Altitude Sickness

The Poetry of Thought
From Hellenism to Celan
George Steiner
New Directions, $24.95, 192 pp.

In The Poetry of Thought, George Steiner announces his theme variously as “the dialogue I am trying to listen in on as between metaphysics and literature,” “the quarrel at once bitter and fraternal between philosophers and poets,” “the commerce between poetics and philosophy,” and the fusion of “the poetry of thought and the thought of poetry.” He also quotes Heidegger’s claim that what is “still concealed is the poetic character of thought” and Maurice Blanchot’s observation that there is between poetry and thought an “exultant antagonism.”

In effect, the book is a study of certain philosophers insofar as they were also poets, sometimes great poets. The choice philosopher-poets are Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Lucretius, Plato, Dante, Descartes, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Bergson, Valéry, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.

Steiner makes life hard for his readers, not only because he has read all the books and pretends that they too have read them, but because of some willful practices he could easily have avoided. The book consists of nine chapters, none of them given a title. There is no table of contents, no bibliography, no index. None of the quotations is located. No footnotes. At one point Steiner quotes a memorable sentence by Beckett—“Now and then the rye, swayed by a light wind, casts and withdraws its shadow”—but if you want to find it in Beckett’s works, Steiner...

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About the Author

Denis Donoghue holds the Henry James Chair in English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is Irish Essays (2011).