Timothy Steele and the Role of the Poet-Critic

Interviewer’s Note: Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1948, Timothy Steele is the author of several collections of poems: Uncertainties and Rest (Louisiana State University Press, 1979), Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems (Random House, 1986), and The Color Wheel (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). The first two of these books have been re-issued in a joint volume, Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986 (The University of Arkansas Press, 1995). Steele has published as well a book of literary criticism, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (University of Arkansas Press, 1990) and is the editor of The Poems of J. V. Cunningham (Ohio University/Swallow Press, 1997). His study of meter and versification, All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing, was published in 1999 by Ohio University/Swallow Press.

Among Steele’s honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Los Angeles PEN Center’s Literary Award for Poetry, a California Arts Council Grant, and a Commonwealth Club of California Medal for Poetry. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles and is a professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles.


 Garrick Davis: When did you begin writing criticism? Did you see it as an inevitable task—an obligation—of your poetry? 

Timothy Steele: When I was a student, my teachers introduced me to the rich tradition of poet-critics in English, a tradition that includes Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Pound, Eliot, and Winters. And many of the contemporary poets I most enjoyed and admired—such as W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, J. V. Cunningham, Thom Gunn, X. J. Kennedy, Philip Larkin, and Richard Wilbur—turned their hands to criticism at least occasionally. So when, in the mid-1970s, Don Stanford, who was co-editing The Southern Review, asked me to do some reviewing for the magazine, I agreed to his proposal without giving the matter much thought. Because of the historical tradition and the examples of fine contemporary poet-critics, writing criticism seemed a natural thing to do for anyone interested in poetry.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, my critical interest gradually focused on what appeared to me to be the central crisis in modern and contemporary poetry—the virtual loss of the metrical traditions that had for millennia distinguished verse from prose. At this point—to get to your question about feeling obligated to write criticism—I started to feel a responsibility to try to write what became Missing Measures. Though I had no great confidence in my abilities, a combination of things in my background suited me for the job. As a poet, I knew, at a visceral and practical level, that versification was crucial to poetry. And having been trained in scholarship, I had the basic tools to investigate the issues in literary and intellectual history that had contributed to the revolt against meter. 

GD: As a critic, you are mainly associated with Missing Measures, which provided much of the scholarly and intellectual justification for the New Formalist movement. Would you briefly summarize its main arguments for those who are unfamiliar with the book?

TS: The book explores factors that led to the revolt against meter. Some of these relate not only to poetry, but also to the other fine arts in the modern period. For instance, the book discusses the way that art, influenced by the prestige and prominence of science in modern culture, tried to become “experimental” and sought quasi-scientific breakthroughs” and “discoveries” by means of technical innovation and novelties of apparatus.

Other issues the book explores are more strictly literary. One of these involves the way that the modernists like Ford, Pound, and Eliot identified the antiquated idiom of Victorian verse with meter itself and consequently felt that to get rid of the antiquated idiom they had to get rid of meter. And this identification eventually led to the baby’s getting thrown out with the bath water—to meter’s getting tossed aside along with the dated diction, rhetoric, and subject matter of nineteenth-century verse.

I also examine the debate, which goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, between those who identify poetry chiefly with its metrical form and those who identify it principally with an extra-metrical essence, such as imitation, sublimity, linguistic concentration, or emotional intensity. And one of the book’s chapters traces how the essentialist argument that poetry is something more than meter gets transmuted, in modern times, into the argument that poetry is something other than meter. Another issue concerns the rise and triumph of the prose novel, and the feeling among many modern poets that the looser rhythms of good fiction might be profitably substituted in verse for the tighter organization of meter.

It may be worth adding that I did not write the book as a New Formalist manifesto or with New Formalism in mind. The book was composed between 1980 and 1986, at which time New Formalism did not exist, or at least had not been named or discussed as such as far as I know. However, it took a while for the book to find the backing of a publisher; it wasn’t until 1990 that it appeared through the kindness and support of Miller Williams at the University of Arkansas Press.

By this time, people had begun to talk about New Formalism, and the book was received in the context of the emerging debate. This coincidence aided the book’s sales, but skewed the way it was interpreted. And as grateful as I’ve been for the attention bestowed on Missing Measures, I’ve been troubled that some readers seem to approach the work as a polemical tract about contemporary verse—a subject Missing Measures barely mentions—and to ignore the book’s historical analysis and its attempt to come to grips with and reassess modernism. 

GD: What do you think the early Anglo-American poets who advocated free verse (vers libre) would make of the last thirty years of American poetry?

TS: Toward the end of the first chapter of Missing Measures I cite a number of statements from Eliot, Pound, and Williams expressing alarm at the increasing fragmentation and aimlessness of poetic style. As I’ve said elsewhere, their situation resembles that of figures in Greek epic and tragedy who wish for something, only to lament, later on, the fulfillment of their wish. Free verse was originally intended to make poetry more challenging; it was designed to see if poetry could function in severe, naked authenticity without the music and enchantment of meter. But free verse became, in fairly short order, an excuse for all sorts of easy, sloppy writing. 

GD: What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be? What critics or poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this regard? 

TS: Critics have several important functions. One is to draw attention to excellent works that readers might otherwise overlook. Another is to articulate qualities that conduce to the best possible poetry—the truest, the most comprehensive, the most aesthetically pleasing and moving. In the broadest sense, a fine critic stimulates our curiosity about culture and ideas and our desire to understand the ways that culture and ideas shape our lives, our society, and the world.

Samuel Johnson is perhaps our pre-eminent poet-critic, though in his case the criticism is so remarkable that it eclipses his poetry or makes it seem slighter and more occasional than it actually is. As a critic, Johnson excels both as a close reader of individual lines and passages and as an insightful commentator on and illuminator of whole texts. These qualities are evident throughout his discussions of Shakespeare’s plays. His analysis of Milton is a model of qualified admiration and reasonable dissent in the face of an overpowering reputation. And though Johnson has—all critics do—blind spots, he’s always clear, which allows you not only to grasp his insights easily, but also to recognize, pretty immediately, when he goes haywire, as he does in, for instance, his antipathy to Swift. Finally, in his defense of naturalness and variety in poetry, he anticipates much of what is best in romantic and modern criticism and verse. 

GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?

TS: Is poetry at present an art? The Greek word for art is techne, which involves by definition general principles and procedures that transcend the particular proclivities and outlooks of its individual practitioners. No such principles or procedures inform contemporary verse. Anything goes, and any utterance can be a poem if the poet says it is. 

As mere activity, as opposed to art, contemporary verse is thriving as never before. There are all sorts of readings, conferences, publications, awards, and programs. But this activity is largely confused and cacophonous. It does not encourage the writing of solid, moving individual poems, nor is it contributing to an environment in which such poems are likely to obtain a hearing.

For these reasons, I believe that the recent revival of form should be welcomed. We don’t all have to share a single aesthetic, but it would help us communicate with one another if we could agree upon a few points of reference. At this stage, even free verse would benefit from a recovery of the metrical tradition. To be truly free, free verse needs something to be free from. 

GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry criticism?

TS: Just as there’s a lot of poetry, there’s a lot of poetry criticism. Not surprisingly, however, the criticism often seems as fragmented and jumbled as the poetry it addresses. This is not a criticism of the critics. It’s very difficult to get one’s mind around the many different kinds and schools of poetry that have arisen in recent decades.

A positive element is that many critics appear to agree that poetry by and large plunged into a ditch in the second half of the twentieth century and that it is desirable that we acknowledge our situation and figure out how to extricate ourselves and move on in some meaningful direction.  

GD: If one considers, as a body of writing, the poetry criticism written in the first half of the twentieth century to that written in the second half, then clearly there was also a marked deterioration. What caused it?

TS: As I suggested in the previous response, this situation reflects the increasing fragmentation of poetic practice. It’s hard to write about poetry confidently when there’s no consensus about what poetry is and which poets are significant. Almost any attempt to examine, praise, assess, or recommend ends up sounding like advocacy or special pleading.

But just as there are wonderful poems that have been frequently overlooked in the recent confusion—poems such as Edgar Bowers’ “Astronomers of Mont Blanc,” Charles Gullans’ “Labuntur Anni,” and Henri Coulette’s “The Extras”—there are wonderful critical essays from the second half of the twentieth century that have not received their due. All of the contemporary poet-critics I mentioned at the outset of this interview have written memorable essays on poetry and literature. Cunningham’s “Styles and Procedures of Wallace Stevens,” for instance, is as incisive and helpful a piece of practical criticism as the best essays of Tate or Winters.

Further, a number of poet-critics in the second half of the twentieth century did try to make general sense of what was going on. Richard Howard’s Alone With America, Robert Pinsky’s The Situation of Poetry, and Mary Kinzie’s The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose are, in their different ways, representative of this effort. And as your own magazine well indicates, criticism is again on the upswing.

GD: Eliot believed the poet-critic criticized poetry in order to create it, so that his views were often partial and dogmatic. Allen Tate said that the poet-critic “is not concerned with consistency and system, but merely with as much self-knowledge as he needs to write his own verse.” Whereas Randall Jarrell’s criticism does not seem so intimately linked to his poetry. The two roles seemed to exist in him separately. Do you see your own criticism as that of a poet’s, partial and dogmatic, or an ideal reader’s? Is there a vital connection between your own poetry and prose?

TS: To take the second part of your question first, I realize that my poetry and criticism are connected in that my poems are metrical and much of my criticism has concerned the nature and status of meter. Yet this connection has little or no bearing on the actual writing of my poems. I don’t write to exercise my metrical facility, such as it is. I write because I want to say something I believe is worth saying. In this context, meter is merely a means to an end. It’s a tool that helps me go more deeply into my subject, and to treat it more memorably and appealingly, than I could otherwise.

As for the first part of your question, I believe that when we as critics address subjects and works external to us, we should address them on their own terms and strive for objectivity, while acknowledging that we’re fallible and that perfect objectivity is impossible. As greatly as I admire Eliot in other respects, it troubles me when, under the guise of discussing of other poets, he advances ideas that serve to sanction his practices rather than to illuminate theirs. It’s perfectly fine to be partial or partisan, but one should be up front about it. Eliot is well within his rights to argue that the modern poet should be “difficult . . . more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.” But it’s misleading and perhaps a little sneaky to make this argument in an essay on the metaphysical poets and to treat Donne and his followers as proto-Symbolists, whose Mallarméan methods we moderns might profitably adopt. In such a case, it would probably be better to write a more personal essay that candidly announces, “I think we poets should do this for these reasons.”

 GD: Is there some way to account for the fact that the vast majority of American poet-critics have been, and continue to be, politically conservative?

TS: So far as I can judge, political conservativism isn’t characteristic of poet-critics in general. They’re spread across the political map, aren’t they? One sees this, I think, in the case of the New Critics, especially in the case of the two most important critics Ransom discussed in The New Criticism. T. S. Eliot was very conservative—classicist in literature, Catholic in religion, and royalist in politics—whereas Yvor Winters was politically liberal and egalitarian, a member of the ACLU and NAACP.

For what it’s worth, I’m a left-of-center Democrat. And when people suggest that I’m conservative for defending meter, I reply that I’m not a conservative, but rather a conservationist. I don’t want meter to go the way of the passenger pigeon or Bachman’s warbler!

GD: What do you think of the yoking of politics to poetry, such a fixture of recent American poetry?

TS: It’s naïve, and history contradicts the commonly made assertion that free verse necessarily reflects a progressive spirit and meter a reactionary one. If we look at the pioneers of free verse and experimental literature, we discover that many were extreme, even virulent, right-wingers. I’m thinking of, for instance, Percy Wyndam Lewis, Ezra Pound, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In contrast, most of the leading women poets during the same period stayed with the metrical tradition, as did most of the leading poets of the Harlem Renaissance.

I like Wordsworth’s idea that meter resembles common law. The rules of meter are few and clear, and it offers its advantages to all poets, regardless of background or reputation. Further, meter protects all readers, regardless of class or condition, against the caprices of hasty and bad poets.

Please understand that in saying this I’m not advocating any standard of political correctness or suggesting that certain political persuasions are intrinsically beneficial to poetry and others aren’t. Good people and poets exist all along the political spectrum. Everyone deserves a hearing who retains a reasonable and humane respect for others and their views. My point is that it is unwarranted to assume that someone concerned with a preserving a literary tradition is necessarily a conservative in politics. And more generally it seems to me a mistake to assume that certain aesthetic principles correlate neatly with certain politic ones.

GD: Much has been made in recent years of the proliferation of creative writing programs in the United States. Do you think this academicization has had a beneficial or baleful effect on poetry?

TS: Because creative writing programs have been so widely excoriated of late, I should like to say a few words in their favor before adding my own censures to the chorus of denunciation.

There was nothing wrong with the original idea of having a few centers where promising young fiction writers, poets, and dramatists could study with recognized masters of their arts. Poets have long and usefully been affiliated with universities; the tradition goes back at least as far as Boccaccio’s occupying the Chair in Dante studies at the University of Florence. Moreover, poets, novelists, and playwrights have special insights about literature that can complement and enrich the instruction that students receive from their professors. And any serious student can, by trying to construct a poem, a story, or a play, gain valuable insights into literature that he or she could not acquire in a class devoted to the reading and critical analysis of texts.

The early writing centers carried an added benefit insofar as they were in places like Gambier, Ann Arbor, Iowa City, Palo Alto, and Seattle. Though New York has never been the exclusive literary capital for the United States in the sense that London has been for England and Paris has been for France, there is a natural East Coast bias. And in the years after the Second World War, the writing programs helped open up, geographically and psychically, American letters. They established literary communities in different parts of our large and pluralistic country and gave opportunities to talented writers who might otherwise not have had a chance to develop.

That said, the exponential expansion of creative writing programs in recent decades—and the introduction of creative writing in some schools as an undergraduate major—has been terrible for literature and education. The only beneficiaries now are the deans and provosts who get promotions for developing these programs and the not-always-distinguished writers who administer and teach in them.

Unlike musicians, writers do not usually mature early. To write richly and well, they need to know something about the world and about ideas. And while students may profit from taking a creative writing class among their other courses, they need to learn about subjects like history, political science, and astronomy. They need to read great writers of the past and present. And it is counter-productive to encourage them to take multiple workshops in which their own apprentice exercises are the principal texts they study.

Finally, the notion of “creative writing” isn’t sound. It suggests that some kinds of writing are nifty and organic, and other kinds aren’t. All fine writing—whether history, biography, poetry, science, or literary criticism and scholarship—requires talent, training, and patience. And especially in a university, where one wants to encourage the broadest possible intellectual curiosity and appreciation, it serves nobody to suggest that one form of writing is inherently more valuable than the others. 

GD: What do you think of the vast subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards that poets currently compete for?

TS: It’s well intentioned and has added to the material and psychological comfort of many poets; but whether it is good for poetry is another matter. As you say, it is a “system,” and to benefit from it, one must conform, to some extent, to the expectations of current fashion and its functionaries. The earliest arts arbiter on record is Midas, and his descendants have all too often inherited his taste and judgment.

GD: What do you think of the recent revival of performance poetry—the so-called “poetry slams”?

TS: Poetry is first and foremost an art of composition. To be sure, from the rhapsodists of antiquity to modern actors like Laurence Olivier, Paul Robeson, and Judi Dench, skilled performers have interpreted great works of literature and have enriched their audiences’ experience of them. But even as they exercise their gifts, great performers need—or at least perform most memorably with—great texts. The text is central. If I have a reservation about poetry slams, it is that liveliness of presentation tends to become a substitute for excellence of text.

There is one interesting and appealing element of poetry slams. They encourage audience response. A lot of modern and contemporary verse is inward to a fault, and at a conventional reading, one is obliged to sit quietly through the performance, whatever its quality. Wendy Cope’s villanelle, “A Reading,” captures how painful this experience can be: “A silent cry goes up, ‘How long, O Lord?’” / But nobody will scream or go berserk.” But at a poetry slam, the audience is permitted to shout its approbation or hoot its disapproval when it feels so moved. The audience can also boo the panel that judges the poets and hands out the awards—something that poetry lovers sometimes wish they could do when book prizes are announced. 

GD: Do you think your criticism has hurt the reception of your poetry? Have your reviews cost you anything?

TS: A few people took exception to my reviews, and many have objected to my critical position as it is reflected (or as they think it is reflected) in Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing. At the same time, however, other people have generously gone out of their way to say they’ve appreciated my efforts.

If you adopt any clear position, you’re going to take flak. But you’ll find that supporters will emerge from other quarters, and you’ll be blessed with the sympathy of those who share your concerns. And as long as you’re not an arrogant jerk, and as long as you don’t pretend to be a paragon of literary virtue, even some people opposed to you may acquire a grudging respect for what you’re doing.

GD: Do you see hopeful signs for the future of poetry?

TS: Yes, indeed. It’s especially cheering to see the emergence of excellent younger poets working in and carrying on the metrical tradition—poets such as Melissa Balmain, Suzanne Doyle, Kevin Durkin, Joseph Harrison, Joshua Mehigan, Alfred Nicol, Chelsea Rathburn, J. D. Smith, A. E. Stallings, Catherine Tufariello, Wilmer Mills, and Greg Williamson. It’s equally heartening to see that outstanding poets like Turner Cassity, Dick Davis, Rhina Espaillat, Leslie Monsour, Helen Pinkerton, and Robert B. Shaw—all of whom are at various stages further along in their writing lives—are starting receive some of the attention they’ve long deserved.  

Another promising development involves the efforts of such poet-editors as Annie Finch, Dana Gioia, R. S. Gwynn, April Lindner, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, and David Yezzi to supply textbooks and anthologies that reflect the full range of modern and contemporary poetry. This is in contrast to the many recent textbooks and anthologies devoted largely to the experimental tradition and governed by the illogical principle that modern and contemporary poems that aren’t experimental aren’t modern and contemporary.

GD: As a teacher, what suggestions would you make for encouraging schoolchildren to learn and enjoy poetry?

TS: Probably the best thing to do is simply to read poetry aloud with children. Children seem to enjoy rhythm and rhyme, and are quick to respond to the inspired silliness of poets like Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc. Friends with children tell me that X. J. Kennedy’s Brats and Richard Wilbur’s Opposites are special favorites with their kids. And evidently the old standards, like Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Robert Louis Stevenson’s [A] Child’s Garden of Verses, still appeal to many young readers. 

 GD: Can poets regain the common readers they once had? Will poetry ever exert itself again in American culture as it did a century ago? Does criticism have a role to play in this?

TS: If we write memorable poems, they will eventually find readers. In the short term, the number of readers doesn’t matter all that much. Contemporary judgment is always erratic, and this has been especially true in our topsy-turvy nation. No American authors of the nineteenth century stand higher today than Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, yet both died in complete obscurity. It took decades for readers to appreciate Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost journeyed to middle age and England before he could get published.

In some respects, the prospects for poetry look bleak. In addition to the fads and follies that have cheapened it from within, the external culture is surfeited with television, videos, computer games, and so forth. Yet as these media have developed, they have increasingly revealed their limitations. These range from the material—their relentless commerciality—to the psychological—their narrow appeal to our sensory, especially visual, faculties. Poetry and the other traditional literary genres still offer us unmatched resources for the flexible and intelligently compelling examination of human experience. Over the past three thousand years, poetry has survived many technological revolutions; and, from Plato onwards, it has survived many moral and utilitarian attacks on it. As long as poets preserve the full range of their instrument—as long as they remain open-minded about its traditions and preserve the artifices that have enchanted readers for millennia—poetry will do just fine.

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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