In “The Poetry of Thought,” George Steiner offers an essay on philosophic poetry in ancient Greece where he contrasts the vital power of poetry with the record keeping nature of prose. Drawing from Plato, he suggests that poetry is closer to oral patterns of speech and carries patterns of memory with the force of creating newness. I think can only think of Eugen Rosenstock Huessy’s (ERH) suggestion that “speech creates the future,” whereas most talking is not speech but simply chatter.
Another possible parallel with ERH is Steiner’s later discussion of Heraclitus and the value of the fragmentary voice, the incomplete in future speech. ERH suggests that the future generation is a grown seeking articulation. Speaking the future comes not in comprehensive records (as in prose), but in fiery proclamation like Isaiah’s charged language of the coming king.
Prose is wholly permeable to the dishevelment and corruptions of the “real world.” It is ontologically mundane (mundum). Narrative sequence often carries with it the spurious promise of logical relation and coherence. Millennia of orality precede the use of prose for anything but administrative and mercantile notations (those lists of domestic animals in LInear B). The writing down in prose of philosophic propositions and debates, of fictions and history is a specialized ramification. Conceivably, it is symptomatic of decay. Famously, Plato views it with distaste. Writing, he urges, subverts, enfeebles the primordial strengths and arts of memory, mother of the Muses. It purports a factitious authority by preventing immediate challenge and self-correction. It lays claim to false monumentality. Only oral exchanges, the license of interruption as in the dialectic, can quicken intellectual inquiry toward responsible insight, insight that is answerable to dissent.
Hence the recurrent resort to dialogue in the works of Plato himself, in the lost books of Aristotle, in Galileo, Hume and Valery. Because it preserves within its scripted forms the dynamics of the speaking voice, because it is in essence vocal and kindred to music, poetry not only precedes prose but is, paradoxically, the more natural performative mode. Poetry exercises, nurtures memory as prose does not. Its universality is indeed that of music; many ethnic legacies have no other genre. In Hebrew scriptures the prosaic elements are instinct with the beat of verse. Read them aloud and they tend toward song. A good poem conveys the postulate of a new beginning, the vita nova of the unprecedented. So much prose is a creature of habit. (25-26)