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TIMOTHY STEELE - JUNE 2000 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Timothy Steele
Cynthia Haven interviews Timothy Steele and discusses metrical poetry, New Formalism and Walt Whitman.

David Kennedy
David Kennedy reviews a new translation of the timeless classic, Beowulf, by Seamus Heaney.

Paul Hamill
Read his epic poem, "Meeting the Giant," about the mythical Cardiff Giant in Cooperstown, New York.

John Kinsella
The Magic Circle: The next chapter in John Kinsella's exclusive autobiographical series.

Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele is a poet and literary critic. His collections of verse include The Color Wheel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) and Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970 - 1986 (University of Arkansas Press, 1995). He has also published two books of literary criticism, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter
 (University of Arkansas Press, 1990) and All The Fun's in How You Say a Thing (Ohio University Press, 1999).
Timothy Steele Interview

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"I believe that our ability to organize thought and speech into measure is one of the most precious endowments of the human race." With those provocative words, poet Timothy Steele ignited a firestorm in the world of American letters with his Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990). Steele was just beginning: last year saw the publication of All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing, a prosody handbook many consider the most authoritative, and certainly the most thorough, in a recent spate of poetry guides. He is also the author of several collections of poetry: Uncertainties and Rest (1979), Sapphics Against Anger and Other Poems (1986), and The Color Wheel (1994).

"No younger poet now writing in America uses the traditional resources of poetry more skillfully than Timothy Steele," according to the Threepenny Review. "Whatever he has yet to do, Steele has already left his mark," said poet X.J. Kennedy. Steele has a bachelor's degree from Stanford, where he was a Stegner Fellow, and a Ph.D. from Brandeis University. Steele's honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Peter I.B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Los Angeles PEN Center's Literary Award for Poetry, and a Commonwealth Club of California Medal for Poetry. He lives in Los Angeles.

CH: Many people have objected to your defense of metrical poetry in the last decade, and you have yourself been exposed to some derision for writing in meter and rhyme.

TS: It is disheartening to be characterized as a metrical martinet, simply because I am curious about an art of rhythmical organization that virtually every good poet for the last 3,000 years has practiced. Sometimes I feel I am visiting Dante's Hell, where the damned are always accusing others of their own besetting sin. People prejudiced against and closed-minded about meter often accuse those interested in meter of being—what else?—prejudiced and closed-minded.

CH: So you don't feel you are unsympathetic to the distinctly non-metrical poetry of the twentieth century?

TS: I have no quarrel at all with a pluralism of poetic styles. It's just that metrical tradition is the trunk of the great tree of poetry. The variant forms, such as free verse and syllabics, have their beauties, but they're branches. We aren't going to have a branch—any branch—if we cut down the trunk. In writing Missing Measures and All the Fun, I wanted to persuade people to turn off the chain saw. Don't cut down the tree.

CH: At present, the tree seems to be flourishing: the last decade or so has witnessed an explosion of interest in poetry, measured in numbers of poetry journals, poetry readings, books sold, and so forth. Do you think this boom is likely to continue?

TS: I have no answer to that—no crystal ball. If the audience is larger—great. But it's not crucial to the art. John Keats sold few books in his lifetime. Even fewer sold in the decades immediately afterwards. When, in 1918, Oxford University Press published Hopkins's poems, I believe it took them ten years to sell the 750 copies of the first edition. A just appreciation of Yeats and Robinson came very slowly and by degrees, and Dickinson's high and well-merited reputation came only posthumously. Even Frost struggled for nearly 20 years before finding an audience. But if the work is good, its quality will tell in the long run.

CH: Do you have any sort of overview or general observations about the status of poets and poetry today?

TS: It is, I think, a difficult time for poetry. It's hard for poets to feel that poetry is an art—a pursuit that has certain compositional principles that transcend the particular concerns and inclinations of this or that practitioner of it. In All the Fun, I quote Paul Valery's comment that our age has had as many prosodies as it has had poets. Initially, the anything-goes environment produced some welcome freshness and vitality, but over time we've sort of broken down into collective incoherence.

CH: Many have decried the lack of serious and courageous poetry criticism today. We have so many highly-praised poets—is this due to the abundant encomiums that are offered so liberally to nearly everyone?

TS: This has partly to do with the literary world's being so fragmented. There are so many coteries vying for attention, that it's natural, if not exactly healthy for poetry, that criticism should take the form of, for example, local advocacy.

CH: Speaking of local advocacy, Donald Hall has said that poets today often seem to be defining themselves primarily by their region—East Coast poets, West Coast or Midwest poets, Upper East Side poets, Lower East Side poets. One feels California so much in your poems—for example, "Pacific Rim," "December in Los Angeles," "California Sea Lion," "Near Olympic." Do you identify yourself as a California poet?

TS: I do consider myself a California writer now, although I grew up in Vermont, and my mother and stepfather still live there. At the same time, however, I feel an aesthetic affinity with friends and colleagues all over the place. And though I want my verse to accurately reflect its region, I'd be disappointed if my poems combusted whenever they sailed out across the state line.

CH: At the time you were completing All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing, were you aware of how many prosody handbooks were about to hit the market? The last few years have seen Robert Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry, Alfred Corn's The Poem's Heartbeat, Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance, and Derek Attridge's Poetic Rhythm, among others.

TS: No, not at all. It was unanticipated. But I'm delighted. It shows that the issue of meter has been raised again and that people want to learn about it.

CH: For many years, you have been teaching at California State University, Los Angeles. How would you describe the students?

TS: They're very bright. Many are older students coming back after a hiatus, some for professional reasons, others for self-development or self-fulfillment.

CH: Do they read much poetry?

TS: Sadly, no. As a colleague recently commented, they tend to be frightened of it. Many think that it's something obscure and difficult. But if you show them good poems and explain how they work, they get excited. They do want to be liberated from the contemporary. They sense it's a trap to be only involved in the MTV world.

CH: And most of your classes focus on...?

TS: The class I teach most often is "The Ancient and Medieval Tradition," but I teach poetry writing, too. When I teach it, I let students know all the alternatives out there, but I also teach meter.

CH: How do the students respond to it?

TS: Very well. They seem to appreciate that without form of some kind, poetry may become just an exercise in self-expression. Also, they seem to see that form gives you a way not only of expressing things, but also of understanding them. The medium makes you look at phrasing and thought from different angles and almost inevitably leads you to think about elements of this or that experience or subject in ways you would not have otherwise.

CH: Do you have them memorize poems? That's a practice that seems to be undergoing a certain amount of revival.

TS: Yes, I do ask them to memorize. And when they start memorizing, [laughs] many become converts to meter. One of the chief advantages of metrical composition is that it does make a significant difference to the ear and memory.

CH: That should be familiar to them from the music they listen to.

TS: Yes. Sometimes they get excited when they recognize that the lyrics of the pop songs they hear are written in common metrical forms. One time I shared some of Robert Frost's poems with a class—it was a general education class called "Understanding Literature"—and a student came up at the end of the hour and told me excitedly about this rap song he liked and how he now realized it was in iambic tetrameter.

CH: Do you take any interest in the metrical associations of rap?

TS: I have no special insight into rap, though it interests me in that it, like other forms of popular music, is often highly and regularly metrical. It always puzzled me, incidentally, that folks like Allen Ginsberg were so enthusiastic about Bob Dylan and the Beatles, while being at the same time so hostile to traditional poetic forms, which were, are, and probably always will be the staple of song composers and musicians.

CH: Robert Pinsky doesn't have scansions in his Sounds of Poetry. He states, "technical language...little accent marks and special typographical symbols—all these, I work to avoid." You, on the other hand, do scan lines—hundreds of them— in discussing their technical structure. Why?

TS: Pinsky also says somewhere that one learns about poetry best from careful attention to great poems...

CH: Yes. He says, "If one is asked for a good book about traditional metrics, a good answer is: The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats or The Complete Poems of Ben Jonson. Two excellent books about so-called free verse are the two-volume Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams and The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. No instruction manual can teach as much as careful attention to the sounds in even one great poem."

TS: And I agree, but I do think technical discussion, presented in an appealing and user-friendly way, can be helpful, especially for those unfamiliar with the subject and especially in times like ours when there's considerable confusion about metrical structure.

CH: Everyone seems to hate the term "New Formalists." Where did it come from?

TS: That term was coined in '86 or '87 by someone alarmed that younger poets were again showing an interest in their traditional tools of the art, but form is a slippery term with many meanings, and if I'm forced to wear a label of that kind, I prefer to be called a metrical poet.

CH: Is it just the vagueness of the term that bothers you and others in the so-called movement?

TS: It's more than that. All poets care about what they write, and it's disconcerting to have people focus on the form at the expense of the content. Meter is a means to an end. One uses it simply to render one's subject as memorably and sensitively as possible. Also, I wrote metrical poems for fifteen years before New Formalism, and I didn't feel that I was doing anything technically new. Meter's always been around for anyone wishing to explore it. The only true New Formalist in English is Geoffrey Chaucer.

CH: When you were starting out as a poet, did you meet any resistance to publishing your own metrical poetry?

TS: In the 1970's, people did comment that it was unusual for a young poet to write in meters and stanzas. When my first publisher, Louisiana State University Press, was considering the manuscript of Uncertainties and Rest, one of the outside referees who reported on the book wrote to express his doubts: "Does the press want on its list at this time a collection that is characteristically witty, formal, and sophisticated?" [He laughs.] I responded to the press—"would they rather publish poetry that is dull, haphazard, and primitive?" The editor, Beverly Jarrett, thought this was funny, and they went ahead and published the collection.

CH: And yet there's really nothing new under the sun. Many consider Richard Wilbur to be America's greatest poet, and he's been writing metrical verse all his life.

TS: Yes. I worry that this talk about New Formalism sometimes causes younger poets and critics to forget about those more senior poets who kept faith with the traditional art when American verse got swamped by vers libre. As far as contemporary metrics are concerned, the real heroes are people like Richard Wilbur, Edgar Bowers, X.J. Kennedy, Anthony Hecht, and Helen Pinkerton. Bowers recently died, but the others are still doing outstanding work. Wilbur has just published a new collection chock full of beautiful poems. They deserve the credit for keeping meter alive.

CH: Did the New Formalists introduce any innovations of their own?

TS: In terms of technique, I don't think so. Nor was this necessary or even desirable. As I suggest in Missing Measures, if you address the subject matter of your own time and bring a fresh eye to it—that's where you find novelty in poetry. Looking to imitate science—which often progresses as a result of instrumental innovation—the great modernists tried to look for novelty in the apparatus of poetry itself. I hope that current poets don't get lured back down that particular blind alley.

CH: Do you think that New Formalism has made a permanent change in the direction of contemporary poetry?

TS: It has probably enlarged the stylistic range of contemporary verse. There are more, different kinds of poems being written today than there were twenty or thirty years ago, and poets today are again talking and thinking more about matters related to versification.

CH: Of course, All the Fun builds on the controversy of your previous book, Missing Measures. Looking back a decade, what was the reception to Missing Measures like?

TS: Though the response to it was very mixed, it received lots of attention. The press sent me upwards of 50 reviews. That book touched a nerve.

CH: What was the worst attack the book received?

TS: The attacks were not really that bad. Basically, they thought I was trying to turn back the clock, but I did get a threatening anonymous phone call. Someone phoned and said, "Is this Timothy Steele?" I said it was. He said, "American poetry comes from Walt Whitman, you S.O.B.—and you better wise up!" Then he hung up. I remember thinking afterwards that maybe this is why the mob rubbed out Jimmy Hoffa: they were afraid he was leading the Teamsters away from the Poe-Whitman view of American lit.

CH: Why the hostility?

TS: Missing Measures was the first book that examined in detail why so many modern poets abandoned meter. The book seems to have reminded people that the original free-versers hoped their revolution would lead to a new metrical system. They did not want their efforts to result in poetry's degenerating into lineated prose, which is sort of what's happened.

CH: Why do you think modernism didn't create new metrical systems?

TS: To create a new metric, you really need to create a new language with new grammar and syntax or new inflectional and accentual properties. There was—and still is—a murky impression among many poets that earlier writers sat down and invented their prosody out of thin air, but the reality is that language itself determines its meters. The iambic meters emerged in English because they accommodate a singularly wide range of native speech rhythm, not because a cabal of poets woke up one morning seven or eight centuries ago and decided they wanted to write that way.

CH: You have written in "The Forms of Poetry," in the Brandeis Review, that "the opposition to meter is formidable, especially in the creative writing programs and organizational poetry networks around the country. But perhaps the biggest obstacle to a renaissance of metrical art is that, after the upheavals of recent times, few poets and readers understand what meter is or how it works." Was that part of your motive in going on to write All the Fun?

TS: Yes. After Missing Measures, several people wrote to me or spoke to me saying that I'd explained why poets had drifted away from meter, but that the real problem today was that people no longer understood how meter worked, and it did seem that there was really a need to explain versification.

CH: Were there other reasons you wanted to write the book?

TS: Well, I also hoped to show how much fun writing in meter is and to suggest advantages of metrical composition. So often in the twentieth century, traditional meter has been portrayed as kind of a straight jacket, or it has been discussed only in terms of the restrictions it puts on language. There are difficulties to learning metrical craft, but there are also many joys in practicing measured composition. I want to accentuate these joys and to encourage readers and writers, younger ones especially, to explore the metrical tradition.

CH: How much have your prose books impinged on your own poetry?

TS: The impingement's been severe. I don't have the time to write both verse and prose. However, with the publication of All the Fun, I can get back to verse, and I have lots of ideas for poems.

CH: Kevin Walzer wrote in the Tennessee Quarterly: "It is a measure of Steele's impact that...the value, relevance and necessity of traditional prosodies for contemporary poetry seems indisputable. Would critics be scrambling to connect free verse to traditional form without his example?"

TS: I had no idea if I'd have any effect at all. As I mentioned when we began talking, I only wanted to get them to turn off the chain saw. We can have a vibrant tradition in both directions—metrical and free, but, again, the branches will be stronger if the trunk is strong. We aren't going to have the branch—any branch—if we cut down the trunk.

CH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

TS: Thank you.


Cynthia L. Haven, a literary critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, has written about poets and poetry for newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S., including the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Stanford Magazine, and The San Jose Mercury.  She has written two books on education, and has published essays, poetry and translations.

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2002 The Cortland Review