An Interview with Timothy Steele


Timothy Steele is the author of three books of poems: Uncertainties and Rest (LSU, 1979); Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems (Random House, 1986); and The Color Wheel (Johns Hopkins, 1994). The first two of these have recently been re-issued in a single volume, Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986 (Arkansas, 1995). Steele is also the author of an influential critical study, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (Arkansas, 1990). He is professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles.

Steele's poetry is notable for its careful and fluent use of traditional form, and he has emerged as one of the leading members of Expansive poets, devoted to reviving traditional form and narrative in contemporary poetry. Missing Measures is a sweeping study of the assumptions about poetic form that animated the modernist free verse revolution, and of their unintended consequences.

Our conversation took place on June 2, 1995 at a conference on formalist poetry at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

KW: I'd like to start by asking about your early experience writing poetry. Who were your influences, and why did you decide to gravitate toward the formal style—especially in the 1970s, when it was so out of style?

TS: There are a couple of answers to that. First, I was born and raised in Burlington, Vermont. Growing up, I read the poetry of Robert Frost, who was regarded as our local poet, though he was, of course, much more than that. He was still living down in Ripton for a good part of each year, and when I was in seventh or eighth grade, he was appointed state poet laureate. Frost wrote enchantingly about Vermont, its landscapes, seasons, and people. When I began to write poetry, his model was important. It was he who had compared free verse to playing tennis with the net down. If for no other reason than his example, I would have been reluctant to write verse without first learning the rules of the art.

The second thing is that I've always loved the musical element of poetry. The first poems my mother read to me were Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat," Mother Goose, some of Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses, and Tennyson's "Locksley Hall." I was dazzled by the sounds of the words, the repetitions and the rhymes. And I felt something of the same happy bewilderment when I later read or heard poems like "Hamlet" or the lyrics of Dickinson or Wilbur. Perhaps a neurologist or linguist would say that verse enabled me to experience language not only as a left-brain activity involving the assimilation of verbal content, but also as a right-brain response to tonal shades and rhythmical patterns. In any case, when I started writing poems myself, it was partly in the hope that I might eventually be able to create the aural magic that poems I'd read and loved had created. This hope required that I explore and work with the instruments that had helped to produce that magic.

KW: Did you encounter any difficulties or resistance to having your work accepted when you first started writing because of the temperament of the mainstream style in the 1970s, or did you just go about your work and not encounter much difficulty with it?

TS: I just went about my work and was happy when poems appeared here or there in magazines. Occasionally, when I submitted material, editors questioned my interest in technique. And once a well-meaning fellow did advise me that meter and rhyme were simply passé and that, though it looked like I had some talent, I'd never get anywhere if I stuck to writing in form. At the same time, however, I was doing other thingsteaching and writing a dissertation on the detective story. And I was aware that writers often have difficulty getting accepted and that success or failure in these matters has little connection to the quality or lack of quality of the work. So the situation wasn't all that crushing.

It should be said, too, that there were several editors who were bucking the tide and welcoming metrical work. Don Stanford at The Southern Review was one. Tom Kirby-Smith at The Greensboro Review was another. And X. J. Kennedy's Counter/Measures, though shortlived, provided a lively forum in which metrists and rhymers could share work and ideas, as did, somewhat later, Robert L. Barth's press and his series of metrical chapbooks.

KW: Did you realize at a particular point, either before or after Uncertainties and Rest was published, that you weren't the only one who was developing a viable poetry in traditional forms? The new formalism began to emerge as a phenomenon around 1980; people began to meet each other and develop a sense of a collective enterprise. At what point did you become a part of it ?

TS: Early on, I felt like Poet From Another Planet, at least in the company of my contemporaries. But outstanding poets in the generation ahead of ours continued to write in form. And even if they weren't getting the public laurels and attention that they deserved, their work was still exciting and nourishing for a younger reader and writer like myself. And around the time of Uncertainties and Rest, there started to appear books by other younger poets interested in form. I wasn't conscious then, however, of there being any movement with a capital "M" devoted to formal poetry. If there was a change in the air, it involved instead a growing sentiment, which even vers-libristes seemed to share, that certain veins of free verseparticularly the confessional veinhad been mined out.

Regarding "Neo-formalism" or "New Formalism," I didn't hear those terms until around 1986 or 1987. Also, I believe the term "neo-formalism" was coined by someone alarmed that younger poets were becoming curious about form. New Formalism was never organized or announced in the way that, for instance, F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound organized and announced Imagism. This distinction is worth making because many people today are understandably suspicious of movement-mongering and have accused formal poets of grandstanding. But this whole business was thrust on poets from the outside. And most everyone who has been associated with New Formalism is uncomfortable with that label. "Formalism" in particular suggests that one is less than normally concerned with content, which is not true of the poets who have been called New Formalists. If there was a sense of collective enterprise, as you put it, it developed slowly and loosely. And it involved people who had many different concerns and who probably were similar merely in their desire to write well and to break away from modes that perhaps had grown stale.

KW: Do you see New Formalism, as a movement, having any significant or lasting influence on American poetry, or is it too soon to say?

TS: It's too soon to say. And it's probably wrong in any event to treat the present moment as if it were an archeological artifact whose significance we can define. Assessing these matters will have to wait for someone 100 years down the road. I think that the renewed attention to the traditional instruments of verse has been helpfulhelpful in broadening the stylistic and thematic possibilities of poetry. More kinds of poems are written and published today than was the case 25 years ago. But beyond that, I just don't know.

KW: One thing that people have remarked about since the Expansive poetry school has come along is that there are different strands of poets within it. There are poets primarily interested in narrative, poets who primarily move back and forth between meter and rhyme and free verse, and poets who take a very strict view of traditional form and meter. They don't write in free verse much, and their poems are very regular metrically. They adhere to regular meter and do not take liberties with slant rhyme, or a variety of metrical substitutions. Some critics have observed that your own poetry would fall into that latter category. Does that seem to you to be an accurate description of your own work?

TS: I suppose so, though I have no problem with slant rhyme, and despite what is sometimes said about Missing Measures, I nowhere say there, nor do I believe, that free verse isn't or can't be poetry.

About my own practice, I'm puzzled when people refer to my use of "regular meter." Meter is by definition regular. Our iambic meters allow for conventional variations, such as the inverted first foot and feminine ending. But even what Frost called "loose iambic" is still clear in beat-count. It's just iambic with anapestic substitutionsthe tetrameters of, say, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" as opposed to those of "Stopping by Woods." One can distinguish between a rather wooden use of meter, represented by George Gascoigne or Sam Johnson, and a livelier and more fluid use of meter by someone like Philip Sidney or John Keats. But it's not a question of writing in irregular meter or regular meter. One writes in meter, or one doesn't.

KW: Some critics have observed in your work not only its stylistic similarity to earlier poets of the century, but also thematic concerns. I'm thinking of J. V. Cunningham, and before him, Yvor Winters. Their poetry was very consistently metrical, written in the very direct, plain style of English poetry, and also very concerned with emphasizing the value of meter in the poetry itself, as a subject for poetry. Your own poem "Sapphics against Anger" has been read as a metaphoric commentary not only on anger and controlling emotion, but controlling ideas in art, which was very much a concern of Winters. Do you feel a kinship in your own work between Cunningham and Winters, or do you disagree with this characterization?

TS: To respond to the interpretation of "Sapphics against Anger," I did not write that poem with any aesthetic program in mind. I was concerned with the need for restraint in human relationships. It never crossed my mind that the poem would be read as a manifesto. I don't mean to criticize the critics, but that wasn't what I was thinking of.

I'm doubtful about correlations between meter and the moral character of the poet. There are fine, good people who write in meter and fine, good people who write in free verse. By the same token, there are folks working in both modes who give you the willies. And it's hard to imagine that writing in form or not writing in form is going to save somebody from jaywalking or telling fibs. I studied with Cunningham, and he never made such correlations. Nor do I think that Winters makes them. As I understand him, he favors standard meter because he believes that it is the most versatile and sensitive means for registering feeling and perception.

About meter as a possible subject of poetry, that's never occurred to me. As a poet you have the whole extraordinary spectacle of life before you. It would seem as odd for a poet to write about meter as it would be for an artist to set up an easel before a beautiful landscape and then do a painting of one of his brushes. The reason that one writes in meter is not to defend or explicate it, but to make what one says as memorable and as focused as one can. One doesn't use meter for its own sake, but for the sake of the poem and the subject matter.

KW: This brings us to the central point of Missing Measures. I agree it is not a polemic against free verse; I see it as a thoughtful and thorough scholarly investigation of the assumptions of free verse and the unintended consequences of it. At what point did you become interested in the questions this book raises?

TS: I started to think about them seriously in the late 1970s. Before that, I'd sort of avoided them, because they impinged so closely on writing verse. Yet eventually I felt I had to try to understand why poetry was in the state it was inand specifically why meter, which had been so central to the art for millennia, had fallen into such disrepute. Initially, I wasn't thinking of a book. The first chapter to be set down on paper was the fifth, which I wrote in the summer of 1980 as an essay. Then I drafted another essay, which eventually became chapter two. Only when in the fall of 1984 I wrote the first chapterthis was originally an essay, too, in this instance for Willard Spiegelman at The Southwest Reviewdid I think that I might have a book.

KW: What do you feel about reaction to the book? Has it been unfairly vilified, or has reaction ranged across the board?

TS: Reaction has ranged across the board. There have been favorable reviews and unfavorable ones. But I've noticed with satisfaction that even the unfavorable reviewers concede the book's basic historical analysis. Indeed, they sometimes have summarized that analysis as if they themselves had made it or had always known facts that the book was the first, so far as I'm aware, to demonstrate. It's been mainly against the book's conclusions that the negative comments have been directed. It is said that I'm wrong to conclude that even free verse will eventually become meaningless if we cease to be able to hear and to practice metrical formsif we cease to appreciate those rhythms from which free verse departs or varies. That is, critics of the book evidently feel that free verse has become an entirely self-sufficient medium, and that poetic practice can subsist on it alone. This position seems to me terribly misguided. Poetry can ill afford, I believe, another century in which meter is as misunderstood and abused as it has been in this one. But others feel differently, and I don't want to give their views short shrift.

KW: One comment that I was wondering you could respond to was made by Vernon Shetley in After the Death of Poetry. He said that Missing Measures takes a very ahistorical view of meter, in which you take the entire history of metrical poetry and oppose that to 70 years of free verse. According to Shetley, you do not consider the possibility of how meters can change dialectically over time: "Steele's, then, is a very ahistorical view of meter, in which one pentameter is as good as (and the same as) any other. It's clear, though, why this must be the case; for Steele to admit that prosody evolves would reinstate free verse within the general history of English metrical development, in which one might see the colloquial freedoms taken by Browning, the dissolution of accent in Tennyson, and Hardy's movement toward what even Steele refers to as a 'rhymed accentual verse' as stages toward the eventual step of more radical 'free' prosodies" (155). How do you respond to this?

TS: I realize that there are variations over time in metrical practice. It is also the case that when languages alter, the metrical systems based on them change. For instance, when speakers of Greek and Latin lost the sense of syllabic quantity or duration, classical prosody changed from being time-based to being stress-based. When the inflectional system of Old English broke downand when the Normans brought into English the linguistic and poetic influences of the Romance languagesour prosody changed from accentual-alliterative, with generally falling rhythm, to more of a syllable-counting scheme with rising rhythm. Yet the concept of meter, of measure, has remained. Even the loosest meters of earlier traditions—medieval Latin poetry, for exampleare very organized compare to the sorts of things you find in the twentieth century.

Further, it seems that that criticism you mention confuses meter with rhythm. Structurally, one iambic pentameter is the same as any otherthough hardly as good, artistically, as any other. Whether written by Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, or Browning, standard pentameters have the same basic form. The difference between these poetsand there are worlds of differenceis in their rhythmical modulations of the underlying pattern. Some poets may prefer symmetrical phrasing, whereas others may pause more frequently within their lines. Some may enjamb lines more frequently. Some may favor the more Germanic elements of English and use lots of monosyllabic words, whereas others may lean to the Latinate elements and be more inclined to use polysyllabic words. These and other factors affect rhythm, and rhythmical preferences change not only from poet to poet, but from age to age. But the fact that Browning is racy and colloquial is, metrically speaking, neither here nor there. The pentameters of "My Last Duchess" and 'The Bishop Orders His Tomb" still scan conventionally. There remains the ground-bass, the interplay of rhythm and meter. To the extent that free verse gets rid of the underlying pattern, it represents, in my view, a break with metrical tradition, not a step in its evolution.

KW: Some poets write obsessively about a core number of subjects; the books accumulate; they develop an investigation of a particular idea in depth. Other poets tend to write one poem at a time; they gather the poems, and their books are collections of finely crafted individual poems. It seems to me your work would be better described by the latter category. Your books explore a variety of subjects; to use Donald Hall's phrase, you write poems, not poetry. Does that seems to be a fair description of your process of composing?

TS: Very definitely. I write poems one at a time. I most enjoy books of poems that feature a variety of subjects and that give a sense that the poet has really tried to come to grips with each subject and has looked at it from different angles and intuited something about its different possible aspects. So it's probably natural that I'd take a one-at-a-time approach.

KW: Do you see any unifying ideas or themes within the diversity of subjects, from laundry, to domestic problems with the emotions, to a young boy playing basketball?

TS: Once when asked a question like this, I said that my poems are about nature or human nature. Maybe that can serve as a response here. I get very involved with the subject of a poem when I write. I don't look ahead or weigh where the poem will fit thematically in some grand scheme of life work. Nor do I think it's wise to be too self-conscious about one's writing and one's own development as a writer. The more seriously poets take themselves, the less seriously they tend to take poetry.

KW: How do subjects of your poems present themselves to you, and how long do you spend revising them?

TS: I write about subjects that preoccupy me or that force themselves on my attention. A poem may, like that poem about the boy practicing basketball, have its genesis in a scene or image that seems worth preserving and sharing. Or a poem may, like "Pacific Rim," have its genesis in a personal experience and in the desire to make some sense of it. Or a poem may attempt to understand and give some shape to a relatively complex situation or cluster of ideas. For example, "Her Memory of the Picnic," in The Color Wheel, tries to get a focus on a number of different issues in family experience. "The Library" tries to do the same thing, though in this poem the issues are more related to cultural and intellectual experience.

Revising is variable. With certain poems, I'll think for quite a while about the subject, but will write the poem quickly. "Profils Perdus," from Uncertainties and Rest, was like this. For a fairly long time, I'd been thinking about how the cultivation of sensibility, though valuable in some respects, can become psychically crippling if carried too far. But the actual poem was written in perhaps 20 minutes one night in the fall of 1972. With other poems, however, I may go through many drafts before getting it right—or before giving it up. Sometimes, the problem turns out to be that the form initially chosen is wrong. For instance, I first tried to write "Janet," a poem in Sapphics against Anger, in a long line. I struggled and struggled, and experimented with various rhyme and stanzaic patterns. Nothing worked. Finally, it occurred to me that the poem might be better in a shorter measure, especially since the poem involved a sinuosity of movement and a certain edginess of perception. So I tried iambic trimeterwhich for me has always had a nervous, anticipatory feelingand suddenly the poem fell into place.

KW: The Color Wheel is a lovely title. What led you to the title?

TS: The title comes from one of the poems, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Child." It describes a child playing with crayons and refers to a color wheel in connection with the child's exploring different color combinations. When it came time to title the book, I thought that The Color Wheel might appeal to a potential reader. Also, the phrase and image suggested the way in which poetry and the arts can help us to experience a rich spectrum of ideas and feelings and can give us the sense that, however hard and brief our temporal lives are, we still are eternally and triumphantly part of reality. So it seemed appropriate to name the collection for "the wheel/ Of contrasts and of complements,/ Where every shade divides and blends,/ Where you find those that you prefer,/ Where being is not linear,/ But bright and deep and never ends."

Department of English and Comparative Literature
University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0069