Tuesday, June 5, 2012

George Steiner's Poetry of Thought

Just one of those brilliant mornings that start out with a trip to the store for milk at 5:45. The staggeringly clear light transfuses the supermarket parking lot, reminding me of a similar early-morning scene years ago in Apache Junction, Arizona—without the cactus wrens.

Reading in the shade of the deck—George Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought. A new Steiner book is always cause for celebration…and dismay. But Steiner admits as much himself: “Thus Heraclitus both celebrates and wrestles with—all celebration is agonistic—the terrible power of language to deceive, to demean, to mock, to plunge deserved renown into the dark of oblivion.”

This is a typical example of Steiner-speak. Is all celebration really agonistic? (No) Does Heraclitus actually celebrate the power of language to deceive? (Where?) Steiner never misses an opportunity to cram every remark with subsidiary and often irrelevant or misleading allusions that often obscure rather than illuminate the points he’s trying to make. Meanwhile, he doesn’t present even a single remark attributed to Heraclitus himself to illustrate his point. How about this?

The Sun is the width of a man's foot.

Of Heraclitus he writes at another point: “He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction.” That's an insulting (and also an uncomprehending) thing to say about imagery. There is nothing abstract about poetry. That’s the point.

The very title of the book gives the game away. The Poetry of Thought? It should have occurred to the venerable polymath by now that poetry is a form of thought.

Yet we struggle forward, stimulated by the errors and more than occasionally intrigued by the references. And in his better moments, Steiner does seem to be trying to tease out the ways philosophers make use of metaphor in spite of themselves. This is an interesting subject and I’m sure a few insights will gurgle to the surface eventually through the many layers of Wittgensteinian child's-play.

I came across a remark recently in Roy Blount, Jr.'s Alphabet Juice that's ringing in my ears:

Except perhaps in mathematics, there is no such thing as entirely straight-forward, assumption-free reasoning. Language is always to some extent tendentious. This is what we have to work with. Think of words in terms of foodstuffs: whatever we cook up won’t be composed of pure nutrients: it will derive from odd life-forms that breathe underwater or grow in the ground. But we can use fresh, organic ingredients, we can wash contaminants off them, and we can avoid globbing them up with heavy batter and frying them in oils that clog our arteries. Actually, it’s a lot harder to do that with words than with trout or carrots, but it’s the goal for an honest writer to aspire to.

At 7, I was reading an article in the Star-Tribune online about a trout stream that’s being revitalized near the Mall of America, when Hilary suggested we take a morning walk through the neighborhood. Lots of brown beetles on the asphalt under the ash trees. June bugs I suppose. The sight of them reminded me of a passage in Witold Gombrowicz’s journals, but there’s no time to go into it here. Along the way we talked to a neighbor who had accidently killed off a large swath of grass with Round-Up and was trying to re-seed.

Back at the computer, I opened my design program and added a few new recipes to my ever-changing 24-page home cookbook (copies available on request)—Curried Chicken Quinoa, and Seaside Slaw from Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica.

By eight thirty I was tracking down some references to a book called Dynamics in Action; Intentional Behavior as a Complex System by Alicia Juarrero. I happened upon a 35-page abstract of the book in PDF format, which I downloaded but didn’t print out. (Ain’t computers great!)

Then it occurred to me suddenly that I ought to buy a copy of Gombrowicz’s journals, which have recently been re-translated.

Another pot of coffee. Now I’m thinking I ought to go down to Hopkins tonight to see the Transit of Venus. (What would Heraclitus have made of that?)

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