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Steiner’s thoughts about us, in his “Poetry of Thought”

November 8, 2012

Some time ago, we announced that George Steiner’s book The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan was on its way to bookstores everywhere. Yesterday, I quoted a bit in a comment after the blog post from the Preface of that book. Today, I would like us to see a longer quotation up through the penultimate page of the book. It’s a quote of Steiner’s thoughts about us.

But first I’d like to say how odd I find it, how ironic, that those who praise poetry tend do so with prose. Remember Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesie? And then a new acquaintance of mine lent me William A. Dyrness’s Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, which starts: “This book seeks to connect poetry and theology. It probably ought to have been written in poetry. But if it were, the poets would not read it because it was theology, and the theologians would not read it because it was poetry. And so it is written in the pigeon-toed prose of theology — a dog barking at the moon.” And quite frankly, this writer would actually elevate himself with this metaphor, because the book is worse than a howl if you ask me. And talking about its style.

Style is what Steiner gets at. Yes, he’s writing prose. Yes, it’s not so poetic and is often blunt, prosaic. “The point I have been trying to clarify is simple:” That’s the first line of page 214, the page where I find the quotation that I’m about to share with all of us below. On the same page, he has gone on: and he says, speaking of “Thought in poetry, the poetics of thought,” that “Their means, their constraints are those of style.” Steiner’s own style, which we ought to be paying attention to when he’s thinking and writing about that for us to read, reminds me of David Markson’s in Reader’s Block. There are so very many many quick little biographies, human stories, near name dropping for the informed. Given Steiner’s obvious interest in people, won’t we find it interesting then that he seems to be paying attention to us? Yes, that’s right. Watch what he writes as we pay attention to how he writes about his book’s “readers” and fascinatingly about readers of “the anti-rhetoric of the blog”:

I have suggested that this conception of language as the defining nucleus of being, as the donation, ultimately theological, of humaneness to man is now in recession.  That neither in its ontological status nor in its existential reach the word retains its traditional centrality.  In many respects this little book, the interest and focus it hope for from its readers — statistically a tiny minority — the vocabulary and grammar in which it is set out, are already archaic.  They relate to the monastic arts of attention in, say, the early Middle Ages or the Victorian library.  They accord poorly with the reduction of literary texts on screens or the anti-rhetoric of the blog.  The mere survival of an essay depends on its availability online.  The future of uncontrollably overcrowded, costly storage in public and academic libraries is increasingly questionable.

The new technologies pluck at the heart of speech.  In the United States, eight- to eighteen-year-olds log about eleven hours of daily engagement with electronic media.  Conversation is face-to-face.  Virtual reality occurs within cyberspheres.  Laptops, iPods, cell phones, email, the planetary Web and Internet modify consciousness.  Mentality is “hard wired.”  Memory is retrievable data.  Silence and privacy, the classical coordinates of encounters with the poem and the philosophic statement, are becoming ideologically, socially suspect luxuries.  As the critic Crowther puts it:  “The buzz inside and outside your head has murdered silence and reflection.”  This could prove terminal, for the quality of silence is organically bonded with that of speech.  The one cannot achieve full strength without the other.

This does not mean that fine poetry and poetry of an intellectual, even explicitly philosophic concern is not being produced.  Geoffrey Hill’s sensibility is profoundly consonant with the values of theology and political philosophy.  Anne Carson’s experiments, at once forbidding and poignant, work northwards of Celan….

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