Timothy Reid STEELE (1948- )
Entry in The Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-
Century Literature (1996)
STEELE 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.
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