The Priest Who Chuckled in Poetry

This week, Melbourne priest, poet and teacher Father Peter Steele SJ passed away, at age 72, from cancer. Peter taught me poetry in my final year of Literature at the University of Melbourne, and had such a significant influence on me that I have had to write something in honour of him here. Click on the link below to download my essay as a PDF.

The Priest Who Chuckled in Poetry

7 thoughts on “The Priest Who Chuckled in Poetry

  1. Thanks, Matt, for introducing me to someone with whom I was not acquainted. I felt a touch of fondness for the person described and was pleased to hear about his influence on your life.

    1. Thanks! I hadn’t seen him for several years when he died but he certainly had a strong influence on me. I’m not sure I would ever have loved poetry as much as I do without his influence.

  2. Hi Matt! Looking for an umpteenth way to avoid my study today I remembered you’d posted something on Peter Steele. He was just as you described him (and more I’m sure you’ll admit), and though I’m no expert on the man I’d like to say a few things. First, I had a similar experience to you, enrolling in Father Steele’s classes (twice) and discovering a highly dubious organisation technique coupled with an Encylopaedic memory for quotes. One got the feeling Father Steele, if he’d had his druthers, would be mixing martinis with Tony Hecht at any given moment. That is, if one didn’t know better. His approach to teaching appeared laidback, but perhaps if one or all of his students had burst into life so too would the lesson itself. Since I joined his class on only two occasions over two separate years I have enjoyed limited time for observation. I too was ‘undergraduate’, but in sensibility rather than candidacy, and I was mystified that Father Steele began a class with a Jonathan Swift satirical poem that would put contemporary reggae artists to shame, so filled with vitriol was it (and so utterly un-pc). I spoke up at some point, saying something arcane about ‘soul-impressions’ (which I’d recently extracted from an Oxbridge book) that piqued Peter’s interest, but which per usual I couldn’t easily define in front of the class. An Art Garfunkel lookalike, who I later befriended, was enrolled, as was a girl with not a quondam poetic thing about her; I record this fact because ‘strangely’ I held the same ‘opinions’ as her about the Swift satire, and I realised that something about that felt ‘wrong’. Peter Steele had trouble defending his choice of poem, though I’m sure it was chosen simply for the fact it was a first rate satirical poem. Passing to the only other time I ever attended a Steele poetry class, a Howard Nemerov poem, The Looking Back, was one of the studies. I remember it because it included the line ‘this little threshing floor which makes us be so fierce’, a quote from Dante apparently. It was a more successful class and walking down the John Medley stairs I remember momentarily pausing to ask Peter if a canonized poet (whose name escapes me) wrote that prayer was ‘reversed thunder’. “No,” he replied, “that was George Herbert.”

    George Herbert and Peter Steele are possibily chatting together right now while Tony Hecht makes them both martinis. Up in heaven, lines from all the great poems and great lines from many others drift around like dandelion wands. “Look little low heavens”, “wild surmise”, “satisfaction is a lowly thing, how pure a thing is joy”, “invisible armies clash by night”, “grief melts away like snow in may”, “safe in their alabaster houses silent as a disc of snow”, “from you have I been absent in the Spring”, “sweet is the love which nature brings: our meddling intellect mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things – we murder to dissect”, “thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season”…

    Remembering the chance encounters I’ve had with this man over the years, it’s sad that he’s not around. I hope to meet him again one day.

    1. Thanks, Nat! Your stories perfectly captured the atmosphere of many of those classes. I’m pretty sure we did the same Swift poem in my year. I don’t remember being horrified by it; but I do remember understanding as much of it as I understand about reggae, ie. not much. But he did introduce me to “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas, and I am very soon going to teach that to my students, so I forgive him for every Swift satire I failed altogether to understand.

  3. Ah, Fern Hill. Well, there you go. You might as well send them home for the rest of the day after that… Sorry to keep blathering on your blog; I appear about to do the inexcusable blogger thing and post a poem (or at least a great chunk of one) on your site. Here’s from Steele’s ‘An Ordinary Evening in Kew’ a great chunk:

    Watching the rain
    Descend as if it chose to, giving vent
    To laws at once of gravity and mercy,
    I’m brought to book by earth’s imagination,
    The bearing of the trees, exfoliation
    Of these most rambling streets, the rise of lights
    Captive upon their poles and in my eyes.
    Come in, you two: see if you’ll make a lodging
    An hour at least with the rest who wait inside,
    Heads full of dreaming, bodies compelled by time.

  4. Hey Matt! Don’t know if you’ll use him for your 12 p.p., but the following is a ‘requiem’ for Peter Steele by a fellow jesuit and friend of his:

    http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=32134

    it includes a poem of his entitled ‘crux’ which covers similar terrain to yourself. He was a poet; given over to amalgams of thoughts, the low and the high perhaps, that seem dense at first, but after a while draw you in the more. All the best,

    Nat

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