I stumbled across Josephine Miles when I was writing a paper about Elizabeth Bishop and her use of adjectives. Miles wrote the book Major Adjectives in English Poetry — from Wyatt to Auden (1946). The book is impressive, and must have taken a tremendous amount of time to prepare, seeing that she identified, counted, and catalogued all the adjectives in a large number of poems to create representative “most used adjectives” lists for each major figure. It may sound like a trite exercise but in fact it isn’t. If you have a chance, look at the book — it’s very interesting. (The University of Southern Mississippi has one copy in their special collections.)
Miles was not just interested in the theory and criticism of poetry, she was also a prolific poet. She sounds like one of those intimidatingly bright people: the first woman to achieve tenure at Berkley, by the time she was given tenure she had published a number of books and papers. That in itself is remarkable, but add that she suffered from debilitating arthritis from childhood onwards, and it seems like a miraculous feat. I can only assume (and this is speculation on my part) that the inability to be physically active caused her to focus all her energy on the mental and creative work she produced. Miles taught a number of prolific poets and supported poetry where she could — she helped Alan Ginsberg get Howl published, to drop just one big name. But what about her poetry?
My pleasure reading for the Christmas break, so far, other than a few old issues of Superman and the Fantastic Four from the good old comic book store, has been Miles’ To All Appearances — Poems New and Selected (1974). (Yes, the color scheme dates the book very accurately…)
One poem I particularly enjoyed (in part because I was reading it as I was waiting for the ever-elusive bus) is “Driver Saying,” so here goes:
Lady hold your horses, sit down in your seat, / Wrap your feet around the leg of the chair, / Even in my heart I can feel your heart beat.
We move, however, on schedule of need / Of the general public, see, standing on the corner there, / Holding hats, lifting canes, cutting down our speed.
Lady calm down, we’ll be stopping and starting / On your nerves and my brakes ten corners more, / There’ll be plenty feet to watch climbing up and departing.
There is also a good signboard at the Filmart / To look at and keep your mind on when we pass there. / Lady, even in second I can hear your heart.
From what I’ve read I can see why Miles would take an interest in Bishop — they are, in some ways, kindred pens. The straight-forwardness of the language, the attention to rhythm and natural flow are definite similarities in their respective styles.
Some poems are shocking in their imagery, their awareness of the suffering and injustice caused by war, but Miles is just as aware of individual, every-day drama. The poem “Witness,” for example, speaks of students “Gassed going between classes,” of the impossibility to really tell without dying. The poem “Family” on the other hand speaks of a moment on a beach, where the whole trip’s purpose is to spend ‘family time’ together, and yet the family fail to see that the speaker is about to drown:
When you swim in the surf off Seal Rocks, and your family / Sits in the sand / Eating potato salad, and the undertow / Comes which takes you out away down / To loss of breath loss of play and the power of play / Holler, say / Help, help, help. Hello, they will say, / Come back here for some potato salad.
This seemingly simple first stanza uses a few little tricks I like, for example the omission of commas between “loss of breath” and “loss of play” and “the power of play,” thus recreating the breathlessness of the moment of panic. Commas would cause a reader to pause, and there is no room for pauses here. Also notice the playful line break after “undertow.” And of course the unpunctuated, unseparated set of adjectives: “out away down” — this is a chaotic, powerful motion, pulling the body not just one direction at a time. The grouping, again without the commas (which in this case would suggest a succession of movements) recreates the disorienting, chaotic motion that’s working on the swimmer’s body. I shan’t leave you in suspense — here’s the second and final stanza to the poem:
It is then that a seventeen year old cub / Cruising in a helicopter from Antigua, / A jackstraw expert speaking only Swedish / And remote from this area as a camel, says / Look down there, there is somebody drowning. / And it is you. You say, yes, yes, yes, / And he throws you a line. / This is what is called the brotherhood of man.
From what I’ve seen, this is typical of Miles’ work: short, simple, elegant, well-thought-out poems. I’ve really enjoyed reading this.