Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele
Born (1948-01-22) January 22, 1948
Burlington, Vermont, U.S.
Alma mater Stanford University
Brandeis University
Spouse Victoria Lee Steele

Timothy Steele is an American poet. Steele generally writes in meter and rhyme, and 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, he 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]

Timothy Steele is married to Victoria Steele, a librarian who is known for her work as the former Head of UCLA's Special Collections, Director of the research collections for the New York Public Library, and as UCLA’s Curator of Humanities’ Programs, Centers, and Collections. She is an art and library exhibitions consultant.


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 bellief 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.

Reviewers differed sharply in their judgments about Missing Measures. Some 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] In contrast, other reviewers criticized Missing Measures as involving or implying a broadly and unwarrantedly negative assessment of the free verse tradition. Meg Schoerke, writing for The American Scholar, stated, "According to Steele, free verse results in a wholly subjective poetry that is divorced from human experience, solipsistic, and therefore immoral."[15] 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. Chris McCully commented in PN Review, “If it [Missing Measures] contains things to quarrel with, it also contains far more to think about, absorb, interpret, and make use of.”[16]

Steele himself has said that he does not object to free verse--"Free verse," he maintains, "is just as much poetry as verse is"[17]—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 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."[18]

Less controversial is Steele's nuts-and-bolts explanation of versification, All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing, of which Robert B. Shaw said in Poetry Magazine, "Steele's choice of examples, drawn from the entire range of English-language poetry since Chaucer, indicates 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."[19]


Despite differing opinions about Steele's advocacy of meter, observers seem to agree that his 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."[20] 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."[21] 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."[22]

Selected work

April 27, 1937

General Ludendorff, two years before,

Had pushed the concept in his Total War,

And so it seemed a perfect time to see

If one could undermine an enemy

By striking its civilian population.

This proved a most effective innovation,

As the defenseless ancient Basque town learned:

Three-quarters of its buildings bombed and burned,

Its children and young wives were blown to bits

Or gunned down, when they fled, by Messerschmitts.

Shocked condemnations poured forth from the press,

But Franco triumphed; and, buoyed by success,

The Luftwaffe would similarly slam

Warsaw and Coventry and Rotterdam.

Berlin cheered these developments; but two

Can play such games—and usually do—

No matter how repellent or how bloody.

And Churchill was, as always, a quick study

And would adopt the tactic as his own,

Sending the RAF to blitz Cologne.

Devising better ways to carpet-bomb

(Which later were employed in Vietnam),

The Allies, in a show of aerial might,

Incinerated Dresden in a night

That left the good and evil to their fates,

While back in the untorched United States

Others approved an even darker plan

To coax a prompt surrender from Japan.

That day in Spain has taught us, to our cost,

That there are lines that never should be crossed;

The ignorance of leaders is not bliss

If they’re intent on tempting Nemesis.

Each day we rise, and each day life goes on:

An author signs beneath a colophon;

Trucks carry freight through waves of desert heat;

A bat cracks, a crowd rises to its feet;

Huge jets lift to the sky, and, higher yet,

Float satellites that serve the Internet.

But still, despite our cleverness and love,

Regardless of the past, regardless of

The future on which all our hopes are pinned,

We’ll reap the whirlwind, who have sown the wind.[23]






Criticism About


  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. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/timothy-steele. Retrieved 22 February 2014.
  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. http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/tsteele/TSpage3/CVoriginal.html
  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. Schoerke, Meg. “Measure for Measure.” The American Scholar (Summer 1991), p. 462.
  16. McCully, Chris. "Missing Measures and the Matter of Metre." PN Review (January/February 1991), p. 45.
  17. Steele. Contribution to "Syposium: What We Talk about When We Talk about Form." Think Journal (2011), p. 14.
  18. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/timothy-steele. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  19. Shaw, Robert B. “Prosody for the People.” Poetry (September 2000), p. 347.
  20. Walzer, Kevin. "The Poetry of Timothy Steele." The Tennessee Quarterly (Winter 1996), p. 17.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. Steele. Toward the Winter Solstice. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 2006, pp. 15-16.
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