COLLECTIONS OF POEMS
Uncertainties and Rest. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
CHAPBOOKS AND LIMITED EDITIONS OF POEMS
The Prudent Heart. Los Angeles: Symposium Press, 1983.
SCHOLARSHIP AND LITERARY CRITICISM
Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990.
The Music of His History: Poems for Charles Gullans on His Sixtieth Birthday. Edited by Timothy Steele. Florence, KY: Robert L. Barth Press, 1989.
ARTICLES IN MAGAZINES, JOURNALS
“The Structure of the Detective Story.” Modern Fiction Studies 27 (Winter 1981-82): 555-70.
“Verse Satire in the Twentieth Century.” In A Companion to Satire Ancient and Modern, edited by Ruben Quintero. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007: 434-59.
Introduction to Peter Stanlis’s Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2007: i-x.
Introduction to Able Muse Anthology, edited by Alex Pepple. San Jose: Able Muse Press, 2011: xiii-iv.
Two short essays for “The Symposium on Form.” In Think Journal 3 (Spring 2011):13-15; 33-35.
“Scansion,” “Verse and Prose.” Entries for The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th Edition, Roland Greene, Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Cushman, General Editor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012: 1259-63; 1507-13.
“Afterword.” For Frank Osen’s Virtue, Big as Sin. San José, CA: Able Muse Press, 2013: 63-66.
“No Shepherd of a Child’s Surmises’: J. V. Cunningham as a Montana Poet.” In These Living Songs: Reading Montana Poetry. Edited by Lisa D. Simon and Brady Harrison. Missoula: University of Montana Press, 2014: 153-66.
“Keeping the Angels in Line”: of Mary Baron, Letters for the New England Dead. Counter/Measures 3 (1974): 191-93.
Two Poems: “Wait,” “Homecoming in Late March.” Poetry 119 (March 1972): 329
Poem: “Gym Evenings.” Iambs and Trochees, 1 (Fall 2002): 12-13.
Three Poems: “Sepulveda Basin Mallards,” “Jardin des Tuileries,” “Freudian Analysis.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003): no pp. noumbers.
Poem: “Siglo de Oro.” The Threepenny Review 97 (Spring 2004): 11.
Poem: “Joanna, Wading.” The Philadelphia Inquirer (June 8, 2004): A19.
Two Poems: “Henry and Elvis,” “In a Eucalyptus Grove.” The Kenyon Review 27 (Winter 2005): 113-14.
Three Poems: “Daybreak, Benedict Canyon,” “The Swing,” “Ethel Taylor.” The New Criterion 23 (April 2005): 25-30.
Three Poems: “Black Phoebe,” “Hercules and the Poet,” “A Short History of Post-Structuralism.” Cadenza 14 (Fall 2005): 36; 44; 75.
Poem: “A Muse.” The Threepenny Review 105 (Spring 2006): 12.
Two Poems: “April 27, 1937,” “Herb Garden.” Measure 1 (Spring 2006): 69-71.
Poem: “Love Letter.” The New York Sun 123:150 (November 14, 2007):16.
Two Poems: “Flying Colors,” “Opening the Camp.” The Hopkins Review 1 (Spring 2008): 210-212.
Translation and Poem: “Demain, dès l’aube . . . ” (Victor Hugo), “Anima.” The Raintown Review 7 (May 2008): 109-11. (“Anima” is reprinted from Toward the Winter Solstice.)
Poem: “Caesar for a Day.” First Things 193 (May 2009):28.
Poem: “For Kashmir.” First Things 194 (June/July 2009):20.
Poem: “In Montmartre Cemetery.” Able Muse (Winter 2009): http://wwwablemuse.com/v8/poetry/timothy-steele/montmartre-cemetery.
Poem. “At a Swimming Pool.” Clearing the Sill of the World. Program of the 28th Annual Key West Literary Seminar (January 7 – 14, 2010):38.
Two Poems: “Arrangement for One Voice,” “Pastoral at Rock Point.” Sewanee Review 118 (Spring 2010): 197-98.
Poem: “Sentimental Education.” The Hopkins Review 4 (Summer 2011): 399.
Poem: “Close Encounter.” American Arts Quarterly 29 (Summer 2012): 64.
Poem: “The Stocking Feeder.” First Things 228 (December 2012): 50.
Poem: “A Visitor.” Alabama Literary Review 21 (2012): 107-08.
Poem: “Astronomical Aubade.” First Things 229 (January 2013): 44.
Poem: “Haydn in Los Angeles.” Classical KUSC Arts Alive Blog (posted May 2, 2013). http://www.kusc.org/blog/arts/blog/artsalive/blogentry.aspx?BlogentryID=10539586
Poem: “L. A. Story.” The Evansville Review 23 (Spring 2013): 29-30.
Poem: “Now and Then.” Light Poetry Magazine (Winter/Spring 2014). http://lightpoetrymagazine.com/revamp/timothy-steele/winterspring-14/
Poem: “Descent of Man.” Smithsonian 45 (January 2015): 55.
Three Poems: “Changing of the Guard,” “Café du Soir,” “Squirrel among Sweet Gum Trees.” The Yale Review 103 (July 2015): 18-21.
POEMS AND ESSAYS IN ANTHOLOGIES, TEXTBOOKS, AND FESTSCHRIFTEN
Poem: “Epitaph.” In Introduction to Literature, 2nd. edition, edited by X. J. Kennedy. Boston: Little Brown, 1976: 65.
Poem: “Fae.” In The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles, edited by Scott Timberg and Dana Gioia. Los Angeles: Ren Hen Press, 2003: 157.
Two Poems: “An Aubade,” “Sapphics against Anger.” In California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present, edited by Dana Gioia, Chryss Yost, and Jack Hicks. Santa Clara: Heyday Books, 2004: 297-99.
Three Poems: “Sapphics again Anger,” “The Sheets,” “Summer.” In Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004: 969-71.
Essay: “Tradition and Revolution: The Modern Movement and Free Verse.” In Twentieth-Century American Poetics, edited by Dana Gioia, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004: 415-31.
Four Poems: “Aurora,” Beatitudes, While Setting Out the Trash,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child,” “Pacific Rim.” In Words Brushed with Music, edited by John Irwin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004: 153-57.
Three Poems: “Life Portrait,” “Sapphics against Anger,” “Social Reform.” In Contemporary American Poetry, edited by R. S. Gwynn and April Lindner. New York: Penguin, 2004: 354-57.
Two Poems: “Long Paces,” “Takeoff.” In 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, edited by Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005: 248, 274.
Poem: “Walking Her Home.” In Sonnets: 150 Contemporary Sonnets, edited by William Baer. Evansville, IN: University of Evansville Press, 2005: 126.
Poem: “Sapphics against Anger.” In Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, edited by David Mason and John Frederick Nims, 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005: 243.
Poem: “Fae.” In Visiting Frost: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Robert Frost, edited by Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005: 123.
Poem: “Woman in a Museum.” In Rhyming Poems: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by William Baer. Evansville, Indiana: University of Evansville Press, 2007: 104.
Poem: “Mockingbird.” The Poets Guide to the Birds, edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser. Tallahassee: Anhinga Press, 2009: 188.
Five Poems: “Practice,” “Beatitudes, While Setting Out the Trash,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child,” Advice to a Student,” “Joseph.” In Dramatic Monologues: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Samuel Maio. Evansville, IN: University of Evansville Press, 2009: 198-204.
Poem: “A Couple, A Domestic Interior.” Don’t Leave Hungry: Fifty Years of The Southern Poetry Review, edited by James Smith. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009: 94.
Poem: “Black Phoebe.” Bright Wings, edited by Billy Collins, with paintings by David Allen Sibley. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010:127-28.
Poem: “Caesar for a Day.” Grace Notes: Poetry from the Pages of First Things, edited by Paul Lake and Losana Boyd. New York: First Things, 2010: 96-98.
Poem: “In Montmartre Cemetery.” Able Muse Anthology, edited by Alex Pepple. San Jose: Able Muse Press, 2011: 158-59.
Poem: “Sapphics Against Anger.” The Broadview Introduction to Literature: Poetry, edited by Lisa Chalykoff, Neta Gordon, and Paul Lumsden. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2013: 389-90.
Two Poems: “Daybreak, Benedict Canyon,” “April 27, 1937.” Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2nd ed. edited by Cary Nelson. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014.
Two Poems: “Toward the Winter Solstice,” “Haydn in Los Angeles.” Wide Awake: Poets from Los Angeles and Beyond, edited by Suzanne Lummis and Liz Camfiord. Los Angeles: Beyond Baroque Books, 2015: 156-58.
Poem: “Sapphics Against Anger.” Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Metres, edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver. New York: Everyman Library/Knopf, 2015: 222-23.
Poem: “In Passing.” Published by Bernard Stone and Raymond Danowski. The Turret Bookshop, London, July 1992.
“Poetry’s Purist.” Interview and article by Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times, Section B, Monday, June 10, 1991: 1, 6.
“Timothy Steele Interviewed by David Kosub,” in Speaking of Poems, December 18, 2009. (http://speakingofpoems.blogspot.com/search?q=Timothy+Steele)
“Timothy Steele Interview,” in The Nervous Breakdown, July 31, 2010. (http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/category/poetry)
“Timothy Steele Interview,” in Statement (Spring 2011): 67-74.
“A Brief Interview with Timothy Steele,” in James Matthew Wilson, Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction. West Chester, PA: Story Line Press, 2012: 85-93.
“Conversation between Timothy Steele and Alan Fox, in Studio City, California, March 3rd, 2012,” in Rattle 18 (Winter 2012): 149-81.
Timothy Steele’s Career Summary
NAME: Timothy Steele DATE OF BIRTH: 22 January 1948
Poems, articles, and reviews in The Hopkins Review, Los Angeles Times, Modern Fiction Studies, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry, The Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, Smithsonian, The Spectator (England), Southern Review, Threepenny Review, Yale Review, and other periodicals.
Timothy Steele’s Career Summary
Timothy Steele’s most recent book of poems is Toward the Winter Solstice (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2006). His earlier poems are collected in Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986 (University of Arkansas Press, 1995) and The Color Wheel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). In addition, Steele has published two volumes of literary criticism: Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (University of Arkansas Press, 1990) and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (Ohio University Press, 1999). He has also edited The Poems of J. V. Cunningham (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1997).
Steele’s honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Los Angeles PEN Center’s Literary Award for Poetry, a California Arts Council Grant, a Commonwealth Club of California Medal for Poetry, and the Robert Fitzgerald Award for Excellence in the Study of Prosody. Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1948, Steele lives with his wife in Los Angeles. From 1987 to 2012, he taught in the English Department at California State University, Los Angeles, where he is now an emeritus professor.
“Steele, who was in the vanguard of the 1980s swing back to regular meter and rhyme in American poetry, is a formalist’s formalist, so technically adroit that he could write about anything and produce a poem repeatedly rewarding for music and shapeliness alone, and subject matter be damned. He isn’t so cavalier about meaning, however, as that characterization of his exquisite craftsmanship may suggest. Indeed, he writes about most important matters: the kindness he did 30 years ago for a little boy in Paris, the faithfulness of a common bird that doesn’t migrate, setting the star of faith atop the roof for another winter solstice, watching familiar surroundings emerge out of the historic and biblical possibilities a foggy daybreak suggests. The importance felt is, first, intimate, personal, deliberately nondazzling; it only gradually comes to seem general and cosmic. A good Steele poem often recalls the best domestic and modest Longfellow and Whittier poems, which have worn well because of their formal assurance. Steele’s work seems every bit as durable.”
“The poems are formal but varied, intricate without seeming delicate, and enact a pleasurable balance of humorous storytelling and earnest, heart-felt discovery. . . . Once again Steele has done what he does best: offer celebratory, attentive verses that reveal a mind eager to both inspire and instruct, to witness the world sincerely while still making it his own.”
“If ever a poet has been able to wring a noble private order from ignoble public chaos it is Steele, whose Toward the Winter Solstice moves back and forth between the pastoral Vermont of the poet’s youth and the world of his macadamized adulthood.”
About Toward the Winter Solstice
Since the appearance of Timothy Steele’s first collection of poems in 1979, growing numbers of readers and critics have recognized him as one of the best and most significant poets of his generation. Widely credited with anticipating and encouraging the revival of poetry in traditional form, Steele has produced a body of work praised for its technical accomplishment, its intellectual breadth, and its emotional energy.
Reviews and Articles
about Timothy Steele
Rob Fure. Library Journal, April 15, 1979.
Richmond Lattimore. “Poetry Chronicle,” The Hudson Review 32 (Autumn 1979).
Alan Shapiro. “Timothy Steele’s Uncertainties and Rest. The Chicago Review31 (Winter 1980).
Anon. Choice (January 1980).
J.D. McClatchy. “Summaries and Evidence.” Partisan Review, 47 (Autumn 1980).
Thom Gunn. “Playing Politics with Poetry.” Threepenny Review,(Summer 1981).
Mary Kinzie. The American Poetry Review (March-April 1982).
Anon. Publishers Weekly, August 22, 1986.
Tom Clark. “Poetry to Celebrate the Pleasures of L.A.” The LA Herald, September 14, 1986. Book Section.
R.S. Gwynn. “Second Gear.” NER/BLQ [New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, 9 (Autumn 1986).
Anon. The Virginia Quarterly Review, 63 (Autumn 1987).
Paul Lake. “Towards a Liberal Poetics.” The Threepenny Review, 32 (Winter 1988).
Brad Leithauser. “The Strictest Line.” TLS, February 19-25, 1988.
Kathryn Hellerstein. “Pleasures of Restriction.” The Partisan Review 56 (Fall 1989)
Library Journal, April 1, 1990, Jeffrey R. Luttrell
The Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 1990, Thomas D’Evelyn
Choice, November, 1990, B. Wallenstein
The New Criterion, November 1990, Bruce Bawer
Verse, Winter 1990, Matthew Brennan
PN Review, January/February 1991, Chris McCully
TLS, February 1, 1991, Clive Wilmer
The Formalist, Spring 1991, Samuel Maio
Style, Spring 1991, William A. Quinn
The Classical Outlook, Summer 1991, David Middleton
Agenda, Autumn 1991, W.G. Shepherd
Poetry Durham, 1991, Number 28, Dick Davis
Magill’s Literary Annual, 1991, Philip K. Jason
Anon. Publishers Weekly. November 28,1984 (starred reviewed)
Donald E. Stanford. “American Formalism.” The Southern Review(Spring 1995)
Robert B. Shaw. “Spectrum.” Poetry (May 1995)
Richard Moore. “Review: The Color Wheel.“ Hellas (Fall/Winter 1995)
R. S. Gwynn. “Lectures in Urban Survival,” The Sewanee Review (Winter 1996).
Ellen Sullivan. Library Journal (March 15, 1999)
Thomas DePietro, Kirkus Reviews (April 15, 1999) Robert Richman.
The New Criterion (April 1999) R. B. Shuman. Choice (November 1999)
Clive Wilmer. “Find Your Feet.” TLS (December 17, 1999)
Robert C. Jones. American Book Review (July-August 2000)
Robert B. Shaw. “Prosody for the People.” Poetry (September 2000)
Entry: “Timothy Steele.” The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Ed. Ian Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Donald G. Sheehy. “Measure for Measure: The Frostian Classicism of Timothy Steele.” The Robert Frost Review (Fall 1995).
Kevin Walzer. The Ghost of Tradition: Expansive Poetry and Postmodernism.Ashland, OR: Storyline Press, 1998.
______. “The Poetry of Timothy Steele.” The Tennessee Quarterly(Winter 1996).
Entry: “Timothy Steele.” The Readers’ Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers.Ed. Peter Parker. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
n the world of poetry, Timothy Steele is a radical by being a traditionalist.
A Cal State Los Angeles professor, Steele is a leader in the national movement that seeks a return to rhyme and meter in verse.
That may not sound radical to people required to memorize the works of William Wordsworth and Robert Frost a generation ago. But writing well in rhyme has earned Steele praise from some critics and contempt from others at a time when many literary journals are devoted to unrhymed, free-form poetry.
“It seems to me that meter and rhyme make a special appeal to the ear and the mind that no other kind of composition can make,” explained Steele, a 43-year-old whose youthful good looks make him a Central Casting choice for a sensitive poet.
“Well-used meter and rhyme can create a sense of liveliness and a symmetry and surprise that can produce delight and pleasure for the reader ” he said. “I suppose I want to say something important. And I would hope the reader would be interested in it. But I also hope to give the reader pleasure.”
Steele’s enthusiasm may seem obscure to people outside the literati. But he contends that a major reason the readership for poems is small these days is that experimental poetry has turned off many potential readers.
What’s more, rhyme and rhythm make poetry easier to memorize. That, according to Steele, is important now that visual images of film, video and computer technology often overpower the written and spoken word. “Poetry provides readers with works of art or statements that can be committed to heart and mind and become a part of your being,” he said.
Steele has published two collections of poetry, winning many good reviews, a Guggenheim fellowship, a finalist nomination for a National Book Critics Circle prize and an award from the Academy of American Poets. He is considered a top voice in the New Formalism movement, the loose collection of poets who write in formal stanzas, rhymed or not, using rhythmic patterns that in some cases date back to ancient Greece. (The best-selling example of New Formalism is The Golden Gate, the 1986 novel-length poem about modern San Francisco life by Vikram Seth, who was a student of Steele’s at Stanford University.)
Steele recently received international attention for his book of scholarly prose, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (The University of Arkansas Press). In that 340-page treatise, Steele traces the history of many literary movements and analyzes why many poets abandoned traditional forms in the 20th Century. In rebellion against fussy Victorian language, free-flow poetry arose around World War I with the works of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and came to dominate American verse with the Beats of the 1950s, such as Allen Ginsberg. While Steele admires unmetered poems by Williams, Wallace Stevens and others, he bemoans the overall loss of tradition.
In a February review of Missing Measures, the London Times Literary Supplement said Steele, “already a master of traditional versification…now proves himself a considerable scholar.” But the review also said that Steele may have wrongly portrayed free-verse, unrhymed poetry as if it were merely chopped-up prose.
Some other critics and rival poets consider New Formalists to be reactionaries whose poetry mirrors the social conservatism of the Reagan-Bush era. By stressing traditional meter, the New Formalists restrict the substance and emotional power of poetry, their opponents contend. For example, Wayne Dodd, editor of the Ohio Review literary journal, accused the New Formalists of “intolerance and mean-spiritedness” and said their poems may become mere “amusement.”
George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, the prestigious journal at the University of the South, in Tennessee, said the debate between New Formalists and free versers “is a big issue among poets now” and that Steele “of course, is one of the champions” on one side.
Steele stresses that no camp has a monopoly on poetic passion and bristles at suggestions that meter and rhyme limit free expression. “It seems terribly simple-minded to say of a medium that allowed for the poems of Homer and Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare that it is a straitjacket,” he wrote in Missing Measures.
Certainly, the topics of Steele’s poems are wide-ranging.
In his most recent collection, Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems (Random House), he writes of contemporary Los Angeles:
The neighborhood, part Japanese and part
Also the intrigues of romance:
Together five minutes—and we’re ashen
Nearing completion of a third collection, Steele usually writes in pencil on a yellow legal pad in the living room of the Westside house he shares with his wife, Victoria,who heads the special collections department at the USC libraries. He rejects the use of rhyming dictionaries, preferring “what comes up from your subconscious.”
Steele says the idea for a poem comes first, followed by tests of different meter and rhyme schemes. “When one feels a poem isn’t working, one looks at the rhyme and other elements almost like a broken car,” he explained. “”Is it the generator? Is it an oil leak? Is the language too formulaic? Is the meter too wooden? Or, like a car that’s old and not working, does the poem have to be junked?”
Born on Lord Byron’s birth date (Jan. 22), Steele grew up in Vermont and enrolled at Stanford, planning to study mathematics.
About halfway through, he switched to English and began writing poetry. He earned his doctorate at Brandeis University with a dissertation on detective fiction and returned to Stanford for a few years with a fellowship and lectureship. There he taught Seth, who later dedicated The Golden Gate to Steele, who reciprocated, dedicating Sapphics against Anger to Seth.
In 1987, Steele was hired as an associate professor at Cal State Los Angeles, where he teaches English courses ranging from freshman composition to graduate seminars on modern American poetry. He says the campus is “refreshing and vital” because the students are ethnically diverse and there are so many older students, highly motivated for education.
Students appreciate meter and rhyme more now, Steele says, than when he began teaching in the mid-1970s. “There was almost universal hostility in suggesting to young writers that they read traditional verse, much less write it. There seems today to be an interest in form that there wasn’t 10 or 12 years ago among students,” he explained, likening the change to revivals in musical harmony, classical architecture and representational painting.
“One of the odd paradoxes of contemporary literature,” Steele contended, “is that the traditional itself has become the very avant-garde.”
DONALD G. SHEEHY
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
I am always pleased when I see someone making motions like this—like a metronome. Seeing the music measured. Measure always reassures me. Measure in love, in government, measure in selfishness. measure in unselfishness.
—Frost. “A Talk for Students,” 1956
or my pleasure I had as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down,” Robert Frost would remark in one of the perdurable epigrams of modern poetics, one appreciatively recalled most recently by a rising generation of American writers loosely grouped as “New Formalist” or “Expansivist” poets. Here as elsewhere, of course, Frost’s outer humor bespoke an inner seriousness, and the terms in which many of these poets have declared an allegiance to formal verse betoken an in- and outdoor schooling” adequate to Frost’s “kind of fooling.”1 And as is amply evident in three well-received volumes of poems, Uncertainties and Rest (1979), Sapphics against Anger (1986), and The Color Wheel (1994), and a critical history of modernist poetics, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (1990), none of these poets has schooled himself more fruitfully in Frost than has Timothy Steele. As a poet, Steele recalls Frost in his subtle mastery of form, in his philosophical and aesthetic moderation, in his sympathetic but unsentimental attention to the natural world and to the vicissitudes of love and marriage, and in the gently incisive wit with which he meets human foible, public and private. As a critic and as a theoretician of the “New Formalism,” Steele has renewed and extended Frost’s quarrel with the excesses of modernism and has advanced in distinctly Frostian terms a poetics classical in its commitments to measure and its rejection of novelty, difference, and self-expression as primary values.
Recounting the development of his poetics in “The Forms of Poetry” (1992), Steele—who now lives in and writes often about Southern California—revisited his early education in Burlington, Vermont, to recall the instructive presence of Frost: “[F]rom the later stages of elementary school on, my classmates and I were exposed to the work of a local bard named Robert Frost, who was officially installed as the state’s laureate in the summer of 1961, when I was between the seventh and eighth grades. He wrote with spellbinding accuracy about a world my friends and I saw around us every day.” Early taken with Frost as “a consummate technician who time and again demonstrated the ways in which scene and mood could be shaped and pointed by verse structure,” Steele perceived as well that “Frost’s self-expression was not inhibited or made archaic by poetic form. Nor was he at all reticent about his allegiance to meter and rhyme. It was he who compared writing free verse to playing tennis with the net down. And even if I had not loved traditional poetry to begin with, his imposing example would have made me cautious of writing poetry in any mode without learning beforehand the time-tested procedures for versing” (29).
Reviewing Steele’s progress as a poet, X. J. Kennedy has praised his “classically tempered” appreciation for “the life and the mind and for the sensuous world,” his relish for “the wonders of ordinary experience,” and his sense that a thoughtful life leads not to a denial of pain but to its continual interruption “by moments of joy and glimpses of beauty.” Given Steele’s Vermont upbringing, he acknowledges the inevitablity with which comparisons will be made to Frost. The terms of his own approbation notwithstanding, however, he would also delimit such comparison severely: “Although his poems recall Frost’s in their fondness for synecdoche and understatement and in their devotion to traditional form, the comparison soon flags. It is difficult to imagine the modest Steele as a media figure and a performing poet-philosopher. His poetry, even when it seems to arise from his own life, does not deliberately reach out to enfold its audience; in person Steele eschews self-dramatization” (297-98). By basing his comparison on a familiar critical caricature of the poet in late career, however, Kennedy misrepresents the essential modesty of Frost’s poetic voice. He fails thereby to allow that a likeness between these poets rests upon a shared and fundamental sense of classical modus, a commitment to principles of modesty, of moderation, of measure. A comparison extended on such terms neither impugns Steele’s achievement nor denies differences in carriage; rather, it recognizes more fully a continuity alternative to modernism in 20th-century American poetry and emphasizes a sense of tradition that is itself central to Steele’s poetic enterprise.
In a note for Contemporary Authors in 1985, Steele responded to having his work often described as “classical”:
I suspect this adjective is applied to my poems because they are written in meter. I don’t object to the adjective, but it means more to me than simply an interest in structural matters; it means—or indicates—an attempt to strike a balance between the need for normative procedure and technical rigor on the one hand, and the demands of individual talent and inspiration on the other. It is this balance which seems to me perhaps the most crucial element of lively and distinctive art, and it is this balance, among other things, that I’m aiming for in my work. (372)
In praise of Steele’s “classical sensibility,” Robert McPhillips has declared that he has a range “wide enough to include ideas” and “a strong personal voice that is musical as well as morally and imagistically astute.” He finds in “Sapphics against Anger” not only the “ethical and aesthetic core of Steele’s work,” but a central statement of the new formalism: “For what is, after all, the good life save that/ Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion/ If not the holiest of powers, sustaining/ Only if mastered.” Steele, he concludes, “reflects the New Formalists’ desire to escape from the kind of extreme frantic emotions explored in the personal lyrics of the confessional poets” (83-85). As Mary Kinzie more succinctly remarks, Steele is a poet who “cultivates restraint as a mechanism for the release of both wit and feeling” (16).
It was the loss of such restraint in modem poetry that led Frost in 1929 to insist that “poetry is measured in more senses than one: it is measured feet but more important still it is a measured amount of all we could say and we would. We shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short…. There is no greater fallacy going than that art is expression—an undertaking to tell all to the last scrapings of the brain pan” (Letters 361). From the start, of course, Frost had urged moderation amid the nascent extremities of modem poetry. “(T)here is a crowd of ’emotionalists’ who threw all to the winds except emotion,” he noted in 1916. “I think they’re perhaps worse than the ‘intellectualists,’ who are the other extreme. But a happy mixture, that’s it” (Interviews 13). His critique of the emotive excesses of confessional poetics remained constant in 1947: “All this rolling around on the floor and kicking and screaming isn’t poetry. It must be controlled: emotion must be harnessed to a wit-mill and turned out carefully” (Interviews 114).
If it is true that not every passage of every poem can be white-hot with passion; if there’s a place in many poems for the quieter approach, the undramatic exit, the bittersweet revolution of a thought; if poetry can concern itself with culture and shared trouble, with society and with family, with history and with ideals; then much of the poetry we are permitting, sanctioning, churning out, and shrugging off in America not only fails to satisfy technically by using language strongly and thoroughly: it also embraces very little of the area that used to be in poetry’s domain.
Steele, to the contrary, reveals a quality of “ordinariness”—an “assumption that what he sees and feels is known to everybody” and a confidence “that he is at most refreshing a familiar memory when he invokes our common humanity” (16). As Dana Gioia remarks, Steele “has talent without eccentricity, a normal sensibility with an abnormal gift for expression,” and believes “he can command the reader’s attention by writing well about ordinary things” (101-3).
Lamenting the state of American poetry in 1927—the “growth of naturalistic emotionalism” and the failure “to stem the tide of writing designed for the expression of uniqueness rather than of generality”—Gorham Munson found an exception in the classicism of Robert Frost. Frost’s imagination, he argued, was based “on the view of a man who is using more of his equipment than most of the moderns do,” and thus his poems give more of “an impression that a whole man is writing them than do the sharply intellectualized or bubbling emotional lines of most of his contemporaries.” So too is the reader “consistently struck by his acceptance of the dualistic world and his actual contentment with his lot of joy and love “dashed with pain and weariness and fault'” (106-7). Frost, he maintained, is a poet of “the customary in man and nature, not the exploiter of the remarkably arresting and wonderful.” As an “observer of the law of probability and the law of measure of proportion of decorum,” he is “restrained by conventions that are inherently worthy of respect, and the result is decorum in the true sense.” In terms equally apt of Steele, Munson declared Frost a poet of sensibility and of good sense, for “good sense avoids extremes both in what it denies and what it accepts”: “Being intelligent, being deeply emotional, being obliged to make terms with practical life, the man of good sense casts up a rough balance of the three aspects of his life and travels, so far as he is permitted to do so, in the center of the highway” (112-13).
Addressing the conduct of life in the wisdom of “Experience.” Emerson had counselled that “everything good is on the highway”: “The middle region of our being is the temperate zone. We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation, Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry” (36). While certainly less travelled by in modern American poetry, Emerson’s middle road is nonetheless that by which Frost and Steele would go. “I like the middle way, as I like to talk to the man who walks the middle way with me,” Frost declared in 1923, defending in “We Seem to Lack the Courage to Be Ourselves” a poetics of “ordinary” life against allegations—not unlike those brought against Steele—that his art betrayed an insufficiently wide emotional, moral, aesthetic, and political “straddle.” Refusing an equation of “unspeakable experience” with “poetic integrity,” Frost saw a correlative for a cultivation of experiential excess in an abandonment of the restraints of traditional prosody. Questioning the use to which Whitman had been put as guide—”many have gone very much further than Whitman would have travelled with them…they are the people who believe in wide straddling”—he held that “when a man sets out consciously to tear up forms and rhythms and measures, then he is not interested in giving you poetry. He just wants to perform”(Interviews 48-52).
For like reason, Steele has disputed a continuing equation of free verse with freedom, and of confession with sincerity. “Without criticizing Poe and Whitman,” he argues in Missing Measures, “one might say a few cautionary words about the standard Poe-Whitman approach to our literature,” a view which “treats extreme peculiarity, whether of the tortured or the bold and buoyant variety, as our distinctive contribution to Western literature” (287-88). Furthermore, he argues, an “aesthetic emphasis on the subjective experience of the artist has contributed to the belief that free verse is libertarian”: “If one is considering poetry solely in terms of the poet, free verse is certainly liberating in some ways. If, however, one thinks of poetry as involving readers, too, the character of free verse grows ambiguous: it may deprive the reader of elements of the art that bring him pleasure and intellectual stimulation.” It is the free-verse poet, he concludes, who “versifies by fiat,” for the “very absence of formal standards demands that the poet’s self-expression be accepted on its own terms, however obscure or arbitrary” (283-84).
“That is where the extreme modernists are defeating themselves,” Frost asserted in 1931, “for they do not care whether their communication is intelligible to others. It suffices that it has significance to its creator” (Interviews 80). Distrustful of a poetics of self-expression, he dwelt upon the implications of a poetic cultivation of difference in an introduction to E. A. Robinson’s King Jasper (1936)): “How does a man come upon his difference, and how does he feel about it when he first finds it out? At first it may well frighten him…. There is such a thing as being too willing to be different. And what shall we say to people who are not only willing but anxious? What assurance have they that their difference is not insane, eccentric, abortive, unintelligible?”
It has been said that recognition in art is all. Better say correspondence is all. Mind must convince mind that it can uncurl and wave the same filaments of subtlety, should convince soul that it can give off the same shimmers of eternity. At no point would anyone but a brute fool want to break off this correspondence. It is all there is to satisfaction; and it is salutary to live in the fear of its being broken off. (59-60)
Conceiving of poetry as an art of communication and as a continuing testimony to what joins us, Steele has avowed in Missing Measures a faith that “what is most essential to human life and to its continuance remains a love of nature, an enthusiasm for justice, a readiness of good humor, a spontaneous susceptibility to beauty and joy, an interest in our past, a hope for our future, and, above all, a desire that others should have the opportunity and encouragement to share these qualities” (294). “An art of measured speech nourishes these qualities,” he believes, and such a sense of measure, as his “Chanson Philosophique” suggests, rests in part upon coming to terms with one’s difference:
The nominalist in me invents
A life devoid of precedents.
The realist takes a different view:
He claims that all I feel and do
Billions of others felt and did
In history’s Pre-me period.
Arguing thus, both voices speak
A partial truth. I am unique,
Yet the unceasing self-distress
Of desire buffets me no less
Than it has the other sons of man
Who’ve come and gone since time began.
The meaning, then, of this dispute?
My life’s a nominal/real pursuit,
Which leaves identity clear and blurred,
In which what happens has occurred
Often and never—which is to say,
Never to me, or quite this way. (SAA 44)
“It may come to the notice of posterity,” Frost predicted in the introduction to King Jasper, “that this, our age, ran wild in the quest of new ways to be new. The one old way to be new no longer served. Science put it into our heads that there must be new ways to be new.”
Those tried were largely by subtraction, elimination. Poetry, for example, was tried without punctuation. It was tried without capital letters. It was tried without metric frame on which to measure the rhythm. It was tried without any images but those to the eye: and a loud general intoning has to be kept up to cover the total loss of specific images to the ear, those dramatic tones of voice which had hitherto constituted the better half of poetry. It was tried without content under the trade name of poesie pure. It was tried without phrase, epigram, coherence, logic and consistency. It was tried without ability…. It was tried without feeling or sentiment like murder for small pay in the underworld. These many things was it tried without, and what had we left? Still something.
“For ourselves, we should hate to be read for any theory upon which we might be supposed to write,” he declared in closing a critique of the “science” of poetic experimentalism that could serve as a precise for Missing Measures. “We doubted that any poem could persist for any theory upon which it might have been written” (59-63). Nearly a century after the modernist revolt, Steele argues in addressing “The New as the True: Novelty, Modern Verse, and Science,” poets nonetheless remain persuaded “not only that novelty is a prerequisite of poetic art, but also that poets must specifically discover new techniques. Furthermore, it is argued that these techniques should startle or shock the reader” (241-42). Certain that “the only novelty sure to last in poetry is the novelty of talent,” he contends that “the idea that to be novel, one has to invent a ‘METHOD’ in the Poundian sense is not only wrongheaded: it is unnecessary. The alert poet cannot help but be novel…his subjects are the manners and morals and aspects of his world and fellow creatures, and these are always changing” (292-93).
Protestations to the contrary by Pound and Eliot notwithstanding, Steele insists, the “make it new” of modernism differed in kind from prior poetic revolutions against an outworn diction or subject matter, for the modernists “identified the florid idiom characteristic of much Victorian verse with meter itself” and felt that “in order to get rid of Victorian style they also had to get rid of meter…. When Dryden and Wordsworth objected to overly-poetical mannerisms, they did not include conventional metric among the qualities they wished to remove from verse; they continued to write in the traditional measures of English poetry” (6-7). Even as he conducted his own revolt against the manner and matter of much late-Victorian poetry, so of course did Frost—as Steele elsewhere acknowledges in tracing what amounts to a poetic lineage: “During the modern movement, traditional versification continued to practiced, and practiced brilliantly, by Frost and Yeats, as it was later to be brilliantly practiced by Auden, Cunningham, Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin, and Thom Gunn” (280). What Steele for his purposes might render more fully for readers conditioned by the exclusionary claims to authority of modernist poetics is that across the first half of the century Frost also articulated a coherent, if informal and inconsecutive, defense of traditional poetics that converges at significant prosodic and philosophical points with the more systematic and scholarly argument of Missing Measures.
“We write of things we see and we write in accents we hear,” Frost explained in 1914. “I want the unmade words to work with, not the familiar made ones that everybody exclaims Poetry! at” (Letters 141). To trust an old way to be new, to value continuity as highly as innovation, was for Frost as it is for Steele not to deny a need for poetic renewal: “We must have new subject matter, new treatment of it,” Frost held in 1916, “and we must employ the neglected tones and forget the overworked ones” (Interviews 14). “We have idioms that are our own; we have subjects that are our own. We should use them, but we cannot construct a prosody from them,” Steele has argued against those contemporary adherents of Pound and Williams who maintain that free verse is somehow intrinsically novel, libertarian, and American, and that to write in the traditional forms and meters of English poetry is to forswear not only modernity, but liberty and national identity (285-88).
Steele’s quarrel with the prosodic legacy of modernism is in many ways, of course, Frost’s quarrel with Pound. “Ezra used to say that you’ve got to get all the meter out of it,” Frost recalled of Pound’s effort to “break the pentameter” in a 1959 conversation with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: “If you do, maybe you’ve got true free verse, and I don’t want any of it,” for meter “seems to be the basis of—the waves and the beat of the heart seems to be basic in all making of poetry in all languages” (Barry 155-58). Steele grants that Pound’s advice to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” is a useful reminder to poets that they must give their verse metrical life, but he cites Cunningham’s observation that the modernists often confused 19th-century schoolroom scansion with actual metrical practice in objecting to Pound’s misrepresentation of meter as a “ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum… from which every departure is treated as an exception”: “Pound’s ti-tumming accounts for the metrical norm of the pentameter line and for the way a student might scan…to bring out its metrical identity. But the ti-tumming does not account for the necessary and happily infinite varieties of rhythmical contour (and they are not ‘exceptions’) that can exist within the norm of the conventional pentameter” (60-61). “If one is to be a poet,” Frost held in 1913, “he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the meter. Verse in which there is nothing but the beat of the meter furnished by the accents of the polysyllabic words we call doggerel. Verse is not that” (Letters 80-81). Having declared in “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939) that “the possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless,” he expanded in 1959. Brooks: “Would you say that even though the meter is based on…some kind of basic rhythm in our natures, still for the poet it’s something to be played over against—it’s something to be fought with…? It’s not directly expressive—ta-DA, ta-DA, ta-Da. ta-DA, ta-DA.” Frost: “It’s doggerel when you do that, and how you save it from doggerel is having enough dramatic meaning in it for the other thing to break the doggerel. And it mustn’t break with it…. They use the word ‘rhythm” about a lot of free verse; and gee, what’s the good of the rhythm unless it is on something that trips it—that it ruffles? You know, it’s got to ruffle the meter” (Barry 156).
Of the dependence of free verse for its rhythmical effects upon a metrical norm, Frost remarked that “if we hadn’t had the years of formal verse, this stuff wouldn’t be any good, you know. The shadow is there; that’s what gives it any charm it has” (Barry 158). Disputing the separation of rhythm from meter upon which a theory of free verse is constructed, Steele likewise argues that “rhythmical organization has meaning only with reference to a literary context in which meter is practiced.” Noting Eliot’s early admonition in “Reflections on ‘Vers Libre”‘ (1917) that “the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse” (34-35) and his later warning in “Milton II” (1947) that “a monotony of unscannable verse fatigues the attention even more quickly than a monotony of exact feet” (274), he argues that the early modernists themselves conceived of free verse not as an adequate end but as an interlude from which a new measure would emerge. Its ensuing institutionalization, however, has led so many poets to ignore metrical structure entirely that today “one almost hesitates to say that most poets write unmetrically: such a statement suggests that they know what meter is, which does not appear to be the case. Rather, it seems that versification, as it has been understood for millennia, is for the majority of contemporary poets an irrelevant matter” (281).
Under the sway of modernist prosody, Steele contends, many poets have simply assumed that “if one tries to work in meter and has trouble expressing what one wants to express, one should as a matter of course turn to free verse, rather than trying patiently to improve and broaden one’s skills in conventional versification.” Influentially typical is Robert Lowell’s complaint that “I couldn’t get any experience into tight metrical forms. I felt that the meter plastered difficulties and mannerisms on what I was trying to say to such an extent that it terribly hampered me.” Since Lowell found equally binding the formal requirements of the prose fiction he judged “less cut off from life than poetry,” Steele argues that such a justification for “breaking forms” ultimately dispenses with poetic meter without securing in return the discipline of prose fiction (106-7). Most troubling is that a view of traditional prosody as a restriction has become so entrenched as to allow The Oxford Companion to English Literature to declare that “Verse in the 20th cent. has largely escaped the straitjacket of traditional metrics.” While to write in meter, Steele allows, “is undeniably to place obligations on speech,” for “one can no longer say anything one chooses when one chooses,” he would have us wonder why “if traditional metrics were indeed a straightjacket, so many poets of such great intellectual curiosity and independence and of such lively and diverse gifts wrote in meter for so long.”
Ironically remarking that even Jeremiah “has had his sincerity questioned because the anguish of his lamentations was tamable to the form of twenty-two stanzas for the twenty-two letters of the [Hebrew] alphabet.” Frost explained in “The Constant Symbol” (1946) why he, for one, had “written my verse regular all this time.” The constraints of traditional prosody itself, he argued, are a reminder of our being “not unbounded,” of the limits within which genuine freedom is realized: “Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper to a rounded conclusion and then be judged for whether any original intention it had has been strongly spent or weakly lost; be it in art, politics, school, church, business, love, or marriage—in a piece of work or in a career.” Mere facility, a “rhymester’s cleverness,” is also a betrayal of the spirit, for a poem is to be “an epitome of the great predicament: a figure of the will braving alien entanglements.” A poet “of our stock,” he suggested, “has been brought up by ear to choice of two metres, Strict iambic and loose iambic (not to count varieties of the latter). He may have any length of line up to six feet.”
Suppose him to have written down ‘When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes.’ He has uttered about as much as he has to live up to in the theme as in the form…. He may proceed as in blank verse. Two more lines, however, and he has let himself in for rhyme, three more and he has set himself a stanza. Up to this point his discipline has been the self-discipline whereof it is written in so great praise. The harsher discipline from without is now well begun. He who knows not both knows neither.
“To the right person,” he concluded, “it must seem naïve to distrust form as such. The very words of the dictionary are a restriction to make the best of or stay out of and be silent…. We play the words as we find them. We make them do. Form in language is such a disjected lot of old broken pieces that it seems almost as non-existent as the spirit till the two embrace in the sky. They are not to be thought of as encountering in rivalry but in creation” (27-28). 2
For Steele as for Frost, a modern distrust of traditional forms rests in part upon a belief that 20th-century life is so unprecedented in complexity, so unique in difficulty, as to constitute an historical rupture and to require a radically innovative aesthetic. Eliot had, of course, claimed for modernist poetics an historical necessity, announcing in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921) what proved a bedrock principle of modern poetry and criticism: “We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning” (65). An antipathy to traditional prosody now entrenched in writing programs and contemporary literature curricula has further created a vested interest, Steele argues, “in the view that the human mind and poetry had, in our time, undergone vast and irrevocable changes and that those who questioned this view were subversive and should be ostracized from the literary community.” Hearing all too often that “our lives and our age are not suited to the conventions which in the past have made great poetry possible,” Steele would contest modernist rationale at its foundation:
We live in an age that is in many ways profoundly disturbing. But every age is difficult. When we look at the past, we do not (and in some cases do not have the opportunity to) look too closely…. [W]e do not see that the sources for individual and collective unhappiness and unease exist in all times. One must admit and face the terrors of the day. But to say that we confront such unprecedentedly trying conditions that we are at liberty to abandon conventional restraint may be to commit an act of spiritual vanity. Those who tell us that we should write in a crazy fashion because our times are crazy may be inviting us to collaborate with the very forces that we should resist. (290-91).
Of “works lately to surpass all records for hardness,” Frost remarked in “The Constant Symbol” that “hard or easy seems to me of slight use as a test.” However complex the depths to which poetry delves, he held in 1953, “the first surface meaning, the anecdote, the parable…has got to be good and got to be sufficient in itself” (Cook 43). In reply to “Eliot’s proposition,” he noted that “they used to tell us back in Dreiser’s day that in a confused age the most representative art would be a confused artist. And it’s very dangerous, that doctrine is, because a very brilliant person can think he’s got to talk confused” (Cook 59). “You will often hear it said that the age of the world we live in is particularly bad,” he had explained in a letter to The Amherst Student in 1935:
I am impatient of such talk. We have no way of knowing that this age is one of the worst in the world’s history. It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God. All the ages of the world are bad—a great deal worse anyway than Heaven…. Whatever progress may be taken to mean, it can’t mean making the world any easier a place in which to save your soul—or if you dislike hearing your soul mentioned in open meeting, say your decency, your integrity. Ages may vary a little. One may be a little worse than another. But it is not possible to get outside the age you are in to judge it exactly…. Witness the many who in the attempt have suffered a dilation from which the tissues and muscles of the mind have never been able to recover natural shape.
“There is always something we can be doing without reference to how good or bad the age is,” he admonished. “There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it” (105-6).
“Science put it into our heads.” Frost had observed laconically of the welter of modern poetic experimentalism, “that there must be new ways to be new.” Among the complex motivations of an aspiration in modernist poetics to the condition and status of science, Steele argues. were an anxiety that poetry had lost its cultural prestige to science, a faith that modern poetry and free verse in particular expressed an irresistible evolutionary process, and a belief that poetic experimentation would produce “advances” in the same way that experimentality advanced science, for new poetic techniques were to be somehow analogous to new scientific instrumentation in yielding superior insights. Pound’s contention that “the serious artist is usually, or is often as far from the aegrum vulgus as is the serious scientist” further suggests that modern poets appealed to science to justify experimental procedures because it supplied “a model for a pursuit that is ‘difficult,’ that employs esoteric vocabulary and formulae, and that baffles conventional expectation” (227). A flight from the “heresy of the didactic” that led to Eliot’s sense of the poet’s necessary “depersonalization” or to the assembly of data and suppression of abstract thought of Williams’ “no ideas but in things” is understandable, Steele grants, to the extent that impersonality and skepticism are reactions to the emotional excesses of much 19th-century verse. The modernists, he suggests however, generalized their impatience indiscriminately, overlooking “the fact that a great deal of poetry which incorporates ethical and moral judgment is neither ‘soft’ nor ‘mushy.'”
Against a belief that poets should “scientifically” shun ethical and moral evaluations, Steele would pose a classical rhetorical tradition in which the poet examines successively a status coniecturalis, a status definitiva, and a status qualitatis Against the modern assumption that a poet must arrest his work at the level of the status definitiva, he would maintain that the art of poetry properly “determines first the existence of something, then defines what it is, and, finally and most crucially, examines its moral implications” (259).
Poetry, Steele affirms, must retain an appreciation of science to remain vigorous, but he would recall it as well to an Aristotelean sense that literature deals with qualitative issues in life for which we have no systematic rules and that it must provide what Frost called “a clarification of life.” As did Frost, Steele believes it is possible and necessary for poets to sustain in an age of science Matthew Arnold’s classical trust—embattled then as now—that “mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us [for] without poetry our science will appear incomplete,” and that literature possesses a “fortifying, and elevating, and quickening, and suggestive power, capable of wonderfully helping us to relate the results of modern science to our need for conduct, our need for beauty” (2; 338-39). “You’re influenced by the science of your time,” Frost allowed in confirming a lifelong interest in science in a 1961 Paris Review interview, for “the greatest adventure of man is science, the adventure of penetrating into matter, into the material universe. But the adventure is our property, a human property” (62). And, as he had gently chided those scientists with whom he was gathered at a 1959 symposium on the “Future of Man,” “science can’t describe us. The wonderful description of us is in the humanities, the book of the worthies and unworthies through the ages, and anything you talk about in the future must be a projection from that” (Interviews 209). With like conviction and hope, Steele maintains in a passionate peroration to Missing Measures that “even in an age remarkable for its science, our individual and collective well-being and happiness depend on how thoughtfully and sensitively we respond to qualitative issues in human experience”:
Science cannot teach us how to live in the world and in society. Science cannot even teach us how to use its discoveries humanely and intelligently. Wanting to live well, we need guidance in both private matters relating to personal relationships and in public questions of social and political relationships. Poetry preeminently supplies this guidance. (293)
If, as Hayden Carruth complains. Frost has been “a frightful burden/on all younger Vermont poets,” then Steele early and late has borne less anxiously Carruth’s broader sense that Frost has made “a large part of our context” and “we must come to terms with him” (40-41). Neither has he appeared unduly constrained in writing, not infrequently and very well, what Robert Peters has derided as the now ubiquitous “Robert Frost poem,” among some twenty defining traits of which he lists “wonder over small natural forms,” “a stubborn optimism as one meditates on nature,” “the slight and unexpectedly restorative natural event,” “understatement, the gentle ironies,” and a “seemingly effortless, cozy metrics, telling end rhymes, and general proud craftsmanship” (293-95). Certain of the value of tradition to the individual talent, Steele has also, of course, worried their relation—as befits his ambition as a poet and the sincerity of his engagement with his poetic forebearers. In “Mockingbird,” he thus evokes the “oversounds” of Frost’s own birdsongs in addressing issues of imitation and invention, of formal delight and poetic wisdom:
Erratically, tirelessly, in song,
He does his imitations all day long.
Appropriating every voice lie hears,
Astonishingly shifting vocal gears,
He chirrups. trills, and whistles crazily.
Perched at the twiggy apex of his tree.
When argued with by smaller, lesser birds,
He raucously refutes them with their words,
When not receiving notice, as he should,
From earthbound members of the neighborhood,
He drops down onto chimney or garage,
Continuing his hectoring barrage.
One might object to his inflated noise,
The pertinacious manner he employs,
Except the sequences which he invents
Are born of urgent pathos, in this sense:
For all his virtuosity of tone.
The singer has no note which is his own. (SAA 12)
Reminiscent of Frost’s “The Oven Bird” as a gesture toward an ars poetica, the poem invests an old trope with new life even as it offers subtle tribute to its sources, quelling in the reader those doubts in the poet that it speaks.
Steele indeed has his own notes to sound. His poems nonetheless often enjoy a particular resonance when heard across the familiar register of Frost. To listen thus to his poetry of nature, for instance, is not to credit the reductive intentions of such formulae as Peters’, but to recognize as did Reuben Brower in reading Frost against a background in Emerson and Wordsworth that “a poet does not stand in the presence of natural facts alone, he stands also in the presence of other poets of nature and their poems,” and that “poetic revelation of an attitude to nature is made within certain conditions of expression, first within the conditions of writing a poem, and next within the conditions created by the poets who came before him” (39). Further, as Steele by example reminds us, a poet’s posture toward the conditions of thought and expression embodied in a tradition need be neither agonized nor antagonized to be thoughtful and expressive.
Conceptually, Steele’s poetry is grounded in a realistic acknowledgment of nature as morally and spiritually neutral and a romantic capacity for wonder and faith in the creative imagination. Inhabiting with Frost a world that is “no more uniformly benevolent than actively hostile” (Cook 278), Steele comprehends as well our need to make ourselves at home in it and is equally inclined to dwell neither in naturalist despair nor in an ecstasy of transcendence. He shares a sense of the interaction of mind and world that Frank Lentricchia defines in Frost as a form of “double-vision” which yields a sustained and fully self-conscious balance between the desire of the fiction-making and ordering imagination and the anti-fictive of the given environment in its irreducible “thereness” and otherness (xii). In Steele, as in Frost, this balance of perspectives is enacted as well in the modulations of the speaking voice—within and across the poems—between the elevated and the colloquial in tone and diction. In reflection that often springs from those occasions which grant an unexpectedly close observation of the mysteries of the familiar, Steele’s poems offer their consolations and cautions always with a quiet grace and not infrequently with a kind of earnest playfulness. While a surface similarity may be most pronounced in poems (i.e., “Timothy” or “Georgics”) which evoke the life and landscape of rural New England, the resemblance between Steele’s nature poetry and Frost’s—as a few examples may reveal—transcends the particulars of setting.
Having explored the oddly solar weather
Inside a lampshade, the dazed fly will tire,
Drop to the desk, and rub front legs together
As though to warm itself before a fire.
Capsizing with a shovelful of peat,
A pill bug wobbles on its back with fear:
It works its numerous and frantic feet,
Then curls its segments up into a sphere.
The topsoil or the manuscript can wait:
I plant my spade or break off in mid-phrase.
If asked why such small lives so fascinate,
Why I observe them, I can’t really tell.
But a responsive impulse moves my gaze,
An impulse I can see in them as well. (SAA II)
The worker hovers where the jade plant blooms,
Then settles on a blossom to her taste;
Her furred and black-and-yellow form assumes
A clinging curve by bending from the waist.
So, too, the sweetpeas, climbing on their net,
Cast wire-wrapping tendrils as they flower,
Nor need they shield themselves from a regret
Of the dependent nature of their power.
They’re spared the shrewd self-mockery of the sage
Attuned to limits and disparity.
They’re spared the sad mirth serving those who gauge
The gap between the long-for and the real,
Who grasp provisional joy, who must not be
Desolate, however desolate they feel. (CW 13)
ON WHEELER MOUNTAIN
If sometimes, as we call across the wood
To keep track of each other’s whereabouts,
I’m slow to answer, be it understood
That an opposing boulder or steep hollow
Compels me to assess the course I follow
And for a moment plunges me in doubts.
Bear with me. With a shrug, adjust your pack.
Observe a jay, wings folded and severe,
Perched like a scholar, hands behind his back.
Or listen, on the quiet forest floor,
To winds that comb the hardwoods to a roar
Flowing across the upper atmosphere.
And, even as that sound subsides, remark
Different distractions: dangly-headed sedges;
A birch tree’s tattered latitudes of bark;
A steep brook, plashing down its landing shelves,
Whose running margins seem to race themselves
When they slide over wider, flatter ledges.
Such beauties are the solitary sort?
You needn’t, as you note them, feel alone.
From a log nearby, with a sharp report,
I’ll snap a stick to help me as I climb.
And, when you call my name a second time,
I’ll holler back an answer with your own. (CW 35)
His metier largely the lyric, Steele does not often bring to mind the dramatic Frost of North of Boston or Mountain Interval, nor has he perhaps as yet attained Frost’s tonal range. In the manner of A Witness Tree and Steeple Bush, however, each of Steele’s collections has displayed a variety of lyric modes and a mastery of classical epigram and fable that recalls the Frost for whom, as Lawrence Thompson argued, the exercise of wit served to clarify a “common-sense position in the Golden Mean, from which he delights to satirize those extremes and absolutes, those pretensions and obsessions, which appear in a humorous light to the poet” (145). From a vantage point akin to Frost’s in its Horatian moderation, Steele often turns epigram and fable to a piquant critique of foible and excess.
No one can out-lampoon, -joke, -quip, or -pun you.
But the funnier you get the more we shun you.
The moral, sir? He who possesses wit
Should also have the sense to ration it. (U&R 19)
To thwart a rear attack, a bird backs under
The wheelbarrow tire’s curving shelter, while
Her suitor squawks and waves his wings about
In angry-plaintive-leading-lover style.
Too great an ardor is a common blunder;
She sees him through an unromantic lens
And answers his hysteria with doubt
And all but asks him, Can’t we just be friends?
The plants are luckier; fragile or strong,
They court each other in a world of green
And, when they need assistance in a suit,
Repose trust on an insect go-between.
A wasp, its trailing stork-legs thin and long,
Surveys sprawled foliage whose gaps disclose
The yellow trumpet flower, announcing fruit,
That a zucchini wears upon its nose.
The bird has no such help and can’t entice
His love from her protective overhang;
He takes up, following a wide excursus
Around her, the main theme of his harangue.
One thinks, Woo clemently. Beyond advice
He flies off to a plumtree and receives
A limb’s support and shamelessly rehearses
Plaints to a captive audience of leaves. (CW 48)
In lyrics of philosophical reflection, whose ideas and metaphors rise unforced from quotidian experience, whose language remains grounded in the vernacular, and whose tone is often mindful that the way of understanding is partly mirth, Steele reveals a sensibility akin to what Reginald Cook calls Frost’s “levelness of vision,” or “equilibrism,” in its unsentimental meliorism and its sustained but undeceived humanist sanguinity (278). As a poet, Steele lacks acquaintance neither with a sense of the natural or historical night nor with those inner desert places, as Frost would have it, that have it in them to scare us so much nearer home. Thus David Shapiro notes that at times in Steele “something more like terror than moderation invigorates the poet’s art: the gothic of Robert Frost and not the bucolic,” a “world of ‘casual casualties'” in which “the pathos of contingency lunges out at the reader in choppier cadences.” “These are rightly poems shocked by modernity,” Shapiro concludes, but in observing that they are also “escaped into a species of Utopian pre-Modernism” he misapprehends Steele’s sense of culture and history to the same degree that he misperceives the psychological and philosophical essence of self-restraint: “‘Sapphics Against Anger,’ a good narrative moralizing music, shows that the poet believes aesthetically and ethically in ‘principles of restraint.’ …[T]he defense against rage, however, more than teases the reader into thinking that the poet has loaded all the dice in favor of Aristotelian moderation, while still a temptation to reveal, to sulk, even to revel in rage makes for an obscure undertow” (343-44), Passionate temptation is, of course, the precipitant of genuine restraint, the urge to be mastered in what Frost called in “Two Tramps in Mud-Time” the “blows that a life of self-control/ Spares to strike for the common good.” As a brief selection of poems can only suggest, Steele acknowledges with the Frost of “Our Hold on the Planet” that we may often “doubt the just proportion of good to ill” and that “there is much in nature against us.” But neither does he forget that to “take nature altogether since time began,/ Including human nature, in peace and war,” is to find a “little more in favor of man.” With the Frost of “Take Something like a Star,” Steele believes that “when at times the mob is swayed/ To carry praise or blame too far,/ We may take something like a star/ To stay our minds on and be staid.”
Perhaps it’s wise to turn and hope to see
A welcoming expression on a face,
Though reason is a rare commodity,
Though courtesy is hardly commonplace.
For, if rebuffed, the senses still will solve
The fuzzy scent and surface of a peach.
Joys will return; a beachball will revolve
Breeze-prompted colors down a slope of beach.
A sober thought will rise, compelling rest,
Perhaps the thought of all those who’ve finessed
A little life from local circumstance,
Perhaps the memory (it, too, will do)
Of clouds whose whitely heaped extravagance
Held summer in looming overview. (SAA 24)
Free will being, it is commonly agreed,
A glory of the species, why balk at choice
Or, nettled and perplexed by doubts, resort
To heads-or-tails or petals of a flower?
Whence come these indecisions, abdications?
Riding the bus home on wet nights, one sees
The boarded store-fronts the shapes slumped in doorways:
The rain blows curtains of illusory silver
Under the streetlights. In God alone, intention
And execution are simultaneous.
In God alone can choice be sure it is choice.
The contingent spirit must whistle in the dark,
Bucking itself up, choosing, choosing, knowing
That time may claim those choices with its own
Inevitable air of history. (CW 24)
Even in fortunate times,
The nectar is spiked with woe.
Gods are incorrigibly
Capricious, and the needy
Beg in Nineveh or sleep
In paper-gusting plazas
Of the New World’s shopping malls.
Meantime, the tyrant battens
On conquest, while advisers,
Angling for preferment, seek
Expedient paths. Heartbroken,
The faithful advocate looks
Back on cities of the plain
And trudges into exile.
And if any era thrives,
It’s only because, somewhere,
In a plane tree’s shade, friends sketch
The dust with theorems and proofs,
Or because, instinctively,
A man puts his arm around
The shoulder of grief and walks
It (for an hour or an age)
Through all its tears and telling. (SAA 26)
Persuaded that Steele has “revived precisely those traditional resources of the formal lyric that modernism convinced us were exhausted,” Dana Gioia has noted trenchantly that our “current critical vocabulary is strangely inadequate to describe exactly those qualities of style and perception that one most admires in his work. The words one reaches for first—traditional terms of approbation like graceful, polished, and controlled—have become so loaded with evaluative assumptions [as to] imply covert criticism of the very qualities they once described.” Steele’s work makes a quiet claim on our attention, for it “announces no brave new ideology” and adopts “no urgently prophetic tone, just the voice one educated person might use in talking to another.” Gioia suggests that in these qualities the poet whom Steele resembles most is Richard Wilbur, for also like Wilbur “Steele differs from most of his contemporaries in that his vision of life is fundamentally positive. He writes about the beauties of the everyday world, the abiding love in marriage, the forgiveness and self-knowledge that can come from anger” (102-3). The comparison is certainly apt, and one suspects that Wilbur himself would find nothing amiss in tracing such qualities of voice and vision a generation further back to Frost. And his reservations about comparing Steele and Frost in their carriage as public figures aside, one hopes that Kennedy might agree as well that a more fundamental similarity exists in the figures their poems make as they begin in delight and end in wisdom. As they end, that is, with the wisdom of modesty in a “clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”
1 Frost’s revived status as precursor has not gone unremarked by critics hostile to the “New Formalism.” Accusing these poets of a bourgeois nostalgia for an essentialist, universal vision—an “ideology which disguises its refusal to acknowledge difference”—Ira Sadoff warns that “writing like Frost….won’t create an audience” for contemporary poetry, while suggesting that a renewed attention to the imperatives of Engels might. Frost’s broad readership rested in any case, Sadoff believes, not on an accessibility or “universality” intrinsic to the poetry, but on a culture that “lionized its authors” as ours no longer does. From a similar perspective, Thomas Byers finds the politics of “expansivism” to range from moderately conservative to virulently reactionary. Advising its more moderate adherents to “make a case for their own cultural openness” by embracing Langston Hughes as a precursor, he complains that “nevertheless thus far they seem content to stick with Robert Frost….” Rating Steele among the comparatively moderate, Byers cautions nonetheless that “Sapphics against Anger” reveals a disposition that is “implicitly conservative,” for it suggests that the “great problem of life is control and not change; the answer is classical form and not sympathetic action.” The debate over the political valence of the “New Formalism” recalls. and not only in its overheated rhetoric and reductions, the debates of Frost criticism in the 1930s. The call to urgent topicality and social realist aesthetics will thus ring familiar to readers of Frost in John Miller’s complaint that in Steele’s poetry “the larger public or social issues of our time exist only as a vague ambiance, never seriously defined or confronted” (62).
2 Refusing a view of form as calculation and constriction, Richard Wilbur has recently expressed in Frostian terms a hope that the renewal of metrical writing might encourage poets to “learn by experience that good rhyme is not ornament but emphasis, ligature, and significant sound, that a good poet is not coerced by any technical means, however demanding they may be; that one does not set out to write a quatrain. but rather finds that one is doing so”; and that the demands of formal verse actually liberate the mind to “entertain possibilities it hadn’t foreseen” (xx).
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Barry, Elaine. Robert Frost on Writing. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 1973.
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Byers, Thomas B. “The Closing of the American Line: Expansive Poetry and Ideology.” Contemporary Literature 33 (1992): 396-415.
Carruth, Hayden. Brothers, I Loved You All (Poems, 1969-1977). New York: Sheep Meadow Press. 1978.
Cook, Reginald L. Robert Frost: A Living Voice. Amherst: U of Massachusetts Press, 1974.
Eliot, T. S. Selected Prose of T S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The CoIlected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Alfred R. Ferguson, et al. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard U Press, 1983.
Evans, William R. Robert Frost and Sidney Cox. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1981.
Frost, Robert. Selected Letters. Ed. Lawrance Thompson. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
Selected Prose. Ed. Hyde Cox and Edward Cannery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.
Interviews. Ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.
Gioia, Dana. Rev. of The Prudent Heart. The Ontario Review 19(1983-84): 101-3.
Kennedy, X. J. “Timothy Steele.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. Vol. 120. Detroit: Gale. 1992.
Kinzie, Mary. “The Overdefinition of the Now.” American Poetry Review 11 (1982): 13-17.
Lentricehia, Frank. Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Durham: Duke U Press, 1975.
McPhillips, Robert. “Reading the New Formalists.” Sewanee Review 97(1989): 73-96.
Miller, John N. “A Renewable Disguise.” The Chowder Review 14 (Spring-Summer 1980): 60-62.
Munson, Gorham. Robert Frost: A Study in Sensibility and Good Sense. New York: George H. Daran, 1927.
Peters. Robert. Hunting the Snark: A Compendium of New Poetic Terminologies. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
Plimpton, George, Ed. Poets at Work: Tie Paris Review Interviews. New York: Viking Penguin. 1989.
Pritchard. William II. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford U Press. 1984.
Sadoff, Ira. “Neo-Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia.” American Poetry Review (Jan.-Feb. 1990): 7-13.
Shapiro, David. Review of Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems. Poetry 149 (March 1987): 342-44.
Steele, Timothy. Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas Press, 1990.
Sapphics against Anger. New York: Random House, 1986.
Uncertainties and Rest. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U Press, 1979.
The Color Wheel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins U Press, 1994.
“The Forms of Poetry.” Brandeis Review (Summer 1992): 28-33.
“Sidelights.” Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Ed. Linda Metzger, et al. Vol. 16. Detroit: Gale, 1986.
Thompson, Lawrance. Fire and Ice: The Art and Thought of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1942.
Wilbur, Richard. “Foreword” to Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms. Ed. Philip Dacey and David Jauss. New York: Harper, 1986.
The Poetry of Timothy Steele
The Tennessee Quarterly (Winter 1996)
n 1979, free verse had been the unchallenged, orthodox style in American poetry for two decades, and for most of the preceding six decades. The modes of free verse had varied from imagist to deep image, from confessional to conversational but poets insisted on devising their own formal rules, rather than following a predetermined form. In this environment, Timothy Steele’s first book, Uncertainties and Rest, was published.
Steele’s book was more than anomalous. In a milieu that most often featured poets speaking casually about some aspect of their life or interest in short-lined, imagistic free verse, Steele instead featured poem after poem in various structures of meter and rhyme. Some talked about (presumably) the author’s life, but others were discursive, even essayistic investigations of abstract topics, dramatic monologue, and even epigrams and light verse. In fact, they featured an impressive range of subjects, tones, and forms. Yet with the exception of one poem in a loosely accentual line, none of the poems was in free verse.
Steele’s work has varied little since. In fact, of all the poets associated with the Expansive school—the group of poets devoted to restoring traditional form and narrative to contemporary American poetry, and which Uncertainties and Rest helped inaugurate—perhaps none more exemplifies the “traditional form” aspect of the movement than Steele. After a recent flurry of publication—his third book, The Color Wheel, was released by Johns Hopkins in 1994, while Arkansas reissued his first two books in 1995—it is possible, and useful, to take a long view of Steele’s career and his relationship to literary tradition.
Steele is traditional in several senses. First, he is traditional in his choice of forms: all three of his books are written mostly in various metrical and rhyme schemes, and in a plain language that descends from Ben Jonson and John Dryden to Robert Frost and Yvor Winters in the twentieth century. Second, he is traditional in his approach to his subject: he presents his ideas and emotions directly, clearly, and logically, in a manner that can be easily paraphrased, usually without the indirection, allusiveness and irony that characterizes much contemporary poetry. And third, he is traditional in his method: he writes poems about a variety of subjects that engage his interest, and though larger themes can be discerned in his work, he does not obsessively chase one or two subjects, as do many contemporary poets. Moreover, he champions his aesthetic approaches as a critic.
To describe Steele in these terms is not to present an indictment, but to outline the degree to which his work has differed from the mainstream of twentieth-century American poetry. He is not unique, but unusual enough to merit attention for his differences from the mainstream. His achievement as a poet, however, is such that he differs from the mainstream far less today than when he began writing—an important marker of the range and substance of his influence. In short, he has helped to change the course of the stream.
Steele’s poetry is best described by a statement he makes in his critical book, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (Arkansas, 1990):
What is most essential to human life and to its continuance remains a love of nature, an enthusiasm for justice, a readiness of good humor, a spontaneous susceptibility to beauty and joy, an interest in our past, a hope for our future and above all, a desire that others should have the opportunity and encouragement to share in those qualities. An art of measured speech nourishes these qualities in a way no other pursuit can. (294)
Though Steele intended this as a general statement, it reveals much about his own poetry; Steele’s poetry is frequently about nature, finds beauty and joy where other might overlook them, maintains a steady, calm tone, and depicts these concerns in clear language cast in traditional modes.
As noted, Steele’s work first began appearing in the 1970s, and Steele was 31 when Uncertainties and Rest, was published. Though the book is an accomplished one, its title suggests that Uncertainties and Rest is a young man’s book; the poems wrestle with uncertainties and alienation, searching for rest and security. Several of the poems depict tones of alienation and despair, as does “Baker Beach at Sunset,” revised when it was re-issued:
JULY 4, 1976
This is a place the ocean comes to die,
In settings such as these. The salt gusts blow
That there’s still gold in modernist motifs—
We shelter and array these. Two jets fade
Seaward, tugboats and freighters lead and bear
In its form, this poem is characteristic of Steele’s work: rhymed quatrains, an iambic pentameter line. But its world-weary, alienated tone—both blunt and obscure—is anomalous in Steele’s body of work, and makes the poem a particularly interesting one in Steele’s development in the way it confronts the issues of tradition, literary and otherwise. The poem’s speaker walks a trashy beach alone, in despair, on the Bicentennial. Yet the poem does not turn to issues of American history, but the speaker’s own sense of failure as a writer: “yes, I know/I’ve written nothing in three months.” The speaker considers what his friends tell him—”there’s still gold in those modernist motifs”—but claims to reject them because of the corrosive effect of self-scrutiny on the spirit. The poem, though, is ambivalent about those “modernist motifs.” While it claims to reject them, it also exploits them: the poem is all mood and implicit idea, ending on a harsh note of despair while resolving little. Steele more typically works his poems to a clear conclusion, in which ideas rise cleanly from the scenes he depicts.
Another poem, “Last Night as You Slept,” counterpoints the alienation of “Baker Beach at Sunset” with the sense of peace the collection seeks:
|The clock’s dial a luminous two-ten,
Its faint glow on pillow and sheet,
I woke—and the good fatigue and heat
We’d shared were gone; and I, sensing again
This poem is more characteristic of Steele’s work in its tone—the intimacy that is so essential to love poems (and Steele is an outstanding love poet)—and in the way it finds great resonance in a simple, everyday scene, without straining language to assert the resonance. Although “Last Night as You Slept” is a simple poem, its gracefulness is not a simple achievement.
During the seven years between Uncertainties and Rest and Sapphics against Anger (1986), Steele’s work underwent a subtle maturation. As noted, he was already accomplished formally when his first book was published, but he left behind the youthful alienation that was so prevalent in Uncertainties and Rest. In fact, Sapphics against Anger, to a degree, critiques the restless passion of the poems in the earlier book. The collection’s title poem is a case in point:
Angered, may I be near a glass of water;
May my first impulse be to think of Silence,
Its deities (who are they? do, in fact, they
May I recall what Aristotle says of
The subject: to give vent to rage is not to
Release it but to be increasingly prone
To its incursions.
May I imagine being in the Inferno,
Hearing it asked: “Virgilo mio, who’s
That sulking with Achilles there?” and hearing
Virgil say: “Dante,
That fellow, at the slightest provocation
Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like
A madman. What Atilla did to Europe,
What Genghis Khan did
To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage.”
May I, that is, put learning to good purpose,
Mindful that melancholy is a sin, though
Stylish at present.
Better than rage is the post-dinner quiet,
The sink’s warm turbulence, the streaming platters,
The suds rehearsing down the drain in spirals
In the last rinsing.
For what is, after all, the good life save that
Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion
If not the holiest of powers, sustaining
Only if mastered. (12)
In his important early essay on Expansive poetry, “Reading the New Formalists,” Robert McPhillips speaks of Steele’s “distinctly neoclassic sensibility which enables him to write clearly on any number of subjects” (311-312). “Sapphics against Anger” is a particularly good example of that sensibility at work. Steele uses a classical Greek form, the sapphic (organized by syllable count), and a classical poetic mode, the verse essay, to address a subject at once contemporary and ancient: anger and its effects on human relationships. Like a prose essay, the poem addresses the abstract idea of anger, bringing in specific examples to support its points (though it does so more lyrically than a prose essay, as in the graceful image of “the suds rehearsing down the drain in spirals/ In the last rinsing); Steele argues that anger, needlessly vented, can destroy relationships, and that the passion that fuels anger is “sustaining/ Only if mastered.” The poem’s rueful assertion that “melancholy is a sin, though/ Stylish at present” represents the shift in Steele’s work from his first book to his second.
Perhaps the strongest poem in Sapphics against Anger is “Near Olympic,” a long exploration of a mixed west Los Angeles neighborhood. Written in rhymed couplets, Steele’s portrait of that landscape and the people who inhabit it is affectionate and detailed, bristling with observation:
The neighborhood, part Japanese and part
Chicano, wears its poverty like art
Exotic in its motley oddities.
Over dirt driveways hang banana trees;
In front of small square stucco houses bloom
Broad jacarandas whose rain-washed perfume
At morning half redeems the rush-hour released
Swelled roaring off the freeway six blocks east.
Along the street sit Fords and Oldsmobiles,
Lowslung and ancient; or—with raised rear wheels
And sides flame-painted—Mustangs and Chevelles.
And in the courtyards of one-time motels
In which the poorer families live, there grow
Sweet corn and yellow squash, and chickens go
Jerkily here and there, loud squawkings borne
Through limp, arched iris leaves and stalks of corn. (20)
Most would likely describe this as a junky, impoverished landscape, but Steele finds surprising beauty in the mixture of human relics and struggling nature: car exhaust and jacaranda scents; rusted-out cars and gardens with livestock. The two are enmeshed in that particular place, giving it its distinctive character: a place in which survival, though a constant struggle, is achieved, and sometimes something greater than mere survival emerges. That character is also manifested in the people who live in the neighborhood, as Steele demonstrates:
This is the hour of casual casualties.
Birds clatter in the stiff fronds of palm trees,
The bustle that the twilight’s always fed.
The mother strokes her daughter’s jet black head;
The child makes choppy trooper steps toward the walk.
Some older children bike along the block,
A girl there crying, No one catches me,
Glancing back quickly, pumping furiously
Off from the others. Bent to handlebars,
Only one boy pursues her. Past parked cars,
It’s No one catches me, and nearly night.
No eyes are following the girl’s delight—
At least not Carlos’s or the young mother’s.
Nor do their eyes meet, ever, one another’s.
It is as if they do not see or hear.
The mother will be nineteen come next year,
And Carlos twenty. What they are survives
The limpid vacancies of air, their lives
Now like some urgent, unobtrusive thing,
Withdrawn and lovely and diminishing. (15-16)
The young girl who rides her bike and screams No one catches me! is filled with spirit, and has not yet met the defeat that others of the neighborhood have encountered, such as the father and mother; not even twenty, both are already grim and pessimistic, not even able to share joy in raising their daughter. Perhaps they know better than the girl who thinks no one will catch her; they have been caught. Yet the small beauties that persist in the neighborhood—the jacaranda scents, the “limpid vacancies of air,” the young girl’s fearlessness—do not seem entirely threatened, even as they are “withdrawn and lovely and diminishing.” Steele finds some hope in the scene that survival will continue, however difficult that may be.
“Near Olympic” brings together two significant tendencies in Steele’s work: observation of the natural world and of human character. His interest in both has been apparent from the start, but he has deepened his vision with each successive book, even as his tone has settled: “He is particularly even-tempered on all occasions,” McPhillips writes (314).
That deepening is clearly evident in his most recent book, The Color Wheel. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child” is a good example:
Your favorite crayon is Midnight Blue
(Hurrah for dark dramatic skies!)
Though inwardly it makes you drone
To see it like an ice-cream cone
Shrink with too zealous exercise.
But soon you’re offering for review
Sheets where Magenta flowers blaze.
And here’s a field whose mass and weight
You’re in your Burnt Sienna phase.
Long may you study color, pore
Over Maroon, Peach, Pine Green, Teal.
I think of my astonishment
When first I saw the spectrum bent
Around into a color wheel,
A disc of white there at the core,
The outer colors vivid, wild.
Red, with its long wavelengths, met
With much-refracted violet,
And all with all were reconciled.
When I look past you now, I see
The winter amaryllis bloom
Above its terra-cotta pot
Whose earthen orange-apricot
Lends warmth to the entire room.
And cherry and mahogany
Introduce tones of brown and plum;
While by the hearth a basket holds
Balls of yarn-purples, greens and golds
That you may wear in years to come.
Yet for the moment you dispense
Color yourself. Again you kneel:
Your left hand spread out, holding still
The paper you’ll with fervor fill,
You’re off and traveling through the wheel
Of contrasts and of complements,
Where every shade divides and blends,
Where you find those that you prefer,
Where being is not linear,
But bright and deep, and never ends. (32-33)
In this poem, Steele combines nature and human nature through a close observation of a child’s first experience with crayons. The poem depicts the child’s wonder in re-creating the world’s color with crayons, and the speaker recalls his own experience at seeing an actual color wheel—a beam of light broken into its full spectrum of visible color. In a spectrum of light, each band of color modulates inseparably into the next, and neat divisions are impossible; all are interconnected. Turning his attention back to the present, the speaker sees similar connections between colors in the child’s room, and connects the child’s wonder to that interconnectedness: “Where being is not linear/ But bright and deep, and never ends.” It is a precious place, too easily lost.
“December in Los Angeles” is another example of how Steele observes the intersections of nature and human nature, and also exemplifies the shift in his perspective that has occurred since his earliest book:
The tulip bulbs rest darkly in the fridge
To get the winter they can’t get outside;
The drought and warm winds alter and abridge
The season till it almost seems denied.
A bright road-running scrub jay plies his bill,
While searching through the garden like a sleuth
For peanuts that he’s buried in the soil:
How different from the winters of my youth.
Back in Vermont, we’d dress on furnace vents.
A breakfast of hot cereal—and then
We’d forge out to a climate so intense
It would have daunted Scott and Amundsen.
I’d race down icy Howard Street to catch
The school bus and pursue it, as it roared
Up Union, my arms waving, pleading, much
To the amusement of my friends on board.
But here I look out on a garden, whose
Poor flowers are knocked over on their side.
Well, stakes and ties will cure them of the blues
(If not the winds) and see them rectified.
And in the shower is a pail we use
To catch and save the water while it warms:
I fetch and pour it on the irises
And hope this winter will bring drenching storms.
This poem notes the contrast between the adult speaker’s present balmy winter and the chilly winters of his youth. The speaker recalls his racing to catch the school bus on an icy street with amusement and affection, yet without undue nostalgia; he treats his present environment, Los Angeles, with as much tenderness as he does the past, hoping to bring forth beauty in the flowers. In this poem, observation of the natural environment blends with memory to paint a warm picture of human interaction with place.
It should be fairly clear that Steele’s poetry does not just differ from the modernist-influenced mainstream of contemporary poetry; it is largely a repudiation of that mainstream. As McPhillips notes: “He writes as if the modernist movement had never occurred” (314). Steele, though, is well aware that the modernist movement occurred, and in Missing Measures, he devotes considerable effort to critiquing modernism and its aftermath. In fact, Missing Measures is one of the seminal critical texts of Expansive poetry. The book is a comprehensive analysis of the modernist free verse revolution, examining in meticulous detail the assumptions of the modernist poets—particularly Eliot, Pound and Williams—in their experimentation with free verse, and the unintended consequences of that experimentation.
Steele suggests that the key assumption of the modernists—an erroneous one, he argues—is their identification of the stilted formalism of late Victorian poetry with meter itself, and their conclusion that to renovate poetry required abandoning meter. This is a radical step compared to the earlier innovators that T.S. Eliot often compared the modernists to; the Romantic and, before them, Augustan poets altered poetry’s subject matter and diction but did not reject meter itself. “[The modernists] believed that in order to get rid of Victorian style they also had to get rid of meter, which of course had been employed by the Victorians but was not specifically Victorian, having been used by centuries of earlier poets” (6-7)
The modernists rejected meter for several reasons, Steele suggests. One reason is related to the modernists’ cultural anxiety over the status of verse, which by the nineteenth century had lost its status as the primary art to prose, a significant shift. He notes: “Much of the history of prose style concerns efforts to make prose as memorable and as attractive as verse and to secure for prose a quasi-metrical integrity so that it can achieve an emotional power comparable to poetry” (9). The modernists took the opposite view: “Whereas in earlier times prose writers experimented with incorporating verse cadences into prose, poets now began to experiment with integrating the relative rhythms of prose into verse. Prose becomes, in short, the primary art. In this context, Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound’s assertion that, as Ford puts it, ‘verse must be at least as well written as prose if it is to be poetry,’ gets transmuted into the notion that verse might profitably be written as the novel is written—without meter” (9).
The reason the modernists felt they could write poetry without meter descends from an ancient philosophical confusion over the definition of poetry. Steele identifies a conflation by Renaissance philosophers of Aristotle’s Poetics with Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, which drew a distinction between poetry (in the Renaissance, writing that especially and intensely imitates nature) and verse (writing in meter). Though the contexts of this distinction changed over the centuries, the distinction itself remained, and the modernists frequently made use of it in their essays. In modernist theory and practice, Steele notes, the idea “that poetry is something more than meter is transformed into the idea that poetry is something other than meter. One finds in much modern criticism, especially in that of Eliot, the belief that conventional metrical composition is less admirable than poetry which eschews regular meter in preference for some more ‘difficult’ quality of rhythm” (10).
Another factor in the modernists’ sense of poetic purity is nineteenth century aestheticism, its emphasis on formal purity, and its notions of organic form. Aestheticism—the “art for art’s sake” movement with roots in Kant’s Critique of Judgment—treated works of art as autonomous, unified creations, whose qualities were judged only through a response to the work itself, and not by extrinsic standards. Steele notes, “If every poem is defined in terms of an independent internal unity, it follows that every poem may or even should create its own prosody” rather than follow a fixed, predetermined form (11). Accompanying an artistic emphasis on purity is an elevation of music—the most purely formal, non-referential form of art—to the top of artistic hierarchy, reflected in Pound’s command that poets should “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” This command focuses on the broad category rather than the more narrow category of fixed metrical measure, and not only allows free verse, but privileges it as the more “pure” formal practice (12).
Buttressing this elevation of free verse’s formal purity over traditional form is a shift in poets’ understanding of the phrase “organic form,” a term that parallels aesthetic practice with the natural world. In the Romantic period, poets saw no contradiction between nature and meter since, in their view, nature proceeded according to fixed principles of development. By the turn of the century, though, poets’ definition of “organic form” had changed:
Rather than urging that poets should create, as nature does, according to certain regulating principles of development, some observers contend that poets should function, as nature functions, unconsciously. And rather than imitating the comeliness of natural objects, some poets, such as D.H. Lawrence, seek to suggest the internal processes that determine those objects. To the extent that these processes are regarded as being elementally turbulent or chaotic, verse that is intentionally confused comes to be considered truer to nature than is verse of a more orderly kind. To the extent that metrical speech embodies clear structural principles, it is therefore discouraged as not only unnecessary to poetical-natural truth but inappropriate to it. (12)
This shift in definition of organic form parallels scientific developments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—particularly those of Darwin, Freud and Einstein—and leads to what Steele identifies as the final factor in the free verse revolution, the influence of science on poets.
Scientific discourse exerted great influence on the modernist poets. Although they were in certain senses deeply rooted in tradition—the range of reference in The Waste Land and The Cantos, as well as Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” proves this point—the modernist poets also saw themselves as innovators in the same sense as Darwin, Freud and others, innovators whose ideas radically changed the world in which they lived. In their view, relentless experimentation—constantly introducing new ideas and forms that would subsume earlier ones, or render them obsolete—was the only way to write genuine poetry in the modern world: “The modern’s leaders transferred to poetry this model of scientific history. This transferral undermined the older view that, in poetic composition, the safest guides are provided by the examples of earlier masterpieces. In addition, the transferral encouraged the notion that the literary past is, like the scientific past, largely irrelevant to present practice” (14).
Steele’s response to this conclusion is one of frank despair. He is worth quoting at length:
What happened was different from what the leaders of the modern movement anticipated. Their revolution triumphed. But a new metric did not emerge. And the inheritors of the legacy of the modern movement, their numbers growing from decade to decade, simply went on writing without meter. The interim period was repeatedly and indefinitely extended. Originally a means of examining the old measures or of testing whether new measures were possible, free verse itself became a “form.” Whereas the early experimentalists had pursued heterodox versification in the interests of poetic purity, their followers employed such procedures in an increasingly casual fashion, the revolution having undermined the metrical tradition and metrical awareness that gave the procedures significance in the first place.
Today, one almost hesitates to say that most poets write unmetrically: such a statement suggests that they know what meter is, which does not appear to be the case. Rather, it seems that versification, as it has been understood for millennia, is for the majority of contemporary poets an irrelevant matter. And looking back across our century, one may feel that metrical tradition resembles a signal which has been growing fainter and fainter. (280-281)
Taken as a factual description of twentieth-century poetic practice, Steele’s conclusion is indisputable. Free verse is the lingua franca of twentieth century American poetry, the dominant form. Although Steele cites brief revivals of traditional form in the 1950s, and distinguished work in traditional forms by individual poets throughout the century, these exceptions prove the rule of free verse.
Steele’s entire project, as both poet and critic, seems to be to overturn the rule of free verse, or at least cut back its hegemony. Unlike most of the Expansive poets, Steele has only published a few poems in free verse. And his poems show little of the influence of free verse that other Expansive poets, such as Molly Peacock, display. He is devoted to demonstrating the viability and vitality of traditional form in the contemporary age, and in doing so, critiquing, even combating, the age’s received form (the once) avant-garde practice of free verse. As both poet and critic, Steele is a traditionalist’s traditionalist.
One reasonable objection to Steele’s ideas is that, like it or not, free verse is deeply entrenched in literary tradition; at this point in history, it is a literary tradition, one that any accurate literary history must contend with. Although Missing Measures does contend with this tradition with meticulous scholarship, it also battles against it with polemic force. Steele is not only reporting literary history, he is attempting to change its future course. Certainly that is a legitimate aim of any historical scholarship: to show the relevance of the past to the present, and therefore future. And, as noted, Steele’s conclusions are indisputable: the tide of free verse has swept away most of the flora and fauna of traditional forms. The recent resurgence of traditional form in the work of the Expansive poets (of whom Steele is one of the leading members) cannot change that fact.
One may ask, though, whether traditional form must be opposed with free verse so radically. In Missing Measures, Steele does not allow that the best free verse can partake deeply of traditional forms: Annie Finch’s recent book The Ghost of Meter is a detailed exploration of the way that poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Stephen Crane and Eliot engage metrical traditions in their free verse. And Finch does not focus on Pound, whose blending of different prosodies—Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Provençal, among others—came closest to establishing the new measure that the modernists sought. As Donald Hall, a distinguished practitioner of both traditional form and free verse, argues:
Although he was not innovative as an iambic poet, on the whole Pound’s ear is the most inventive in modern literature. With “Cathay” he invented the lyric flatness developed by Rexroth, Snyder, Bly and Wright; powered by an illusion of simplicity, this sound (which is also a diction) erects itself as plain, clear, lucid; and stylelessness is always a style. Along with “Cathay” Pound developed the related note of Imagism, and the free-verse epigram-noise of the Blast poems; his flat sarcasm can contain or transmit social notes, literary judgments, cultural observations, moral outrage, and erotic feelings. In his Propertius Pound invented a discursive narrative noise which can fly to lyric touchstone-lines and accommodate narrative or reflective passages together. Useful to the Cantos, this sound accommodates and includes can turn ironic or ecstatic, lyric or narrative without altering itself to the point of indecorum. By the time of Propertius and Mauberly, Pound’s sounds can move with swift sureness from tones at one end of the scale to the other. (114)
Although Pound’s place in literary history remains a deeply troubled one, Hall is correct on this point: Pound was a superb prosodist, deeply indebted to various metrical traditions even as he rebelled against them.
Apart from the fact that good free verse cannot escape traditional forms, it is also worth considering that the free verse revolution is part of a historical continuum. Critiquing Missing Measures, Vernon Shetley argues that “prosody evolves,” and he situates free verse “within the general history of English metrical development, in which one might see the colloquial freedoms taken by Browning, the dissolution of accent in Tennyson, and Hardy’s movement toward what even Steele refers to as a ‘rhymed accentual verse’ as stages toward the eventual step of more radical ‘free’ prosodies” (155). It would be wrong to make the development of free verse a historical inevitability (particularly given the historical precedent of Hebrew poetry, the earliest known free verse, or even the alliterative-accentual prosody of Old English poetry, which, by ignoring syllable count, is “freer” than iambic pentameter). Within limits, though, Shetley’s argument makes sense. Although the modernists were extreme in throwing meter out with the Victorian bathwater, there is a certain logical progression from Tennyson and Browning to Eliot and Pound and Williams to Olson, Creeley, Snyder, Levertov, and Bly. If one substitutes Whitman and Emerson for Tennyson and Browning, the lineage becomes even clearer.
Therefore: free verse’s relationship to literary tradition is more complex than Steele allows. This oversimplification, though, is essential to his argument, and qualifying these issues about free verse does not diminish his fundamental point: that free verse, once a vigorous experiment that sought to renovate traditional prosody, has itself become a conservative, received form that in current practice seldom engages with the traditional prosodies that gave it birth and give it vitality. Restoring traditional prosodies is, at this point in literary history, a necessary task. And, as both poet and critic, no one has done more in that task than Steele.
It is a measure of Steele’s impact that although he seems a staunch conservative on aesthetic issues even among the Expansive poets, the value, relevance and necessity of traditional prosodies for contemporary poetry seems indisputable.
Would critics be scrambling to connect free verse to traditional form without his example? It seems unlikely. Taken on his own terms, Steele is a substantial poet who has crafted a body of work that should, in some form, endure. He is as skillful a traditional poet as one could find, yet his poetry, in its subjects and themes, is distinctly of our time. Also, he is an erudite critic whose work has had a measurable impact on the literary climate of its time. The most traditional of traditionalists, Steele has shown that, for poets, there need be no conflict between the past and the present—an accomplishment that given the recent history of American poets, is as rare as it is welcome.
Finch, Annie. The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Hall, Donald. Poetry and Ambition.. Essays 1982-1988. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
McPhillips, Robert. “Reading the New Formalists.” Poetry after Modernism. Ed. Robert McDowell. Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line Press, 1991.300-328.
Shetley, Vernon. After the Death of Poetry. Poet and Audience in Contemporary America. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.
Steele, Timothy. The Color Wheel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990.
Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
Timothy Reid STEELE (1948- )
Entry in The Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-
Century Literature (1996)
TEELE was born in Burlington, Vermont. His father was a teacher and his mother a nurse. He spent his boyhood in New England, obtained his BA from Stanford University, California, and his PhD from Brandeis University, where his doctoral dissertation on the history of the conventions of detective fiction was directed by the poet J.V. Cunningham. He was married in 1979.
He has taught at Stanford and the University of California at Los Angeles and now teaches at California State University, Los Angeles.
Steele’s major work consists of three volumes of poetry and a book of criticism, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter. In this he examines the question of why metre, which was for so long the dominant force in English poetry, has in this century been so widely neglected. It is a book of great acuity and breadth of knowledge, and tackles a large subject from a number of different historical and literary angles. Steele believes that the modernist revolution led by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot created a long-lasting spate of free verse that resulted from poets “merely following, by rote and habit, a procedure of writing and breaking into lines, predictably mannered prose.”
Steele’s own poetry is strongly metrical and very far from mannered. One of its great strengths is its colloquiality. This was apparent from his first book of poems, Uncertainties and Rest, indeed, from one of the first-written poems in that book, “Coda in Wind.” This mysterious directness informs all Steele’s work, not only in poems about love or dearth or nature—subjects that too many modern poets tackle (if at all) with unnecessary wariness and indirection—but also in his meditations on culture. The poems in particular bring the reader into an intimate conversational presence, full of a zest for the particularities of life in all their precariousness, of learning lightly worn and insight seasoned with humour. Steele’s work is enjoyed in America by readers who appreciate the use of clarity, metre and rhyme, but he could not be said to have a wide audience. Like the poetry of Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur, lines of his come to mind long after we have read the poems, to delight or remind or suggest or console. One of the finest poets of this century, his work will in due course be widely recognised for its excellence; but it deserves to be better known now, especially in England, where he as yet has no publisher.