The Remarkable Unremarkable Meter of Timothy Steele

A version of this essay first appeared in American Arts Quarterly 27.1 (Winter 2010): 44-50

                In most ways, “Sapphics against Anger” seems typical of the poems Timothy Steele has published during the last thirty years, serving as the title of his second collection of poems (1986) and cited in a volume republishing his two early books (Sapphics and Uncertainties, 1995).  It is certainly his best known and most widely anthologized poem, it manifests his chief thematic concerns—rational order, moral discipline, and human sympathy—in his familiar, learned, lightly allusive, but colloquial voice:

Angered, may I be near a glass of water;

May my first impulse be to think of Silence,

Its deities (who are they? do, in fact, they

            Exist? etc.).

 

May I recall what Aristotle stays of

The subject: to give vent to rage is not to

Release it but to be increasingly prone

            To its incursions.

 

May I imagine being in the Inferno,

Hearing it asked: “Virgilio mio, who’s

That sulking with Achilles there?” and hearing

            Virgil say: “Dante,

 

That fellow, at the slightest provocation,

Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms lilke

A madman.  What Attila did to Europe,

            What Genghis Khan did

 

To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage.”

May I, that is, put learning to good purpose,

Mindful that melancholy is a sin, though

            Stylish at present.

 

Better than rage is the post-dinner quiet,

The sink’s warm turbulence, the streaming platters,

The suds rehearsing down the drain in spirals

            In the last rinsing.

 

For what is, after all, the good life save that

Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion

If not the holiest of powers, sustaining

            Only if mastered.[1]

These are the hallmarks of a Steele poem: the setting of implicitly suburban domestic matrimony; the syntax skillfully wielded, with angered a gauntlet-like first word from which the poem’s discourse unrolls, and with the anaphora of “May I” the most evident plays for our attention; the amusing integration of typographic abbreviation (“etc.”) into meter derived from speech; the decorously introduced paraphrase of Aristotle and self-deprecating parody of Dante; all culminating in imagery remarkable only because it stands out amid an otherwise deliberate and plain style, but also in an insight that adheres to the advice of Alexander Pope to remind one’s readers of what they already ought to know, rather than to teach them what they do not.

But of all the poems in his four collections, “Sapphics” is the only one in what he has rightly termed “imitation-classical” verse.  The pseudo-Sapphic meter should strike us as remarkable because Steele has been committed as poet and scholar of prosody to explaining and demonstrating the unremarkable qualities of verse.  Metrical verse is not just “one valid approach” among others to the writing of poetry and it is neither an especially difficult nor especially artificial one that must continuously draw attention to itself as a technique to be suggested, violated, celebrated, or evaded.  He has redescribed meter as constituting an art form as such, against the grain of a century that highlighted form as constitutive of meaning in art.  Rather than highlighting meter and rhyme as occasional choices obedient to the exigency of something internal to a poem, such as subject, or something external to it, like the demands of a historical moment, Steele has shown that meter is simply what constitutes poetry as a distinct way of organizing speech.  It is therefore normal, something worthy of mention not for its presence but only for its particular execution.

For all its typicality, “Sapphics” violates this practice, drawing attention to its formal properties not only by means of its title but by its curious instantiation of what Steele himself has argued is a marginal and limited practice within the broad tradition of English versification—“imitation-classical” form.  Late-modernists and academic formalists from the mid-Twentieth-Century were fond of calling attention to their metrical technique; William Empson’s “Villanelle,” for instance, may have been about the endurance of heartache and love lost, but its title ensures that its fixed form rather than its familiar subject will be what most readers attend to.  Steele generally avoids such highlighting, because it disfigures the very source of verse’s value: it provides poetry, as a genre, its docile and infinitely variable medium and definition rather than its occasional interest and contrived tricks.

To appreciate how remarkable Steele’s insistence on the unremarkable nature of metrical verse really is, we must understand him as at once an heir and corrective to the Anglo-American modernist poetic tradition.  Most periods in literary history have lacked a descriptive vocabulary of prosody adequate to the actual practices of poets, but during the modernist period the chasm widened considerably, where it became clear most poets no longer understood how verse works.  The most frequently quoted evidence of this would be T.S. Eliot’s remark in his essay, “Reflections on Vers Libre”:

[T]he most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one.  It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.[2]

The logic of this passage has generally been taken for granted by other modern and contemporary poets and critics.  It paints an inaccurate picture, however, of the historical practice of prosody and does so in a fashion expressive of a common weakness in modernist aesthetic theory.  For all the vocal repudiations of nineteenth-century Romanticism during the first decades of the Twentieth Century, modernists preserved and even exaggerated Romanticism’s tendency to view all things dualistically.  This dualism in the Romantics was attributable modern philosophical trends (the post-Cartesian opposition of spirit and matter, above all), but also to a revived interest in neo-Platonism, which promised that the superficial antinomies of everyday life (nature and the city, or reason and emotion) might ultimately find reconciliation in a new, organic whole.  Many modernists viewed dualisms and antinomies not as temporary but as the permanent condition of existence: reality was tension hypostatized, and human life was the dramatic byproduct of irreconcilable but overlapping tectonic plates of fact and experience.  Eliot’s theory of prosody merely extends this metaphysical dualism to artistic form.  The “simple,” implicitly mechanical measure of iambic pentameter exists in tension with the fluctuating, organic rhythm or music of speech.  Poetic form is produced not by meter and not by the fluidity of implicitly natural speech, but by the tension between the two—a tension made perceptible by their occasional crossing and hasty parting.  As Steele has himself observed, one finds other instances of this dualistic prosody in the early advocates of free verse, including Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams.

                But dualistic theories of prosody were not exclusive to the advocates of free verse; they were endemic also to the modernist defenders of meter and rhyme.  John Crowe Ransom set the “logical structure” and “irrelevant texture” of poems in opposition.[3]  Allen Tate’s poetic theory spoke of poetry as a whole in terms of “tension” between a poem’s “extension” and its “intention.”[4]  But, more significant than these must be the defenses of metrical verse made by its most celebrated modern practitioner, Robert Frost, whose justification of meter in an age of free verse was couched entirely in dualistic terms.  His famous aphorism that writing free verse poetry was like playing tennis without the net fits an image to his argument that the poet “must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of meter.”[5]  Elsewhere, Frost would suggest that “dramatic meaning” and “rhythm” serve to “break” or “ruffle the meter.”[6]  Such descriptions echo rather than counter Eliot’s account of meter as the regular—“simple”—tick about which a poem swoops and darts, “approximating” and “withdrawing.”  It should not surprise us, then, that Frost describes English prosody in terms of “two metres, strict iambic and loose iambic.”[7]  In practice, however, Frost’s “loose iambics” far more obviously manifest a metrical norm than do Eliot’s comparable poems.  But the theory of all the poets here mentioned assumes that verse is the result of a hard-fought struggle of form against content and of meter against the unruly rhythm of voice or prose.  The poem is the clenched body of that tension, like one of Rodin’s wrestlers.  While such accounts of meter give us an evocative sense of poetry as craft and suggest well the layered, polysemantic fashion in which most compelling poetry’s meaning is structured, it also suggests that meter might be just one way of “texturing” a poem and, more damningly, that it is but one unwieldy, contrived way of making a poem to mean.  This might explain the modern interest in the imitation-classical and Romance-language fixed forms (the villanelle, sestina, pantoum, etc.), which inevitably foreground themselves at the expense of other aspects of a poem; but why one would trouble with those more common forms—especially those in iambic pentameter—whose difficulty is less onerous and less constraining, becomes hard to comprehend.

                In Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (1990), Steele provides a thorough, scholarly account of the historical contingencies and willful misapprehensions that led to the rise of modern free verse.  Poets dating back to the Romans have revolted against calcified idioms or merely “poetic diction” in order to refresh poetic speech with the language of its time, Steele shows; but only at the turn of the Twentieth Century did poets conflate a dated poetic diction (that of the Victorians) with meter and rhyme.  In the effort to “free itself of stilted idiom,” modern poetry naively unloaded the versification that had always been the essential attribute of poetry.[8]

Why should this confusion of verse and idiom occur in modern times?  Steele argues that the rise of the prose novel as the primary genre of fiction, of story-telling, put poets on the defensive.  Losing their audiences to the novel, the poets tried to make the poem resemble it more closely.  Rather than renewing the long traditions of poetic fiction, however, they simply robbed the lyric and other short genres of meter to make them read as lineated prose.  Steele claims that this entailed “dispensing with something of great value—poetic meter—without securing in return the discipline of prose fiction . . . offering the poet the challenges of neither art, and the reader the appeals of neither.”[9]  Historically, prose writers had sought out rhythms that might faintly approximate to the more rigorous order of poetry as measured speech; in the aspiration to “approximate” to verse, prose style matured.  In the last century, however, the attempt to have poetry imitate prose simply robbed it of its distinctive identity.  Steele repeatedly suggests that, while free verse may be poetry, it is not verse.[10]

How a separation between meter and poetry could be effected, Steele turns to next; he traces the venerable distinction between verse and poetry back to Aristotle, noting that for him and other ancient authorities, the purpose of the distinction was to clarify that all poetry is metrical, but not all metered writing qualifies as the art of poetry.[11]  In the Renaissance and afterwards, a confused and conflated reading of these ancient authorities led to the now ubiquitous conclusion that “poetry” means any kind of good or inspired linguistic expression, metrical or not.

Missing Measures argues that the revolt against meter was misguided, confused, and unnecessary despite the pretentions of free verse poets to deference to historical necessity: all of which is conducive to demonstration by historical evidence.  But, at the margins, Steele makes claims he admits the scope of his study does not permit him to establish—above all that, while he entertains “no hard and fast definition of poetry itself . . . I believe that our ability to organize thought and speech into measure is one of the most precious endowments of the human race.”[12]  Writing in the years after the publication of this study, one scholar of the New Formalism observed that Steele “is devoted to demonstrating the viability and vitality of traditional form in the contemporary age, and in doing so, critiquing, even combating, the age’s received form—(the once) avant-garde practice of free verse.”[13]  True as this claim is, it has only subsequently becomes clear that Steele’s ambitions are greater.  For, while the negative critique of Missing Measures merely debunked claims for the necessity of free verse, and while poems like “Sapphics against Anger” showed that metrical poetry could bear the weight of language as colloquial and subject matter as contemporary as that found in any free verse, in a few years, Steele would mount a more subtle and substantive argument.  Metrical poetry is not just “viable” but normative; meter is not simply capable of vitality but itself the pulse, the life, of poetry as an artform.

Steele’s All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing (1999), an explanatory guide to prosody, begins as one might expect of an heir to Frost:

Versification involves a continual reconciliation of two apparently opposed elements.  One is rhythm, in the sense of the fluid and shifting movements of live speech.  The other is meter, in the sense of a fixed, abstract pattern according to which those movements are organized.[14]

We soon discover that Steele’s goal is to expose this opposition as merely apparent.  In English verse, meter “is the basic norm or paradigm of the line.  It is an analytical abstraction.”[15]  Abstracted from what?  Rhythm.  Meter does not constitute something distinct from or potentially opposed to the rhythm of a poem, but merely describes the basic pattern of stress alternation and syllable count in a language already predisposed to the regular alternation of stress.  Meter is realized in rhythm, is a property of it, but is not its sole constituent.  It is the necessary ingredient in the rhythm of poetry, precisely because what constitutes poetry as poetry is not its vividness, intensity, inspiration or anything else.  What makes poetry a distinct literary form is that it is writing or speech measured.  A poem may be organized according to a great number of patterns at once, but among them must be the measure that is meter.

                    For several historical and linguistic reasons, the English language lends itself to being measured in terms of stress accent; English stress accents alternate somewhat regularly by the nature of the language; and so, the iamb (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) is the inevitable and convenient unit according to which poetic rhythm can be regularized.  Stress varies radically from syllable to syllable and from sentence to sentence, but an iamb tells us nothing other than that the first syllable in a particular foot is stressed less than the second, and an iambic line is predictable only insofar as each of the line’s feet comprises a relatively light syllable followed by a relatively heavy one.  Moreover, English speech’s continuous relative alteration of stress can be regularized into lines of iambs with such ease that we frequently speak in sentences that are entirely iambic without noticing; for the poet, the conscious arrangement of speech into the iambic pentameter line poses no great difficulty.[16]

                    Eliot and others had suggested that the interest of verse had always resided in the suggestion and violation of a simple pattern.  A poem in perfect iambic pentameter would be monotonous, whereas one that admitted myriad substitutions to “rough up” the smooth texture of meter could be compelling.  They thus recommend slipping extra unaccented syllables into some lines (the anapest, for instance, which is the metrical foot composed of two unaccented syllables followed by a stressed one) and deleting syllables from others to avoid a tiresome symmetry.  Steele demurs.  While it is true that loose or rough iambic meters can generate admirable, lilting effects in stanzas with lines shorter than the pentameter (fewer than five iambs per line), the infinite possible modulations of relative stress within a perfectly iambic poem renders the violation of meter unnecessary for the sake of variation or interest.  No one syllable, no one iamb in a sentence is ever perfectly equal in weight, and so the measure of meter can hardly be said to impose uniformity of rhythm, only a regularity of stress alteration.[17]  As for loose iambic pentameter: “extra syllables do not so much make the pentameter lilt as wilt.  The line is so flexible to begin with that the accessory elements may cause it to sag.”[18]  While it may take practice to become competent in versification, because meter performs the mere regularization of elements already found in English speech, no “experienced poet needs to strain to integrate, into iambic rhythm” any “disparate verbal material.”[19]

This defense is of iambic meter.  Steele observes that, in English, it alone has the benefit of imposing order and pleasing regularity on speech, without limiting the kinds of speech, subject-matter, or genre, a poem can embrace.  As the flexible English line par excellence, iambic pentameter recommends itself for normal, unremarkable use.  This brings us back to the curiosity of Steele’s “Sapphics.”  The “Sapphic” imposes a more rigorous, less flexible metrical pattern than does the iambic pentameter.  All non-iambic modes of verse in English, “have produced valuable poems and offer valuable opportunities to poets . . . [but] all lack something of the flexibility and order of the accentual-syllabic system” of which the iambic line is the norm.[20]  Steele’s career as a poet suggests an intuitive grasp of the facility and flexibility of that line.  Uncertainties and Rest (1979) includes two poems in accentual (as opposed to accentual-syllabic) meter and others in varying degrees of loose iambics; moreover, his use of short sentences and frequent enjambment often conceals from the ear the usual regularity of his meter.  Sapphics against Anger includes a greater number of forms than the first book, but, with the exception of one poem in free verse, each is wielded more strictly.  One sees also the development of a preference for the iambic pentameter line in couplets or the rhyme schemes of five, six, seven, and ten lines per stanza.  Subsequently, in The Color Wheel (1994) and Toward the Winter Solstice (2006), Steele’s syntax relaxes into the embrace of the iambic lines ever more comfortably, as the opening stanzas of “Fountain in the City” illustrate:

The water climbed to a white crest, and fell

Plashy and heavy, to a metal shell

Forever in a state of overflow

And then went dripping to the pool below.

 

The square had, otherwise, a leafless tree

And litter’s swirling, sad agility;

And densely packed surrounding buildings made

The place, save at mid-day, a cheerless shade.[21]

The spray of a water fountain was, in the age of the symbolists and the early days of free verse, the quintessential symbol of an autonomous, useless art subject to no law but its own internal force.  For Steele, the falling water “plashing” with infinite modulations flows naturally through the “metal shell” of meter, surpassing but never violating its form.  As Steele has observed frequently in his criticism and poetry alike, this continuous “dripping,” perfectly ordered but ever various, recommends itself in a world that may often and otherwise appear “a cheerless shade.”  In a world beholden to easy dualisms, his verse suggests that art and ease, craft and nature, need not be left in tension.



[1] Timothy Steele, Sapphics and Uncertainties (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986), 12.

[2] Quoted in Timothy Steele, Missing Measures (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990), 98.

[3] See, John Crowe Ransom, The New Criticism (New York: New Directions, 1941), 220.

[4] Allen Tate, Essays of Four Decades (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999), 64.

[5] Quoted in Donald Sheehy, “Measure for Measure: The Frostian Classicism of Timothy Steele.”  The Robert Frost Review Fall 1995: 81.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 83.

[8] Steele, Missing Measures 56.

[9] Ibid. 107.

[10] In Missing Measures, he explains, “just as some of the modern experimentalists suggest substituting, in prosodic theory, rhythmos (rhythm in a broad sense) for metron (metrical arrangement in particular), so they suggest substituting, in actual practice, compositio (the putting together of words in some generally orderly fashion) for versificatio (the specific making of verses)” (99).  For reasons to which we shall attend, he later sets this claim in more stark terms: “And while twentieth-century free verse certainly represents a revolution in poetry, and a fascinating one, it is a revolution away from meter, not of or in meter” (All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing (Athens, OH: Swallow/Ohio University Press, 1999) 22).

[11] Ibid. 110.

[12] Ibid. 24.

[13] Kevin Walzer, “The Poetry of Timothy Steele.”  The Tennessee Quarterly Winter 1996: 27.

[14] Timothy Steele, All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing (Athens, OH: Swallow/Ohio University Press, 1999), 27.

[15] Ibid. 29.

[16] Ibid. 9.

[17] Steele writes of the infinite variability of relative stress in an iambic line, that we might think of such lines as “mountain ranges.  Peaks and valleys alternate.  But not every peak is an Everest, nor is every valley a Grand Canyon” (Ibid. 31).

[18] Ibid. 84.

[19] Ibid. 11.

[20] Ibid. 273.

[21] Timothy Steele, Toward the Winter Solstice (Athens, OH: Swallow/Ohio University Press, 2006), 7.


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