(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sapphics and Uncertainties is a single-volume reissue of Timothy Steele’s Uncertainties and Rest (1979) and his Sapphics Against Anger, and Other Poems (1986). Steele’s reputation as a poet rests on his facility with formal elements of lyric verse writing such as meter, rhyme, and styles; his clear and powerful poetic diction; and his expertise as a literary critic. In addition to ten books of poetry, Steele has published two books on prosody, a critical edition of the poetry of J. V. Cunningham, and numerous reviews and essays on individual poets and of poetry. Steele’s doctoral thesis, completed at Brandeis University in 1977, was directed by J. V. Cunningham, who took an interest in Steele’s poetry as well. In 1979, Steele published Uncertainties and Rest. In 2006, Steele published his tenth book of poetry, Toward the Winter Solstice, which continues the exploration of Christian thought found in his earlier books.

In Sapphics and Uncertainties, four poems deal directly with religious topics. “The Wartburg, 1521-22” describes Martin Luther’s exile from his teaching position, and “In the King’s Rooms” is spoken by the persona of King David, the great Israeli leader of the Old Testament. “Of Faith,” the middle section of “Three Notes Toward Definitions,” explores manifestations of faith in daily life. “Devotional Sonnet” is an expression of the merits of individual piety.

Other poems in the collection (“Angel”) show nostalgia for Christmas as an important setting from childhood. “The Messenger” may be interpreted as the Holy Spirit in a piece on inspiration in springtime; and the enigmatic “One Morning,” about a beginning and an end, is open to a resurrection-theme reading. “With a Copy of Ronald Firbank” is a tribute to a Catholic satirical novelist. Here the speaker assesses Firbank’s career as a minor novelist obsessed with the rituals of the Catholic Church and who, like Martin Luther, was not afraid to criticize the clergy for veniality.

Matthew chapter 5, which contains the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, has particular resonance in Steele’s poetry. “Nightpiece” and “Epigram 5: Matthew 5:15” both rely on parts of this scriptural text. In his 1994 poetry collection, The Color Wheel, Steele crafts “Beatitudes While Setting Out the Trash” around the verse “Blessed are the meek” and “Decisions, Decisions” in which the speaker says, “In God alone, intention/ And execution are simultaneous./ In God alone can choice be sure it is choice.” These poems reveal a certitude resulting from the explorations of faith in Sapphics and Uncertainties.

“The Wartburg, 1521-22” describes the exile of Martin Luther, an Augustinian priest, who taught explication of the Bible at Wittenberg University from 1512 to 1546....

(The entire section is 1189 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Jarman, Mark. “Poetry and Religion.” In Poetry After Modernism, edited by Robert McDowell. Rev. ed. Brownsville, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1998. An essay assessing the contemporary poetry community’s interest in writing on religious themes with examples of modern poets whose work addresses matters of faith.

Steele, Timothy. Interview by Cynthia Haven. The Cortland Review (June, 2000). An interview in which Steele discusses his writing style and his interests as a poet-critic.

Steele, Timothy, ed. The Poems of J. V. Cunningham. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1997. Contains Steele’s critical appraisal of Cunningham’s verse and annotated poetry texts. Close reading of Cunningham and Steele shows similarities between Steele’s “Epigram 5” and Cunningham’s “1 Corinthians 13,” as both are epigrams, and between Cunningham’s “With a Copy of Swift’s Works” and Steele’s “With a Copy of Ronald Firbank.”

Walzer, Kevin. The Ghost of Tradition. Expansive Poetry and Modernism. Ashland, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1998. Chapter 5 includes an analysis of Steele’s formalism and reworks part of Walzer’s article “The Poetry of Timothy Steele” previously published in the Tennessee Quarterly.