An Interview with
    Timothy Steele










by Kevin Durkin









         I first heard Timothy Steele read in the most unlikely of places—at Beyond Baroque, a bookstore cum arts center in Venice, California. I say unlikely because although Steele, a native Vermonter, has lived in the Los Angeles area for more than two decades, he is not the sort of poet one usually associates with that particular venue, where the spirit of the late Charles Bukowski still holds some sway.

         The night of the reading, which Steele shared with fellow metrical poet Leslie Monsour, who studied with Steele in the late 1980s and who is herself now emerging as a strong new voice in American poetry, was a particularly inauspicious one: the hardest rain of the season descended just prior to Monsour and Steele's scheduled hour, and since Angelenos tend to think of rain the way people on the Mid-Atlantic Coast think of snow, only fifteen or so people had ventured onto the freeways to come hear them read. Clad in a black turtleneck and tweed jacket, Steele looked every inch the English professor that he is, but rather than assume a studied role for the occasion, he simply read his poems and commented between them with casual good humor. The small audience was clearly a discerning and appreciative one, and the reading was one of the best I have ever attended.

         Although I had vaguely heard of Steele before I moved to the Los Angeles area in 1996, I had not read his verse until the month before his Beyond Baroque reading, and I was still reeling from the experience. He writes witty and elegant metrical poems that frequently employ perfect rhymes, something you seldom encounter in poetry these days. Never having met a free verse poem I would willingly commit to memory, and long an admirer of Robinson, Frost, Larkin, and Wilbur, I'd begun to think that there was no one of a younger generation than Wilbur's who possessed the talent for, and commitment to, metrical poetry that I so eagerly sought. 

         Yes, I had read most of the New Formalists, but much of their poetry struck me as lacking three essential ingredients: sensuous appeal, crackling wit, and colorful imagination. Steele's poetry—although often lumped together with that of other New Formalists—has all three of these ingredients in abundance. I recall with special pleasure a poem he read at Beyond Baroque about his neighborly exchanges with an elderly woman. Before reading the poem, Steele mentioned that it contained an allusion to Frost's "Mending Wall," a hint that made me prick up my ears. The allusion certainly wasn't hard to detect, but how cleverly it had been deployed.

I bring Fae flowers. When I cross the street,
She meets and gives me lemons from her tree.
As if competitors in a Grand Prix,
The cars that speed past threaten to defeat
The sharing of our gardens and our labors.
Their automotive moral seems to be
That hell-for-leather traffic makes good neighbors.
Ten years a widow, standing at her gate,
She speaks of friends, her cat's trip to the vet,
A grandchild's struggle with the alphabet.
I conversationally reciprocate
With talk of work at school, not deep, not meaty.
Before I leave we study and regret
Her alley's newest samples of graffiti.
Then back across with caution: to enjoy
Fae's lemons, it's essential I survive
Lemons that fellow Angelenos drive.
She's eighty-two; at forty, I'm a boy.
She waves goodbye to me with her bouquet.
This place was beanfields back in '35
When she moved with her husband to L.A.

         I found myself laughing out loud at Steele's play on "lemons" in the third stanza, and then sobering up considerably for the poem's quietly moving conclusion. Re-reading this poem at home that night, I realized with pleasure that Steele had captured quite a lot about life in Los Angeles in just twenty-one flawless lines of verse.

         "Fae" is one of many excellent poems that appeared in Steele's most recent collection, The Color Wheel, which was published in 1994 by Johns Hopkins University Press. Extending the range and depth of his two previous books of poetry (available as a single volume, Sapphics and Uncertainties, from the University of Arkansas Press, The Color Wheel confidently establishes Steele not only as the premiere metrical poet of his generation but also as one of the very best poets writing in English today.

         Steele is also an exceptional critic. His study of the modern revolt against meter, Missing Measures met with more criticism than praise for exposing the misconceptions about meter that Pound and Eliot labored under, misconceptions that continue to haunt the art of poetry and have given rise not only to the ungainly free verse that overwhelms us today, but also to a growing tide of shoddy verse that passes for being metrical. Perceived by many as a threat to the status quo, Missing Measures, has also been a rousing clarion call to a younger generation of poets interested in the history and practice of their art. Missing Measures, and Steele's own poetry, are two of the most significant, if least acknowledged, reasons why metrical poetry has been making a comeback in American literary journals.

         Steele's most recent book, All the Fun's In How You Say a Thing : An Explanation of Meter and Versification, appeared in 1999 from Ohio University Press, and although sales have been strong in the States and it has been recently reviewed at great length in the Times Literary Supplement, it has yet to receive a review in a major American publication. This is a grave oversight, because the book is quite simply the most comprehensive, accurate, and enjoyable book of its kind.

         Since I first heard Steele read at Beyond Baroque a few years ago, I have met with him on several occasions and have exchanged e-mails with him weekly. The following interview was conducted mostly by e-mail during the early months of the year 2000—the perfect time, we both felt, to discuss Steele's most recent book and the state of the art of poetry at the dawn of the new millennium.


KD: Tim, let's start with the new book. What prompted you to write All the Fun's In How You Say a Thing?

TS: There are several answers to that. One is that I've always loved metered verse and wanted to explain the advantages meter offers poets and the pleasures it gives readers.

KD: What sort of advantages do you mean?

TS: Against the bass line of the meter, a poet can register shades of rhythm and tone with special sensitivity. Also, poets can play the meter off against grammar. They can run sentence structure through the end of the metrical unit or, conversely, achieve extra emphasis by endstopping—by making metrical units and syntactical ones coincide. What's more, working in meter--and with the related devices of rhyme and stanza—you find the form forcing you to think of all sorts of alternative ways of phrasing thoughts and feelings. As you try to secure this or that cadence or rhyme, you start thinking of things that otherwise would not have occurred to you. In this sense, meter can be mentally and emotionally enlarging.

KD: Could you give an example of an experience of this sort that you had while writing one of your own poems?

TS: This happened with one of the first poems I wrote—"History of a Friendship in Mattapoisett." The poem's about how relationships work and don't work. When I was first trying to write the poem, I hadn't grasped its theme sufficiently. But at one point I needed an iambic tetrameter whose final syllable would rhyme with "unsaid"; and playing with phrases that fit the meter and words that met the rhyme, I came up with "Tact is at once acquired and shed." And it dawned on me that, yes, this was the point of the poem: as we get to know people better, we put aside conventional politesse, but at the same time we need to cultivate deeper forms of tact, remembering that other people are just that—other than we are—and we have to respect the difference, no matter how close we grow to them. Anyway, I don't think I'd have been able to clarify the poem, or have been able to understand the relationship that occasioned it, had it not been for the form. The meter and rhyme made me think harder and feel along different lines than I might have done normally.

KD: What other advantages are there to writing in meter?

TS: Well, metrical poetry is also just plain fun. Though it has rules, once you start working within their boundaries, you find all sorts of interesting challenges.

KD: You also mentioned the pleasure metrical poetry gives readers.

TS: Rhythmically organized verse is catchier—it's easier to remember—than free verse. Meter offers a sensuous appeal to the ear and mind. And poetic form can in general create all sorts of pleasurable symmetries and surprises. A poem with formal structure can achieve a beauty and fullness that a poem without such structure can't. Structure gives a poem resistant grace and power. A fine metrical poem by Richard Wilbur, Janet Lewis, Louise Bogan, Philip Larkin, X. J. Kennedy, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, or Anthony Hecht or—to go back a little further—a good sonnet by Robert Frost or Countee Cullen feels like it's built to last. And I think many readers are grateful for the poet's having taken the time to create something that has focus and comeliness.

KD: Do you think poets and critics have lost sight of these qualities?

TS: They have been, I fear, largely forgotten in the wake of modernism and the triumph of free verse. And in All The Fun's in How You Say a Thing I wanted to make available, for those who might be interested, a book that was accurate and helpful and that might stand as an alternative to the false things that are often said today about meter and its history.

KD: Could you give some examples of the sort of false things you mean?

TS: One very destructive notion—Pound and Eliot were responsible for it, though they didn't mean to harm poetry—is that regular meter and individual rhythm are mutually exclusive and that to write rhythmically interesting verse you have to break or violate the meter. A more general fallacy, it seems to me, is that form is a straightjacket and that regularity is inevitably inhibiting. In fact, form can be enabling in the same way that any structure can be. We couldn't move as well or as variously as we do if we didn't have a skeleton, and the metric frame, to use Frost's term, gives you all sorts of different possibilities for organizing speech. Another common fallacy is that meter is somehow elitist. Anyone who's listened to pop songs, which are almost always heavily metered, knows this isn't true. But a number of poets and critics, including one of our recent poet laureates, still regularly repeat this notion.

KD: It has always struck me as odd that something as neutral as meter has been so often criticized in this way. Some practitioners of free verse, such as Eliot and Pound, certainly had elitist tendencies. And some metrical poets—Robert Burns leaps to mind—clearly did not.

TS: It's strange how the history of free verse is lost on so many vers-libristes, especially those in the United States. The pioneers of free verse saw themselves as Nietzschean όberpoets, revolting against petty bourgeois literary convention. And as you say, leading experimentalists like Pound and Eliot had views about politics and society that were pretty right-wing. Today, however, the ideas Pound and Eliot developed are often propounded by those who see free verse as egalitarian, on the dubious grounds that anybody can write it. I say "dubious" because there are all sorts of activities, including using firearms or driving recklessly, which pretty much anybody can engage in, but which are hardly egalitarian. If Pound and Eliot knew how their ideas are currently being employed, they'd probably be spinning in their graves. By the same token, many contemporary anti-metrists would likely be horrified if they knew where their arguments came from.

KD: Was there anything else that motivated you to write All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing? Surely your experience as a teacher of literature and poetry at Cal State Los Angeles must have played some role.

TS: As the late Henri Coulette once observed, meter seems to have become almost a lost language. And if you care about poetry and go into a college classroom and discover that no one knows what a sonnet or heroic couplet is, you start to wonder if you should try to do something about the situation. At least that's what eventually happened with me. There were some useful prosody books on the market—one being James McAuley's Versification: A Short Introduction. But even it seemed to suffer from the problem from which most of the standard digests or manuals suffer. In the interests of compression, the subject is presented in a clinically abrupt manner, with very few examples, and many interesting or important issues must be oversimplified or ignored. I didn't want to do this. I wanted to write a book that attempted to cover pretty much the full field. I hoped to write a book that would be thorough and fun to read, filled with lots of examples from good poets and shaped by the concerns of a practicing poet.

KD: I think readers will agree, Tim, that you've accomplished what you've set out to do.

TS: Thank you.

If you are interested in learning more about Timothy Steele and his work, click here to visit his web site.

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