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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