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The Lenore Marshall Prize.

The Lenore Marshall Prize

Books entered for the 1983 Lenore Marshall Prize numbered over a hundred, and they impressed the judges as a particularly strong group, ranging from excellent first books to books by authors in midcareer to the collected poems of a lifetime. It is in the last category that we found our winner. Josephine Miles's Collected Poems, 1930-83 draws on the author's eleven published volumes and adds to them old and new poems that were previously uncollected.

Some 250 pages of poetry, this selection from five decades of productivity is unusually meritorious--"one of the finest and solidest bodies of poetry to be found in this country,' A. R. Ammons has commented. He joins a long and distinguished line of Miles's appreciators. In a review of her Local Measures for The Nation in 1946, Dudley Fitts spoke of this poet's remarkable virtuosity: "The arrangement of rhyme and assonance, the answering of stanza to stanza--everything is elaborately and even intensely worked out.' You see what Fitts meant in a poem such as "So Graven,' a bravura metrical performance in only six lines. An example: the "simplicity' of line one is, simply, two iambs; but in the last line of the poem, its position and the addition of "has' make it scan as an iamb plus an anapest. The agent of metamorphosis seems to be the "particular jig' of line four, whose bouncing scansion the later phrase duplicates, all in order to have "simplicity' reflect "unresolved event [that] moves in the mind.'

Finally it is those unresolved events of the mind, the enigma of right thought and action, that most engage Miles; and her ideal mountain is less Parnassus than Sinai, which gave us the "great tablets [that] shatter down in deed.' A concern for the unresolved also struck Randall Jarrell, another commentator on Miles's work. In Poetry and the Age he describes her techniques as "relishingly idiosyncratic,' "just a little off' and "carefully awkward.' Accurate assessment; and an important step for anyone learning to read this poet is to acquire a taste for her imbalances and "off' constructions--that is, to know them well enough to distinguish between the effective askew and the ineffective. Sometimes, on purpose, it doesn't "work'; and then sometimes still doesn't. I can speak, though, as a reader to whom this poetry was almost entirely unknown before this year: it rewards rereading and study. Miles's American dialect is recognizable as a variant of daily speech, but it's not Williams's nor Frost's nor Bishop's. Less difficult than, say, conversational Portuguese, still you don't grasp it at first try. Then, like all acquired tastes, it takes on special flavor.

A certain self-effacement was the keynote of her early work; few autobiographical inferences can be drawn from it. Beginning in the 1960s, though, readers were allowed to see Josephine Miles in her role as a teacher and scholar of literature. (She has taught at the University of California at Berkeley since the 1940s and has published many studies of poetry, in particular, of poetic diction.) It also became apparent that she suffered from a lifelong physical handicap which severely limited her mobility. Knowing that helps us understand the importance for her of two ethical stances, pride and reason, which have been scanted in modern poetry. Without them, we can suppose, she wouldn't have accomplished what she has. She also expects to find pride and reason in those around her. She has an acute sense of how those qualities help constitute the social fabric on which we all depend, though we may be less conscious of it than she. Hence, one volume called Civil Poems (from which "Civilian' is taken). Violence and violent unreason she shows as failures in the social contract, occasions for shame. But she is not unaware of the coercive aspect of a poetry that chastises. Can one persuade without using the whip?

Those concerns stand silently behind the poems that deal with Berkeley activism during the Vietnam era and contribute to the moral anguish in them. Imperceptive observers of those times saw no middle term between, say, drugaddicted radicals and storm troopers in sworn fealty to S.I. Hayakawa. But there was a moderate, nonviolent current of opinion opposed to the war in Southeast Asia; Miles belonged to it. She saw the immorality of that war, but she also saw the consequences of losing a reasonable dialogue between opposing camps, the cost of suspending regular pedagogic relationships and the perils of violence on both sides. Some of the tears in Miles's poems of the 1960s are the tears of tragedy, and others are the result of generous sprayings of Mace. The poems that she composed out of a divided sense of right are among her most disturbing, powered by the fuel of disappointment and anger.

Her most recent poems show her still searching, still breaking ground. Coming to Terms (1979) is remarkable for the directness of its autobiographical particularity. "Doll,' an achingly literal account of the onset of her illness, shows Miles at her narrative best; the forty-two lines of the poem contain in germ the matter for a novella. The shorter poems on the same subject-- "Parent,' "Album' and "Mark'-- are equally telling. And when the poet, in "Mark,' can invoke "blessed necessity,' I think we must pay more heed to the phrase than we usually do when it is proposed by more advantaged speakers. The poem's concluding two lines are an extra stroke of wise genius, bringing us back to our own helplessness before others' misfortunes and our almost comic efforts to help them bear it, to be Job's comforters.

I can concur with Helen Vendler in finding the "ring of moral truth' in Miles's poetry, a poetry based on "strict expectations of the world' and "a stern judgment of her own failings.' Also, with Denis Donoghue when he says: "The poems of Josephine Miles offer evidence that contemporary poetry houses intelligence, magnanimity, humor and excursive power.' Hers is a diverse achievement, original and singular; and one based on assumptions that the late Lenore Marshall, I believe, would have readily seconded.
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Title Annotation:includes excerpts from Josephine Miles' Collected Poems, 1930-83
Author:Corn, Alfred
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 20, 1984
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