Sapphics Against Anger

by Timothy Steele
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

Timothy Steele’s “Sapphics Against Anger” is composed of seven stanzas written in the sapphic form of four unrhymed lines. Sapphic verse is organized around a special strophe form. A poem in sapphic strophes always appears in four-line stanzas with a short fourth line. The title of this poem has to do with seven sapphic strophes written against, or in opposition to, feelings of anger. As the title poem of the collection, the piece reflects some of the themes of the whole book, especially in its apparently autobiographical first-person speaker, which in this instance is also true to the first-person voice of Sappho’s own poetry.

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The general theme of “Sapphics Against Anger” is the need to control anger, one of the strongest of human emotions. The poem serves as a caution and a reflection for the speaker, who exorcises his anger through the writing of this disciplined form. The tone of the poem becomes lighthearted as it progresses, and a secondary theme, of not taking oneself too seriously, is established. The first stanza sets up the conflict between perspective and impulse, which governs the entire poem. The speaker wishes when angered to be “near a glass of water” to douse the flames of his temper. He longs to remember the importance of silence as a means of controlling what might be an ill-considered reaction. The poem plays off the interrelations of the temper, temperament, and temptation.

Continuing in a meditative manner, the speaker attempts to learn a lesson from the philosophers and poets who have written previously about controlling the passions, especially anger. He first invokes Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, who believed that giving in to anger only made one respond with anger more readily. The speaker then places himself in a scene from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) in the Inferno section of the poem. He imagines himself being talked about by Vergil and Dante. Vergil, in stanza 4, says to Dante, that the speaker of “Sapphics Against Anger” is suffering now because he “at the slightest provocation,/ Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like/ A madman.” Vergil compares the destructive power of the speaker’s uncontrolled outburst with that of invaders, such as Attila the Hun, known as the Scourge of God, who invaded Europe in the fifth century, and Genghis Khan, the Mongol conquerer of the thirteenth century. The speaker realizes, while overhearing the two poets’ fictional conversation, how easily he can and will ruin his own marriage by persisting in being angry about everything.

The balance of stanza 5 leads to the poem’s conclusion in stanzas 6 and 7. First, the speaker wants to resist giving in to self-pity. Then he concludes that he should let the anger wash over him as easily as the soap runs off the dishes and down into the sink drain. Finally in stanza 7, the speaker decides that all emotions, including anger, might have places in a balanced and well-ordered life. He reconciles himself to the idea that strong feelings can be a motivator to live better as much as they can be destructive elements in personal relationships.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682

Steele’s facility with traditional poetic devices and forms enlivens his poetry on the themes of nature and human nature. In “Sapphics Against Anger,” he re-creates both the formal and the tonal qualities of grace and force associated with the Greek poet Sappho’s own verse of the seventh or sixth century b.c.e. Her “Homage to Aphrodite” is a hymn of invocation in which the poet describes Aphrodite’s qualities and her previous acts of goodness toward the speaker, and states the aim of the speaker—to ask a new favor based on their past relationship. Sappho’s first-person narrator in this poem probably refers to herself, and the development of her request is presented over three distinct periods of time. The structure of the poem encompasses past and present with an offer of a plan for the future. Likewise, Steele uses a first-person, apparently autobiographical speaker and moves the anger he experiences across three time periods, from the present to the past and then to future implications.

The sapphic stanza, characterized by three sapphic lines and a fourth called the adonic, was probably adapted by the Latin poet Catallus from his reading of Sappho’s odes. Through Horace, the sapphic form became popular with first Roman poets, then later European poets who studied Latin poetry for models of expression and for poetic forms. Steele’s sapphic stanzas follow the tradition of four unrhymed lines per strophe. The metrical structure of the three sapphic lines is two trochees (one long followed by one short syllable) and a dactyl (one long and two short syllables) completed by two more trochees. The adonic line features one dactyl and one trochee, which highlights the rhythm. Following Horace, there are substitutions in the first, second, and third lines among the stanzas to enhance the flow. While the meter is intricate, the use of it is subtle and unobtrusive. Steele’s facility with the form may be favorably compared with that of Robert Frost or Philip Larkin.

The poem presents a problem, which it sets about to solve. The hypothesis, revealed in the initial stanza, is that anger is a problem for human nature. This issue is more fully studied in stanzas 2-6. The conclusion, found in stanza 7, is optimistic, stressing how impulses can be controlled through reason. The syllogism runs thus: If anger controls people, then people only make trouble for themselves by giving in to it; therefore, self-control allows people to master what might ruin them and those whom they love.

In the repetition of the invocational phrase “May I,” located in stanzas 1-3 and stanza 5, Steele employs the rhetorical device known as anaphora. Steele advances his desires by degrees from wanting to stop being angry, to looking for proof that anger is wrong, to finally putting his feelings to “good purpose” by learning from his errors in judgment. When Vergil cites the examples of Attila and Genghis Khan in stanza 4, he uses an obsolete form of anaphora, known as asphaleia, in which examples are cited in support of an idea, not to make the claim or to confirm its validity.

The language of the poem, like its descriptive qualities, is clear and direct. Steele does not use extended metaphors, the symbolism is easily interpreted, and the use of allusions is not exceptionally complex. From textual clues, the reader knows that Attila and Genghis Khan were destructive forces, not to mention spoilers among the people they conquered. The allusion to The Divine Comedy is also general enough not to elude most readers.

Finally, Steele uses enjambment in both of its meanings. First, he completes ideas introduced in the first or second lines in the third or fourth lines of the stanza. Second, he blends the middle of the poem, stanzas 3-5, together, carrying over the narrative of literary and historical proofs of the destructive power of anger, from one stanza to the next. Stanzas 1, 2, 6, and 7 are complete as sentences and individual thoughts. The balancing between enjambment and end-stopped stanzas gives the speaker a certain decisiveness and creates a pace of hurry and rest.

Sapphics Against Anger

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1471

In Sapphics Against Anger: And Other Poems, Timothy Steele modifies, in a sense, the idea in the title of Robert Frost’s poem, “Neither Out Far nor in Deep,” to “out far but not in deep.” To Steele, the lengthening of our lives teaches us to reduce our expectations and, much like a well-trimmed boat, to sail upon rather than to plunge into the blinding and killing depths of existence. As he considers reduction in the various forms through which his experience has led him to perceive it, he reminds one that moderation is the requirement of a graceful survival and the tutor of hope.

Steele frames his book with settings that establish the range of his subjects. The first two poems in the book, “From a Rooftop” and “The Sheets,” focus on the world of man, with its crowding, its reach, and its common acts, and the last poem in the book, “Toward Calgary,” focuses on the world of nature, with its silence, its distance, and its common life.

The first two poems aim to show a balance between what we dream and what we are; through a union of the two, a proper reduction is effected, by which survival and grace become possible, In a similar vein, the last poem in the book shows that ultimate meaning is ineffable, a kind of nothingness; we may flourish in the climate of this truth, for it humbles us, inclining us to overdo neither our imagination nor our prudence.

Separation, like union, argues against excess. To regard the past from the perspective of the present is to understand the vanity of youth, Steele points out in “Snapshots for Posterity” and “Old Letters.” Youth is small in time and experience and, thus, is unable to see the foolishness of its dreams. Yet the small sometimes contains a useful largess. In “Small Lives,” Steele observes in insects the same kind of energy that impels human life and realizes that his fascination with this is an important element in his own life. In “Mockingbird,” moreover, he concludes that a small life form may seem large by reflecting the life embodied in the forms around it. Indeed, the artist, like the mockingbird, depends on more than himself to function usefully.

The small may also have a melancholy side. The boy in “Janet” cannot capture the meaning of the budding girl, his companion, and so loses her, as does David Copperfield the girl in “Life Portrait,” for he is young and his greed for the perfect female is boundless, and he does not see the value of the friendship once offered to him until he is older and it is too late.

As a lack of experience restricts perception and causes pain, so an accumulation of painful experience leads to reduced expectations, which in themselves reveal the virtue of a hopeful moderation. Marriage and parenthood have limited the young couple in “Near Olympic” too soon, perhaps, but the experience has matured them and given them the roots upon which survival depends for its future. There is no denying that the ambition of the powerful and the self-interest of their followers bring disillusionment and sorrow to the idealist, and there is no denying that misfortune and poverty constrain mankind, but it is also true that human creativity and compassion modify this sad and overwhelming state of affairs. Despite his blindness to the signs of the cruelty and murder in our own age implicit in his own, Martin Luther detects clues to the divine in his environment in “The Wartburg, 1521-22.” That corruption and death are the human lot does not mean, however, that a glimmer of fulfillment (“Shucking Corn”), a mite of hope (“On the Eve of a Birthday”), or the discovery of goodness are inaccessible to us in what Steele repeatedly refers to as the “darkness.”

These adjustments to failure are modest and fragile enough without our opposing them. Nevertheless, human nature is such that we restrict our generosity by restricting our perception to our own desires. Often unamazed by the mind’s absorption with itself, we are not as wise as Diotima in “The Lady of Bright Counsel,” who is amazed by it and who sees that it is good to share love rather than hoard it. Self-centeredness is how we refuse what little moral elegance we may achieve, and Steele satirizes various examples of this vice in “Short Subjects,” including the artist who seeks flattery for himself by flattering his peers, the literary critic who hedges his judgment to preserve his reputation, the man who is humble in order to attract attention and thus fuel his pride, and the Devil—a human archetype—who treats the poor as an immutable fact in order to avoid relieving their condition.

Though human nature is at war with itself, with its virtues for the most part hostage to its vices, Steele is as much aware of this as a mystery and a paradox as a misfortune. He catalogs opposing aspects of human nature. We are what we come to know, but we do not know ourselves, he suggests in “Last Tango.” In “In the King’s Rooms,” he presents the aged King David in conflict: His lost youth mocks him, for he was praised in it, but now his son in his own youth is bent on overthrowing him; his old age mocks him as well, for it has brought him a responsibility for his people which he can neither deny nor see the point of.

Steele is not content to describe such contrasts; their disruptive quality inclines him to a vision and ethic of balance. Punning on his name in “Timothy,” by using the grass growing from a somber ground as his metaphor, he sees that joy—his own as an artist, perhaps—is nourished by sorrow. The self in “Chanson Philosophique” shares the drama of being with the selves around it; that is, to regard one’s identity not simply in its uniqueness but in its parallels to other selves is to acquire balance, an appropriate posture.

Among those things valuable by virtue of their limits, beauty is important to Steele. “Jacaranda” locates beauty in the inconspicuous and delicate, and “An Aubade” in the everyday and fleeting. In the first poem, the tree occupies a “befitting altitude,” and in the second, the poet positions himself so as not to disturb the woman he is watching nor the pleasure he derives from doing so. Part of being moderate is this willingness not to impose oneself on one’s surroundings, for how else is the beauty in them to be detected and appreciated? Such is the lesson of “At Will Rogers Beach,” where the poet, as the night of death encroaches, is alert to the precarious examples of beauty in his setting. He notes the unself-conscious nature of this beauty, and that the dog leaping “to snatch a frisbee,” the pebbles performing “their . . . tumbling act,” and the roller skaters “Translating into speed their form and weight” are artists of a kind, bringing beauty to light.

True, there is a price to be paid for moderation—for not to impose is to see, and to see (as “The Chorus” makes clear) is to be saddened by the failure and tragedy to which immoderate pride is addicted. If the mother of wisdom is sorrow, however, spiritual health is its bride. In “But Home Is Here,” the poet chooses the satisfaction of having what he does (small and soon lost as it is) over the unhappiness of wishing for what he does not have. Similarly, rather than long for what can neither be named nor achieved, he is content in “Love Poem” with the real woman to whose “touch and voice” he can respond and who represents—through the limits of “form and nomenclature”—the possible.

Steele’s commitment to balance, to decisions constrained by experience and feelings informed by wisdom, is consistent with his prosody. He uses what H.D. Hope once called “the middle voice,” as well as meter and rhyme—the classic hallmarks of the well-made poem. Neither too much nor too little is the requirement of such usage, and Steele is skillful in meeting this requirement. Occasionally, epithets of the kind once endemic to metrical poetry are marooned in his own work. “Chasmed space,” “twiggy apex,” “adaptive bath,” “pensive figure,” “river-led perspectives,” “orangely pendulous,” “pyramided fruit,” “linened lengths,” “rebel locks,” “thatched resilience,” “leggy warmth,” “high-grassed heat,” and “bouldered arm”—all of these are blunders because they are archaic and artificial. Notwithstanding them, however, nor the one time his meter slips by assigning “a” and “and” a stressed syllable position each in the fifth stanza of “The Wartburg, 1521-22,” Steele’s poems are delightful in their rhythm and clarity and in their sensible and encouraging habit of mind.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 21, 1986, p. 2.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, August 22, 1986, p. 91.

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