Timothy Steele (22 January 1948)
                       Entry from The Dictionary of Literary Biography (Volume 120)


                                                                    X.J. KENNEDY

Uncertainties and Rest (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1979); The Prudent Heart (Los Angeles: Symposium, 1983); Nine Poems (Florence, Ky.: Barth, 1984); On Harmony (Lincoln, Nebr.: Abattoir, 1984); Short Subjects (Florence, Ky.: Barth, 1985); Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1986); Beatitudes (Child Okeford, U.K.: Words, 1988); 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 Steele (Florence, Ky.: Barth, 1989).

UNCOLLECTED POETRY: “Three Poems,” Numbers, I (Autumn 1986): 35-38; “Aurora,” “Youth,” “Dependent Nature,” and “Pacific Rim,” New Criterion, 6 (October 1987): 45-48; “Decisions, Decisions” and “Practice,” Crosscurrents, special issue, Expansionist Poetry: The New Formalism and the New Narrative, 8 (1989)15-16.

NONFICTION: “The Structure of the Detective Story: Classical or Modern?,”Modern Fiction Studies, 27 (Winter 1981-1982): 555-70; “Matter and Mystery: Neglected Works and Background Materials of Detective Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies, 29 (Autumn 1983): 435-50; “The Dissociation of Sensibility: Mannered Muses, Ancient and Modern,” Southern Review, 19 (Winter 1983): 57-72; Memoir of J. V. Cunningham, Sequoia, 29 (Spring 1985): 104-8; “Tradition and Revolution: The Modern Movement and Free Verse,” Southwest Review, 70 (Summer 1985): 294-319; “An Interview with J. V. Cunningham,” Iowa Review,15 (Fall 1985): 1-24; Statement in “Symposium,” Crosscurrents, special issue,Expansionist Poetry: The New Formalism and the New Narrative, 8 (1989): 101-104.

Of poets born since World War II who continue to work in meter, Timothy Steele is among the most highly regarded. In recent years he has further emerged as a leading critic and theoretician of that casually organized movement in recent American poetry sometimes called New Formalism.

The son of Edward William Steele, a teacher, and Ruth Reid Steele, a nurse, Timothy Reid Steele was born in Burlington, Vermont, on 22 January 1948. His boyhood in a part of New England remote from Boston might seem to place him in the shadow of Robert Frost, whose poems he encountered in grade school. But, 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.

For most of his career Steele has been engaged in learning and teaching. Long before the powerful, lingering influence of formalist poet and teacher Yvor Winters had waned at Stanford University, Steele studied there, taking his B.A. in 1970. In 1975 he returned to Stanford as Jones Lecturer in Poetry, and since 1977 he has taught English on other California campuses, principally at UCLA and (at present) California State University, Los Angeles. His Ph.D. is from Brandeis University (1977).

During a sojourn back in New England as a graduate student in the early 1970s, Steele came under the sway of another eminent formalist poet and critic, J. V. Cunningham, whose emotionally intense poems are laconic and strictly fashioned. At Brandeis, Cunningham directed Steele’s doctoral dissertation on the history and conventions of detective fiction. Perhaps more significantly for the younger man’s poetry, Cunningham read some of Steele’s work and commented (Steele recalls) “with his characteristic and supportive brevity.”

Steele’s first book, Uncertainties and Rest ((1979), whose title hints at a thumbnail definition of meter, shows a younger poet still practicing an art that for two decades had been unfashionable in America. Containing sonnets, epigrams, quatrains, and ingenious stanzas, the collection is almost entirely in rhyme, its various forms managed with unusual competence. In “Jogging in the Presidio” Steele calls his favorite sport, running, “A laughable and solitary art,” while displaying rare skill in placing one poetic foot after another:

              Though wayside skeptics eye me, I pursue

              Nothing particular, nothing that's mine,

              But mearely leaves brought down by a hard rain

              Last evening, the clear wind the swallows ride,

              And the grass over which my shadow bends

              Evenly uphill as I hit my stride.

The central persona in the book struck one critic, John M. Miller (Chowder Review,Spring-Summer 1980), as making a certain “genteel withdrawal into elegant, decorous sensations,” yet a strong, controlled intensity is everywhere. It is as if, rather than blindly courting sensation, the young poet sorts out his sensations critically. Readers glimpse contemporary America from the point of view of a young city dweller who stops to observe wryly a Florida dive, where the jukebox plays Merle Haggard and Kitty Wells, and of a slightly self-deprecating air traveler who feels “Strung out on distance and cocaine.” The book harks back to Vermont and family, and it heralds, among other themes that endure in Steele’s work, a devotion to love. “Last Night as You Slept” ends with a startling image:

              Distance as chill as the light on the shades,

              Was so uncertain, love, of our rest

              That I woke you almost as I drew by chest

              Against the warm wings of your shoulder blades.

The critic who works through such a poem for its subtle congeries of vowels and consonants realizes that Steele is a musician of words. A strong debut, Uncertainties and Rest (nevertheless took years to attract notice. Here and there, critics were impressed: in 1980 in the Partisan Review, J D. McClatchy proclaimed, “It has given me . . . more pleasure than any other first book I have read this year.” But the collection did not gain Steele immediate entry into many anthologies. In 1986 he was to receive much wider attention when Random House published the second of his two full-length collections,Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems. Incorporating most of those poems he had printed in small and limited editions, the book seems more various and ambitious than its predecessor. It shows a more explicit and sympathetic concern for people: in “Near Olympic” the poet observes with keen-eyed sympathy the residents of a Japanese-Chicano neighborhood in Los Angeles, and “At Will Rogers Beach” has sketches of surfers and roller skaters. Steele’s marriage (on 14 January 1979) to Victoria Lee Erpelding, a librarian, appears to have inspired new love lyrics. The beautifully crafted “Aubade” portrays a woman rising in the morning while her lover lingers in bed. In other engaging poems echoes of Vermont linger: in “Timothy,” about new-mown hay, Steele appears to recall his boyhood through mature eyes.

              Pumping a handpump's iron arm,

               I washed myself as best I could,
             Then watched the acres of the farm

              Draw lengthening shadows from the wood

              Across the grass, which seemed a thing

              In which the lonely and concealed

              Had risen from its sorrowing

               And flourished in the open field.

Sapphics against Anger shows Steele, without surpassing his mentor Cunningham in concision or intensity, going considerably beyond him in depth and range. In poem after poem Steele quietly relishes the wonders of ordinary experience: “Summer” declares its subject to be “voluptuous in plenty” and depicts a country road where a boy “initials soft tar with a stick.” Physical sensations, which strike readers only occasionally in Uncertainties and Rest, are noticeable even in the brief, flawless poem “Waiting for the Storm.” It conveys at least four sensory experiences: the sight of a “wrinkling” bay, the sensations of dampness and cold, and the sound of beginning rain. “The Sheets,” about taking crisp laundry down from a clothesline, is another successful poem that apparently draws on childhood memories. Sensation in itself is never for long his object of concern, for as the more abstract “Chanson Philosophique” suggests, the nature of everyday experience invites thoughtful labeling. Steele’s view of life, a classically tempered view, is made explicit in the title poem:

               For what is, after all, the good life save that

              Conduced thoughtfully, and what is passion

               If not the holiest of powers, sustaining

                     Only if mastered.

Living and working in Southern California, Steele has made himself prominent in a community of traditionalist poets, including the distinguished writer Janet Lewis, widow of Winters; the poet and fine-press publisher Charles Gullans; the English-born formalist Thom Gunn; and (at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Steele in 1986 was visiting lecturer) poets Edgar Bowers, Alan Stephens, Dick Davis, and John Ridland. Vikram Seth, who credits Steele with improving his metrical writing, dedicated to him the remarkable novel in verse, The Golden Gate (1986).

In his most recent poems Steele has continued to express appreciation both for the life of the mind and for the sensuous world. These attitudes blend in “Aurora,” from the chapbook Beatitudes  (1988), in which a sleeping woman is invoked:

              Goddess, it's you in whom

              Our clear hearts joy and chafe.

              Awaken, then. Vouchsafe

              Ideas to resume.

              Draw back the drapes: let this

              Quick muffled emphasis              
             Flood light across the room. 

Whether or not he feels desolate before the gap between the ideal and reality, he understands the nature of pain. In “Dependent Nature,” published in October 1987 in the New Criterion, he maintains that flowers climbing a trellis are spared

                 . . . the sad mirth serving those who gauge

              The gap between the longed-for and the real,

              Who grasp provisional joy, who must not be 

              Desolate, however desolate they feel.

But such desolation seems continually interrupted by moments of joy and glimpses of beauty. As Steele observes in “Eros,” a poem published in Numbers (Autumn 1986),

              Gently to brush hair from the sleeping face,

              To feel breath on the fingers, and to try

              To check joy in that intimate, small place

              Where joy's own joyousness can't satisfy

              This is pain. This is power that comes and goes.

Evidently, in the current poetic wars, Steele has enlisted on the side of meter. As he declared in his contribution to a 1989 symposium in Crosscurrents, “My keenest pleasure in reading poetry has from the beginning been bound up with the metrical experience; and I write in meter because only by doing so can I hope to give someone else the same degree of pleasure that the poetry I most love has given me.” Robert McPhillips, a poet-critic sympathetic with New Formalism, has found Steele’s work indebted to earlier academic formalists while containing “little of the ornateness of diction or heaviness of wit” characteristic of much American formal poetry of the 1950s. An influential judgment of Steele’s poems has been that of Richard Wilbur, who calls Steele “one of the very best young poets now writing,” praising him for his “easy, unforced mastery of form [and] that truth and warmth of feeling which is sometimes denied to the formalist.” Gunn has also found in Steele’s work a compelling synthesis of form and matter: “I never feel he has chosen to [write] in meter for any other reason than that by doing so he can make his speech more forceful.”

The growing audience of those who care for Steele’s poetry will find further insights in his critical book, Missing Measures (1990). With lightly wielded learning, Steele revises accepted histories of modern poetry, seeking to explain how meter, formerly the dominant force of English and classical poetry, can have become so widely neglected by most poets today. The revolution of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, he believes, has resulted in generations of free-verse poets “merely following, by rote and habit, a procedure of writing, and breaking up into lines, predictably mannered prose.”

So far, Steele’s career, like Wilbur’s, has been characterized not by grand gestures and epic aspirations but by the slow accumulation of unpretentious and resounding victories. The reader who appreciates fine formal poetry will watch Steele’s development with keen attention. Whatever he has yet to do, Steele has already left his mark. If those critics who have celebrated him are right, then in whatever anthology future readers may distill out of late-twentieth-century American poetry, Timothy Steele must already have lodged contributions likely to prove indispensable.


R. S. Gwynn, “Second Gear,” New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, 9 (Autumn 1986): 111-121; Gordon Harvey, “Illusions Not Illusions Any Longer,”Sequoia, 28 (Spring 1984): 91-98; Mary Kinzie, “The Over-Definition of the Now,”American Poetry Review, 11 (March-April 1982): 13-17; Paul Lake, “Toward a Liberal Poetics,” Threepenny Review, 8 (Winter 1988): 12-14; Robert McPhillips, “What’s New about the New Formalism,” Crosscurrents, 8 (1989): 64-75.