Steele's formal verse implicitly critiques the subjectivism of much contemporary poetry. In books and essays Steele argues that the modernists conflated outmoded poetic diction and subject matter with meter and tradition and used free verse to destroy versification (see prosody and free verse), thus severing poetry from its sources of rhythm, structure, and rational thought. Steele hopes to help restore the art of measured speech. A predominant figure in the new formalism, Steele synthesizes the erudite elegance of Richard wilbur with the counterromantic, antimodern, urbane plain style of Yvor winters, J. V cunningham, and Edgar bowers in poems that address contemporary matters against a backdrop of classical allusion and form.
Born in Burlington, Vermont, Steele attended Stanford University as an undergraduate and as a Stegner fellow, and Brandeis University, where J. V Cunningham directed his dissertation on detective fiction. Steele has received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984) and the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poetry (1986).
While some critics praise Steele for his technical mastery, his grace, and his polish, others call his rhythms monotonous, his diction glib or crabbed, and his themes limited or unoriginal. Although Steele's subjects are occasionally banal, as in "Anecdote of the Sugar Bowl" (1994) and "The Sheets" (1986), Steele's best poems capture the motion of a scene and the mind examining it, as in The Color Wheel's (1994) "Dependent Nature," "Practice," and "Hortulus."
Uncertainties and Rest (1979) displays Steele's formal mastery. "Sunday Afternoon" and "Nightpiece for the Summer Solstice" treat Steele's dominant subject: domestic reality. In Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems (1986), Steele takes on larger philosophical themes. The free verse "Snapshots for Posterity" and the sestets of "On the Eve of a Birthday" treat the problems of maturing in a materialistic world as Stoic moral issues. "The Golden Age," a poem in syllabics (in which all lines contain a predetermined number of syllables), argues that all times are corrupt, and an era only thrives if "friends sketch / The dust with theorems and proofs." "Sapphics against Anger" meditates on anger and "the good life" and argues that though passion is "the holiest of powers," it is "sustaining / Only if mastered." The Color Wheel contains love lyrics, poems on academic and domestic subjects, and several poems of true wit. "Advice to a Student" counsels a delinquent student on inventing clever excuses, "on Wheeler Mountain" invites its addressee—a hiker—to
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