Timothy Reid Steele was born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1948 to Edward William Steele, a teacher, and Ruth Reid Steele, a nurse. His New England upbringing is readily apparent in many of his poems, despite the fact that he has spent most of his writing life far removed from the Northeast, though Southern California, where Steele lived for several years, also plays a prominent role in his writing.
Steele left Vermont to study at Stanford University, earning his B.A. in 1970. It was at Stanford that Steele came under the influence of Yvor Winters, who reinforced his formalist inclinations. Returning to New England for graduate work at Brandeis University, Steele worked with another important Formalist scholar, J. V. Cunningham. Cunningham’s concision and love for the epigram show a real influence on Steele’s development, though Steele’s dissertation at Brandeis was on the history and conventions of detective fiction. He was awarded his M.A. (1972) and Ph.D. (1977) from Brandeis. He offered to take over Counter/Measures, a magazine published by X. J. Kennedy and Dorothy Kennedy, which was one of the few periodicals in the country publishing formal verse at the time and was going out of business. Kennedy urged Steele to instead concentrate on his own work.
While working on his dissertation, Steele crossed the country yet again, returning to Stanford as Jones Lecturer in Poetry from 1975 to 1977. Upon completion of his Ph.D., he assumed a lectureship in English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) until 1983; in 1979, he married Victoria Lee Erpelding, a librarian of rare books at UCLA, and published his first full-length collection, Uncertainties and Rest from Louisiana State University Press, which was a strong debut but attracted little attention. In 1986, Steele took a one-year position as lecturer in English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and published his second major collection, Sapphics Against Anger, and Other Poems; this collection received much more attention than the first, partly because it was from a major publisher, Random House. In 1987, he became professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles, eventually becoming one of the school’s most distinguished and honored professors.
In 1990, Steele published one of the major critical works of the late twentieth century, Missing Measures. Steele examines the critical and historical assumptions of modernism and finds them flawed; classic, medieval, and Renaissance texts were mistakenly conflated, leading to major misunderstandings in scholarship. One particular strand he traces shows how the words “poetry” and “verse” came to be construed as meaning different things; he also traces the dangers inherent in modernism’s fascination with poetry as music. Overall, Steele makes a sustained argument that modernism is a failed revolution that has resulted not in new forms but in the formlessness and inwardness plaguing much poetry today, particularly academic poetry. Steele’s wide reading and facility in several languages reveal a first-rate critical mind at work.
In 1994, Steele published his next full-length collection, The Color Wheel, from The Johns Hopkins University Press; the following year, University of Arkansas Press brought out Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems, 1970-1986, a compilation of Steele’s first two major books. In 1997, Steele edited The Poems of J. V. Cunningham, an impressive work of scholarship whose notes and comments threaten to dwarf the rather slender body of poetry. In 1999, Steele published a book of prosody, All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing, the title of which was taken from a poem of Robert Frost.