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Unless this is a parody it's a very disappointing performance
on 20 January 2007
Unless this is a parody, it's a very disappointing performance and one can only wonder what the editor and publisher were thinking when they published it in this state. When you read: "one of the most neglected formal techniques is punctuation" and then discover that the section of punctuation that follows is the shortest one in the book, it's difficult to escape the feeling that this isn't meant to be taken seriously. How would Professor Eagleton react if one of his opponents began a crucial chapter with the words " There is no particular rhyme or reason in the selection of these pieces, no obvious connections between them and no special significance that they are all about nature."?
It's also difficult to believe that the writer of the synopsis actually read the book or knew what he or she was talking about, unless they too were in on the parody. Eagleton argues that the art of reading poetry is dead, and sets out to show his audience how to do it his way. He doesn't teach, he performs. The book has six chapters. No bibliography, no suggestions for further reading. This is itself is a major flaw, suggesting the author thinks the book is sufficient to itself (Although there are numerous footnotes directing the reader to other works by the author. And to "Seven types of Ambiguity" , of which some parts of the book feel like (an acknowledged) Summary. The final chapter has four sample readings which demonstrate how to read a poem the Eagleton way. They are worth the price of admission. However, the logic of the book is that the other chapters should provide the information necessary to the readers so they could make such readings. Or at least have some idea of what is involved in making such a reading.
It's an inescapable fact at the way poetry is used in high school and university curricula has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Driving that change has been an enthusiasm on the part of the syllabus writers for what is often described as "literary theory". Whereas literary criticism might once have dealt with questions of literary merit, asking why a particular poem or poet was worthy of attention, today's student is more likely to be asked about the text's ideology, about who is marginalized or silenced, about the discourses at work or the ideology encoded in the text.
Whether you think this is a good thing or not it's an inescapable fact.
It comes as some surprise therefore to find that Professor Eagleton, author of "An Introduction to Literary Theory" should be publishing a book which begins by lamenting the disappearance of "literary criticism". Content analysis has replaced careful reading and the "literaryness" of the texts has been ignored. Eagleton is aware that after the first paragraph most of his readers will be framing a sentence that begins "But..surely this is a result of the vogue for literary theory"...However while he acknowledges the objection, he trivializes the argument and a few sneers and some irrelevance later, he has avoided the issue. (Although later in the book he will claim to have "discussed the objection". )
This is not a convincing start, but the book still manages to go down hill. For Eagelton's cause to appear valid he has to prove that if you are interested in the ideology of the text, detailed "literary criticism" will allow you to arrive at conclusions content analysis cannot achieve. The irony here is that he's right, but he's unable to give a convincing demonstration of his own argument. He launches into a detailed reading of half a poem by Auden. The fact that he only quotes half the poem isn't reassuring but in keeping with what feels like a general intellectual dishonesty that hangs over the whole book. But he compares a content analysis with his own detailed reading. His "content analysis" is so obviously oversimplified, that his attempt at close reading isn't convincing. Nor is that "close". Although he begins with a discussion of syntax he is soon slipping into a world where he can make statements like: "Behind the work lurks the view that each of us is the private possessor of our own experience, eternally walled off from the sensations of others." The poem itself disappears into what Wimsatt and Beardsley would have called a "private reading". Again and again there is the sense of the poem being conscripted to do service as part of a preformed argument. (the final reading of Edward THomas's poem is another obvious example) One criticism of overtly theorized approaches, that they result in an instrumentalist approach to literature, seems to be borne out in almost everything Eagelton does in this book.
If Eagleton's opening chapter is unconvincing, the rest of the book is far too inconsistent to be effective.
The book claims to be for the general reader and the student, but to suppose both have the same needs and ambitions where poetry is concerned is bizarre. Eagleton's reading of his chosen poems require a reference library and unlimited time. The amount of knowledge they require, not just in terms of historical and cultural information, but about the poet and the poem, is probably only available to university professors who get paid to produce such things and students who are trying to please their professors.
The tone is inconsistent, sliding from explicit statements which the author doesn't deign to explain: "It is not the kind of piece you could vocalize very successfully in standard English" (I think I could, so I need the writer to explain "successfully") to coy fence sitting: "The reader may find the comment genuinely perceptive or just a more subtle version of the kind of criticism that claims to hear the cut and thrust of the rapiers ...." at the moment when a student might well want a direct answer to the question is this too much or too little.
He`s prepared to waste a chapter hammering out a one sentence definition of what is a poem. "Waste", because the contexts in which the student and the general reader encounter poems makes the need to classify them improbable, and irrelevant because the definition is never referred to again the book. His definition is neither provocative nor useful. It manages to exclude so many types of poetry that you don't need to do Eagelton's characteristic maneuver and find an extreme exception and dwell on it until the reader has forgotten that the idea is valid for the majority of cases...nor is it integrated into his readings, since all his examples are from canon central. He isn't quite so ready to define the purpose of criticism. It obviously isn't about literary merit, the idea of asking "Why Shakespeare not Greene". Eagleton's version is highly combative. He has opponents, and you're supposed to know who they are and enjoy the snide digs. What is bizarre about his third chapter is that he expends ink trying to justify political criticism by conscripting Aristotle, Johnson, Coleridge Etc as precursors. As he would say: people have been torturing each others for centuries, it doesn't validate the practice. It seems strange here that Eagleton is so keen to justify a purpose that doesn't need justifying..If you really want to read poems for their ideological content...get on with it..it's one way of reading a poem..what he needed to do in a book called "How to read a poem" is justify and explain his reading practice, not his reading purpose.
While he's prepared to lug the reader through yet another `witty' synopsis of the history of rhetoric, he doesn't see the need to make his own reading practice explicit, or, more importantly to defend it theoretically. And this is probably one of the book's major disappointments. Given what the man knows, I was hoping for some kind of original synthesis. While a "four steps to a reading" approach is probably undesirable, some kind of paradigm would have been useful.
The four sample readings would seem to suggest that "how to read a poem" is read everything the poet has written, read his (sic) biography, read the history of the time the poem was written in and then sit in judgment on the poem's ideology. The last bit is crucial for Eagleton. Criticism is a political activity. Though this raises the question of why you need to pay attention to the punctuation when you're really just there to prove the poet didn't agree with whatever political/moral/ideology you espouse. Or why you only use poetry by "great poets" when any text would do. Or why you're bothering with poetry at all.
Eagleton never stops to explain where the line between "reading in" and "reading into" exists or what constitutes genuine context. His readings feel like a very fuzzy form of historicism, without acknowledging more recent understandings of the way in which writers negotiate thier culture. They aren't simply passive conduits through which "culture" spews out onto the page. The need to contextualize may explain why the poetry used in the book is so conventional, and mostly written by dead white males. You could be forgiven for thinking that there had been no criticism of poetry for the last fifty years or so, and no poetry written since the nineteen seventies. Women don't seem to write poetry, experimental poetry stopped with T.S. Elliot and all poems are written in very traditional forms and standard English. If you're interested in how to make sense of Geoffrey or Selima Hill, or J.H Prynne, this book is not for you. It's stranded in a late seventies classroom.
Eagelton wants to believe that form is ideological. And again he's correct. But he stops after stating the obvious: the heroic couplet is probably linked to a culture that liked order and balance. He never explains what you do with this observation. This is where his call for a return to literary criticism breaks down. Like many critics who aren't poets, he never stops to consider that poets reject or choose form from those available to them, for reasons that may not be ideological in the political sense. (It's a mistake a fine reader like Heaney wouldn't make). When Keats describes the "rocking horse of the heroic couplet" his rejection has more to do with form and rhythm and sound than politics. His reason is poetical. Literary. However, for Eagleton everything is ideological. Ironically this makes identifying anything specific as ideological a waste of time, since everything is.
Overall this is a disappointing book. Vastly uneven and often ill considered. The final chapter is worth reading as a demonstration of one way of reading poems. The two theory chapters provide interesting, often thought provoking generalities which are not integrated into the rest of the book. And probably the books most glaring fault is the way its version of "poetry" seems stuck in the nineteen seventies.