Even in his own lifetime John Donne was criticised for writing TMI poetry: too much information, Reverend Dean.
That his contemporary in London William Shakespeare was doing exactly the same thing in helter-skelter speeches did not elicit similar complaints. Shakespeare had to get his people inside the heads of the audience, so hours of normal connective thought and feeling were compressed into sixty seconds of words.
Miraculously, it works. Donne made poems in which every line can be a new simile, an outrageous inversion, a nerve-racking pun.
His poems are an anthology of knowledge where, somewhere, an argument or an emotion waits to be revealed. The reader has to have determination. This ingenuity of the anthology is also a characteristic of the poetry of Peter Steele.
The American poet Marianne Moore had the felicitous knack of finding the just-so quote. She also had the audacity, borne of a democratic spirit, of not privileging one source over another, so a distinguished declaration of Henry James could find itself beside the home-grown idea of a baseball hero she’d heard on the radio that morning.
The polished and the popular found company in the same poem. Literary distinctions do not count when you need the bon mot, something we find over again in Steele’s writing and teaching. This ingenuity with the appropriate, which we dare to call wisdom, capsizes snobbery and chortles with common sense.
More than once I have observed him walking from the Medley Building of the University of Melbourne to Newman College reading a book, not looking up. I will alert the reader to the many corners on that course.
With anyone else, such behaviour would be thought attention seeking or eccentric. But I wish to picture the emblem of the book leading the human through the everyday world.
No bookish adjective gets close to the way learning with Steele was a means to creative ends. The poetry at its best bounds forth as one inspired and energised by these providers of language. Barracking, banter, backchat, blessing and occasional battle come fresh to us as Steele engages with the big past in an ingenuity of belief statements.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream says the poet 'gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’. In the same magical outpouring Shakespeare talks of how ' imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown.' Solo quips, haiku sprees, Skeltonic skittering, the thin slalom of chopped prose, postmodern agglutinations – none of these were Steele’s metier.
When he bodies forth it really is a body, broad verse structures, expanding stanzas, weighty divertimenti, well-nourished conclusions. Lately we kept coming face-to-face with solid sonnets. We find this increasingly (how else would we find it?) as his work matures, this ingenuity with prepossessing sentences and dilating dialectic. Neither rambling as Les Murray nor wanton as Walt Whitman, closer to the gorgeous ecstatics of Christopher Smart, but eminently more intelligible.
Peter Steele loved quoting George Herbert and most frequently 'I like our language, as our men and coast.' In this one line we have an affirmation of English, humanness, and local place that in total we call home. Herbert’s undemonstrative tone tells us he will never find reason to retract the statement, either. One or all of this tried and true triad are present as a point of departure or return in Steele’s poetry, and can be described as an ingenuity of self-awareness.
I remember sitting in a Steele seminar once when he pointed agitatedly through a south window of the same Medley Building towards the City of Melbourne, exclaiming, 'If you try to believe everything that is said out there, you will go mad.'
This is helpful in reconciling what seems like a contradiction in his work, between the desire to say everything 'out there' using a panoply of thought and every known word in the language, up against his desire to get at the essence. '’The knowledge’ – what’s not to prize in that?' he says in a late poem, but the ingenuity of his order is to acknowledge the extensive view while fixing on the short view.
Which is another way of saying he is going after pearls. Peter Steele would have revisited Herbert’s poem ‘The Pearl’ many times, splendid in its austere summary of worldly ways. The poem turns on our understanding of the saying at Matthew 13, 45 where a merchant sells everything he has to buy 'one pearl of great price'.
While Steele flourished poetically in the second half of his life, seeming to be on a permanent roll into new found lands, it is observable in the late work how he returns to where he began, talking through the Christian inheritance. Steele spent plenty of time in churches, but also in common rooms and galleries and libraries, hence in the poetry the manifold ingenuity of his devotion.
Philip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street.