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.