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No Fads, Please

Poet Timothy Steele sticks to his principles.

Photo: Ramona Rosalest

By Cynthia Haven

When Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele’s first collection, Uncertainties and Rest, was submitted to Louisiana State University Press, it was sent to an anonymous outside reader for evaluation. The reader wrote back, “Does the press want on its list at this time a collection that is characteristically witty, formal, sophisticated?”

“I said that it sounded as if the reader were recommending that the press stick to collections that were dull, haphazard and primitive,” says Steele, ’70. The publisher liked Steele’s rejoinder, and the presses rolled. It was a small triumph in an era when formal poetry, following traditional metric principles, had been all but abandoned, not to say derided.

More than a quarter century later, Steele is still publishing new poems—most recently in his collection Toward the Winter Solstice (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2006). Are they still witty, formal, sophisticated? Yes, and no.

In the best of us, age brings a mellowing wisdom, compassion, comfortableness in one’s own skin. As Tennyson said, we wear our learning lightly, like a flower. Not that the younger Steele didn’t already possess some of those qualities, but one wonders if today he would write lines like “Velveeta cheese suffices here for quiche” (even if referring to life in a new apartment), or “And what absolves me? This chilled Chardonnay.”

Steele was never superficially clever or glib, yet a more inclusive vision, a more generous spirit prevails in Solstice.

How many poets would write a formal elegy for a squashed opossum found at an intersection, let alone “scrape and scoop it from the asphalt with a shovel” into his car for a home garden burial? Coming from another poet, the effect might be ludicrous, or lead one to think Steele was a bit of a wuss.

Not so. “April 27, 1937,” a tough poem in couplets, describes General Ludendorff’s innovation of “Total War,” extending to civilian targets:

    Berlin cheered these developments; but two
    Can play such games—and usually do—
    No matter how repellent or how bloody.
    And Churchill was, as always, a quick study. . . .

On the other end of the emotional range is “The Sweet Peas,” in which Steele recalls a dying, bedridden neighbor who praises Steele’s climbing sweet peas—but her mind is wandering, and the season is long past. Steele hopes that, “when she passed from this to that other mystery,” she

    . . . kept, by way of comfort, as she went,
    The urge to complication and ascent
    Which prints such fresh, bright signatures on air.
    That they are read when they’re no longer there.

“There are fashions in emotions no less than in clothes and movies, and we should be as skeptical of these as we are of the other fashions,” Steele said recently. “They aren’t real and intrinsic to us, and if we let them into our lives, they can supplant what is real and intrinsic.” One might say that Steele specializes in unfashionable emotions in a strident era.

It’s been the curse of the New Formalists that critics have focused on issues of technique rather than content. In Steele’s case, in particular, the smooth, liquid metrical verse was such a startling departure from business-as-usual that the method—his blank verse, his sonnets, his Sapphics—distracted from the message. In Solstice, Steele is extending his wings and tackling eclipsed poetic forms of argument (“Henry and Elvis”), philosophical discourse (the masterful “Siglo de Oro,” a poem that some already consider his best), historical instance, and longer-form poems, though one might wish for fewer humdrum childhood recollections. Solstice is a compendium of emotions, thoughts and poetic forms. (One poem’s stanzas have the unlikely rhyme scheme abcbadcd.)

Do we have the ear for it? Can we still take delight in it? Solstice landed on this reviewer’s desk about the same time as an acclaimed translation of great Renaissance poetry. The sheer beauty of Steele’s polished iambic pentameter, the neat and inventive perfect rhymes, his infectious delight in words and wordplay, illustrated exactly what was lacking in the popular translation: the use of pleasure as motive and measure.

CYNTHIA HAVEN is a frequent contributor to Stanford.  

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