Steele, Timothy (Reid)
STEELE, Timothy (Reid)
Nationality: American. Born: Burlington, Vermont, 22 January 1948. Education: Stanford University, California, B.A. 1970; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, M.A. 1972, Ph.D. 1977. Family: Married 1) Catherine Fuller in 1969 (divorced 1973); 2) Victoria Lee Erpelding in 1979. Career: Lecturer, California State University, Hayward, 1973–74, Stanford University, 1975–77, University of California, Los Angeles, 1977–83, and University of California, Santa Barbara, 1986. Since 1987 professor, California State University, Los Angeles. Awards: Wallace Stegner fellowship (Stanford University), 1972–73; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984–85; Lavan award, 1986; Commonwealth Club of California Medal, 1986; Los Angeles P.E.N. Center literary award, 1987; California Arts Council grant, 1993. Address: 1801 Preuss Road, Los Angeles, California 90035, U.S.A.
Uncertainties and Rest. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
The Prudent Heart. Los Angeles, Symposium Press, 1983.
Nine Poems. Florence, Kentucky, R.L. Barth, 1984.
On Harmony. Omaha, Nebraska, Abbatoir, 1984.
Short Subjects. Florence, Kentucky, R.L. Barth, 1985.
Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems. New York, Random House, 1986.
Beatitudes. Child Okeford, Dorset, Words Press, 1988.
The Color Wheel. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970–1986. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1990.
All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1999.
Editor, The Poems of J.V. Cunningham. Athens, Ohio, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1997.*
Critical Studies: "Reciprocals" by Wyatt Prunty, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 17(3), July 1981; "Return to Metaphor: From Deep Imagist to New Formalist" by Paul Lake, in Southwest Review (Dallas, Texas), 74(4), autumn 1989; "The Poetry of Timothy Steele" by Kevin Walzer, in Tennessee Quarterly, 2(3), winter 1996.
Timothy Steele comments:
Because comparatively few poets today write in meters, rhymes, and stanzas, my use of these has resulted in my being labeled a "formalist." But I find this term meaningless and objectionable. It suggests, among other things, an interest in style rather than substance, whereas I believe that the two are mutually vital in any successful poem. I employ the traditional instruments of verse simply because I love the symmetries and surprises that they produce and because meter especially allows me to render feelings and ideas more flexibly, precisely, and memorably than I otherwise could. This preference is personal and aesthetic, however; I have never imagined that it provided me with access to cultural or spiritual virtue. And despite allegations to the contrary about Missing Measures, I have never said that vers libre is somehow wrong and immoral or that meter is somehow right and pure. The experimental school of Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, and Williams has its own beauties and achievements. But we can prize them justly and build on them, it seems to me, only if we retain a knowledge and appreciation of the time-tested principles of standard versification. Free verse cannot be free unless there is something for it to be free of.* * *
Usually regarded as one of the New Formalists who have returned to traditional stanzaic verse and meter in reaction to free verse and modernist open form, Timothy Steele is a complex poet in style and sensibility. His cultural politics are not the conservatism of nostalgia often associated with formalism; rather, they are an insistence on the reality of experience, the truth of the moment, the good of the ordinary in contrast to the exploration of extremes and the idealization of radical states of being. His early emphasis on the experience of the actual world in Uncertainties and Rest seems part of an American tradition. But the symbolism of contentedly raking "the last leaves" and "the dead grass" on Sunday afternoon is the opposite of the usual celebration of the physical world: "I gather what I want, and leave the rest / To the vague sounds of traffic, far away." Steele intellectualizes the necessity of avoiding the dangers of pursuing experience, and when he does, his poetry can be as argumentative as that of any seventeenth-century Metaphysical: "Formality's a renewable disguise, / Well-worded distance …. We do not over-analyze; / We take on faith what we have been." His poems are also filled with literary echoes and allusions, which are part of their meaning. His models are as varied as Martial, Donne, and Larkin. Although he avoids the autobiographical and confessional, the poems are about himself and his feelings, experiences, and ideas and about what he observes: "To be respected / And loved made sense to me once, but of late / I'm drawn by more workable conceits." If the tone is low pressure, the logical pressure can be intense. There is at times a formality but seldom a mask or distancing. Rather than seeing Steele as a conservative, one might regard him as someone who, having experimented with cultural liberation, has learned the need for caution, prudence, the acceptance of limitation, and the enjoyment of the average and who, along with this, has learned the need for definitions or precisions, which include common sense and common experience: "Culture? It's life humanely felt. / (See too Politeness, Mercy, Hope.)"
If Steele's verse is defensively rational, there appears to be a past—alluded to in such poems as "Wait," "For Ying Lew," and "Cowboy"—of drugs, breakdown, ambition, and romantic hurt: "There's scarcely time to sort out the debris, / I'm coming down too fast." The formerly and still potentially volcanic Steele rejects the personal costs of romanticism and modernism. "Baker Beach at Sunset" is explicit about this:
That there's still gold in modernist motifs—
But I've learned what too much self-scrutiny
Does to the spirit. Secondhand beliefs,
The palpitating soul.
Most of Steele's Nine Poems, a limited edition of 150 copies, and Short Subjects, consisting of a rhymed "Dedication for my sister, who likes epigrams" and ten four-line epigrams, are republished in Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems. Steele's poems have increasingly grown beyond the early personal scenes, with their wounded wisdom, to greater complexities, and in doing so they require larger, more challenging forms. A sapphic stanza is an unrhymed stanza of Greek origin consisting of three sapphic lines (composed of two trochees and a dactyl followed by two more trochees) and a final line termed an adonic (a dactyl and a trochee). A spondee may replace the trochee in the first and second line at the second and fifth foot or in line three at the third foot. Steele chooses or invents new forms for each poem, particularly favoring intricately rhymed nine-line stanzas, with one unrhymed line, and tetrameters.
In Sapphics against Anger the title poem is concerned with the destructiveness of uncontrolled emotions:
"That fellow, at the slightest provocation,
Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like
A madman. What Attila did to Europe,
What Genghis Khan did
To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage."
May I, that is, put learning to good purpose,
Mindful that melancholy is a sin, though
Stylish at present.
While praising "the prudent heart" and holding introspection at a distance as potentially self-damaging, Steele seems unable to forget himself, his desires, and the past. Although he knows that reaching for the ideal is illusionary and leads to frustration, Steele remains haunted. Each poem is more a declaration of intent than a record of contentment: "Old letters are reproaches, mute petitions / Unlosable in some desk drawer … they speak of / Now-jettisoned ambitions / And insecurities which passed for love … climates favorable to / Illusions not illusions any longer." Steele battens down the hatches tightly against self-destructive internal tempests and defends a small, tight territory of the self and what the self holds dear. "Snapshots for Posterity" out-Larkins Larkin in regarding an infant as an emblem of possible future despair: "May you one day chant, / "Vanity, vanity," / As a charm against / The chartering of hopes."
While having a taste for pastiche, tongue-in-cheek allusions, and the investing of significance in the trivia of ordinary life, Steele is more at home with abstract and philosophical ideas than with hedonist pleasures. His poems require thought, analysis, and awareness. The Donne-like display of philosophical terms, distinctions, analogies, and logic chopping is evidence of a mind shaping experience by conceptualizing and drawing conclusions. Steele is a strongly metaphysical poet who thinks in verse; his poems have a logical, argumentative structure. In "Love Poem," for example, the chaotic formlessness of silence and self-conscious alienation is rejected in favor of order, self-definition, form, and articulation:
If, like poor Pierrot, I've anxiously
Dwelt in my life, the spell is broken.
Awakened to your touch and voice, I see
That evil is the formless and unspoken,
And that peace rests in form and nomenclature,
Which render our two natures—formerly
Discomfited, self-conscious—second nature.
Sapphics against Anger includes "Chanson Philosophique," a jeu d'esprit in which nominalist and realist perspectives on identity are ingeniously opposed to reach the paradoxical conclusion that whatever happens "has occurred / often and never."
For Steele the excesses of romantic art and emotion reflect dangerously unformed personalities. Knowing but fearing the obsessive and the uncharted, he aspires to clarity, structure, controlled boundaries, and the defined. While his case against the formlessness of romanticism is similar to that made by the modernists, he regards modernism as a further descent into the inferno of chaos and desire. Decisions must be taken, ambitions curbed, an identity established. In a poem about Last Tango in Paris, he says, "All life conspires to define us, / Weighing us down with who we are," but "Blisses anonymously pursued / Destroy us" or are never enjoyed. Only "in some less fallen world" might life gracefully contain the strong emotions given formal shape by classical art:
Like-what?—like Haydn's symphonies,
Structures of balanced contradictions,
For all their evident restrictions,
Crazy with lightness and desire.
Such poetics explain the explosive contrary elements present but controlled in Steele's poems.
The Color Wheel describes the poet's experience living and teaching in Los Angeles. The city becomes a figure for conditions of life that are disorienting, cut off from the past, but not without moral and aesthetic interest. "December in Los Angeles" begins with the lines "The tulip bulbs rest darkly in the fridge / To get the winter they can't get outside …." Memory and artifice, the memory of a ruralchildhood and the daedal craft of his art, enable Steele to construct a life in the postmodern desert. Because the city is in perpetual flux, the poet must exercise his skills of adaptation:
A miracle! we say, astonished at life,
And, given time, our briefcase in hand,
We hurry to work and savor clattering
Through the makeshift tunnel that detours
The sidewalk out around a construction sight,
The fresh plywood springy underfoot.
The syllabism brings an experimental aspect to the verse, quite in keeping with the shifting look and feel of Los Angeles. At such moments Steele reminds us that American formalism can have its Emersonian side, an openness to the flight of events, a restlessness and whimsicality in its lines.
—Bruce King and