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Knowledge that eludes the search engine


The Whispering Gallery : Art into Poetry, by Peter Steele. Macmillan Art Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1 876832 85 1, RRP $88.00.

Knowledge that eludes the search enginePeter Steele’s poems are miniature essays, assemblies of words and ideas compacted into easeful lines with well-tempered rhythms. Steele is well-tempered, even when the subject is not. Aphoristic gambits, different sides of a paradox, colours occasionally nailed to the proverbial, the personal in play with the like-minded or other-minded, criss-cross paths of the argument — all good features of an essay — animate the Steele poem. He is insistent on the conjunction; we can sense the word 'but' about to turn a vignette about face. It makes us pay closer attention.

A lifetime of university teaching and marking has shaped his special form of address, though his poetry is blessedly free of the post-modern jargon some writers feel a necessity to use in poetry of ideas. He is old-fashioned enough to employ 'thesis, antithesis, synthesis' as though it were normal. Steele relishes the multiplicity of the world and the mind, while desiring to square things up in verse. If a poet is the line manager of his own language, then Steele is the model of sober good manners; words are taken on their merits, so we find nothing excessive or wildly eccentric, likewise nothing mean or tyrannical.

Steele may avoid the new jargon but not the old strays of English. 'Pond', his poem on Edward Haytley’s 'The Brockman Family at Beachborough', purposefully contains 'abroach', 'ambages', 'sparkish', 'gasconading', 'brandling', 'routiers', and 'gudgeons', so some knowledge of 18th century British mores and a familiarisation with these words aids enjoyment. The poem itself shows us, in a mannerly way, why manners aren’t everything. 

This second collection of picture poems gives further access to his manner of talking. In Plenty: Art into Poetry (2003) Steele enthuses about ekphrastic poetry, his chosen practice, as a way "in which poems 'speak forth' real or imagined works of art." I hesitate to agree that this is the central thing going on in all of these poems, some do little more than prompt a broader response or force an issue into the open, but the richest are making new out of old. Not glosses, but glorifications.

What is Steele’s pursuit? To make, in the same measured tones, educated observations of human dreams and human dilemmas. In 'In Memory of Anthony Hecht' he asks that American poet to "look and rejoice at another country’s beach … fashioned by God and man to discharge their fullness." The painting is of Sorrento back beach, as rendered in vivid swathes and dots, unmistakeable John Perceval.

Poems about art objects are a prolific modern business. Today we thrill to the social comedy of Durcan’s gallery excursions and survive the considerable canvases of Ashbery. But Steele is up to something different, one template being the most famous example of the genre, Auden’s 'Musee des Beaux Arts'. Steele expects a vast range of reference from his readers, an impossibility that excludes many from the discussion.

Knowledge that eludes the search engineThe discussion is, after all, the reality of his own interactions with the painting, sculpture or other creation of his choice. Though Steele wears his learning lightly, the layered look can at times be overwhelming. Still, the presence of the excellent reproductions opposite each poem is a godsend, whereby we fall into an enjoyable view of the interlocutor’s transferred thought processes. Whether some of these poems can stand separate from the images that inspired them is a question open to time. 

Latter-day Steele is more perfected, both in voice and structure. Thankfully he keeps his alliterative tendencies in check these days. His adopted position of imperious certainty is a given. He starts at a high standard and more or less talks unwaveringly at that level for the remainder. This is something some readers find hard to take in Steele. Even when his themes are modesty, doubt and brokenness, it is all said at the same level of unquestioning certitude.

Personally, I find this the real test of the poems. Unrelieved high style is a heady place to be, but can we live there all the time? I’m sure Peter Steele would be the first person to say no, and this is the collection’s limitation, and its glory. We all know a disquisition on the belly laugh is not the same as a belly laugh, but why not have both? Steele’s poetry is not of the moment but of the true occasion.

There are at least two ways he achieves this grand style. First, the structured verse forms are diverse and their maintenance a fascination to the senses. Rhyme patterns serve subtle purposes, for example notice what is going on in the last verse of 'Magi':

Pomegranate and cherry
Banner desire it seems
In robe and caparison;
In the golden vessels, myrrh
Awaits the first-born son
As heady incense gleams
For a prince, and all defer
To the one others will bury.

Second, and above all, any reader of Steele needs to be conditioned to the long, measured sentence. His sentences are a deep breath for a steady statement. His sentences are each large thoughts duly controlled. Within any one tailored sentence we may expect a haiku, a Continental trumpet call, a blithe shift of Augustan tones, a trenchant moral, and an unfussy analogy – all with the flow of Samuel Johnson.

Peter Steele once commented that Auden was "a walking civilization", an image useful in describing Steele, solitary in gallery and study, walking from painting to sculpture to object and bringing to bear a combination of knowledge that cannot be produced by a search engine.



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Existing comments

I thought Harvey's review very good. As the person whose complaint to Steele that his ekphrastic poems tended to be quite unintellible probably led to his two sumptuous coffee-table books, I am leaving the computer to look again at the Hecht-Perceval pairing.

Evan Jones | 08 March 2007  

Great to read a review so thoroughly alive to the poems and their project, and also discriminating and helpful for all sorts of potential readers.

Max Richards | 13 March 2007  

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