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Oct/Nov 2006 Book Reviews

Unusually Well Crafted

Toward the Winter Solstice: New Poems
Timothy Steele
Swallow Press (2006)
ISBN 0804010919

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! After the names "Richard Wilbur" and "Dana Gioia" there is probably no name with more cachet among the New Formalists than "Timothy Steele." Whereas Wilbur is best known for his poetry and verse translations of classical French plays, Gioia and Steele are best known for their prose work about poetry.

Gioia's essay, "Can Poetry Matter?", and subsequent book, of the same title, placed him squarely in the national spotlight. For all of the exceptional poetry he has written, it would not be unfair to say that it was the essay that eventually brought him the offer of the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts: the position he presently holds.

While Timothy Steele's prose has not raised as big a ruckus as Gioia's, his Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1970) is considered by many to mark the beginning of the New Formalist movement. The thesis that free verse was meant to be a transitional phase on the way to an updated idea of form, and his critique of most free verse, now that the transitional phase should long have ended, as generally vapid, has endeared him to the New Formalist community and brought him many an angry letter or worse. His All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (1999) is probably still the most popular how-to manual for writing in traditional forms.

The praise, within the New Formalist community, for Timothy Steele's poetry, however, comes to more than team spirit. He has been ahead of the curve in a number of important ways on that front as well. In general, the New Formalists have opted for tightly bounded lyric forms of varying complexity. The subject matter of their poems can be disappointingly restricted. On the one hand, having broken from the poetical mainstream in one immediately obvious way, they seem loath to try other boundaries. On the other, even those who practice form as a more radical departure can only be aware that contemporary poetry is a resoundingly populist affair. Even minor challenges to that populism can result in the most extreme reactions.

Steele's forms have been more at large than most. He has not always been pleased simply to be a Formalist, and, as a result, his poems have often been edgier, grittier. Longer, more inclusive, trains of quatrains and couplets give ambivalent music to poor neighborhoods, derailed childhoods and divorce. In the bigger picture, such traits are essential in order for a New Formalism to live up to the first term of its name and there may be no one who has understood the fact so well as Timothy Steele.

The Timothy Steele who has written Toward the Winter Solstice has faced another challenge, as well. He is nearing sixty. His decades of success within academia and publishing have been appropriately gratifying. A happy marriage and a comfortable upper middle class existence even more so.

As a consequence, it is evident he has come to feel a greater comfort within our prevailing myths. The old edginess is seldom in evidence in this volume. In its place, at times, the reader will find the kinds of cliché the poet once easily (and rigorously) avoided. Personification is indulged in, at times, in a similarly uncritical fashion:

On cold, wet days, I didn't use the gym
But patronized the outdoor pool instead:
I worried that if no one came to swim
It might feel lonely and dispirited.

The bi-syllabic rhyme of "instead/dispirited" notwithstanding, such lines as these disappoint in a poet who we have come to value foremost because he avoided the facility which they display.

But Steele has yet another lesson to offer a reader. He is not simply an edgy poet any more than he is simply a New Formalist. (In fact, the "edginess" we refer to only tends to show up in a handful of poems in any given volume.) Instead, he is a complete poet. For every sign that he may have (as they say in sports) "lost a step" there is another that he has "gained a deeper understanding of the game" over the years.

All of the five senses, for example, are present in Winter Solstice, something rare even in many of our better poets. Sneakers squeak. Purses beep. When the poet eats a strawberry we enjoy the taste and feel of it with him:

I pick fresh strawberries and gently crush one
Against my palate with my tongue, and taste
The sunny warmth of sweet pulp and juice...

While hardly Keatsian, these touches make for a more fully fleshed out experience.

He generally has a happier command of his word horde than other poets. In the poem "For Victoria, Traveling in Europe" the poet scrapes up an ant, found in the house, on a three-by-five card to deposit it out of doors. The ant, he realizes, will lose its scent-trail and thus its way home. He can only wish it well:

          May it link,
By bump-identifying, with a chum
Who'll guide it to its formicarium.

The coinage "bump-identifying" is precisely descriptive as well as being a top-flight bit of word-play. Few do this kind of thing as well. To manage, in a single couplet, to counterpoise the informality of the encounter ("chum") with the exotic world of ant-ness ("formicarium") is a delightful accomplishment in any style of poetry.

In "The Sweet Peas" a neighbor slowly dying from a brain tumor imagines seeing the blossoms of the plants in the Steeles' garden even though they are out of season. The four 12-line stanzas that describe her delusion and his reflections just barely avoid a sentimentality that would not reflect positively on a poet. But they do avoid it, and, by extension, present a compassionate portrait of the small relationships in our lives. In the process, we come to a deceptively off-hand insight of the sort that poetry, at its best, is particularly suited to express:

          when she
Passed from this to that other mystery

Bold lines on the mystery of death are wisely foregone but the fact that life is equally mysterious—a less commonplace observation—suffuses the poem as the result of these few syllables neatly tucked away where they might pass almost unnoticed.

While the hazards of Winter Solstice are on a smaller scale than in previous volumes, they are not inconsequential. The poem "Ethel Taylor," three and one third pages of blank verse, bears more than a little resemblance to the (generally much longer) portrait poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson. In it Steele allows himself an image close enough to the edge that the reader may feel that he goes over it:

My volubility sometimes fatigued her;
And following one garrulous report,
She set her cup back coolly on its saucer
And said, "Aren't we a chatterbox today" —
Making a blush spring hotly to my cheeks
For having, in my vanity, imagined
That I'd been entertaining, when I'd merely
Been spraying words about, much in the way
That an untended hose, flopping and thrashing,
Jets water here and there at everyone
And everything in its vicinity.

A bit much? Strangely effective? The reader will have to decide. At the very least, the poet took a calculated risk. All-in-all, the poem is one of the better in the volume.

It must be said that Timothy Steele's good fortune, well deserved as it surely is, seems to have left no tatters in his mortal dress. He is clearly transitioning into a healthy and comfortable late middle age. He enjoys his work, does it well and has received a gratifying amount of professional recognition. He has a successful marriage and a modest, well-appointed home in a good neighborhood. He has come to terms with the world. As a result, Winter Solstice is all it might be expected to be: unusually well-crafted, all but free of angst, and sometimes surprisingly facile for a volume written by Timothy Steele.

 

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