Timothy Steele

b. 1948
Timothy Steele
Timothy Steele was born in 1948 in Burlington, Vermont, and holds degrees from Stanford University and Brandeis University, where he studied with the poet J.V. Cunningham. The influence of formal masters like Cunningham and Yvor Winters, a force at Stanford for much of the early 20th century, is apparent in Steele’s poetry, which is notable for its allegiance to traditional forms, meters, and rhyme schemes. Though Steele has often been grouped as one of the major practitioners of New Formalism, he is wary of the term, alleging it “suggests, among other things, an interest in style rather than substance, whereas I believe that the two are mutually vital in any successful poem. I employ the traditional instruments of verse simply because I love the symmetries and surprises that they produce and because meter especially allows me to render feelings and ideas more flexibly and precisely than I otherwise could.” Although Steele composes in a formal, even classical, style, he tends to write private poems about the personal and the everyday, nearly always in contemporary settings. Dana Gioia, in the Ontario Review, noted: “Steele believes he can command the reader's attention by writing well about ordinary things …He writes about the beauties of the everyday world, the abiding love in marriage, the forgiveness and self-knowledge that can come from anger.” Steele’s collections of poetry include Uncertainties and Rest (1979), The Prudent Heart (1983), The Color Wheel (1994), Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970–1986 (1995), and Toward the Winter Solstice (2006). He is also the editor of The Music of His History (1990), a collection of poems for the poet Charles Gullans, and The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997).
 
Steele’s critical work has also argued for the return to traditional forms to revitalize poetry in the modern world, sometimes polemically. His first book of criticism, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990) was hotly debated. A 343-page treatise discussing the history of poetry from the Greeks to the present, the book examines why the moderns—Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams—revolted against and abandoned traditional verse in favor of free verse. Criticized and lauded in equal measure, the volume sparked a renewed debate about the function and purpose of the traditional elements of craft—rhyme and meter—in contemporary poetry. Steele has also written All the Fun’s In How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Rhyme and Versification (1999), a practical guidebook to the forms and meters of English poetry. Though it has been tinged with controversy, Steele has been at pains to clarify his position to free verse and “experimental” poetry, maintaining that his preference for form and meter is “personal and aesthetic, however; I have never imagined that it provided me with access to cultural or spiritual virtue. And despite allegations to the contrary about Missing Measures, I have never said that vers libre is somehow wrong and immoral or that meter is somehow right and pure. The experimental school of Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, and Williams has its own beauties and achievements. But we can prize them justly and build on them, it seems to me, only if we retain a knowledge and appreciation of the time-tested principles of standard versification. Free verse cannot be free, unless there is something for it to be free of.”
 
Timothy Steele has received numerous awards and honors for his poetry, including a Lavan Younger Poets Award, the Los Angeles PEN Center Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Robert Fitzgerald Award for Excellence in the Study of Prosody. He has taught at Stanford University and the University of California in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Since 1987, he has been a professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles.
 

Career

California State University, Hayward, lecturer, 1973-74; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, Jones Lecturer in Poetry, 1975-77; University of California, Los Angeles, lecturer in English, 1977-83; University of California, Santa Barbara, lecturer, 1986; California State University, Los Angeles, professor, 1987—.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • Uncertainties and Rest, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge), 1979.
  • The Prudent Heart, Symposium Press (Los Angeles), 1983.
  • Nine Poems, Robert L. Barth (Florence, KY), 1984.
  • On Harmony, Abattoir Editions (Lincoln, NE), 1984.
  • Short Subjects, Robert L. Barth, 1985.
  • Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
  • Beatitudes, Words (Child Okeford, England), 1988.
  • The Color Wheel, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1994.
  • Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems, 1970-1986, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville), 1995.
  • Toward the Winter Solstice, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 2006.

CRITICISM
  • Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1990.
  • All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1999.

AS EDITOR

  • The Music of His History: Poems for Charles Gullans on His Sixtieth Birthday,Robert L. Barth, 1990.
  • The Poems of J. V. Cunningham, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1997.
 
Contributor of poems, reviews, and essays to Poetry, Threepenny Review, Paris Review, and other publications.
 

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism,Volume 45, Gale (Detroit), 1987.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II,Gale, 1992.
  • Gullans, Charles B., A Diatribe to Dr. Steele, Symposium Press (Los Angeles), 1982.
PERIODICALS
  • American Poetry Review,March-April, 1982, pp. 13-17.
  • American Scholar,summer, 1991, pp. 457-58, 460-63.
  • Brandeis Review,summer, 1992, pp. 28-33.
  • Choice, November, 1990; November, 1999, R. B. Shuman, review of All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing,pp. 530-31.
  • Chowder Review,spring-summer, 1980, pp. 60-62.
  • Christian Science Monitor,May 2, 1990, p. 12.
  • Crosscurrents,no. 8, 1989.
  • Library Journal,April 1, 1990; March 15, 1999, p. 80.
  • Los Angeles Times,November 3, 1985, p. B2; June 10, 1991, p. B1; January 19, 1995, p. E1.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review,September 21, 1986, p. 2.
  • Modern Language Review,April, 1993, pp. 440-42.
  • New Criterion, April, 1999, Robert Richman, review of All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing,p. 70.
  • New York Times Book Review,January 18, 1987, p. 13.
  • Ontario Review,fall-winter, 1983-84, pp. 101-103.
  • Partisan Review,March-April, 1982, pp. 13-17.
  • Poetry, March, 1987, pp. 342-44; May 1995, Robert B. Shaw, review of The Color Wheel, pp. 112-15; May, 1998, Robert B. Shaw, review of The Poetry of J. V. Cunningham, p. 98; August, 1999, Christian Wiman, review of All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing, pp. 286-89; September, 2000, Robert B. Shaw, review of All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing,pp. 343-49.
  • Publishers Weekly, August 22, 1986, p. 91; November 28, 1994, review of The Color Wheel,p. 55.
  • Robert Frost Review,fall, 1995, Donald G. Sheeley, "The Frostian Classicism of Timothy Steele," pp. 73-97.
  • Southern Review,summer, 1981, pp. 634-41; spring, 1995, pp. 385-86.
  • Tennessee Quarterly,winter, 1996, Kevin Walzer, "The Poetry of Timothy Steele," pp. 15-30.
  • Threepenny Review,winter, 1988, p. 32.
  • Times Literary Supplement,February 19, 1988, p. 180; February 1, 1991.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1987, p. 138.

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LIFE SPAN 1948–

Timothy Steele

Biography

Timothy Steele was born in 1948 in Burlington, Vermont, and holds degrees from Stanford University and Brandeis University, where he studied with the poet J.V. Cunningham. The influence of formal masters like Cunningham and Yvor Winters, a force at Stanford for much of the early 20th century, is apparent in Steele’s poetry, which is notable for its allegiance to traditional forms, meters, and rhyme schemes. Though Steele has . . .

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