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on 9 February 2007
and is very funny as well.His style is immensely readable and his arguments are absorbing but he seldom comes across as dogmatic or lofty. He seems like the kind of guy you would learn more from over a pint of guinness than in a lecture theatre. There are lots of poems in this book which is always a good sign. The author really illuminates them as he comments on them and I certainly do appreciate the work of Keats and Edward Thomas a whole lot more than before I read this book. Shame there is so much Yeats but I guess that is a personal thing.The only other down side to this book, which he points out himself at the beginning, is that it starts in the wrong place! The first part of the book is quite dense and academic and I was beginning to think I must be a bit dim but the second part is readily understandable and enjoyable. It is quite a slim volume and very succinct compared to any other academic books about poetry I have read. I am a layperson who never got beyond O level English but I was able to get a lot from this book to enhance my enjoyment of reading and writing poetry.
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on 12 January 2014
A quick Amazon search for `how to read a poem' shows there's a good few books running with this title. My guess is each of them, in their own way, are tapping into the insecurity a poetry-noob inevitably feels when they open an invitingly slender volume only to discover a dismayingly incomprehensible rabble of words and phrases with seemingly little internal cohesion or general meaning.

Terry Eagleton has written a book aimed at the intelligent beginner. If you are someone who is aware of poetry but doesn't always get it, someone who wants to talk intelligently about the subject without having to get your hands dirty and actually write the stuff, and if you're as familiar with Marx as you are with Milton, then this is the cerebral introduction you might be looking for.

Eagleton gives some quick definitions of poetry and criticism on his terms, a swift hello to a little bit of theory, and then tries to show why being able to distinguish between the content, or meaning, of poetry and its form, or method, is an important part of understanding a poem in its own terms. He encourages you to allow each poem to stand for itself, separate from any external need for clarity of meaning, identifying such utilitarian concerns more with sales receipts and instruction manuals.

There's plenty of examples from different poets littered through the book, from Shakespeare to Stevie Smith, Christina Rossetti, Hilda Doolittle, etc, and what Eagleton does really well for me is to develop a believable and interesting narrative about each poem he uses. Even a poem as superficially simple as William Carlos Williams' 'This is Just to Say', has a distinct purpose behind it. For Eagleton, the form of a poem (all the many reasons that it sounds the way it reads, rather than just saying what it means) is closely linked to its cultural context, which makes for some interesting explanations of why Pope is so Pope-ish, or Eliot so Eliot-like.

Ultimately though, this is a book about poetry in a general sense. About how we relate to it as readers and writers, and not about how to grind a poem down and spectroscopically identify its constituent parts. If you want a book that tells you how to distinguish your spondees from your trochees then maybe An Introduction to English Poetry (Fenton) is your buy. That one has whole chapters on trochees and spondees, which you won't find here.
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on 27 May 2008
This book seems a sort of stepping stone for everyone who thinks that close reading is for the classroom, and that poetry analysed loses its beauty. As Eagleton shows, good poetry appears more beautiful when it is read carefully and sensitively, by a reader who has some prosodic apparatus for approaching a text. It makes a case for why we should learn to read poetry with an ear (and an eye) that is sensitive to poetic form, even if we don't have an essay to hand in at the end of the week, and gives us a demonstration of how to be sensitive to poetic form.

Eagleton starts his book with the idea that overemphasis on cultural theory has led to a decline in interest in the skill of reading sensitively and perceptively. I might be inclined to agree with him - extensive teaching of prosody and poetics etc is not regarded as being as important in academic circles as it was a few years ago. However, his point that an interest in cultural theory does not preclude an active interest in close reading and textual analysis is a fair one.
Eagleton sets out on a survey of the ideology and practicalities of poetry reading, with sections on 1) the function of criticism, 2) defining poetry, 3) ideas of the schools of formalism, 4) the relationship between form and content and 5) some of the issues involved with reading poetry (tone, mood, syntax, metre etc). The final section puts the theory into practice, and looks at four nature poems.

If the book is not extensive in terms of its covering the many aspects of poetry reading, neither is it limiting. At no point does Eagleton claim to give a exhaustive account of poetic techniques or the discipline of reading, rather the book functions as a demonstration of the benefit of informed close reading of poetry for pleasure or study. If you want a more extensive study of prosody, and poetics etc, then a dictionary of poetics like the 'New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics' would probably be more up your street.
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on 10 March 2016
Eagleton’s book is written for the student and intelligent reader, and displays his usual style, combining clear exposition with flashes of humour. Though familiarity with literary theory would serve the reader well, those interested in getting more out of reading poetry will be sure to come away with a better sense of how to go about it. While Eagleton addresses issues concerning the form of poetry, he says very little on metre and stanza forms ¬(for this, I would recommend James Fenton’s “Introduction to English Poetry”). Where Eagleton surpasses Fenton in my view is in his attention to meaning – probing at what a poem is about, rather than focusing on what rhyme scheme is being employed. Eagleton provides close readings of a number of poems, using a largely even-handed sample from the C16 to the C20; sometimes reading his analyses felt like being shown how to do a Rubik’s cube by an expert, but then being left to resort to one’s own ham-fisted attempts at interpretation. However, after reading the book I felt I was in a better position to go about the task.
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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.
They don't.

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'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.
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on 25 June 2009
A very enjoyable, persuasive and eye-opening book, which has changed the way I read poems for the better. While it's not a book for absolute beginners, neither is it for academics only. If you enjoy reading poetry but feel unsure how to pinpoint exactly what you like or dislike, this is the guide for you. Written in a witty, 'intelligently conversational' style, Eagleton covers all aspects of what is being said in a poem and the way in which it is being said, and reminds us to be alert to all technical aspects a poet can employ.

As a political literary theorist, Eagleton defends other theorists from claims they have made analysing poetry wilfully impenetrable, picking out useful insights for discussion - yes, even 'The Semiotics of Yury Lotman' - in the context of showing the general considerations all theorists and readers alike need to be aware of when reading poetry.

I would say if you want to know more about the basics of iambic pentameter or other types of feet and metre, then perhaps a book like Stephen Fry's 'The Ode less Travelled' is more suitable, or as a complementary guide.

Generally, I would have liked more examples - I presume the book was kept relatively short so as not to be too off-putting - but that said, I certainly felt the examples given were clear and illuminated well the point being made. Indispensable.
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on 17 February 2014
I looked at the preview before buying and liked how the contents of the book was laid out with areas/sub headings of interest.
It will be a while before I manage to read the whole book properly- but certainly a good find from the poetry appraisal shelf.
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VINE VOICEon 26 November 2013
Bought this because it was recommended. I am an enthusiastic, amateur writer. This book isn't going to help me appreciate poetry, and despite his own protestations (maybe he protests too much), he really does "pin the butterfly down". However, I imagine, if you are a student, his erodite approach to poetry may be the very thing you need to help with course work.
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on 8 December 2012
Very easy to follow and Eagleton makes some interesting arguments on a topic that may initially appear to be quite dull. His style is very concise and clear and he illustrates with good examples. This is a book which does exactly what you expect it to - it teaches you how to read a poem. :-)
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on 26 December 2009
Terry Eagleton has written his customarily clear text in this interesting book. It doesn't say anything spectacularly new but it does give some thought provoking approaches to literary criticism. If you are looking for a technical treatise on iambic pentameter and the spondee, this is not for you but if you seek a way in to a an artistic genre which can often be perplexing and obscure, it may well help.
There is a chapter on poetic technique which is not so much technical as helpful in making you think about the effect that the use of those techniques can have on the reader's perception of a poem.
All in all, I would recommend this to A-level or Degree level students of poetry. I wish it had been around when I was studying literature at school!
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