The Continuo Reads -

George Steiner's "The Poetry of Thought"

A Review

After Babel

George Steiner first came to my attention several years ago
with his book After Babel (1975, 1992, 1998) which, among other things, extended the idea of translation as a conversion of a text from one language to a different (i.e. "foreign") one, to include the rewriting of an "early" text into a modern version in the same language. The underlying concept is that when a language ages - sometimes in less than a century, we treat it as a different one, often without realizing it. An example would be the production of the American King James version of the Bible(1999)from the original version (1611). And spoken languages may change with location - even within a relatively short distance (compare New Orleans, LA, and Biloxi, MS), while the written form may remain constant. Steiner was well-equipped to probe these matters - from his birth he was often cycling among households where English, French, or German were spoken, and was never able to decide which was his native tongue. In After Babel he relied on an incredibly diverse mastery of Western philosophic writings from the ancient Greeks to modern times.

The Poetry of Thought

More recently I came across The Poetry of Thought (2011), and again found a dazzling array of citations, brought to bear on various points, the central one: that poetry - as compared to prose - is much more expressive of emotion. In fact Steiner contends that philosophic concepts are incompletely presented unless they are rendered into poetry. Historically, poetry was the basis of our speech before writing began. Prose began not as expression of thoughts, but as records of items, as in a list of contents in a shipment; consider the adjective prosaic, which means, among other things, boring.


Steiner also discusses music, and the added power it gives when poetry is sung. For me, a church musician, this has important meaning for worship, including hymnody. Worship often includes readings of texts, some prose, some poetry, some poetic texts originally sung (an example: the Kyrie ("Lord, Have Mercy..."), all too often printed as text only. Congregational singing - a gift of the Reformation in the 16th century, combines melody and poetry, and has a precedent in the Jewish psalms from more than 2,000 years ago. While we have the text (in Hebrew) of the psalms, we do not have a clear idea of how they were sung, at least in the details that we would like to set down in modern musical notation. But the psalms have been a mainstay in congregational singing for many churches. Part of the problem is that effective communal singing requires the text to observe meter, and, almost always, rhyme. In the preReformation church Gregorian chant was central in worship. In that use, meter played no part; the rhythm of the melody simply followed the syllables of the text, and when the text was long it required a long melody which needed much study by the chorister. The typical hymn that arose in - for example - the early Lutheran church merged dance rhythms with the text so that the people needed to learn only a short melody, which could be repeated many times, for what we now call verses; this in turn, required either the paraphrasing of the psalms or the chants, or the writing of new texts, into fragments of equal meter. In any case robust congregational singing is an important glue that can bind a people together in an emotional bond, both for the moment as well as afterward. As a gift to humanity, it is - in my view - equal to rhetoric in importance. Of course either can be used for good or evil, but churches do make good use of it.

Setting Poetry to Music

It would be a mistake to assume that hymns were derived from prose; the psalms, for example, were already poetry, in the original Hebrew, and in the various English and other translations. It is tempting to imagine two or three steps in sequence:
1) A text in prose
2) The conversion of that prose into poetry
3) The optional setting of the poetry into music.

Poems typically don't pass through a prose phase, but proceed directly from thoughts into poetry as suggested above. For an example, see the brief review of Amy Lauren's collection of poems Prodigal (click here) which, according to the author, was written without reference to prior prose, and which contains considerable emotional truth.

Setting poetry to music, always optional, is sometimes done with poems in free verse (lacking meter and rhyme). Often it is an integrated process producing a hymn or song at the same time. A sometimes useful side effect with metrical hymns is that any tune can be used for any hymn if they are metrically identical. This interchange should be used with caution: different melodies may express different emotions. Characterizing melodies in this way can be treacherous: Jewish music has traditionally identified music in a minor key as joyous, and in a major key, sad, contrary to much popular sentiment.

Prose vs Poetry

There is an inescapable question: What is the difference between prose and poetry? Many descriptions are available on the internet, and Steiner does not address the question directly. One source maintains that all poetry, in one way or another, is metrical. In response I refer to Prodigal above, in free verse. Other comments refer to the close association of poetry with the expression of emotion. Steiner does hint at the usage of metaphor in poetry. And the neatest description of the difference is in itself an extended metaphor: "When you write prose, you cook the rice. When you write poetry, you turn the rice into rice wine..." - Wu Qiao (17th century Chinese critic).

The Nature of Music

Finally, the relationship between poetry and music must be considered. Steiner devotes the first chapter of The Poetry of Thought to music, and its ability to add emotion to poetry. He is, however, ultimately unable to get at the innermost nature of music; he compares it to marhematics at length, without arriving at a satisfactory conclusion. He does maintain that all cultures have music of some sort: "...unlike natural languages, music is universal. Innmerable ethnic communities possess only oral rudiments of literature. No human aggregate is without music, often elaborate and intrically marshalled. The sensory, emotional data are far more immediate than those of speech (they may reach back to the womb).Except at certain cerebral extremes, associated mainly with modernism and technologies in the west, music needs no decipherment." (p. 16). Steiner apparently does not recognize the inner tonal nature of music (which does make it more or less universal). Every single note from voice or instrument bears within it a so-called major triad, because of the phenomenon of overtones - the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th overtones are present (at different intensities, but nonetheless present) and from them and other higher overtones the common scales are derived. The relationships of the overtones are explained by mathematics, and this is basic to Steiner's statement quoted above, including his "swipe" at modernism and technology. Perhaps the best example of this is the music of Arnold Schönberg, with his twelve tone system, deliberately designed to avoid any hint of tonality, but ultimately failing in this because of the physics of sound. This underlying feature, which might be termed the "tonality trap" is something every composer must deal with in developing a unique musical style. Beyond that the whole question of music, language and emotion is tangled - so much so that some - in frustration - have said "poetry is music and music is poetry". Yet the essential reasons for our responses to music - especially when no textual or visual reference is attached - remain unclear.

- Glenn A. Gentry, April 17, 2017