- Writing Ideas
- Write a dialogue between the two figures Miles’s speaker observes. Using language from your imagined dialogue, write a poem from inside the “golden cage.”
- Take the final words of each line of Miles’s poem and use them as the first words in your own poem. (So your poem would begin with the word “Cherry.”
- “Cage” takes the risk of observing people who don’t know they’re being observed—it peeps at others’ lives, only to shift surprisingly into direct address halfway through. Taking up Miles’s form, write a poem that first spies on and then addresses someone else.
- Discussion Questions
- Underline all the repeated words in one color. Then try to track both exact and slant rhymes. What do you notice about the sound patterning at work? Where do the hard ‘t’ sounds cluster, for example? Why?
- How does the poem play with, and play on, tensions between containment and openness? Think not just about the images in the poem, but the rhetorical effects of different kinds of statement like the final imperatives “Come out” and “Listen.”
- Generally lyric poems focus on an individual speaker’s experience of the world. In what ways does this poem conform to the conventions of lyric? How does it seem, or feel, different? Try reading Don Bogen’s helpful poem guide to help tease out traditional definitions of lyric poetry and how Miles’s poem conforms and does not.
- Teaching Tips
- Have students free write on “Cage” for a few minutes. Ask that they try to describe not only what is happening in the poem in terms of content and form, but how they respond to the poem word by word as well. Stress that they should free-associate as much as possible—if thinking about the word “irate” makes them remember a fight with a friend, let them know that it’s okay to write about their own fight. Then ask students to write a blurb for the poem. Perhaps have a few different kinds of blurbs on hand from a variety of sources (novels, contemporary poetry books, etc.). Discuss what the purpose of the blurb is, who its intended audience may be, and any conventions or unconventional approaches students might take.
- As Don Bogen notes, Josephine Miles didn’t often write poems like “Cage.” Have students read other Miles poems to get a sense of her typical style. Discuss how “Cage” differs from these other poems, and how it might also relate. Then have students practice writing an imitation of their own version of a “typical” Josephine Miles poem.
Josephine Miles, "Cage" from Josephine Miles: Collected Poems 1930-83. Copyright © 1983 by Josephine Miles. Reprinted by permission of University of Illinois Press.
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Poet Josephine Miles 1911–1985
POET’S REGION U.S., Western
Josephine Miles: “Cage”
An overlooked masterpiece depicts a feuding couple and the dreamy freedom just outside their door.
What stuck me about “Cage” when I first saw it among the previously uncollected work in Josephine Miles’ Collected Poems 1930-83 was its lyricism. Although Miles wrote lyric poetry all her life, she is generally recognized as a poet more engaged with speech and ideas than with song. Her interest in the American vernacular, from people yelling at each other in traffic to bureaucratic jargon, informs her most well-known pieces. These include thoughtful observations on academic life in Berkeley, where she was a professor from the 1940s through the 1970s (no poet is better on teaching and learning); explorations of philosophical paradoxes; quirky takes on neighborhood life; and clear-eyed portraits of a childhood marked by the arthritis that would leave her disabled—all with her distinctive qualities of concision, wry humor, and an ear for the way people talk. But “Cage” evinces a strand in her work that has largely been overlooked, something more song-like and emotional.
What makes a good lyric? The tradition, of course, is immense, and the poem must show awareness of it but not seem burdened by it. It must be pared down, without the scaffolding of narrative, description or character development that can support other poems. A good lyric covers its tracks. Its movement must appear natural, even effortless. It must convince through feeling more than argument. And, of course, it must sing.
Miles meets these challenges with subtlety and grace. The surface of “Cage” is simple—a tree, a street, a room—its progression from tension to openness seemingly inevitable. The poem is built on contrasts—inside/outside, caged/open, light/dark, hot/cool—but these alone don’t account for its emotional effects. What makes the fight in the first stanza so disturbing, and what gives that sense of relief with the invitation to come outside in the second? Sentence use, for one thing. The fight scene is one long sentence suspended over eight lines, the invitation five short lines over seven. As the opening sentence builds, its focus shifts from the intricate beauty of the Japanese cherry inward to an increasingly limited scene: one square of light, two figures in it, bordered by two heavy fixtures. Closing the sentence on the title word “cage” seals the stanza in compacted tension, as if the poem were coiled around itself, unable to move. When the poet speaks to the couple in the second stanza, in contrast, her sentences are no longer constricted but balanced and open, with room for parallel constructions: “come out” and “walk,” “you” and “me.” Two two-line sentences are followed by three one-liners, ending the poem with a repetition not of the dilemma but of the invitation to escape it: “Come out into the night.” Although the second stanza is one line shorter than the first, its five sentences make it feel longer and looser, as if the night offered endless possibilities.
One part of this invitation—a lure, if you will—is sensory. When the falling cherry petals come back in the second stanza, they no longer function just as visual images but take on the coolness of moonlight and a hushed, “surrounding” sound that encompasses both mystery and security. And then there’s music. Miles flirts here with traditional patterns of rhyme and meter to find her own tune. The six full rhymes on “light,” for example, set up a framework that serves to highlight the more subtle slant rhymes: “cherry/me,” “rain/sun,” and my favorite, “moon/surround.” There is a pleasure in recurrence and room for surprise, too. On a more dramatic level, the contrast between the harsh concluding t’s that reach their crescendo in the fight scene—“Cuts,” “its,” “light,” “it,” “fight,” “hot,” and “irate” in three short lines—and the more open ooh and ow sounds in the dreamiest part of the invitation—“you,” “flowers,” “cool,” “moon,” “how,” “surround”—heightens the couple’s tension and the promise of relief. Miles’s music draws us into the evening.
It could be argued that all poems are finally about their makers, yet “Cage,” for all its craft, does not focus on the poet’s sensitivity. The direction it points is outward: “It is for you, not me.” “Cage” shows a lyric side not commonly associated with Josephine Miles, but the generosity of spirit behind it is at the heart of her enterprise.
Don Bogen on Josephine Miles’ “Cage” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.
Poems by Josephine Miles
POET’S REGION U.S., Western