Arts Listings

Books: Josephine Miles: Berkeley’s Emily Dickinson? By Phil McArdle Special to the Planet

Tuesday February 28, 2006

In the middle of the 20th century a happy coincidence made Berkeley home to two poets, Josephine Miles (1911-1985) and Alan Ginsberg, who bore at least a passing resemblance to a pair of their celebrated predecessors, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. 

By common agreement, Emily Dickinson, spinster, and Walt Whitman, roustabout, are the two great American poets of the 19th century. Whitman wrote the grandly expansive Leaves of Grass; Ginsberg roamed the American landscape, protesting loudly against our follies. Emily Dickinson spent her life in a small Massachusetts town, writing short, intense, unpublished poems; Josephine Miles also led what seemed to be a quiet a life here in Berkeley. She too wrote brief, highly chiseled poems. 

When you notice this parallel, it is irresistible, but it is mostly evocative. It breaks down as soon as you look at it in detail. Emily Dickinson did live and die in obscurity, but Josephine Miles had a long and successful career at a major university. She was, in her way, a public figure, and she published a lot of poetry and prose. 

Josephine Miles came to Berkeley from UCLA in 1932 to do graduate work, teach, and write poetry. She taught in the English Department for 38 years, 1940 to 1978, and was the first female professor to receive tenure. During her lifetime her poetry and criticism earned solid respect. When her Collected Poems appeared, she was saluted for the freshness, simplicity, and colloquial quality of her work. 

To achieve this she overcame obstacles even more daunting than the social barriers that confined Emily Dickinson. Afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 2, her life was a perpetual struggle against an unrelenting disease. As Thom Gunn wrote, “The unavoidable first fact about Josephine Miles was physical. As a young child she contracted a form of degenerative arthritis so severe that it left her limbs deformed and crippled. As a result, she could not be left alone in a house, she could not handle a [coffee] mug...she could not use a typewriter; and she could neither walk nor operate a wheelchair.” 

Her appearance was shocking, so much so that her secretary tried to protect her from the unguarded reactions of students seeing her for the first time. She was my advisor in the early ‘60s, and when I came for my first meeting with her, the secretary gave me what I suppose were the standard warnings. I’m grateful that she did, even though they didn’t fully prepare me. When I entered her office I encountered a very small person who appeared to be propped up behind her desk. She was rather gray. Her body seemed shrunken. She had a large head, a round face, and notably large eyes. But she had a friendly demeanor, and her conversation was so involving that within minutes she put me at ease, and I ceased to be aware of her physical debilities. 

A sociable person, she enjoyed teaching and the company of students. In a poem called “Retrospective,” she says of her teaching career, “...a quarter-century of Chaucer went very fast.” I think she depended on contact with students for some kinds of knowledge of the world. Once, when Hemingway and Fitzgerald came up in a conversation, she asked me what I thought of Hemingway’s suicide (still a recent event). I replied that it surprised me, and she zeroed in on this, questioning and probing from different angles for the meaning of my surprise. Well, of course, I didn’t know what his death meant, hadn’t thought about it carefully, and had nothing responsible to say. Her questions quickly took me beyond my depth, and my answers must have disappointed her. After awhile, mercifully, she let it go. 

Subsequently it seemed to me that I had been, momentarily, her channel to the world of young people—even to the youth of the nation—and she had given me the responsibility of explaining their point of view on that tragedy. Because conversation was essential to her, she placed enormous value on real communication, and I felt vaguely as though I’d let her down. When I came to read this tough-minded poem, I thought of that occasion: 


The doctor who sits at the bedside of a rat 

Obtains real answers—a paw twitch, 

An ear tremor, a gain or loss of weight. 

No problem as to which 

Is temper and which is true. 

What a rat feels, a rat will do. 


Concomitantly then, the doctor who sits 

At the bedside of a rat Asks real questions, as befits 

The place, like Where did that potassium go, not What  

Do you think of Willie Mays or the weather? 

So rat and doctor may converse together.” 


Were we having a real conversation? Was “what do you think about Hemingway’s suicide” a real question? At that moment she was the doctor (of literature). Was I the rat? How many of us were her rats? Hmmm.  

Some years later, when I was writing an article about Louis Simpson, she gave me a marvelous interview which I count as an instance of her real generosity. Simpson had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1961, the year he came to Berkeley. He was known to local writers as one of the editors of The New Poets of England and America (1957). This enormously successful anthology seemed likely to give the poets in it a big advantage in audience recognition for decades to come. But there weren’t any Bay Area poets in it (except Thom Gunn, who was grouped with the English)! Local wounds were still bleeding when Simpson arrived; some people felt as though the enemy had occupied the town. He later complained about the clannishness of Bay Area poets, and wrote that he felt isolated in Berkeley. 

But Josephine Miles befriended him. In that wonderful interview, she told me she was surprised to read of his discontent in Berkeley. She spent many pleasant evenings with him and his wife and their friends in spirited discussions of the arts and the issues of the day. But, she said, she saw less and less of him as he became more involved in writing, anthologizing, and publishing. 

Once she went with him to a reading by Robert Duncan, and Simpson asked her, “Where are all the local writers? In New York everybody would treat this as an important event.” “I looked around and saw writers all over the hall,” she said, “It was just that Simpson did not recognize them! But if he had known more people, he might have written less.” Before returning to New York he gave a reading of his own work, and introduced what she remembered as “wonderful, wonderful poems.” “I’m glad,” she said, “those were Berkeley poems.” 

In the 1960s, beginning with the poems in Kinds of Affection, her own writing showed the influence of beat writers. It became less elliptical, more assessable. “Looser and freer in form,” in her own words. She also began to address local public issues, such as the ecology of San Francisco Bay. One of her most widely read poems, “Saving the Bay,” begins: 


When I telephoned a friend, her husband told me 

She’s not here tonight, she’s out saving the Bay. 

She is sitting and listening in committee chambers, 

Maybe speaking, with her light voice From the fourteenth row, about where 

The birds and fish will go if we fill in the Bay.” 


She wrote some of the finest poems inspired by the anti-war protests that engulfed Berkeley for so long. I’ve always thought her decent, loving concern for the well-being of the students, and her apprehension as to the outcome of some protests, was most eloquently expressed in “My Fear in the Crowd:”  


The thousand people stand in the sunlight, 

They are taking in the messages of the speakers 

Deliberately, they are weighing the judgments, 

They are making up their minds...” 


But there are many others equally as vivid, including “Witness,” “Officers,” and “Memorial Day.” 

She left her home to the university for use as a residence for visiting poets and a place for them to conduct informal seminars for student writers. Known as the Berkeley Writers’ Center, it was one of her final gifts to the university she had come to love. 

The editors of California Poetry see Josephine Miles as belonging to a line of poets that started with Emily Dickinson, and continued with Marianne Moore, Stevie Smith and Elizabeth Bishop. They quote Julia Randall’s description of them as “a company of eccentric, independent and unabashedly single ladies.” This seems fair enough, except for the word “eccentric.” It never seemed to me that there was anything odd or erratic about Josephine Miles. In her own anthology, The Poem, she distinguished herself from Emily Dickinson by describing Dickinson’s profession as “recluse.” If she had put any of her own poetry in that book, she would have identified herself as “poet and teacher” or “activist.”