Timothy Steele

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Timothy Steele
Born (1948-01-22) January 22, 1948 (age 74)
Burlington, Vermont, U.S.
Education Stanford University
Brandeis University
SpouseVictoria Lee Steele

Timothy Steele (born January 22, 1948) is an American poet, who generally writes in meter and rhyme. His early poems, which began appearing in the 1970s in such magazines as Poetry, The Southern Review, and X. J. Kennedy's Counter/Measures, are said to have anticipated and contributed to the revival of traditional verse associated with the New Formalism. [1] He, however, has objected to being called a New Formalist, saying that he doesn't claim to be doing anything technically novel and that Formalism "suggests, among other things, an interest in style rather than substance, whereas I believe that the two are mutually vital in any successful poem." [2] Notwithstanding his reservations about the term, Steele's poetry is more strictly "formal" than the work of most New Formalists in that he rarely uses inexact rhymes or metrical substitutions, and is sparing in his use of enjambment. [3]


In addition to four collections of poems, Steele is the author of two books on prosody: Missing Measures, a study of the literary and historical background of modern free verse; and All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing, an introduction to English versification. Steele was an original faculty member of the West Chester University Poetry Conference, and received its Robert Fitzgerald Prosody Award in 2004.


Born in Burlington, Vermont in 1948, Steele attended the city's public schools. At an early age, he became interested in poetry, including that of Robert Frost, who was appointed the state's Poet Laureate in 1961, and William Shakespeare, several of whose plays were staged each summer at a Shakespeare festival at the University of Vermont in Burlington. [4]

Steele received his baccalaureate degree in English (1970) from Stanford University and a master's (1972) and doctorate (1977) in English and American Literature from Brandeis University, where he studied with the well-known poet and Renaissance scholar J. V. Cunningham, a collected edition of whose poems Steele would later edit. [5]


From 1975 to 1977 Steele served as a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford. Subsequently, he held lectureships at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. He is an emeritus professor in the English Department at California State University, Los Angeles, where he taught from 1987 until 2012. [6]


Steele's poems fuse traditional verse forms with contemporary subjects and, in Kennedy's words, "express appreciation both for the life of the mind and for the sensuous world." [7] Writing in Library Journal, Rob Fure characterized Steele's first collection, Uncertainties and Rest (1979), as "a lovely book ... the formality of Steele's poetry is so delicate that it never intimidates." [8] Of his second book, Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems (1986), Kathryn Hellerstein wrote in Partisan Review, "Steele's formal range is impressive. Each poem works in a different stanza ... Their subjects, evoked in exquisite imagery, are entryways to noumena, the pure abstractions of the mind." [9] Speaking in The Sewanee Review of The Color Wheel (1994), R. S. Gwynn said, "Timothy Steele's poetry exemplifies the order that he praises, but ultimately it is both the charity and the clarity of his vision that are most remarkable." [10] And Booklist's Ray Olson, reviewing Toward the Winter Solstice (2006), described Steele as "so technically adroit that he could write about anything and produce a poem repeatedly rewarding for music and shapeliness alone." [11]

Critics have pointed to Yvor Winters and Cunningham as having influenced Steele's work and have noted his particular affinity with Frost. As Donald G. Sheehy says in his essay "Measure for Measure: The Frostian Classicism of Timothy Steele": "Steele recalls Frost in his subtle mastery of form, in his philosophical and aesthetic moderation, in his sympathetic but unsentimental attention to the natural world and to the vicissitudes of love and marriage, and in the gently incisive wit with which he meets human foible, public and private." [12]

In an interview in 1991 with the Los Angeles Times , Steele explained his goals in using traditional poetic structure: "Well-used meter and rhyme can create a sense of liveliness and a symmetry and surprise that can produce delight and pleasure for the reader ... I want to say something important. And I would hope the reader would be interested in it. But I also hope to give the reader pleasure." [13]

Works about versification

Steele's two books on versification have attracted considerable attention. Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter examines the ideas and conditions that led many poets, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, to challenge poetry's traditional principles of rhythmical organization and to develop new forms of verse without the regular units of measure that had characterized earlier verse. Among other topics, the book explores the legacy of Aristotle's dual view of poetry as, on the one hand, a rhetorical art of metrical speech and, on the other hand, a mimetic art that does not necessarily involve meter. The book also examines the shift in Romantic aesthetics from the belief that artists objectively represent the world outside them to the belief that they subjectively express their inner feelings. Another subject of discussion is the increasing prominence in imaginative literature, in the eighteenth century and afterwards, of prose forms like the novel. Yet another topic is the sense among modern poets and artists that the physical sciences have moved into the central position in culture and that the arts should, to keep up with science, adopt its methods and become "experimental." And the book documents the way a number of leading modern poets came to feel that meter itself was inextricably bound up with the dated idioms of Victorian verse and that to break with or reform Victorian style it was also necessary to break with or reform meter. More specifically, the book observes how free verse—originally regarded by the great early modern poets as a temporary expedient to bring new life into poetry and as a challenge to poets to think freshly about their art—ramified into increasingly divergent modes and became, over the course of the twentieth century, a predominant means of poetic expression.

Some reviewers of Missing Measures praised the book for its depth of historical information and analysis and considered reasonable Steele's concluding argument on behalf of preserving metrical tradition. Writing in the TLS, Clive Wilmer spoke of Steele as "a considerable scholar ... moving with ease across two-and-a-half millennia of critical thought on the subject of metre" and summarized the book as "wise and engrossing." [14] Other reviewers interpreted Missing Measures as involving or implying a broadly and unwarrantedly negative assessment of the free verse tradition. Yet even reviewers who did not wholly share Steele's views appear to have felt that his book revealed and illuminated aspects of modern poetry that had been overlooked or insufficiently considered. Steele himself has said that he does not object to free verse--"Free verse," he maintains, "is just as much poetry as verse is" [15] —but to the idea that it has superseded meter and rendered it obsolete. Though acknowledging he feels a special interest in metrical composition, he has insisted that his preference "is personal and aesthetic, however; I have never imagined that it provided me with access to cultural or spiritual virtue. And despite opinions 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." [16]

Steele's explanation of versification inAll the Fun's in How You Say a Thing draws from the entire range of English-language poetry since Chaucer, which Robert B. Shaw calls "indicative of an impressive breadth of learning and a lively catholicity of taste ... This book defines a notably high standard for future writers in the field to emulate." [17]


Observers agree that Steele's work has influenced the development of recent American verse. Kevin Walzer wrote in 1996 in The Tennessee Quarterly, "His achievement as a poet ... is such that he differs from the mainstream far less today than when he began writing--an important marker of the range and substance of his influence. In short, he has helped to change the course of the stream." [18] Joseph O. Aimone noted in 2003 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Readers of poetry with a feel for formal verse can already find an interesting and gratifying wealth of invention in Steele's three volumes of poems. Those who care for explanations of versification and poetic history will find his two volumes of prose useful and readable. Those arbiters of and reporters on shifting tastes will have to take him as a reference point to orient any serious discussion of the renascent strains of traditional verse in American poetry." [19] And Susan Clair Imbarrato commented in 2006, in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry, that Steele's "use of traditional forms and precise, accessible language has repositioned formal prosody into the rich palette of contemporary poetry." [20]






Related Research Articles

Free verse is an open form of poetry, which in its modern form arose through the French vers libre form. It does not use consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any musical pattern. It thus tends to follow the rhythm of natural speech.

In poetry, metre or meter is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study and the actual use of metres and forms of versification are both known as prosody.

A strophe is a poetic term originally referring to the first part of the ode in Ancient Greek tragedy, followed by the antistrophe and epode. The term has been extended to also mean a structural division of a poem containing stanzas of varying line length. Strophic poetry is to be contrasted with poems composed line-by-line non-stanzaically, such as Greek epic poems or English blank verse, to which the term stichic applies.

The Sapphic stanza, named after Sappho, is an Aeolic verse form of four lines. Originally composed in quantitative verse and unrhymed, since the Middle Ages imitations of the form typically feature rhyme and accentual prosody. It is "the longest lived of the Classical lyric strophes in the West".

Syllabic verse is a poetic form having a fixed or constrained number of syllables per line, while stress, quantity, or tone play a distinctly secondary role — or no role at all — in the verse structure. It is common in languages that are syllable-timed, such as French or Finnish — as opposed to stress-timed languages such as English, in which accentual verse and accentual-syllabic verse are more common.

A dactyl is a foot in poetic meter. In quantitative verse, often used in Greek or Latin, a dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables, as determined by syllable weight. The best-known use of dactylic verse is in the epics attributed to the Greek poet Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In accentual verse, often used in English, a dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables—the opposite is the anapaest.

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Scansion, or a system of scansion, is the method or practice of determining and (usually) graphically representing the metrical pattern of a line of verse. In classical poetry, these patterns are quantitative based on the different lengths of each syllable. In English poetry, they are based on the different levels of stress placed on each syllable. In both cases, the meter often has a regular foot. Over the years, many systems have been established to mark the scansion of a poem.

Iambic pentameter is a type of metric line used in traditional English poetry and verse drama. The term describes the rhythm, or meter, established by the words in that line; rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables called "feet". "Iambic" refers to the type of foot used, here the iamb, which in English indicates an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. "Pentameter" indicates a line of five "feet".

Latin poetry Poetry of the Latin language

The history of Latin poetry can be understood as the adaptation of Greek models. The verse comedies of Plautus, the earliest surviving examples of Latin literature, are estimated to have been composed around 205-184 BC.

New Formalism is a late 20th- and early 21st-century movement in American poetry that has promoted a return to metrical, rhymed verse and narrative poetry on the grounds that all three are necessary if American poetry is to compete with novels and regain its former popularity among the American people.

Milton's Prosody, with a chapter on Accentual Verse and Notes is a book by Robert Bridges. It was first published by Oxford University Press in 1889, and a final revised edition was published in 1921.

Accentual-syllabic verse is an extension of accentual verse which fixes both the number of stresses and syllables within a line or stanza. Accentual-syllabic verse is highly regular and therefore easily scannable. Usually, either one metrical foot, or a specific pattern of metrical feet, is used throughout the entire poem; thus one can speak about a poem being in, for example, iambic pentameter. Poets naturally vary the rhythm of their lines, using devices such as inversion, elision, masculine and feminine endings, the caesura, using secondary stress, the addition of extra-metrical syllables, or the omission of syllables, the substitution of one foot for another.

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Aeolic verse is a classification of Ancient Greek lyric poetry referring to the distinct verse forms characteristic of the two great poets of Archaic Lesbos, Sappho and Alcaeus, who composed in their native Aeolic dialect. These verse forms were taken up and developed by later Greek and Roman poets and some modern European poets.

The ionic is a four-syllable metrical unit (metron) of light-light-heavy-heavy that occurs in ancient Greek and Latin poetry. According to Hephaestion it was known as the Ionicos because it was used by the Ionians of Asia Minor; and it was also known as the Persicos and was associated with Persian poetry. Like the choriamb, in Greek quantitative verse the ionic never appears in passages meant to be spoken rather than sung. "Ionics" may refer inclusively to poetry composed of the various metrical units of the same total quantitative length that may be used in combination with ionics proper: ionics, choriambs, and anaclasts. Equivalent forms exist in English poetry and in classical Persian poetry.

Latin prosody is the study of Latin poetry and its laws of meter. The following article provides an overview of those laws as practised by Latin poets in the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire, with verses by Catullus, Horace, Virgil and Ovid as models. Except for the early Saturnian poetry, which may have been accentual, Latin poets borrowed all their verse forms from the Greeks, despite significant differences between the two languages.

French alexandrine

The French alexandrine is a syllabic poetic metre of 12 syllables with a medial caesura dividing the line into two hemistichs (half-lines) of six syllables each. It was the dominant long line of French poetry from the 17th through the 19th century, and influenced many other European literatures which developed alexandrines of their own.


  1. Brogan, T. V. F. "New Formalism." The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, eds. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993, p. 835.
  2. www.poetryfoundation.org http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/timothy-steele . Retrieved 22 February 2014.{{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. Leithauser, Brad. "The Strictest Line." TLS, February 19, 1988, p. 180.
  4. "Timothy Steele in Conversation with Cynthia Haven." Three Poets in Conversation: Dick Davis, Rachel Hadas, Timothy Steele. London: Between the Lines, 2006, pp. 103-06.
  5. Steele, Timothy. "The Forms of Poetry." Brandeis Review (Summer 1992), pp. 29-30.
  6. "Faculty Web Directory".
  7. Kennedy, X. J. "Timothy Steele." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120: American Poets Since World War II, ed. R. S. Gwynn. Detroit: Gale, 1992, p. 298.
  8. Fure, Rob. Library Journal, April 15, 1979, p. 956.
  9. Hellerstein, Kathryn. "Pleasures of Restriction." Partisan Review (Autumn 1989), p. 679.
  10. Gwynn, R. S. "Lectures in Urban Survival." The Sewanee Review (Winter 1996), p. vii.
  11. Olson, Ray. Booklist, March 1, 2006. http://www.ohioswallow.com/review/663. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  12. Sheehy, Donald G. "Measure for Measure: The Frostian Classicism of Timothy Steele." The Robert Frost Journal (Fall 1995) p. 73.
  13. Gordon, Larry. "Poetry's Purist." Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1991, Section B, p. 1.
  14. Wilmer, Clive. "A Straitjacket or a Trilby?" TLS, February 1, 1991, p. 19.
  15. Steele. Contribution to "Symposium: What We Talk about When We Talk about Form." Think Journal (2011), p. 14.
  16. www.poetryfoundation.org http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/timothy-steele . Retrieved 8 December 2011.{{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. Shaw, Robert B. "Prosody for the People." Poetry (September 2000), p. 347.
  18. Walzer, Kevin. "The Poetry of Timothy Steele." The Tennessee Quarterly (Winter 1996), p. 17.
  19. Aimone, Joseph O. "Timothy Steele." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 282: New Formalist Poets, eds. Jonathan N. Barron and Bruce Meyer. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale, 2003, p. 292.
  20. Imbarrato, Susan Clair. "Timothy Reid Steele." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry, ed. Jeffrey Gray. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006, vol. 5, p. 1522.
  21. WorldCat. OCLC   1033791424.