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Saturday 12 April 2014

Josephine Miles: Reason


Resident at the Highland Manor Retirement Home, New Ulm, Minnesota: photo by Flip Schulke for the Environmental Protection Agency's Documerica Project, c. 1975 (US National Archive)

Said, Pull her up a bit will you, Mac, I want to unload there.
Said, Pull her up my rear end, first come first served.
Said, give her the gun, Bud, he needs a taste of his own bumper.
Then the usher came out and got into the act:

Said, Pull her up, pull her up a bit, we need this space, sir.
Said, For God's sake, is this still a free country or what?
You go back and take care of Gary Cooper's horse
And leave me handle my own car.

Saw them unloading the lame old lady,
Ducked out under the wheel and gave her an elbow.
Said, All you needed to do was just explain;
Reason, Reason is my middle name.

Josephine Miles (1911-1985): Reason, from Prefabrications, 1955


TC said...

TC said...

"I like the idea of speech -- not images, not ideals, not music, but people talking -- as the material from which poetry is made," Josephine Miles said in 1962. The energetic exchange of talk in this poem seems to document verbal byplay on a public throughfare between several people including a disabled person's driver and a movie theatre usher, the subject being what is now called "access". Though the poem is narrated from the point of view of an observer, the distance is carefully constructed. Miles herself was disabled due to degenerative arthritis, though at this time -- in her early forties -- hardly "old".

Despite evidence of her promise as a scholar shown while a UCLA undergrad and after, Miles had been warned off pursuing a teaching career on grounds her physical handicap made her "too delicate".

In a late interview exchange with Ruth Telser, Miles recalled coming to Berkeley on a doctoral fellowship in 1939 (she would stay on for a distinguished forty-year
teaching career, becoming the first woman to achieve tenure in the English Department):

Teiser: My word! What an exciting few years those were!

Miles: Weren't they! Yes, very tense, very intense. Of course, I'd bottled up quite a bit, just as in that year I'd had at home when I was lying on my back all that time. I suppose I had a lot of energy saved up. My leg had got well enough so that I could walk about the way I do now. Well, I shouldn't say that because I was much stronger until these last ten years. But I mean I had about the same kind of motion. I could walk around the campus with help and I could go shopping in Oakland, and
things like that. So I did have lots of energy and a certain degree of

Teiser: Independence?

Miles: ways to spend that energy. The word "independence" I've often thought of, because independence today, especially in relation to disablement, means physical independence or personal independence. It's very curious, but really, neither of those crossed my mind very much. I never really got a break on the physical independence. The doctors that
I'd had that put me into hospitals with stretchers and paraplegic devices were so awful that I was scared off of that and I never came back to it at a more advanced stage. The most advanced state I ever came back to was just some physical therapy. But I never got any encouragement in that direction, and as far as the personal, I think the death of my father and the fact that my mother couldn't get a job and was so interested in the League of Women Voters and all that meant that it was perfectly easy for us to live together and for her to help me, which she did till she was eighty. We always got along. We didn't agree on interests or approaches on things, but we really got along very well. So that kind of dependence didn't bother me, and my mother gave a sense of her own freedom very earnestly and gallantly.

Lord Charlie said...

A very underrated poet, Josephine Miles. And I especially like the poem you posted today. It is one of five of hers that are included in "The Oxford Book of American Poetry." Many thanks. -- DL

Nin Andrews said...

I, too, like the way the speech is captured here. And how it can be displayed in poems. I had to read this a few times to get what was going on, and then (duh) saw that you had explained it below.

But I will add, I sometimes get tired of what they call talk-poetry these days. On the one hand, it has a very natural quality, but on the other, it can go on and on, unlike this clipped little scene.

Mose23 said...

The dropping of the pronoun pulls you in to the speech music.

That last couplet: the lame old lady still doesn't figure as a subject for them (a reason, not a person).

TC said...


Thanks for helping us to remember what's so good about this poem; it's the poetic economy that's so fine, the sense that the right words are here, and no more than those. Surely that "clipped" feeling -- the sense of the poet's having stopped short of saying that least bit too much, or of explaining, or in any of the other usual ways insulting the intelligence of the reader -- contributes greatly to the poem's power.


"That last couplet: the lame old lady still doesn't figure as a subject for them (a reason, not a person)." And with that, the poem makes its point -- thinking of yesterday's conversation, we go back to that issue of sympathy


Thanks. Miles was certainly never underrated as a poet by me, anyway -- more like envied for her several skills.

The fact she's little read and/or known around these parts anymore is a real shame, because she wrote about this locale and its particular landscapes as well as anybody.

Even less well known than her poetry are her equally unique studies of diction in the poetry of our language. The concordances and word-counts distinguishing the vocabularies of different poets and periods are fascinating to consider; one pauses to wonder, along with Miles, at the effects of the vanishing from poetic speech, over time, of concrete terms denoting organic features of the natural world -- sun, moon, stars, wind, cloud, tree, bird, grass, eye, hand and the like -- and the entry, in their place, of nouns of abstraction and generalization, and of nouns denoting things made and used by humans -- door, window, wall, street and the like.

These studies of hers were conducted in that most labour-intensive of methods, the notation of words upon index cards, systematically accumulated, painstakingly filed, totted up & c., none of the work done by mechanical means.

Be the BQE said...

Thanks for introducing me to this poet. I have always loved those poems that make poetry from speech, e.g., early Paul Blackburn poems of overheard NYC talk. There's a real elegance in the rough talk she catches: You go back and take care of Gary Cooper's horse/And leave me handle my own car. The cultural reference dates it, but so does the syntax. Talk changes. I hope the poets of today find the way to the material of it.

TC said...


Agreed on all points. Yes, talk changes. Trouble is, lately it also seems to have dwindled into the pinhead blurts of twitter, text message, hashtag, a diminution rather than an expansion of available living linguistic resources.

Nonno John said...

Thank you all for carrying the flag of Josephine Miles, a distinctive, idiosyncratic (or idiopathic) one, and placing this poem in the front rank of her army. We might consider her final book, "Coming to Terms," as the one where she really came through and spilled all the beans of her life, from the terrible pain of her childhood years with JRA (Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis) to the campus tumult and tear gassing by Governor Ronald Reagan, ruthless in his opposition to the University, and especially to one of its great Chancellors, Clark Kerr. Miles's poem "Officers" includes details of that period, as well as the earlier friendliness of campus police, one of whom helped her through college by letting here driven in through the gates when the dean of women thought it would be "too complicated" to have such a handicapped student––such were the days and years before the Handicapped Act. But "Reason" is the poem she chose for the anthology "Poets' Choice" (not to be confused with Robert Hass's recent book of almost the same title, "Poet's Choice") and her brief paragraph on why she liked it, excerpted in your opening paragraph above, ought to be fully and widely disseminated.

Nonno John said...

This comment: "These studies of hers were conducted in that most labour-intensive of methods, the notation of words upon index cards, systematically accumulated, painstakingly filed, totted up & c., none of the work done by mechanical means." needs a slight retouching. The words were collected in columns under three headings, Adjectives, Verbs, and Nouns, not on 3 x 5 inch index cards but 5 ½ x 8 inch pages with three rings punched (I won't swear to the punched holes detail) for accommodation in her thickly packed binder of that size--packed with all sorts of other work, including, I would guess, drafts of her own poems. In 1956-57, when I helped in this effort, she had obtained research grants to pay graduate students to do a lot of this work for her, after doing it by herself for years--her Ph.D. dissertation on the diction of Wordsworth's "The Prelude" was completed before the War, I believe. Each poet in the study was represented by a counting and tabulation of the first 1,000 lines of his or her Collected Works, a labor for which the grant allowed 25 hours at $1.00 per hour, and $25 was one-quarter of a Teaching Assistant's monthly income, not an insignificant amount to students on a tight budget. Making time to count two poets in a month was quite possible, and profitable, for many of us, so long as we were competent in English grammar as taught in the United States. (A British Commonwealth student I knew could make neither heads nor tails of it, and handed her assigned poet over to me, for my first attempt at the task. As an enthusiast for sentence diagrams, I couldn't be happier, unless we had been tasked with diagramming sentences.)
I would highly endorse the recommendation of Miles's last book, "Coming to Terms," as the first for a new reader to turn to.