme. The only thing eclecticism cannot contain adequately is the advantage of dogmatics, but we will accept this deficiency. (pp. 231-32)
David Shapiro, "Into the Gloom," in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXVIII, No. 4, July, 1976, pp. 226, 230-32.∗
[Josephine Miles] is focused on American promises, but hers is the carved ivory rather than the bow-wow strain. In "Ride," for example, she describes her relation to the land realized from the dreams of Adams and Jefferson:
It's not my world, I grant, but I made it.
It's not my ranch, lean oak, buzzard crow,
Not my fryers, mixmaster, well-garden.
And now it's down the road and I made it.
It's not your rackety car but you drive it.
It's not your four-door, top-speed, white-wall tires,
Not our state, not even, I guess, our nation,
But now it's down the road, and...
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