By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Though he has lived here since the late 1970s, Steele is not well-known in L.A., where his advocacy of metrics goes against the grain. ("Well, bully for you, Mr. Steele" was one poet's response when I showed him a poem by Steele.) A youthful-looking 50, he has published three books of poetry and two books of criticism. To me, his poetry can seem both contemporary and slightly antiquated, as in the following epigram (an antique form in itself) called "A Million Laughs," which might have been written about Robin Williams:
No one can out-lampoon, -joke, -quip, or -pun you, But the funnier you get the more we shun you. The moral, sir? He who possesses wit Should also have the sense to ration it.
One of the things you notice about "formal" poetry of this kind is that it's easier to memorize and quote. Lines pair off into couplets or cluster together in quatrains or sestets, and stick more easily in the mind. A point Steele likes to make, when the discussion turns to formalism, is that rhyme and meter are inherently pleasurable. "I think if people do discover the joys of working with meter, the negative press that it so often gets -- that it's a straitjacket, that it constrains feeling and emotion horribly -- when they see that that isn't the case at all, they get very excited about it. And also it introduces into writing a kind of hedonistic element in the very best sense. Leslie [Monsour] took to it like a duck to water. Something had been missing, she had been looking for something, and that was what it was."
Steele, as a reading of his criticism reveals, is a scholar as well as a poet in a city in which self-expression for its own sake is valued much more highly than erudition. This was a point made to me by Samuel Maio, whose book The Burning of Los Angeles (1996) is one of the more ambitious attempts to capture the city in verse. (He now lives in Northern California.) "If you read all those dusty books by poets like Auden and Hardy and Eliot," Maio told me, "you weren't cool. That's how I felt. I really sensed an anti-intellectualism. A lot of it, bizarrely, comes from those poets who have found their way into teaching positions. Somehow, their idea is, 'I'm not really a teacher, man, I'm a poet,' and to reinforce their identity as poets they're consciously anti-intellectual."
Steele wears his learning lightly, but he does wear it. In one of his most moving poems ("Sapphics Against Anger"), he writes: ã
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 says 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 like A madman. What Attila did to Europe, What Genghis Khan did
To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage . . ."
As poetry goes, this is on the academic side. Obviously, the poet is well-versed in the classics of Western Lit, and his poem is written in a form that dates back a mere 26 centuries to the ancient-Greek poet Sappho. (Each stanza is made up of three lines of 11 syllables, followed by a fourth line of five syllables, so that each verse ends with a kind of "dying fall.") The language is quiet, unflashy, but also terrifically controlled and subtly melodious. In what comes close to being a credo, a kind of secular prayer, Steele continues his poem by stating why all that learning might be useful:
. . . 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.
DOES IT MATTER IF PEOPLE IN L.A. READ L.A.'S POETS? NOT really. What matters is that people read poetry -- then they might read L.A.'s poets as well. Or so I told myself after coming to the conclusion that although I liked certain poems by all the poets mentioned here, as well as by poets not mentioned here, such as Suzanne Lummis, Harryette Mullen, James Ragan, Amy Gerstler, Charles Webb, Steve Kowit, Ellyn Maybe and others (there may be a shortage of poetry readers in L.A., but there's no shortage of poets), I had come across only a handful of poems whose absence from my life might, occasionally, produce a small twinge of regret.
While I was reading L.A.'s poets, I was also re-reading some poems by Philip Larkin, a morbid, depressive and reactionary English poet who, oddly enough, gets a favorable mention in the afterword to Grand Passion. (He's best known for his poem "This Be the Verse," which begins: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad,/They may not mean to but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.") One poem in particular ("The Trees") had been holding my attention. In form and subject matter it was about as traditional as you could get, but "avant-garde" poems are now about as traditional as you can get also. It doesn't matter anymore how poems are written; it just matters that they're good.