James Matthew Wilson conducted the following interview. It originally appeared in Wilson's Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (West Chester, PA: Story Line Press, 2012).
JMW: When you went to Stanford, you were planning to study mathematics. What prompted to you take an interest in poetry?
TS: Though I enjoyed mathematics, I was hardly a second Newton, and I didn’t enter college determined to devote myself to its study. Ever since my mother first read nursery rhymes to my brother, sister, and me when we were children, I had loved poetry, and I gravitated to literary studies at Stanford thanks to the appeal of the gifted teachers, writers and scholars there—people like Eugene England, Martin Evans, Kenneth Fields, Albert Guerard, Janet Lewis, Nancy Packer, R. A. Rebholz, Richard Scowcroft, Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, Wesley Trimpi, and Ian Watt. In addition, two powerful older writers and personalities—the then-recently-retired Yvor Winters and the soon-to-retire Wallace Stegner—had contributed to creating an environment that fruitfully integrated the study of literature with the practice of writing. That fusion attracted me, as it did many others. Moreover, the San Francisco Bay area as a whole was lively and literary. The city itself was only forty-five minutes north of the Stanford campus by bus. The Beat movement was still relatively fresh. There was wonderful music of all sorts and excellent theater. For instance, William Ball’s American Conservatory Theater set up permanent shop on Geary Street in 1966, the year I began college, and I attended a number of its productions, including one of Molière’s The Misanthrope, in Richard Wilbur’s great translation.
JMW: Did your early interest in mathematics influence your approach to poetry and prosody?
TS: Perhaps in a general way. Writing poetry in meters, rhymes, and stanzas encourages you think, as does studying mathematics, of proportion, dimension, and shape. In addition, you find yourself presented, in both disciplines, with technical problems that you want not only to solve, but also to solve in a way that is compellingly elegant. And most of us probably feel a sort of Pythagorean connection between poetry, music, and numerical measurement. At the same time, however, poetry is very different from mathematics. A poet works with words and with the rhythms of language rather than with numbers and abstract symbols designating figures, forms, and functions. Further, the subject matter of poetry is not quantitative but qualitative. It addresses—or can potentially address—matters involving ethics, history, nature, the emotions, philosophy, religion, and politics.
JMW: Which poets have most directly influenced you?
TS: Growing up in Burlington, Vermont, my elementary and secondary school teachers introduced me and my classmates to the poems of Robert Frost, who lived for much of the year in Ripton, just thirty miles down Route 7 from Burlington. He was our “local poet,” which seems in retrospect like having had Greta Garbo as the girl next door. Beginning when I was twelve or so, I annually attended productions of Shakespeare’s plays at the summer Shakespeare festival in Burlington at the Fleming Museum’s Arena Theater on the campus of the University of Vermont. I suspect that my ear for verse developed largely from hearing, repeatedly over the years, the poetry of Shakespeare and Frost. In my sophomore year of high school, I had an English class from a cultivated and inspiring teacher named Gladys Colburn. Her husband Frances was a distinguished painter, and she herself was a poet. In hopes of pleasing her, I wrote for her class several long and earnest essays, including one on Hart Crane, whose rhetorical energy and short tragic life deeply impressed me.
But to answer your question more specifically, the most helpful influences, when I started to write poems in college, were the outstanding contemporary poets. Wilbur, of course. J. V. Cunningham, whose work I was introduced to by John Perez, a friend in my freshman dorm who was reading Cunningham’s To What Strangers, What Welcome in seminar taught by Professor Fields. Thom Gunn. Philip Larkin. Louise Bogan. Janet Lewis. Winters, particularly in his poems dealing with the landscapes and seascapes of the West—“A Summer Commentary,” “The California Oaks,” “John Sutter,” and “The Slow Pacific Swell.” Also, as Robert Shaw and I were discussing a while ago, W. H. Auden was for many students of our generation a model of civilized intelligence and thoughtful curiosity—qualities apparent everywhere in his remarkable book of essays, The Dyer’s Hand. And there were emerging poets—Edgar Bowers, Henri Coulette, X. J. Kennedy—who at the time perhaps had only a book or two but whom my writing friends and I much admired. The free verse of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens was nourishing as well. Those two seemed to be the best at realizing one of the key aspirations of the free verse movement. Working with rhythms beyond the register of traditional metric, they achieved, in their finest short poems, a rhythmical coherence comparable to that of metrical poetry.
JMW: What usually comes first for you in the writing of a poem, a phrase or a line, or a particular theme or idea?
TS: My poems are subject driven, though the subjects present themselves in different ways. Sometimes, an image or scene will arrest me, and I’ll attempt write a poem about it to discover and articulate its significance. “California Sea Lion” was a poem of this type. On other occasions, I’ve tried to write a poem in a certain genre. With “April 27, 1937,” I hoped to write a political poem like those that Dryden and Swift had. I wanted to speak of issues in public life, without injecting myself or my purely personal opinions into the poem. The wish to preserve a momentary experience motivated still other poems, such as “Janet,” which simply describes swimming in Lake Champlain, one evening in early summer, with Janet Abel, a good friend in junior high school. In all such cases, you hope that what is meaningful to you will prove so to others as well.
JMW: How would you judge the reception of your scholarship and poems over the years?
TS: John Updike once referred to reviews as “inexorably mixed.” I haven’t been treated any better or worse than the next guy or gal. If one thing disappoints me, it’s that Missing Measures has been frequently regarded as a tract about contemporary poetry or new formalism rather than as a study of, as the subtitle says, modern poetry and the revolt against meter. For various reasons, there has never been a serious re-assessment of the assumptions and judgments established during the first quarter of the twentieth century by poets and critics like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and I hoped that Missing Measures might encourage people to look afresh at the conditions that contributed to the modern revolution in poetry and at the ideas that fueled it. Yet reviewers seemed to vault over the book’s historical analysis and to concentrate on what they thought the analysis implied about the current scene.
JMW: You have understandably distanced yourself from the identity of “formalist” poet. But what terms do you think are most helpful in describing your work, and the revival, such as it is, in the practice of rhyme and meter in poetry?
TS: If I must wear a label, I would prefer “metrical poet” or “writer of verse.” “Formalist” suggests, at least for me, an unfortunate fixation on poetic means at the expense of poetic ends. In addition, “form,” “formal,” and “formalist” have many denotations, and those terms can be used in ways that undermine metrical poetry, as in, for example, anthologies that announce a concern with formal poetry but that feature free-verse sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and the like, while giving short shrift to metrical work in those and other forms. The key issue that has been facing us for decades is not the status of form—most everything has form of some sort—but the status of verse. Do we wish to preserve verse, or will we keep devoting ourselves mainly to free verse, bringing verse back only now and then and only for the purpose of demonstrating our superiority to it by travestying its conventions and violating its rules (to the extent that we can remember the conventions and rules). For these reasons, I hope that people discussing the recent interest in poetic technique will treat it not only as a revival of form in its general senses but also and more specifically as a renewal of meter and traditional versification.
JMW: Do you find the climate for good poetry better today than when you started writing?
TS: If we want rich and vital poetry and literature, we need to encourage the writing of verse as well as the writing of free verse and prose; and it is troubling that suspicions and misconceptions about metrical composition are as widespread today as they were forty years ago. At the same time, however, there are hopeful developments. For example, the new Web-based media have allowed communities of likeminded spirits to gather and work outside the boundaries of prevailing fashions. As far as metered poetry is concerned, Alex Pepple, with his Eratosphere/Able Muse project, has showed how someone with imagination and conviction can build and sustain a forum for a group of poets who might not have one otherwise. Further, talented young writers continue to explore verse for its unique capacities for memorable speech. And things will, I believe, ultimately work out if we poets just keep the faith and write the best we can, in a manner that honors not only our different individual talents and inclinations but also the art of poetry.
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