Josephine Miles: Poet and First Tenured Professor in English

Josephine Miles

Josephine Miles

By Emma Campbell, Kahyun Koh, and Anya Vertanessian

Born in Chicago on June 11th, 1911, Josephine Miles was an acclaimed poet, professor, literary critic, and a vital part of the Berkeley community. In 1947, she became the first woman to be awarded tenure in the English Department, eighty years after its founding, and she was the sole tenured woman for another fifteen years. Although English had always been a popular major for women students, the department was reluctant to appoint women to its regular faculty. Miles’ achievement is all the more noteworthy because her sex was not the only condition in her life that might have been expected to limit her horizons; she suffered from chronic arthritis, which left her physically disabled since childhood. But instead of giving up her ambitions, she became an example of courageous change on several fronts: not only the first woman to be tenured in the English Department but also one of the first significantly disabled members of the faculty, and one of the first to combine the roles of poet and critic in her academic career.

Miles’ family moved to Southern California when she was only five years old.  The move was mainly due to her rapidly developing arthritis; the Los Angeles climate, her parents had hoped, would help alleviate her condition (Livingston, 295). Despite its worsening, Miles began her academic training at UCLA, where she graduated with a degree in English, and then came to Berkeley in 1932 to pursue her doctorate, completing that degree in 1938.  Miles’ dissertation on Wordsworth’s poetry was later turned into a book, Wordsworth and the Vocabulary of Emotion, and published in 1942. She joined Berkeley’s English department as an Assistant Professor in 1940 and was tenured seven years later.

By that time, Miles had published not only her dissertation and two other books of literary scholarship but also three collections of poetry, Lines of Intersection (1939) Poems on Several Occasions (1941), and Local Measures (1946). She was thus the author of six books when she was promoted, and her pace of publication did not let up afterwards. She produced more than a dozen books of poetry, all of which were praised for their unique voice and precise diction.  At the end of her career, they were assembled into her Collected Poems: 1930-1983, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (Poetry Foundation). Miles was just as prolific a writer of scholarly and critical studies, publishing over ten books in which she closely studied poetic diction in various periods of British literature. She is now considered a pioneer of the use of computer technology in literary analysis (Calisphere: University of California). In the 1970s, her scholarly distinction was recognized by two important honors: she was chosen to give the Faculty Research Lecture, and the statewide University of California administration gave her the rarely awarded title of  University Professor, which she held until retiring in 1978  (Wikipedia).

In that year, Miles was also given the Distinguished Teaching Award for her thirty-eight years of teaching. She was well-known among English Department students for her engaging teaching methods, which both sparked creativity and pushed students to think critically. Whatever their backgrounds or levels of preparation, Miles paid rare personalized attention to all of the students and showed a genuine interest in their progress (Livingston, 308-312). A former student remembers Miles as a caring mentor and interlocutor:  “She tells stories, reminisces and theorizes, but unlike many people who talk for the pure pleasure of it, she never loses track of the person she’s talking to, and she listens with absolute attention and a quick understanding” (Oral History Center, 287). True to her interactive teaching style, Miles would begin poetry seminars by asking students to write verses in the metrical rhythms of their own names (Calisphere: University of California). She formed lasting friendships with many of her students, and during the years of her retirement, her Virginia Street house was “frequented by poets, students, and former students from all over the country” (Calisphere).

Miles bore a “quietly incendiary mind,” according to J.R. Caldwell (Poetry Foundation). Her undying optimism and resistance against limiting the activities of disabled women in particular were widely noticed. Professor Susan Schweik, arriving in the English Department after Miles’ retirement but while she was still an active member of the community, was partly inspired by her relation to Miles when she became interested in Disability Studies and later went on to help establish the minor program devoted to that topic at Berkeley. Schweik’s articles on Miles address the intersection of sexism and ableism in her career, recounting, for example, that a member of the faculty at an Ivy League institution, upon considering Miles for a faculty position, lamented that her femaleness disqualified her: “If only Josephine Miles was a man our problem would be solved” (Schweik, 2007, 50). And yet the fact that Miles suffered from sexism did not always insure the sympathy of other women; Schweik reports that some women perceived Miles’ disabled body as asexual and thereby disqualified from the category of “woman.” When teaching Miles’ poetry in a graduate course at Berkeley on modern women poets, Schweik was shocked to be told by a colleague that “Jo Miles was not a woman” (Schweik, 2011, 72).

The remark not only displays a callous attitude of exclusion by a nondisabled woman but also raises the thorny issue of tokenism that tends to come up in discussions of women academic pioneers, who often spent most of their careers as the only women in otherwise all-male departments. Were these chosen few being used to ward off criticisms of systematic sexual discrimination? And in Miles’ case, did her disability actually make it easier for men in the department to accept her as the exceptional woman? Miles herself was fully aware that these issues swirled around and might be said to have clouded her success. In an oral history interview done in 1982, she revealed that an unspecified Dean of Women once baldly told her “that I had put the cause of women in education at the University back fifty years because my presence did not raise the crucial issues of, you know, femininity and so forth” (Miles, 1983, 108). With typical generosity, Miles goes on to surmise that the Dean wanted faculty women with whom younger women could easily identify: “it turned out to be a true, though it hurt my feelings at the time, of course, that the role model issue is very important. I did not provide a role model, you see.” Miles, to be sure, is exaggerating here; she must have known that many women students of the 1960s and 70s drew inspiration from her. When the interviewer presses for more explicit information, Miles replied, “The absence of threat to men was very important. Most of these women that were in this group were no threat to men for one reason or another” (Miles, 1983, 109).

Although Miles did not explicitly name the “one reason” that made her unthreatening, her poetry has a great deal to say about her life-long struggle with degenerative arthritis and society’s response to it. In one essay, Schweik argues that although Miles resisted others’ attempts to define her by her disability, she wrote subtly but distinctly about denials of access and other disabling experiences.  In the poem “Reason”, for example, fragments of an antagonistic exchange over access to the sidewalk become a tensely economic narrative.

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.

At once conversationally energetic and elegant, Miles’ poetry is increasingly being recognized as foundational in the history of disability poetry and outstanding in its formal experimentation.

Miles died from pneumonia in 1985 at the age of 73. Her home on Virginia Street was bequeathed to the university as a creative center for writing seminars and as housing for visiting poets (McArdle). Decades have elapsed since her passing, yet her sharp, humorous, and resonant works stand as a monument to a life devoted to the university, especially to its English Department. Reflective of her unbridled spirit and fierce resilience, Miles’ writing continues to teach and inspire readers.


Works Consulted


Livingston, Katharine. “A Profile of Josephine Miles”. Appendix to Josephine Miles

Poetry, Teaching, and Scholarship, An Interview Conducted by

Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harroun 1977 and 1979. Pp. 281-327. Oral History Center. Regents of UC, 1980.

“Josephine Miles.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed 2 Apr. 2020.

“Josephine Miles.”, Academy of American Poets,  Accessed 2 Apr. 2020.

“Josephine Miles.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation, 25 April 2020,  Accessed 10 March 2020.

“Josephine Miles, English: Berkeley.” Calisphere: University of California , The Regents of UC.  2011, Accessed 10 Mar. 2020

Josephine Miles: Poetry, Teaching and Scholarship, An Interview Conducted by Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harroun in 1977 and 1979.  Regents of the University of California, 1980.  PDF file.  Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

McArdle, Phil. “Books: Josephine Miles: Berkeley’s Emily Dickinson?” Art Listings, The Berkeley Daily Planet, 28 Feb. 2006,  Accessed 23 Mar. 2020

“Miles, Josephine.” American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present,, 28 Apr. 2020,  Accessed 30 Apr. 2020.

“Miles Interview”. The Women’s Faculty Club of the University of California, Berkeley, 1919-1982. An oral history series conducted 1981-1982, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 1983.

Schweik, Susan. “Josephine Miles’ Crip(T) Words: Gender, Disability, ‘Doll’”. Journal Of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol 1, no. 1, 2007, pp. 49-60. Liverpool University Press, doi:10.3828/jlcds.1.1.6. Accessed 30 Apr 2020.

Schweik, Susan. “The Voice of Reason”. In Beauty Is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability.  Eds Bartlett, Jennifer, Black, Sheila, Northen, Michael. Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

“Susan Schweik.” Research UC Berkeley, UC Regents, 11 May 2011, Accessed 6 Apr. 2020

Lyn Hejinian on...

Lyn Hejinian on a Josephine Miles Poem

Lyn Hejinian“On Inhabiting an Orange” is a relatively early poem by Josephine Miles. I think it appeared in her first book, Lines at Intersection, which came out in 1939. In The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (second edition), it is dated 1935, so it may have been published first in a literary magazine. It is not her greatest poem, but I have always admired its inventive prosody and its wit. Here’s the poem:

On Inhabiting an Orange

All our roads go nowhere.
Maps are curled
To keep the pavement definitely
On the world.

All our footsteps, set to make
Metric advance,
Lapse into arcs in deference
To circumstance.

All our journeys nearing Space
Skirt it with care,
Shying at the distances
Present in air.

Blithely travel-stained and worn,
Erect and sure,
All our travelers go forth,
Making down the roads of Earth
Endless detour.

Skipping over the poem’s title (itself a comedic gem), we find ourselves with a seventeen line poem of four-stanzas having what appears to be an over-all regular design, though we note that the last of the four stanzas has an “extra” line. All the lines are relatively short—the longest two lines contain six words, while four have only three and three have only two. It didn’t take me long to type the poem into this document, and it doesn’t take long to read it to oneself, either silently or out loud.

Before I typed the poem, I remarked that I’ve always admired Miles’s “inventive prosody.” It is inventive, of course, but an equally or perhaps even better characterization would be “irreverent.” As the poem begins it immediately establishes a compelling meter, with three strong beats (or stresses) in the first line and two in the second. Each of those lines presents a single, grammatically simple statement. One can readily foresee the rhythmic pulse that will carry the poem forward. And one would be right, but how cleverly Miles plays with the rhythm, adding a few extra dance steps—three extra unstressed syllables—at the end of the third line! “To keep the pavement definitely”: with those extra three syllables the reader prances onward to the stanza’s last line, and there the poet brings her mischievousness to an end; we need, after all, to stay “On the world.”

More soberly now, on better behavior, the reader continues on, bound to the rules of cartography and mathematics, of map projection and the geometry of spheres (or, in this case, of an orange, itself a playful metaphor for planet earth). The poem brings the reader to its end—the way isn’t, really, all that difficult, and there are splendors along the way (the pairing of “in deference” and “To circumstance” is worth visiting just for its own sake). But by the last stanza, though blithe, the reader—or “the travelers”—are “travel-stained and worn.” And the way doesn’t come to an end quite as soon as expected—there’s that extra line, one of the two longest, with an extra stress in it (four beats instead of two or three) to move through. And it doesn’t bring the poet or the reader or the travelers to a destination but, instead, to “Endless detour.”

When one remembers that Josephine Miles suffered from severe arthritis from childhood on and that walking was always extremely painful and almost impossibly difficult, the poem takes on extra intensity. It scrupulously avoids melodrama or self-pity, however—witness the impish “definitely” with which she defies her infirmity, allowing it no authority over her verse though it might limit her body. And nowhere does Miles reveal her disability. It may be common knowledge, but that was not of her doing.

As I’ve already mentioned, my father was a student of Josephine Miles in the early 1930s (he graduated from Cal in the spring of 1936). He was one of the students who sometimes carried her from her office to her classroom or back to her office again. She was only five years older than he (Miles was born in 1911, my father in 1916). I wonder if he was half in love with her. If photos are to be believed, she was quite beautiful.