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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Number 212: Josephine Miles "The Doctor Who Sits At The Bedside Of A Rat"

The Doctor Who Sits at the Bedside of a Rat

The doctor who sits at the bedside of a rat
Obtains real answers–a paw twitch,
An ear tremor, a gain or loss of weight,
No problem as to which
Is temper and which is true.
What a rat feels, he will do.

Concomitantly then, the doctor who sits
At the bedside of a rat
Asks real questions, as befits
The place, like where did that potassium go, not what
Do you think of Willie Mays or the weather?
So rat and doctor may converse together.

-- Josephine Miles

Hap Notes: Oddly enough, Josephine Miles (1911-1985), a fairly restrained and highly intellectual professor at U.C. Berkeley, was an influential force with the poets of the burgeoning "Beat" movement. She was excited by their use of language and showed Ginsberg's Howl to poet Richard Eberhart, who consequently wrote an article about it for the New York Times.

Miles was born with some health problems and she suffered from arthritis from an early age. She had to be educated at home by tutors but eventually went to UCLA and then U.C. Berkeley for her doctorate, where she taught for her entire career. She was the first woman to get tenure in the English department at Berkeley. It wasn't easy for her. Students recollect that Miles was often carried into the classroom due to her disabilities. She worked tirelessly helping students in the evenings. Miles wrote books on the writing of poetry, analyzing vocabulary and styles in addition to publishing more than a half dozen books of her own poetry. She was a gentlewoman and a scholar, to change a phrase a bit.

Miles was a mentor to Jack Spicer ( and was very good friends with drama and movie critic Pauline Kael. In spite of being a proponent of Beat poetry, Miles remains a singular voice unattached to any school. Her students also included A.R. Ammons, William Stafford, Robin Blaser and Diane Wakoski. (We've already done poems by both Stafford and Wakoski, too.)

Kenneth Rexroth ( called her poetry "small, very neat holes cut in the paper," which I believe he meant as a criticism but the statement has some merit as to Miles' precision with language. Randall Jarrell said her work was "full of the conversational elegance of understatement, Of a carefully awkward and mannered charm. Everything is just a little off; is, always, the precisely unexpected."

Miles won scads of awards and fellowships and grants. Her work is always surprising-- from within a short, coolish, dry statement, a strange thing will emerge, an unpredictable outcome, an ending that is not an end.

In today's poem she starts out a little odd, although, a rat as a patient is the way patients often feel – that they are nothing more than laboratory animals. But a laboratory animal just yields physical results. The doctor cannot talk of Willie Mays (oh, tell me you know who that is, please) or of the weather or of the latest books or movies because rats do not function like that (and even if they did, he would not have the necessary language to ask.)

In point of fact, Miles may be saying that while doctors do have the necessary language to talk to the patient, it is all just patter while they check the "animal's" vital statistics. Because that's what doctors do- they are checking for symptoms, anomalies, health statistics. They are not there to make snappy patter. Now, why would this matter to a person?

The word concomitant is cleverly used here- it is often used in the medical profession to describe secondary symptoms that occur with a main symptom. We would do well to remember that Miles had a good deal of interaction with doctors in her life-long frail and disabled state. The poem also exhibits her wry sense of humor.

Here's a good Josephine Miles quote: "I like the idea of speech – not images, not ideals, not music, but people talking – as the material from which poetry is made."

You can find more Miles here:

Here is an excellent transcript of an interview with Miles after she retired from teaching:

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