Poetry’s Purist
From the Los Angeles Times,
Monday, June 10, 1991

LARRY GORDON
Times Education Writer

In 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
Chicano, wears its poverty like art
Exotic in its motley oddities.
Over dirt driveways hang banana trees . . .

Also the intrigues of romance:

Together five minutes—and we’re ashen
With wrath and mutual disgust.
Lovers should glow, love, with their passion,
Not spontaneously combust.

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.”

 

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