Recent Work By Timothy Steele

I was born in Burlington, Vermont in 1948. Though I did not appreciate it at the time, I received a greater and more appealing exposure to books and poetry than most kids get. My mother was a nurse, and my father was a teacher; and my mother regularly read aloud to me and my two siblings (my younger brother Bradley and my younger sister Martha), starting well before we reached school age. The poems my mother read included Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” selections from Mother Goose, Eugene Field’s “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, and Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat.

In addition to being fortunate in drawing the open-minded and literate family I did, I was lucky in the state and city of my birth. When I was growing up, Robert Frost was still living for much of the year in Ripton, which is just off Route 7 about 35 miles south of Burlington. He was our “local” poet and in 1961 was officially made Laureate of Vermont. By the fourth or fifth grade our teachers had introduced us to his work. I was particularly enchanted by the little Morgan colt in “The Runaway” and by the “miniature thunder” his hooves make as he dashes about the meadow, frightened by his first experience of a snowstorm. And beginning at the age twelve or thirteen, I attended the productions of a fine summer Shakespeare festival at the University of Vermont (which sits on a hill overlooking Burlington and Lake Champlain), with the result that I had seen or read most of Shakespeare’s major plays, and some of his interesting lesser ones, by the time I graduated from high school.

Though always a reader, I probably would have not become a poet had I not gone to college at Stanford. When I arrived, I discovered and took classes from a group of terrific young writer-teachers in the English Department. This community had been fostered by, and reflected the enduring influence of, two longstanding members of the faculty, the poet Yvor Winters (who had recently retired and who sadly died of cancer not long after) and the novelist Wallace Stegner. Moreover, nearby San Francisco was center of the Beat Movement. In this environment, it was perhaps inevitable that a student like myself, who loved books, would be drawn more deeply into literature and would try his hand at verse. After receiving my B. A. from Stanford in 1970, I attended Brandeis University for graduate study with the wonderful epigrammatic poet and Renaissance scholar, J. V. Cunningham, eventually writing under his direction a doctoral thesis on the history of detective fiction.

My first book of poems, Uncertainties and Rest, appeared in 1979. Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems followed in 1986. (In 1995, these were reprinted in a joint volume, Sapphics and Uncertainties.) More recent collections include The Color Wheel (1994) and Toward the Winter Solstice (2006). I have also edited The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997) and have published two books of criticism: Missing Measures (1990) and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing (1999). The first of these examines the revolt against meter in modern poetry and deals with poetics and literary history; the second offers a more practical, nuts-and-bolts discussion of meter and versification.

To close on a personal note, my wife Victoria and I have been married for 31 years and divide our time between Los Angeles and New York City. A librarian and art historian, she is the Brooke Russell Astor Director of Collections Strategy for the New York Public Library, and I’m a professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles, where I also direct the school’s Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.

Editor’s note:  Mr. Steele, a poet and critic I’ve long admired, is this week’s poetry feature.  He submitted an autobiography for us which was too long to use in the template, but notable enough for its own piece.

Please see also his poem “Pastoral at Rock Point” and his self-interview.

—Uche Ogbuji.

Approached by boat, the cliff did not look high,
But when we boys gazed downward from its summit,
We felt uncomfortably near the sky.
We would leap out in turn and, feet first, plummet—
Legs working frantically in search of brakes.
Or, not to be the last left on the heights,
We’d jump in twos and threes and burst the lake’s
Dark surface like a shower of meteorites.

Elsewhere bravado led us to remorse;
There, though, we learned of force and counter-force,
Descending through the many-moted, cold,
Green, sun-shot water with our lifted hair
Till depth slowed us, and buoyancy took hold
And helped us rise back to the light and air.

originally published in The Sewanee Review

What factors, in your view, best encourage the writing of good poems?

The most important is having an interesting subject that we care about. The subject can be large or small, weighty or light, and can involve any number of things, from an emotionally charged personal experience to an idea that arrests us in a more or less purely cerebral fashion. We should, however, feel genuinely compelled to write about it. It’s fine to noodle around—to write exercises exploring, say, different kinds of sonnets. And occasionally such exercises may lead to a poem worth sharing with others. But for the most part, we should leave such efforts in our notebooks (or our computer files). Unless we have vital material and focus it in an engaging way, it isn’t fair to readers to ask them to devote time and attention to our work.

Probably the next most important factor is patience. Even when we feel or think something strongly, it often takes us a while to understand and illuminate its significance. To be sure, it is possible to be overly conscientious and to wind up like those perfectionistic artists whom Balzac and Henry James write about and who never can finish anything because of an insane scrupulosity. Yet, generally speaking, there’s a natural and necessary gap between the inspiration for a poem and the realization of it in words. As we work our way across or through this gap, it usually benefits us to look at our material from different angles and to try different ways of expressing it to see which works the best. And if, after finishing a poem, we think we could have done significantly better, we should set it aside, give our thoughts about it time to mature, and then have another go at it to see whether we can improve on our initial attempt.

Your poems are metrical. Why?

When I began writing, I hoped that I might someday produce something that would enchant someone in the same way the poems I loved had enchanted me. Much of the pleasure I derived from my favorite poets resulted from their skillful management of meter and (in many cases) rhyme. I realized I’d have to learn about those devices and use them effectively myself if my work was to have any chance of engaging readers as I hoped to.

To speak more broadly, excellent metrical verse makes a singular appeal to the ear and to memory. The human brain is the original and most efficiently portable version of the Kindle and the iPad; and nothing is more accessibly and freely downloadable than poems that feature recurrent rhythm. We can take a metrical work into mind and heart more readily than any other kind of literary composition. In addition, fine metrical writing captivatingly fuses order and flexibility. We experience, on the one hand, the constant metrical pattern and, on the other hand, the continual and varying rhythmical modulations the poet strikes within that basic pattern. Even if we can’t articulate (because of youth or lack of training) the formal principles of poems we enjoy, we still instinctively appreciate, when we read or hear them, the pleasurable interplay between the impersonal symmetry of the form and the personal quirks and asymmetries of the poet’s living voice.

Are there advantages that meter offers poets specifically?—advantages, that is, that relate to the compositional process?

There are quite a few, two of which can be mentioned briefly. First, against the bass line of meter, we can register shades of feeling and meaning more sensitively and acutely than we could otherwise. For instance, by grouping together short phrases and strong monosyllabic words, we can slow things down or create an impeded or hesitant effect, whereas we can secure a greater flow and ease with longer words and clauses. We can rein argument in by making metrical units coincide with grammatical ones; we can extend and complicate it setting them at variance. (This is not to say that poets always do these things in a conscious manner. They don’t, any more than fine basketball players minutely calculate, as the clock ticks down toward the end of a close game, that they’re twenty-three feet from the hoop on the right side of the court, that a teammate in the high post has attracted two defenders, and that they should therefore drive toward the base line and pull up for an eleven-and-a-half-foot jump shot. Engaged in an actual game or poem, players or poets mostly just go with the flow. But as with any art, we learn by conscious practice, and that conscious practice informs everything we subsequently do unconsciously when the chips are down and we’re playing for keeps.)

Second, meter can serve us as the beloved Other—as the supportively resistant Muse. She won’t let us get away with facile inspiration and easy emotion but insists that if our passions are sincere, we should take pains to communicate them in a manner that gives others aesthetic pleasure. She refuses to join that posse of enablers (Vanity, Impatience, Laziness, Desire for Praise, Lust for Recognition, etc.) that is always encouraging us to indulge in some literary spree or other. Even as we’re ready to roar off to the next disco or poem, she says, “Excuse me, but you’ve misplaced a beat in this line, you have an extra syllable here, and this rhyme is laughably trite. And please don’t try to justify these clumsy enjambments by saying they reflect your broken spirit because Sheila dumped you, or tell me that the rhythmical muddle of the concluding couplet poignantly expresses your anxiety that you’ll never date again. If you think I’m going anywhere with a writer in your condition, think again. Fix this poem: I’ll wait in the lobby with the car keys.”

And however much we grumble about such unsympathetic treatment, most of us find that it ultimately enriches us. Obliged to cast our feelings into a medium that is completely indifferent to them, we find ourselves considering different and often better ways of saying things. To meet the exigencies of strict form, we find ourselves going more deeply into our subjects, and speaking more intelligently and comprehensively about them than we would have done if we’d been left to our own unmediated impulses.

How would you answer the argument that poets interested in meter are clinging to the past and are indulging in, in the words of one critic, “a dangerous nostalgia”?

Metrical composition is one of the fundamental genres of expression developed by our species. Meter is a means—not the only means, but a crucial and incredibly useful one—by which we’ve articulated our experiences as human beings. It has served all sorts of people, in all sorts of cultures, for millennia. It has served both Art with a capital “A” and the traditions of folk chant, hymn, and popular song. The decorous and high-minded have employed it; so have the naughty and subversive. Its instrumental value is timeless. Accusing people of backwardness because they’re interested in meter makes about as much sense as accusing them of backwardness for being interested in prose.

Some have accused you of being unsympathetic to free verse. How would you answer them?

As a card-carrying Aristotelian, I consider all imaginative literature to be poetry: verse, free verse, prose poetry, plays in verse or prose, prose novels, short stories—the whole shebang. All these genres deserve our respect, and we should always honor individual works that exemplify them. So free verse has my critical seal of approval, for whatever that is worth.

I do, however, object to the notion that free verse has supplanted or superseded metrical verse and made it obsolete. Free verse is fine on its own terms, but it can’t replace verse. Whatever its distinctive and unique virtues, free verse can’t entirely do the same kinds of things, or achieve the same kinds of effects, that we find in an art that organizes the rhythms of speech according a palpable, discernible principle or principles.

Some of my contemporaries have been very angry with me for taking this line. They seem to believe that free verse is, in its freedom from meter, a better and hipper kind of meter than meter is. But surely this is a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, too. The sooner we can move beyond such illogicalities, the better things will be for all verse, free and metrical.

Do you think metrical verse will survive in the future?

Meter will almost certainly survive in popular song. Even while meter has been in the doghouse as far as serious poetry is concerned, it has continued to flourish in folk music, rock, musical theater, rap, country, and related forms.

And meter may reclaim a significant place in mainstream poetry if we refresh and enrich the ways we think about modern and contemporary verse. Many discussions of 20th- (and now 21st-) century verse introduce the terms “modern” and “contemporary” as if they are historically descriptive; but on examination, you find that the terms are being used in an aesthetically proscriptive manner and that only verse which is in some obvious fashion “experimental” counts as modern or contemporary. If we can just break away from habitual confusions like these, we’ll be okay. Our literary culture will flourish to the extent that all genres are given fair treatment and all voices have an equal opportunity to be heard.