Dec 9, 2009

A Steele Poem

Though not forced to wear the shameful label of "Wintersian" -- like a scarlet W -- Timothy Steele has certainly drawn the attention of many Wintersians, such as the late Donald Stanford, who published a number of reviews and poems by Steele during Stanford's long years as co-editor of the Southern Review. (Steele's three books on prosody, by the way, are very learned and enlightening.) Steele has more frequently been thought as one of the "New Formalists," which, he has written, is a label that suits him well enough. I like his poetry and think well of it. But I can't say that any single poem has inspired me in some significant way, standing as some sort of monument worth reflecting upon often. The following poem, though, is one that keeps coming to mind for some pondering. I think it pays on close reading, on the act of critical contemplation.

The Library

Emerging through the automatic doors,
I feel the Santa Anas' gusting heat.
It's five o'clock. The grainy sunlight pours
Through eucaplyti whose peeled bark strips beat
The trunks to which they cling like feeble sleeves.
The campus lawns are eddyings of leaves
Viewed by day's milky, unassertive moon.
The sculpture garden has a recessed seat.
I take it, thinking of the afternoon.

And of the library. Cultural oasis?
Few would object to its conserving aims.
Still, tracking books by way of data bases,
I feel I'm playing Faustian video games.
And jotting notes down from computer screens,
I doubt our armories of ways and means:
Whether in books or trusted to a disc,
The written record may, as Plato claims,
Subvert and put our memory at risk.

Yet books consoled me when I was a child,
And seeing words and software joined and synced,
Even philosophers might be beguiled.
And if a relish verses nimbly linked,
Here flowing, there concluded with a twist,
It was Greek librarian-archivist
Who had an odd pedantic inspiration --
Make prose and poems textually distinct --
And first gave lyric measures lineation.

Banners on the Art Gallery's facade
Ripple and flap; in a collegial wrath,
Two birds dispute the rights to a carob pod;
A puffed-up brown bag somersaults a path
Where Rodin's Walker [ital] makes his headless stride.
Leaves spin up into coilings and subside.
This windy much-ado, arising from
The desert could well serve as epitaph
For Alexandria, Rome, Pergamum --

For all the ancient libaries whose collections
Have vanished in a mammoth wordless void.
And though I have the evening clouds' confections,
Thoughts of the art and science thus destroyed
Leave me a little empty and unnerved.
The consolation? Some things were preserved,
Technology now limits what is lost,
And learning, as it's presently deployed,
Is safe from any partial holocaust.

I could construct a weighty paradigm,
The Library as Mind. It's somehow truer
To recollect details of closing time.
Someone, as slotted folders on a viewer,
Tucks microfiche squares in their resting places;
Felt cloth's drawn over over the exhibit cases;
The jumbled New Book Shelves are set in shape;
The day's last check-outs are thumped quickly through a
Device that neutralizes tettle-tape.

And shelvers, wheeling booktrucks through the stacks,
Switch lights off at the ends of empty aisles;
Jaded computer terminals relax;
Above lit spaces of linoleum tiles,
The hitching-forward minute hands of clocks
Hold vigil still, but a custodian locks
The main door, and the last staff members go
Home to their private lives and private trials.
Still over us, the Santa Anas blow

The leaves about in rustling shifting mounds;
The long, rusty-colored needles pine trees shed
In broom-straw trios strew the walks and grounds;
Winding, as though along a corkscrew's thread,
A squirrel has circled down a sycamore.
The frail must, in fair times, collect and store,
And so, amid swirled papery debris,
The squirrel creeps, nosing round, compelled to hoard
By instinct, habit, and necessity.

The varying stanza form is one that could, and should, provide a model for our times. It is similar to the 10-line stanza Paul Valery used for a few good and great poems ("Palme" and "Ebauche d'un Serpent," for example); the rhyme scheme that varies yet remains similar stanza to stanza could give modern formalists who don't want to get too rigid quite a bit more freedom than the traditional poetic forms of English allow. (Loose rhyme schemes and metrical patterns appear to be a major need for modern formalist poets and could help turn a few poets from prosetry to poetry. For the bane of rigidity has been almost completely scorned in our times [though I am ever puzzled why even the word appears to elicit shrieks of horror], even among the New Formalists. I should write more about this, but I only have time to say that if it takes loose forms to get more a few more poets to write in some sort of credible poetic form, then bring on the loose forms. A little bit of form is better than none at all.) Steele's nine-line stanza is expressive and well worth imitating for anyone aspiring to write real poetry, not the almost mindless, slapdash prosetry that fills our journals and magazines. His iambic line is well turned, though some of the variations are too loose. His diction is casual, in the way of the New Formalists, who hold court in their small fief nowadays while imitating the prosetic musers who run the cultural kingdom at present.

As to theme and content, there is a lot in this poem, about the meaning of the intellectual life, about civilization, about the importance of poetry and reading, about books holding off the winds of destruction, while books themselves succumb to those same winds. (I was just reading in a history of the Jews in ancient times of a lost history written about Nero's and Vespasian's war against the Jews in AD 68-70 that was written in answer to Josephus's famed work on that same topic. It is crushingly sad that that work did not survive.) It makes me want to get over to the library and gather some nuts for the winter -- though I really don't need much encouragement to do that, summer or winter. The symbolism is strong and moving, almost Post-Symbolist, in Winters's definition, though it is really not much more than a plain analogy -- and there's not a thing wrong with that, I hasten to add. Some of the diction here is pure ornament, but most of this cake's icing is understated and well turned. Are these witty moments weaknesses, like the empty flashiness of a vibrantly decorative stylist like, say, John Updike? I would say that they are slight weaknesses in a good poem. But I dislike quibbling about something so good as this.

It's interesting that the poem is so thematically diffident. Right in the midst of the poem, Steele writes that he thought about writing of the analogy of the library as a place where, perhaps, "Mind" is fulfilled and preserved. But then he immediately sets any such grand theme aside for some further musings about leaves blowing about and squirrels gathering nuts. He seems as milky and unassertive as the moon of the first stanza. The turn away from the big theme seems emblematic of our age, when our poets feel, or seem to feel, a little shy of big ideas. Winters certainly had no such diffidence. The poems he thought greatest are all about big ideas, perhaps too big in some ways. (I think of those dense poems on subjects like "being" that Winters wrote, wrote about, and thought highly of.) Perhaps Steele, like many another writer, felt that he is simply not up to the task of speaking of something so profound as the "Mind" and consequently felt compelled to set his sights much lower, even though his premise led him to the brink of saying something big with his suggestive analogy. But these are for now mere reflections, things I will ponder in the years to come as I think of this poem.

Yvor Winters, if I were asked to make a guess, would not think all that highly of the poem's style. He would almost certainly consider large chunks of it "journalistic," which was a particularly damning adjective for him. This word seems to have meant to him "pedestrian," and much of Steele's writing in this poem is a touch -- in the dogged convention of our era -- pedestrian, perhaps arising in part from the diffidence I just mentioned, but perhaps arising too from the need to get published, since this sort of chatty writing reigns in our literary culture. As to Steele's ideas, Winters would probably have found them poorly developed and the poem as a whole structured rather sloppily. I would agree with that assessment to some degree. The poem is not great, perhaps 2 stars or so in my system. But it is worth taking time to contemplate. It is a bit of a musing ("take some interesting subject; look at it in several ways and from a bunch of angles; see what pops into your mind by association or otherwise; finish by tossing your best notions into a pile, which then becomes the poem"), but at least it muses upon important matters with moments of fine style, a few sharp insights, and a fairly strong poetic line.

Any thoughts from my readers are always appreciated.


Robert McLean said...

Dear Ben,

What frightens many poets from writing in normative forms is that they seem to amplify any banality to the point of ridiculousness – one finds this in Hacker, later Dick Davis, and Steele, whose novelistic particulars are much more emphasised by his meters than, say, Pinksy – or Wordsworth. Late Bowers has such quotidian details, too, but the poems survive and speak; of course, blank verse is better suited to such diffusiveness. Workshop and MFA poets often gravitate towards refrain-based forms to avoid the pressure structure applies to what’s being said. Compared to San Francisco Airport, the closest Winters got to this kind of thing, Steele doesn’t stand up. The energy generated by meter does require a big disquieting difficulty of theme to stand against it, each measured and determined by the other.



Ben Kilpela said...

Robert: I didn't quite get your point about MFA poets writing in refrains. Your first point is that form puts a spotlight on banal writing, but your second point is that MFA poets choose form to avoid the pressure of saying something better than banal. That doesn't quite add up. Perhaps you left something out. Please explain.

On the first point, that writing in form throws glaring light on banal writing and ideas, causing poets to shy away from form, I have to say that I still would like to see more poets use form even for the banal purposes that they write. The loose forms of the present age often make the typical prosetic musings a touch better, in general, in my judgment, despite the diffuse writing styles and poetic structures. Steele's poem "The Library" is an example. It's significantly better because of the form, despite its shortcomings. Sometimes loose form even makes those prosetic musings I complain about so often strong poetry. Still, using form for this kind of diffuse stuff seldom if ever makes for great or even very good poetry, but loose form does help make diffuse prosetry better. I enjoy and profit from some of this weak poetry and wish more poets would, at the least, write in our current loose forms, which can help push them to think better and focus their work on higher matters. I do agree with you that at the high end of poetry that strong form makes bad writing and bad ideas stand out, if I understand you correctly.

Robert McLean said...

Dear Ben,

Take, firstly, Dylan Thomas and his Do not go gentle... – he’s basically talking nonsense and the villanelle’s bipartite refrain and its synthesised closure at the end amounts to a case of if you say something long enough then someone will believe you.

Secondly, consider Ashbery’s Faust or Farm Implements... – whilst not using refrains, the unmetered sestina is a huge favourite of dabblers in ‘form’ in the Antipodes.

Then compare these to Nashe or Wyatt...

These two options are staples of MFA programmes. I guess I don’t think one can dabble when it comes to verse; it just takes too much practice to get it even nearly right. And I don’t know about you, but all rhyme to me has a humorous quality – my children certainly concur – and if meter isn’t also adding muscle, then that potentially potent combination can turn to slapstick, such as Ashbery’s Popeye or cases like when a heavy and inevitable rhyme occurs in the unmetered poems in Life Studies and one is left with a farce.

Blank verse for prosaic discursive novelistic musing would be a good option to stiffen its back.