Poetry Toolkit: 'How to Read a Poem'
Updated: Feb 3
Literary criticism has quite a bad press among certain circles, and I confess to be myself a bit wary of it. As much as I like the insights it can offer, when dissecting texts like a coroner would a corpse these people indeed tend to, more often than not, go overboard with dry analysis if not complete wild fancies. An invite like here on 'how to read a poem', made not by a poet but a literary critic like Terry Eagleton, therefore had me a bit on edge, although curious.
To his credit, the author himself is well aware that literary criticism can be labelled -as he puts it- 'bombast, hot air, specious manipulation'. Funnily enough then, he starts this whole book by defending his field, those roots he traces back to that noble exercise: rhetoric. It's a nice endeavour, and one that certainly makes for a punchy and interesting argument:
'Language if the medium in which both Culture and culture -literary art and human society- come to consciousness; and literary criticism is thus a sensitivity to the thickness and intricacy of the medium which makes us what we are.'
Great! Great, but then so what?
Then follow an attempt to define poetry through a discussion of Russian Formalism, and, beyond, the work of Yury Lotman. It's interesting, but I must say a dry and circumvallated way to finally arrive at what is, strikingly, a rough and imperfect definition:
'Poetry is language organized in such a way as to generate certain effects, and to this extend it has much in common with everyday speech. One difference, as we have seen, is that everyday utterances skim over the flavour and texture of words in order to achieve their ends; whereas in poetry, one of these ends is precisely the exploration of words in themselves. This is how poetry can be rhetorical without being crudely instrumental.'
'If a piece of writing had no striking verbal effects at all, and no moral insights, then it is doubtful we will call it a poem.'
Obvious, isn't it? Obvious and certainly not very helpful. And that, THAT is exactly the problem with such a book. It's unnecessarily too circumvallated, to make obvious statements, that are not helpful.
Now, don't get me wrong! I love his take on how to fully engage with poems via an holistic approach encompassing both form and content, those interplay -in harmony or at loggerhead- is the core of poetical effects. Discussing it all, Terry Eagleton can indeed here again throw some punchy insights:
'(…) the language of a poem is constitutive of its ideas.'
'(…) poetry grants us the actual experience of seeing meaning take shape as a practice.'
'Poetry is not supposed to be a bare record of experience; (…) it is also expected to draw deeper or wider implications from what it observes.'
But, considering his target audience is (as I assume, in any case!) people willing to fully engage with the deepest meaning of poems while not having a clue on how to go about it, I don't think such intricate yet given babbling will serve as an easy way in. The numerous example he gives might read like boring and unengaging school homework. Worst, among all poets available to really nail his point he choose... the difficult to read T.S. Eliot! The tools could have been handed down otherwise than in such a pompous way.
Or could they?
I mean, was the goal of the author here to enrich and educate novice poetry readers, or to show off his abilities to dissert on even the most challenging poems of the English canon? I wonder, and that's a point going beyond this book alone and Terry Eagleton per se to touch at literary criticism as a discipline. And here we are, going full circle. Yes, literary criticism can be rich in interesting and punchy insights. Yet, left into the sole hands of academics who are not poet themselves it tend to turn condescending, self-indulgent, and arrogantly showy. OUCH!
Who was the first to admit that literary criticism could be perceived as 'bombast, hot air, specious manipulation'? Well...
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