Dedicated to Vikram Seth, who has received a good deal of notice for writing an entire novel in verse, this book of poems by Timothy Steele is marked by a similar fluency--and a similar tendency toward glibness.
Steele, born in Vermont in 1948, lives in Los Angeles. The sights and sounds of Southern California figure prominently in this, his second collection. "At Will Rogers Beach," we find surfers, skaters, gulls and a dog catching a Frisbee, and "Near Olympic," a neighborhood "part Japanese and part/Chicago" of small stucco houses, ancient cars and burgeoning nursery gardens. Banana trees, pepper trees, jacarandas and many species of birds flourish.
Classical allusions mingle cosily with the contemporary. Reflecting on the hapless hero of the film, "Last Tango in Paris," the poet deftly soliloquizes:
All life conspires to define us,
Weighing us down with who we are,
Too much drab pain. It is enough
To make one take sides with Plotinus:
Sweet Universal Avatar,
Make me pure spirit, an ensouled star
There is a felicity in this poet's facility. But often, in these poems, the irredeemably facile rears its head, and we find, to our disappointment, that there may be less here than meets the eye.
The title poem, "Sapphics Against Anger," offers the prospect of the angered poet imagining himself in the Inferno, where Virgil tells Dante how he got there:
That fellow, at the slightest provocation,
Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like
A madman. What Attila did to Europe,
What Genghis Khan did
To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage.
Following this excursion into the realms of mild wit, the poem concludes with a homiletic stanza that sounds a little too close to the advice a master gives a student in a Kung-Fu movie:
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.
The message is creditable, the poetic medium serviceable, but the concepts and verbal counters have been worn too smooth with use to yield any fresh value or insight.
Accessibility is clearly a cornerstone of Timothy Steele's poetic enterprise. Although written in traditional patterns of meter and rhyme, his poems sound very much like the spoken word in all its colloquial ease. Warm, light, conversational and witty, these are the sort of poems that ask to be read aloud to a friend. In an age when many poets remain more willfully abstruse than the genuine complexity of their thoughts may merit, accessibility must be welcomed. For, poetry--unlike microeconomics--is not something that only trained specialists should be able to read.
Indeed, poetry is language raised to such power, whether honed to a spare perfection or elaborately wrought with rich complexity, as to leave a strong impression on the mind and the ear. Simplicity has a strength of its own, and the use of ordinary, everyday language (first championed by Wordsworth nearly 200 years ago) rightly invites a wide audience. But simplicity without depth risks sentimentality, sententiousness and sheer obviousness. And the language of these poems, though admirably clear and precise, does not always reverberate.
One senses also a shying away from the very themes the poet has chosen to invoke. "On the Eve of a Birthday" finds him wishing to deny the fearful passage of time.
At times I fear the future won't reward
My failures with sufficient compensation,
But dump me, aging, in a garret room
Appointed with twilit, slant-ceilinged gloom
And a lone bulb depending from a cord
Suggestive of self-strangulation.
Foolhardy as it may be to generalize about a generation, especially one's own, I hear in those lines that increasingly familiar sound of protest against the unthinkable indignity that we, born in the Baby Boom and brought up to regard ourselves as embodiments of the boundless promise of Youth, should be faced not only with age, but with an age in which our chances have seemed to decline. Yet by dragging in the stock images of the garret roof and cord, the poet evades his own question with a weak joke.
If, indeed, these "light" and "natural" poems are a sign of the times, I am led to wonder for what, in the end, our generation will be remembered. Personally, I would have preferred something less easily digested.