Timothy Steele is the most formal of the major poets associated with New Formalism. While rhyme and meter are common to these poets, Steele works in more ornate stanzaic patterns than most of his contemporaries. Many New Formalists prefer the term expansive poetry, because a return to storytelling is emphasized as much as a return to traditional forms. Steele, however, seems strictly a lyric poet, more likely to write an epigram than an epic.
Uncertainties and Rest
The wonder of Steele’s first collection, Uncertainties and Rest, is not how little attention it received at its time of publication despite its quality but the fact that it was published at all. It was the first book of formal verse to be published by a national press for anyone of Steele’s generation. By the time other New Formalists were publishing their first books in the mid-1980’s, Steele was publishing his second.
The tone of Uncertainties and Rest, its title a subtle reference to meter, can be uneven at times, but what comes through clearly is a formally trained voice dealing with matters of the moment. The Kansas in “Over the Rainbow” is not the Kansas of Judy Garland: “At the weigh stations,/ The trucks rev up. All roads and cultures end/ In time and space, and all destinations/ In mere convenience.” Then there is the country bar in the Everglades where “At ten of eight, two whores in fine array/ Arrive, and the farmhands start closing in,” from “Two for the Road.” However, such gritty, slightly tawdry realism does not dominate the volume, and it all but disappears from Steele’s subsequent poetry. There are several poems of family and youth here, and from the beginning, Steele has displayed a finely tuned eye for the natural world.
There are also some strong love lyrics here, probably representing some of the later work in the collection, an example of which is “Last Night as You Slept”:
The clock’s dial a luminous two-ten,Its faint glow on pillow and sheet,I woke—and the good fatigue and heatWe’d shared were gone.
Steele also includes epigrams, one of which has been widely anthologized: “Here lies Sir Tact, a diplomatic fellow/ Whose silence was not golden, but just yellow.”
Sapphics Against Anger, and Other Poems
The choice of the title poem for Sapphics Against Anger, and Other Poems was appropriate for Steele in at least two ways. For one, the mention of a classical form, of which W. H. Auden was a master, announces that this is a book of formal concerns. Second, it speaks for the spirit of the poems, wherein the voice is restrained and often praiseful; indeed, the title poem ends,
For what is, after all, the good life save thatConducted thoughtfully, and what is passionIf not the holiest of powers, sustainingOnly if mastered.
Such might be taken as a good synopsis of Steele’s aesthetic. In “The Sheets,” the speaker ponders the clean laundry on the line, which leads to biographer Giorgio Vasari’s tale of Leonardo da Vinci’s buying caged birds and setting them free and on to a childhood memory. “Near Olympic” describes an ethnically mixed neighborhood in West Los Angeles in great detail through the use of rhymed couplets. Despite the use of a form most prominent in the eighteenth century, there is nothing artificial in Steele’s use of the measure, nor is the poem in any way condescending to its subject matter. The poem is composed in such a loving fashion as to say these nameless people matter.
“Timothy” calls attention to the fact that the poet shares a name with the hay he’s mowing: “And I took pleasure in the thought/ The fresh hay’s name was mine as well.” This close identification reaches a moment of epiphany at the...
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