Born 11 June 1911, Chicago, Illinois; died 12 May 1985, Berkeley, California
Daughter of Reginald O. and Josephine Lackner Miles
Josephine Miles was descended from an English business family that came to America on the Mayflower. Her mother studied history and education with John Dewey at the University of Chicago. Miles attended public schools in Los Angeles and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1932. She received an M.A. (1934) and Ph.D. (1938) from the University of California at Berkeley and joined the Berkeley faculty in 1940. She retired, university professor emerita, in 1978.
Miles began writing poems at age eight. In high school, she gained a strong foundation in Latin and Greek poetry, followed in college by rigorous training in literary history. During early graduate study, Miles developed her compelling interests in poetic language and form. The metaphysical poets and Yeats led her own early verse in a direction counter to that of a number of her contemporaries. Later, the writing of Neruda and Rilke offered in subject and approach modern alternatives to the more oblique expression of the metaphysical poets. The contemporary poets she has regarded most highly include Eberhart, Rukeyser, Levertov, Dickey, Stafford, Nathan, and Ammons. Those characteristics Miles identified as important in their verse—incisiveness, factualness, simplicity, power, and lyricism—are evident in her own finest poems. Miles has received distinguished awards for her poetry and for her literary scholarship, among them a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for poetry (1956), the Fellowship of the American Academy of Poets (1978), and election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980).
Miles' doctoral dissertation, "Wordsworth and the Vocabulary of Emotion," was published in 1942. In this systematic study, Miles establishes a historical and quantitative approach to criticism based on a method she later refined and applied to other poets and eras and to prose style as well. By "counting the number of previously established names of emotion and standard signs of emotion in every poem, group, and in the complete poetical works" of a poet, the literary scholar could, Miles demonstrates, formulate a more scientific, evidential basis for analyzing the relationship of thought and feeling in an era and the specific vocabulary a poet considered "poetic." In Style and Proportion (1966), by tabulating numerous British and American writers' use of adjectives, nouns, verbs, and connectives, Miles recognizes "three styles distinguishable on the basis of structural choice: the predicative, the connective-subordinate, and the adjectival." At times reluctant to acknowledge the prior necessity of such tabulation, some scholars have praised Miles' aesthetic criticism and insight into the social nature of language at the expense of appreciation of the scientific method she employed in describing English poetry from the 16th century to the present.
Miles' approach to what she calls "verse composition" is often determined by "the idea of speech…people talking…as the material from which poetry is made." In an early poem, "Speaker," the voice admits: "My talking heart talked less of what it knew / Than what it saw." What is known in many of Miles' poems is conveyed obliquely by what is observed in commonplace landscapes. Long a city resident, Miles includes in these landscapes the repeated sights of urban life. In "Entry," the quantifiable city where "the small matter is put down already / To depreciation" is contrasted with the country, a place of hints and expectation. Noting in her work a subtle satiric gift, Louise Bogan pointed to the indirect way Miles drew meaning from "the parking lot, the motel…the supermarket, and the service station."
Miles' poetry has not received the critical attention it deserves, although reviews of Coming to Terms (1979) and Collected Poems, 1930-1983 (1983), were uniformly laudatory. It is difficult to generalize about Miles's writing except to note its condensation, craft, unexpected juxtaposition of images, pleasure in "the space and active interplay of talk," and—in recent volumes—willingness to employ more irregular form and an increasingly more direct political and ethical stance. Negative criticism of her work has centered on a miscellaneous quality of a number of the poems, as well as a control which has seemed to some to force a too moderate, reasonable, and civil response. However, longer poems, such as "Two Kinds of Trouble (for Michelangelo)," "Ten Dreamers in a Motel," and "Views from Gettysburg," show Miles capable of sustaining and varying form.
Lines at Intersection (1939). Poems on Several Occasions (1941). Pathetic Fallacy in the Nineteenth Century (1942). Wordsworth and the Vocabulary of Emotion (1942, 1976). Local Measures (1946). The Vocabulary of Poetry: Three Studies (1946). Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment (edited by Miles, with M. Schorer and G. McKenzie, 1948, revised, 1958). The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1640s (1948). The Continuity of English Poetry from the 1540s to the 1940s (1951). Prefabrications (1955). Eras and Modes in English Poetry (1957, revised, 1964). The Poem: A Critical Anthology (edited by Miles, 1959; revised and abridged edition, The Ways of the Poem, 1969, revised, 1973). Poems, 1930-1960 (1960, 1979). Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, and Modern Language in English Poetry: A Tabular View (1960). Classic Essays in English (edited by Miles, 1961, revised, 1965). Ralph Waldo Emerson (1964). Civil Poems (1966). Kinds of Affection (1967). Fields of Learning (1968). Poetry and Change: Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, and the Equilibrium of the Present (1974). To All Appearances: New and Selected Poems (1974). Poetry, Teaching, and Scholarship (1980).
Bogan, L., in A Poet's Alphabet (1970). Dickey, J., in Babel to Byzantium (1968). Kuzma, G., ed., Rereadings (1978).
CA (1967, 1986). CANR (1981). CLC (1985, 1986). Contemporary Poets (1970, 1975). DLB (1986). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCAS.
Hudson Review (Autumn 1984). LJ (Aug. 1983). Southern Review (July 1983). TLS (25 April 1975). Josephine Miles Reading Her Poems with Comment (audio tape, 1981). Josephine Miles Reading Her Poetry at the Library of Congress (audio tape, 1981). Josephine Miles Reading Her Own Poetry Morrison Library, University of California, Berkeley (audio tape, 1977). Josephine Miles Reading in the UCSD New Poetry Series (audio tape, 1980). Oral History Interview of Josephine B. Miles (audio tape, 1984).
—THEODORA R. GRAHAM,
UPDATED BY SYDONIE BENET