Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter: the case for a new Formalism

Part 1

I've held almost as a sacred truth that academics make the worst poets, and generally they do. Examples are too numerous to mention. Convinced as I've been for the longest time that 'creative writing' professors, with the mainstream publishing industry at their beck and call, have literally dictated to the rest of us the terms of poetic style and suitability. And if there's anything we should have learnt from this debacle it's that teaching verse does not a Poet nor student of poetry make!

The only thing worse than academic-bards with their flatlined verses is the 'imitator'-poet, of which there are many in creative writing classes, who slavishly work primarily to conform to prevailing 'aesthetic tastes. The result, in Canada at least, has been a proliferation not only of middling (state-sponsored) literary magazines catering for academic and imitative writing (Arc, Fiddlehead, Malahat Review, etc) but a flood of dull, insipid verses anthologized and served up as models of good writing by the poet-teachers who perpetuate a vicious cycle of teaching, writing and publishing: the result of which is a product whose cultural hold on the general public is almost non-existent.

But there are exceptions and Timothy Steele, a poet writing in an emerging new Formalist tradition and a first-rate literary scholar, is among the few who admirably practice what they preach since in their writings there isn't the glaring disconnect between theory and writing proficiency (James Wright, John Berryman, Robin Blaser and perhaps today Louis Dudek, Rosemarie Waldrop and Annie Finch are other examples of skilful practitioners). In Missing Measures Steele outlines a history of a very basic verse/poetry misunderstanding (or perhaps misreading) to which can be attributed, in his view, the almost vehement hatred of anything in contemporary poetry that smacks of metrics, rhyme and traditional poetrywriting in general. And because deep, sensible scholarship is everywhere wedded to appreciation of the effect of literary tradition on contemporary practice, Steele's own case for a sensible second look at the "anti meter revolt" is a very convincing one. There's a lot at stake. I don't think there's anyone at present who seems more qualified, in both theory and practice, to revive interest in traditional poetics.

I don't think Steele's intention is polemics but his handling of literary history and specifically his interpretation of the most important texts, modern and classical, tend to point to a vital reappraisal of the role of prosody in contemporary writing (or those elements such as rhyme, rhythm, and other figurative devices most serviceable to poets). Steele is (and always will be) not a little antithetical to the modernist revolution in poetry (as his disparaging comments on Marjorie Perloff's reading of Aristotle's Poetics attest (168-170)) but he does answer the call to base the antimodernist(-postmodernist) case on pretty sound scholarship:

As will become evident in this study, certain confusions in modern discussions of verse have resulted from the fact that the legacy of the Greeks has not been adequately recognized and that the difference between their situation and ours has not been sufficiently appreciated. We cannot ask of others or ourselves absolute precision when we speak of "poetry," and we should not damn such terminological imprecisions as must inevitably attend any general discussion of the art. Yet we should be aware of something of the history of the word and should bear this history in mind when we use the word. (Missing Measures 21)

Not just citing sources ( from Aristotle, Quintilian, Plutarch to Pound, Eliot and Williams) but drawing vital connections between theory and poetic practice everywhere is Steele's métier. I get the feeling as I read him that this may have been the way the Victorian defenders of traditional prosody felt when confronted with the modernists: always a little overawed by the attractiveness of novelty conjoined to sound literary understanding and, as a result, even a little disoriented.

The modernist contention (as expounded in varying forms by Eliot, Pound, Ford Madox Ford and Williams) is, simply put, that meter is stultifying, a gross distortion of the looser, more natural 'rhythms' of poetic language. In Eliot's and Pound's formulations it amounts to saying that instead of meter and syllables crammed into place (Pound's famous "ti-tumming" parody of iambic lines) the poet's primary concern should be with the natural 'rhythms' of language itself, subordinating form to subject matter at hand. Metrics came to be disassociated from the modern world in which they lived. Poetry as a vehicle of real life and language, unfettered by Victorian diction and mannered sensibilities. Always something approximating well-written prose. In Ford's words,

I wish I could take for granted the Reader's acceptance of the doctrine that Poetry is a matter of the writer's attitude towards life, and has nothing in the world to do—nothing whatever in the world to do—with whether the lines in which this attitude is put before him be long or short; rhymed or unrhymed; cadenced or interrupted by alliterations or assonances. One cannot expect to dictate the use of words to a race; but it would be of immense service to humanity if the Anglo-Saxon world could agree that all creative literature is Poetry; that prose is a form as well adapted for the utterance of poetry as verse (cited in Missing Measures 160)
But it's that crucial substitution of meter for 'rhythm' Steele finds problematical and worthy of the detailed historical study that forms most of Missing Measures. Problematical because all too many interested readers and writers of poetry take for granted a distinction that's had to endure many flights, reformulations and digressions throughout literary history to arrive at its present form. To trace that anti meter rhetoric to a verse/Poetry dichotomy is the book's primary task: beginning with the Poetics and chronicling the myriad ways in which the primary Aristotelian verse/imitation dichotomy gets reappropriated (and at times reinvented) by scores of writers, theorists and literary exegetes. So that by the time we get to the age of vers libre it's hard to pin down what exactly is in 'prose' that's preferable to verse, Eliot referring to it in his celebrated essay on Kipling as "the musical impression upon the sensibility" (cited in Missing Measures 162), Williams as a "variable foot" & Ford as the "intimate ear.

Scholar Timothy Steele is an invaluable resource for a correct understanding of the scope and nature of the verse/Poetry distinction on which his work hinges: so many misdirected notions of the nature of poetry, as he rightly claims, have resulted from not acquainting ourselves properly enough with the classical sources.

But as poet he's also faced with elucidating a predominant free verse milieu to which traditional metrics is almost considered anathema. As practitioner of a new Formalism in America there's a lot at stake here for him. How do history and literary theory resolve the tension in the poet's soul? How does the academic keep a cool enough distance from the subjectivities of his craft to write in a form that, as Eliot says, reconfigures and revolutionizes the very paradigms he eschews? To lose that crucial arm's-length separation from self-promoting theory is to produce a highly compromised poetry, such as characterizes the literary output of many academic poets & their students today.

So in a remarkable way Steele's book is directed as much against a shoddy understanding of 'free verse' as against the shoddy writing that results from it: a silent condemnation, after all is said and done, of the writing institutions to which he belongs. The greater the critique, the greater the demands placed on the teacher to offer a markedly superior poetry. And, of course, it follows only the very best teachers can combine the advancements made by their own exemplary researches with the creation of greater writing standards. Ironically our greatest modern poet-teachers (Pound, Eliot, Williams and Yeats) weren't academics at all.


Joseph Duemer said...

I find your disingenuous refusal to capitalize the "n" in the "new" that comes before "Formalist" telling. I don't know about Canada, but in the US, the New Formalism is a retrograde and politically conservative movement whose adherents have produced precious little readable poetry. The fetish for meter is an idol, a dream of a Golden Age of popular and populist verse that never actually existed.

And the divvying up of poetic virtue between the party of free verse and the party of meter is problematic because it is ahistorical. The most popular poem in the US today, measured by book sales, is Billy Collins -- he of the limp free verse line -- not Dana Gioia -- he of the limp metrical line.

Just rejecting modernism (idiotic in any case) will not lead to a revitalization of poetry.

Joseph Duemer
Professor of Literature
MFA Iowa 1980
Founding Member of the Plumbline School

Joseph Duemer said...

Just looked at the photo of Steele: Isn't that a conference badge around Professor Steele's neck? And that sure looks like a classroom or a hotel meeting room. God, I'm sick of the empty bashing of academics.

Henry Gould said...

Rachel Wetzsteon, if not for her tragic and untimely death last month, might have made a brilliant "Plumbliner". Listen to what she has to say on these issues (see link below). I think her essay is a good antidote to programmatic polemics & position-taking. The poems come first : they have to be, and are, their own justification...


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I don't know if my bad teaching equals (or almost invariably amounts to) bad writing equation is any less a position-taking than the statement that New Formalists are "retrograde and politically conservative" & have lately produced only "precious little readable poetry".We're all certainly entitled to our opinions, provided we offer good reasons. I am only acknowledging the great impetus of Steele's work towards rethinking "free verse" as the only suitable style for contemporary poetry.

I've made Steele (and a few others) notable exceptions to the rule, almost wanting to establish as a corollary that the more informed the scholarship, the better usually the results will be for literary practice and theory. I am myself more personally inclined to go for the radical poetries but am humbled, at the same time, by the meticulous & thoroughgoing way in which Steele traces a verse/poetry distinction back to its classical sources.

Steele's proven his point (notwithstanding my own stylistic preferences)that 'vers libre' is a very hybrid, complex and difficult concept, used too cavalierly by all too many contemporary poets.

Rachel Wetzsteon's underscores that point by the many examples she gives from Eliot's 'Prufrock'of the "constant evasion and recognition of regularity" principle at work in the greatest 'free verse' ever written.Even Eliot himself had to obey the instinct to ascribe some sort of 'form' to what was intended to be the most revolutionary verse.Perhaps if we had stopped at Eliot in the 20s, a great deal of the misunderstandings, and their disastrous applications to writing, may have been avoided.

Henry Gould said...

"Even Eliot himself had to obey the instinct to ascribe some sort of 'form' to what was intended to be the most revolutionary verse."

1) I don't think Eliot ever intended to write "revolutionary verse"

2) I doubt there's any evidence that Eliot "had to obey the instinct to ascibe some sort of 'form'" etc. Eliot was one of the most careful & conscious practitioners of verse. How exactly does one "obey an instinct to ascribe"?

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Eliot was a strange bird: modernist in temperament and practice but, perhaps as a result of his great erudition and familiarity with many texts,a classicist at heart: certainly a conservative reader of the great literary traditions to which he oftentimes alludes. I think of the Tieresias figure in "The Waste Land". It's almost commonplace to detect this strain in the man, isn't it? Wetzsteon's article refers to the "constant evasion and recognition of regularity" in "Prufrock", and in a lot of his other writings.She's right.

Steele's point is that even Eliot (and Pound, Williams) couldn't discard what's been considered the mainspring of verse, at least not without replacing it with something, as he says, that "communicates indirectly and has a more musically elusive form" (cited in Steele,162)It's a way of talking adopted by those who like Verlaine, Mallarmé want to replace meter with a musicality that creates the desired "indefiniteness" of true poetry (pp. 209-210). And it's in this sense that Eliot, and the others, feel constrained to give if not a metrical then at least a more satisfying (deliciously mystifying) musical 'form' to their verses. 'Musical' is interchangeable, of course, with any other principle of verse arrangement.

And then there's this interesting little passage in "The Sacred Wood" in which he unmistakably ties the living poet, in practice and theory, to those who've gone before. The artist as living 'copy', in one fashion or another, of the forms of art that have come before:

"No poet, no artist of any art,has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.You cannot value him alone;you must set him, for contrast and comparision,among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic,not merely historical, criticism."

Henry Gould said...

OK. I just wouldn't call that "revolutionary" in any sense.

The notion that Eliot & Pound's "musicality" stems from Verlaine & Mallarme, & that the latter's notion of same had something to do with abandoning meter, is far-fetched. Symbolist "musicality" had much more to do with Poe's notion of "vagueness" and the evocative, mysterious image, than with metrics.

Meter changes. The metrics of "Piers Plowman" are closer to the metrics of rap than they are to A. Pope; Steele's notion of a modernist "betrayal" of some "true" meter is simplistic, at best. Again, read carefully what Wetzsteon says about these polemics (rather old now, from the 90s) in her essay which I noted above.

poemshape said...

//there are exceptions and Timothy Steele, a poet writing in an emerging new Formalist tradition//

I'm not convinced there's any such thing as a "new Formalist tradition". The brief (and out of print) book called "Rebel Angels" announced itself as the beginnings of just such a movement, but it's sweeping predictions never materialized. It's hard to tell whether interest in traditional poetic techniques are increasing or unchanged. But I certainly don't see anything "emerging".

//I don't think there's anyone at present who seems more qualified, in both theory and practice, to revive interest in traditional poetics.//

I am.

And not because I'm a better scholar, but I'm doing something he's not.

Where is Steele's presence on the Web? I once wrote to Steele (20 years ago) and he informed me, with strained politeness, that he was too busy to talk poetry. That's ok. I get it. But that's not the makings of a man whose going to revive anything. It's a shame he wasn't more engaged when other poets, like Silliman, established their presence with a far wider public. I invite Steele to post at my blog (or any blog). Let people hear from him.

//his disparaging comments on Marjorie Perloff's reading of Aristotle's Poetics //

The more I read Perloff, the more I wonder why anyone reads her.

Anyway... Steele wrote a fine book, but I don't see anyone reading it (a handful of a handful), which is a shame, but that's the way it is.

Until Steele enters the fray, gets his hands dirty like the rest of us, I see him as being and remaining largely irrelevant.

~ Patrick