The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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,...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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Sapphics Against Anger

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sources for Further Study

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

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