One of the several book prizes that...

Times Book Editor

One of the several book prizes that the Los Angeles Times confers each fall is the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement by a writer living in or writing on the West. There is nothing in any bylaw governing the award that prevents its conferral upon a young writer. John Keats surely had a lifetime of achievement behind him when at just 25, he ceased to be. In retrospect, we may judge that an award given him in his 24th year would not have been premature. In prospect, however, we all expect an American Keats to live into masterful middle age and then into sage seniority and only then to harvest his lifetime achievement award. It is for this reason, I suspect, that the Kirsch Award winners have all been in the autumn of their years.

If a small injustice has thus been perpetrated against accomplished younger writers, a larger one may have been perpetrated against a few accomplished older writers, who might well have won had they but lived a little longer. The Robert Kirsch Award, you see, does bear one condition: It may not be awarded posthumously. I have all this in mind, for one of my perennial candidates for the award has just died.

Josephine Miles died in Berkeley on May 29, 1985, at age 73. Above all else a poet, Miles was also professor emerita at Berkeley, the first woman to win tenure there in English, and one of only a dozen "university professors" in the nine-campus University of California system. When you are a university professor, you get to go to any campus you choose and talk about anything you please, but Miles did not travel much: She had been severely handicapped since childhood with rheumatoid arthritis. If that handicap was her hermitage, the pilgrims who sought her out were many. She was not only a poet but the teacher of poets. One of her students--A. R. Ammons--won the National Book Award.

Miles was the author of two dozen volumes of verse, including a 1983 "Collected Poems" (University of Illinois), and of various volumes of learned criticism, including a series entitled "The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1640s," "The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1740s and the 1840s" and "The Primary Language of Poetry in the 1940s" (University of California, 1948, 1950, and 1951). What lay ahead for Miles when she got past the 1940s?

Why, the 1950s! Allen Ginsberg showed her his "Howl" before it was published. She was included in a landmark 1957 issue of "Evergreen Review" with Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Duncan, and others. If she was no San Francisco Beat, she was at least the Beats' Berkeley connection to the 1840s, the 1740s and the 1640s. I once asked a writer loosely of that North Beach company whether Josephine Miles was a Beat poet. "No," he said, "she was a Bent poet." The remark was simultaneously a comment on her twisted physical condition and an allusion to her 1967 collection, "Bent." A cruel crack? Perhaps, but I imagine her laughing at it.

In a previously sealed oral history, just released for use by Berkeley's Bancroft Library, Miles remembers the 1960s as the best years of her teaching life. The 1970s were less good, a time of panic: "panic over jobs and panic over grades that lead to jobs. It's very hard to teach people that have to have A's." Miles wanted students whose desire to know was as disinterested and unrestricted as her own.

Denis Donoghue once applied to Miles Samuel Johnson's words about Alexander Pope: She was, he said, "an intelligence perpetually on the wing, excursive, vigorous, and diligent." There is indeed about this poet's work a certain tirelessness of wings. Like a small sea bird many leagues from the nearest shore, she hangs aloft. Nothing is beneath her notice, nothing too little to be thought about, stayed by, lived with till it yields its prize of sense, and sound.

Miles and I were not related. The surname is too common for consanguinity ever to be presumed among its bearers, and I had presumed the opposite. A few years ago, however, I saw a picture of her for the first time, and it bore a more than passing resemblance to an aunt of mine. I sent Miles a snapshot of my aunt, and there followed a brief correspondence that ended with Josephine convinced that we were indeed related. We were both from Chicago. We both had Montana in the family history. Why doubt it?

Miles was a woman who suffered such fools gladly. "What is one fool more or less among all the other suffering?" That seemed to be her attitude. She believed that madmen move the world forward, even as they move poetry. "They have some axe to grind," she wrote, "and they are better at the grinding than at the poetry." But often too they have more to teach than "major" poets, who "tend to use most fully the emphases already accepted and available to them in the poetry of their time." San Francisco Beats, madmen with axes to grind, supposititious cousins, imperious professors at the bureaucratic counsels she so often wrote about--if any of them had something to teach, he had in Miles someone who would learn.

One of her saddest poems, "Away," tells the life story of an aging teacher in a few unsparing lines:

What is my life but your leaving?

Giving a brief biography of my life, I say

Each year they are off, all of them,

Goodbye, goodbye,

Yet here I stay

As in 1940, 41, 58, 60, 70,

Now again they are going away.

But a better vespers than that one comes from "For Futures," the selection with which Donoghue closed his appreciation:

When the lights come on at five o'clock on street corners

That is Evolution by the bureau of power,

That is a fine mechanic dealing in futures:

For the sky is wide and warm upon that hour,

But like the eyes that burned once at sea bottom,

Widening in the gloom, prepared for light,

The ornamental standards, the glazed globes softly

Perceive far off how probable is night.

Farewell, Josephine, and please accept this last, lost letter in lieu of more official homage.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World