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July 8, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Josephine Miles on Bay Area Literary History

Josephine Miles (1911-1985) in conversation, 1978, on Bay Area literary history.

Josephine Miles, sketched by Helen Breger

Josephine Miles was born in Chicago a hundred years ago and educated by tutors because of crippling rheumatoid arthritis, but went away to college at Berkeley and stayed on that campus for more than four decades, nuturing more than one generation of important poets, and retiring with the rare distinction of University Professor. I interviewed her at her home on Virginia Street. I probably wrote up these notes for a piece in the East Bay Review, an arts monthly where I had a regular column; when I got tapped as Statewide Coordinator of California Poets In The Schools, succeeding Carol Lee Sanchez, I handed the column over to Richard Silberg.

Around 1850 there was an anthology Golden-something in San Francisco. Ina Coolbrith was probably in it. From 1860-1910 there was a lively group, at home in Carmel and received at Englsh court: Edward Rowland Sill, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, whose monuments to Browning, Fremont and Moses stud the East Oakland hills,  George Sterling, indebted to Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sterling who ended his poems with objects, without commentary.

Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928)

Ina Coolbrith was librarian in Oakland. She was friends with Sterling and Sill, and an influence. Leonard Bacon came along 1910-20, writing satire, translating from Portuguese. In the war years [1917-18] Witter Bynner was the visiting professor at Cal. He put on a poetry show so popular that it  filled the Greek Theatre. He had his classes read poems aloud in that empty, echoing Greek Theatre. People in flaming robes would dance. Charles Mills Gayley, chair of the English department, would also fill the Greek Theatre for his lectures on poetry. Genevieve Taggard and Hildebard Flanner were teaching classes. John Lyman who gave the library to UC. Jack Lyons, Maurice Lesemann, Helen Hoyt. Don’t trust me in my memory on any of this.

The 1920’s remembled the era of Howl in that stimulation came from outside, from a visitor, Witter Bynner. There was a strength here which was embraced by local people, but they were not able to recapture the purity they sought, as sentiment stood in their way. The twenties were highly political. Colonel Charles Erskine Scott, a friend of Robinson Jeffers and a fighting lawyer for the Indians — as a captain in the Army he was present at the surremnder of Chioef Joseph and transcribed — perhaps embellished — his famous speech — lived in Los Gatos in a house called “The Cats’ but came up to Berkeley a lot and read at the UC library and the Senior Women’s Hall. His poetry, Heavenly Discourse and The Poet in the Desert,  is like that of Kahlil Gibran. He married the poet Sally Bard Field. They were stars in the 30’s, published by Random House.

When I got here everything was just beginning to perk Hundreds of students would come to hear Howard Baker, Louise Bogan and Harriet Monroe.  Van Wyck Brooks wrote about the Carmel crowd. Yvor Winters came to Stanford in 1928, and married the poet Janet Lewis. Kenneth Rexroth was in San Francisco. Winters and Rexroth were taking over the leadership when I came to town. A friend of Winters invited me to join his faction. I was flattered and delighted. “But you’ll have to change your poetry,” he warned me. Being young and dumb — I was still a student at that time — I hung up the phone. Then I got a letter from Bill Everson, who told me I ought to be freer, and not use rhyme.

I volunteered to work on a magazine called College Verse, edited by a woman named Verna Grubb, who changed her name to Ann Winslow. She had me write away to bigshots from the East, like Stephen Vincent Bénet and William Rose Bénet. I remember going up to her attic. It was stacked to the rafters with manuscripts from poets all around the country. I told her she was out of her mind. Ann Winslow edited an anthology entitled Trial Balances. I was in it along with Ben Belitt, Muriel Rukeyser, Rosalie Moore, who was chosen as Yale Younger Poet by W.H. Auden. The Activists were involved in the scene, led by Lawrence Hart, who was teaching high school in the Siskiyous. His message was that poetry should be “brilliant notation.”

I got a job teaching at the Berkeley Night School (later Vista and now Berkeley City College]. Instantly it seemed like all the ladies in the East Bay rallied round, I visited them, but I was a little skeptical. Rosalie Moore Brown would stand up there in front of her classes like an auctioneer shouting “Gimme an image for rain!” Some little old lady suggested silver drops. “Get out of here!” Rosalie Moore Brown was always bullying people. With students poised chalk-hand at the board, she would jangle her coins. “Write your poem on the board!”

I started teaching at Berkeley [ U.C.] in 1940. One of my early students was Robert Duncan, from Fresno, a boy who was in obvious trouble. I brought him high culture to rescue him. Jack Spicer took in some sections of my poetry meetings but became disillusioned and anti-Academic  — there was a quarrel with Mark Schorer who lent Spicer and Duncan money to print a mag, which contained an obscenity — and Spicer moved to San Francisco. George Leiter was a bully who imposed, They all started a mag, New Rejections, in reaction to New Directions; our next mag Circle got international response from Australia & New Zealand.

Folks started a bookstore where the Eclair is now on Telegraph, with lots of meetings in the back room, which we made into a poetry center. We did benefits for Kenneth Patchen, who was on his back with no money. Leonard Woolf and Thomas Parkinson and I would fill up 11o Wheeler every Friday night and read to them from Stevens, Williams and Thomas. During World War II Richard Eberhart was teaching at Alameda Naval Air Station. William Everson and Saunders Russell were C.O.’s interned at Waldport, Oregon. They wdere doing mags Ark and Interim. 

With the end of the war a new kind of student started coming to town, some of them older, veterans, niot necessarily respectful of authority. Gary Snyder, there’s a Reed connection to Berkeley, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch. There was a regular route from Berkeley to Black Mountain and back. The Robin Blaser coterie went and brought back Charles Olson to teach at Berkeley. One morning,  I remember Olson vividly, dressed in a pinstripe blue suit. I thoght he was a real businessman type who wrote this great poetry. Olson lasted six weeks. I remember Mark Schorer dressing Olson down, how he wasn’t addressing the Academic Senate matrix  for grad students. Olson wrote a poem about Sather Gate, “The Offices of Love.”

In the fifties the poets used to meet at the house of Ken Scolds and Nat Haran (another Yale Younger Poet). Dick Eberhart dropped by and asked me, what’s new? I told him, Allen Ginsberg. He wrote about it in the New York Times. Michael McClure was hanging around those sessions as well, and of course Rexroth. There was Lincoln Fitzell, who worked as a longshoreman, Ann Stanford  and Don Stanford, and J.V Cunningham. They had this little Winters circle going at Betrkeley. Berkeley has all these little whirlpools. I was intimidated.

In 1960 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to San Francisco, and protesting students were fire-hosed at San Francisco City Hall. Donald Allen’s anthology had just come out — I reviewed his Evergreen Reviewno. 2, the San Francisco issue, in University Quarterly — and also the Donald Hall, Robert Pack, Louis Simpson (and of course Simpson was teaching at UC): two national anthologies with no poets in common. I assigned both of them to my classes. my students were already rebellious, they wouldn’t accept either of them. “What’s this trash you’re assigning us?”

It was rough in the early 60’s, everybody had a hard time. I invited Donald Davie up to talk about meter. The whole class, led by Diane Wakoski, formally and deliberately walked out. Diane wore pearls and blue velvet, she was very precocious,  she hadn’t yet got down that studied sense of humor. She studied with me, and with Thom Gunn and Thomas Parkinson. Joe Butler was a Hell’s Angel poet. A little later Susan Griffin came on, and then Julia Vinograd.  George Starbuck was teaching around that time, also Bill Stafford and Archie Ammons.

In the late 60’s my poetry classes became marvellous. People expressed themselves politically through poetry. They were using the arts as a resource for their political interest in ways that magnified the meaning.  In the days of the invasion of Cambodia (1970) we got a poem from everybody in my class, printed a booklet, sold 800 copies by nightfall, took the money up to BOALT Hall and turned it into leaflets.

Denise Levertov was teaching here, also Jack Niles; Paul Foreman , later publisher of Thorpm Springs Press, was one of my students. Others were writing street poems, Doug Palmer who was known as Facino, Richard Krech and [John Oliver Simon]. And there’s a new surge, a new consciousness, in women’s poetry: Susie Griffin, whom I’ve mentioned, Alta and Judy Grahn, Suzanne Juhasz. The women are capable of saying what they want to say directly, without appealing to some special poetic substance. It’s the nicest development in the last fifteen years. Of course we women were here all along, going back to Rosalie Moore Brown.

It’s very pleasant to teach poetry now (1978). Students have more skill now than they used to have, by far. Their work may be less neat, but it takes more chances, has more authority. I don’t know if it’s going in any one direction. People writing lovingly about their grandmothers. People looking for their roots. The influence of Surrealism. Of Robert Bly.  There are so many lively centers. Ruth Iodice who edits Blue Unicorn. I’ve enjoyed recent books by Diane O Hehir, Joseph di Prisco and Leonard Nathan. Nathan has conservative form but an inventive attitude. I go to the coffeehouse readings sponsored by the Bay Area Poets Coalition. I’ve liked hearing Randy Fingland, Andy Clausen, Summer Brenner.  Poetry Flash is an incredible newsletter. People’s tolereance for their contemporaries is really wonderful.

We aren’t a nest of antipathetic fighting insiders the way New York is. And the Bay Area poetry scene has been going on since the Gold Rush. At the Panjandrum Press reading, Dennis Koran introduced me as the successor to Ina Coolbrith. Whom, by the way, I never met. I wouldn’t mind being remembered that way.


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