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Alan Gilbert reviews
How to Read a Poem
by Terry Eagleton
192 pp. Malden, MA: Blackwell. October 2006. US$19.95. 1405151412. Paper.

This review is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Alan Gilbert and Jacket magazine 2007.

Even Children Like It!


In what might be seen as an unexpected series of events, two of the most powerful grant-giving cultural organizations in the United States, one public and one private, are currently headed by individuals who made their reputations writing about poetry in a popularizing way while also lamenting its slow fade from public view. Dana Gioia, one-time General Foods executive and co-creator of Jell-O Jigglers, is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Edward Hirsch, long-time professor of poetry at the University of Houston, Texas, is president of the Guggenheim Foundation. While still working for corporate America, Gioia rocketed to notice in 1991 after publishing an essay in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Can Poetry Matter?”[1] His article occasioned one of the most voluminous batches of letters to the editor in the magazine’s long history. Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love With Poetry — an explanatory-as-inspirational tome offering informed and friendly entrée to the ostensibly forbidding world of modern and contemporary poetry — was a surprise bestseller and has already gone through multiple printings.[2]

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Both Gioia and Hirsch are award-winning poets, and yet they’re known more for their writings about poetry than for their own verse. For almost two decades, literary pundits have bemoaned poetry’s supposed decline in relevance within U.S. culture after World War II, a situation paradoxically coinciding with the enormous bolster given to poetry (and poets) by the post-War establishment of creative writing programs that have economically as well as institutionally helped legitimize its practice. Some of the earliest participants in these inaugural poetry writing and reading courses were returning soldiers attending college on the G.I. Bill. Gioia argued in “Can Poetry Matter?” that poetry’s absorption by the academy is precisely what destroyed its connection with mainstream U.S. society. Creative writing programs may churn out thousands upon thousands of eager graduates a year; yet by remaining beholden to a captive audience, poetry has lost its desire to reach a bigger one.


Gioia’s essay tried to approach poetry sociologically, which is antipodal to the way in which most discussions of it occur. Poetry seems to be the least sociologically inclined art form, though this assessment would have surprised nearly any poet writing prior to Romanticism. Nevertheless poetry — like many other literary, artistic, and academic fields — now functions within a self-generating and self-perpetuating world. Individual schools of poetry — traditional and avant-garde — with or without a touchstone in academia are mostly autonomous to the culture at large; from Gioia’s point of view, this occurs to poetry’s deficit. Hirsch describes poetry as a shared language and yet sees this exchange as mostly a private one between poet and reader. He advises reading poetry late at night, early in the morning, or when the “the din of the culture” (2) has otherwise subsided. From my experience, those are frequently the times when poets like to check their email.


In “Can Poetry Matter?” Gioia wrote, “Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform to institutional ones” (12), though enforcing this alignment is precisely Gioia’s job at the NEA. It’s also how that organization functions in the United States in the wake of the Culture Wars and subsequent elimination of most individual artist grants from the NEA’s mission. Even with this straitjacketing, NEA chairpersons have selectively rejected funding for projects recommended by the agency’s panels and committees. Curiously enough, however, the NEA continues to offer grants to poets, which may be as good a measure as any of poetry’s lack of significant cultural and social impact. In comparison with other disciplines the NEA no longer funds, poetry is viewed as rather innocuous. Hence the irony underlying Gioia’s and Hirsch’s respective situations: that two people who made valiant attempts to revitalize what many — and especially Gioia — considered a dying art form parlayed those efforts into positions of influence to which it’s unlikely they would have ascended solely as poets.


It was once cattily implied in a review of Terry Eagleton’s work that sales of Literary Theory: An Introduction helped him finance the purchase of a couple extra homes. But isn’t it better they were bought with profits from a Marxist reading of poststructuralism than with oil company stock options or from running guns to mercenaries in Africa? Suffice to say, Eagleton probably won’t be able to buy another house with the proceeds from his latest introductory text, How to Read a Poem, which may or may not be further indication of poetry’s purported droop in cultural cachet, one broader in historical scope than poststructuralism’s similar fate. Nor is it likely that his book will result in his being appointed to a post in the present or any future Labour administrations. Like Literary Theory, How to Read a Poem appears aimed at advanced university students, though probably not ones doing graduate-level research. Eagleton has long since mastered a pretension-deflating, Oscar Wilde-in-reverse writing style (i.e., wit as common sense, as opposed to wit battling common sense); and like Wilde’s linguistic sparring, it’s both carefully cultivated and off-the-cuff. Still, it’s difficult to imagine his book appealing to a general audience, which readers of the short, accessible excerpts published this past winter in The Times (U.K.) online may be surprised to realize upon sitting down with the book.


But if it’s true Literary Theory sold a million copies, then what’s the incentive to change course? As an introduction to poetry, Hirsch’s identically titled book might be more useful — and extend Eagleton’s idea of internationalism beyond Ireland and the United States. Besides, Eagleton’s book concerns struggles over the meaning of poetry within the academy, not outside of it (Hirsch) or against it (Gioia). Where Eagleton once critiqued doctrinaire Marxism or paint-by-the-numbers deconstruction, over the past decade it’s cultural studies he finds wanting. In How to Read a Poem, the abandonment of close reading in cultural studies is singled out for censure, not the absurdities of its attentions, which his book After Theory took sharp pleasure in illustrating. In response, Eagleton makes it his personal challenge to turn How to Read a Poem into a close reading tour de force; consequently, his study ends up more closely resembling William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, F. R. Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry, and I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism than almost anything more recent or methodologically sexier.


Practical criticism and genre theory may have fallen out of favor, but Eagleton strenuously reworks them while simultaneously appearing to barely break a sweat. What results is the somewhat odd phenomenon of a famed historical materialist performing deft and incisive close readings in a manner that strips away history and material conditions in order to more carefully focus on the materiality of words themselves — those signifiers jingling in a changepurse before being spent on meaning. As Eagleton himself would be the first to point out, the materiality of language is a very poor substitute for the material world, indeed. Yet in remaining faithful to his book’s preferred hermeneutics, Eagleton skirts a poem’s historical concerns for more personal ones entwined around close reading’s favored knot involving what an author may or may not have intended to say. Thus, William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” is off-handedly declared “one of the great Irish emigration poems” (84) (to which I thought, Tell me more!) before Eagleton presents a detailed interpretation of the first stanza as revealing Yeats’s thoughts and feelings on aging gracefully (to which I mused, Haven’t enough trees already been felled on this topic, including by Yeats himself?).


Similarly, to a certain extent Robert Frost’s plainspoken “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” foregrounds property issues — a not insignificant topic in Frost’s work. After all, this frequently anthologized short poem begins: “Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though.” Understandably, Eagleton doesn’t make a knee-jerk Marxist leap to property and trespass, though he does mention them. Rather, he reads the poem as a reflection on mortality and the decision to embrace or shy away from it. Detect a trend? In fact, Eagleton reads a number of poems as primarily about aging and death. Early on, he also makes that impossible, yet always grand, attempt to define poetry. According to him, for a piece of writing to be considered a poem it must serve as a “moral statement” (25) articulated in line breaks. The issue of line breaks, while debatable, seems clear enough, though trying to figure out the line breaks in hip-hop can occasionally be an effort in futility, and hip-hop is most certainly poetry — and some of the most vibrant produced today. Explaining poetry’s connection to morality is much trickier, and is related to Eagleton’s championing of universalism and its accompanying set of “human values, meanings and purposes” (29).


In other words, Eagleton’s general avoidance of the social and historical in poetry for the sensual and phenomenological shouldn’t be mistaken for acquiescence to the ongoing privatization of everyday life. Instead it’s done in order to expose the personal as universal, the individual as participating in a common humanity, and, perhaps, to express solidarity with what’s left of collectivization around class-consciousness — or if not consciousness then interests. In a number of his writings, Eagleton has made a convincing case for universalism, an idea that fell into deep disrepute during poststructuralism’s reign — and with good reason, though that doesn’t in turn excuse a universal ban on the universal, just as one shouldn’t conflate a critique of white, European-American, patriarchal subjectivity with subjectivity in general. Yet as Eagleton’s recurrent examples of aging and mortality show, it’s quite possible that these universal experiences may be more relative to someone at a certain stage of life than, say, to Angelina Jolie during an adoption process, even if we all must die some day.


For better and for worse, most people identify with what confirms their identity — or what they imagine their identity to be. In contrast, Eagleton’s readings of poems are oriented around what everyone can agree on. In this approach, close reading becomes an establishment of the facts, thereby returning it to its origins in literary criticism’s attempt to approximate rigorous and objective scientific discourse. There’s not much room for a discussion of Irish emigration in “Sailing to Byzantium,” as it might threaten the universal sentiments poetry seeks to articulate — an idea of poetry, it almost goes without saying, that is itself historically determined. In contrast to Hirsch’s edified swooning and Gioia’s paternalistic prodding, Eagleton sounds a bit like Samuel Johnson in his insistence that a poem’s meaning be internally consistent. This may partly explain why on a number of occasions in his book he directs the reader to the psychotherapist’s couch when reason is threatened by or within a poem. Having already dismissed cultural studies and all but recommended a visit to the shrink, how will Eagleton make sense of the irrational aspect to anyone’s love of poetry?


The problem with stripping away context is that while it’s great for displaying how to read a poem on its own terms, it’s not so terrific at explaining why one reads a poem. For those who see poetry’s position as precarious, any discussion of how necessarily entails the question of why. This is where cultural studies might have something to offer. As a useful theoretical discourse for understanding the complexities of an individual’s relationship to cultural products of various kinds, cultural studies provides some, though certainly not all, of the tools for examining ways in which poems are woven into a complex mesh of identity, desire, ideology, and the social realm. Detailing what a poem means is very different from understanding why a person reads poetry in the first place, a knowledge that by extension might help explain poetry’s place and role in society. Poems, like any other cultural products, are experienced differently at different times by different groups and individuals, each with their own uniquely configured histories. It’s also quite possible that people connect more readily with the particular than the universal, an idea — as Eagleton confirms — that partly fueled the Romantic revolution (itself further inspired by the emergent discourse of individual and human rights).


Before getting to the question of how, the first half of Eagleton’s book does grapple with this question of why. Not surprisingly, his theoretical discussions are the most engaging parts of the book, however much recycled from previous works (Eagleton’s recycled thinking is still more rewarding than many critics’ original efforts). Specifically, Eagleton tangles once again with the Russian Formalists whose sophisticated theory of poetic language he obviously finds appealing, and yet continues not to wholeheartedly endorse. He prefers his own theory of moral vision, though he spends disproportionately less time outlining it than he does Yury Lotman’s characterization of poems as multi-layered semiotic systems. Perhaps that’s because Eagleton’s theory is embedded as practice in the close readings occupying the second half of the book. Despite his status as a preeminent literary critic, Eagleton ultimately distrusts the Formalists’ literariness, their preference for poetic language alienated from instrumental use. Even in relation to poetry, that most impractical of literary endeavors, Eagleton would prefer a criticism more practical, a bit more rooted in common sense. Yet common sense, as Eagleton surely knows, is hegemony’s favorite hiding place.


Eagleton, as always, has bigger goals in mind, one of which is rescuing common sense as vital component of rhetorical persuasion from those who would dismiss rhetoric as deceitful, manipulative, and even crypto-fascist. Avant-garde formalists want to estrange language’s bureaucratic instrumentality; Eagleton recalls a time when rhetoric was an aspect of good governance — both of oneself and society: “Rhetoric for the ancient world was language as public event and social relationship. If it was performative, it was also dialogical, as a form of speech which constantly overheard itself in the ears of others” (11). Along with serving as a model for criticism and poetry, this description of rhetoric clearly motivates Eagleton’s own modus operandi. (Eagleton readers will recall a related glowing discussion of tradition at the conclusion of The Function of Criticism, the title of which he reappropriates for the first chapter of How to Read a Poem.) Therefore, he’s not being facetious when he writes: “The slogan of a radical literary criticism, then, is clear: Forward to antiquity!” (16) Given Eagleton’s more immediate precursors in Empson, Leavis, and Richards (as opposed to Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius), antiquity looks a lot like Cambridge circa 1930.


In his preface to Against the Grain: Selected Essays, Eagleton describes Literary Theory as proposing that “methodological questions in cultural analysis must be subordinated to political goals” (7). If so, then How to Read a Poem has traveled rather far from his earlier appeal, and this time it isn’t poetry’s fault. Eagleton is certainly allowed the evolution of his views, but because the topic under discussion is poetry, one wonders if he’s holding poetry criticism to a higher — or is it a lower? — standard. Is poetry simply not good enough to fulfill Literary Theory’s mandate, or is it too good? If its semiotic density makes it unruly and unwilling to be reduced to political formulas, doesn’t that make poetry a more advanced form of politics, not a lesser one? At the same time, in most courses dedicated to poetry, the majority of interpretation and analysis is spent figuring out a poem’s basic themes and reconstructing its possible narratives, which is exactly what Eagleton spends much of the time doing in How to Read a Poem. The threat presented to this mode of reading and criticism by big, bad theory has always been exaggerated by both the Right and the Left. Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (and maybe even Eagleton’s book) will far outsell recent publications by latest-imported-French-theory-fashion Jacques Rancière, even if the latter are all the rage in Columbia University graduate humanities programs and the former most certainly isn’t.


In a brief outline of the history of rhetoric, Eagleton points to Romanticism as the fatal blow to poetry’s indebtedness to rhetoric’s publicly oriented language. If so, then Eagleton is looking not only to rehabilitate classical rhetoric but a general poetic practice more than two hundred years old. A related question worth asking, then, is whether most people read poetry for moral insights or for reflections of — sometimes confirming, sometimes questioning — their immediate environment? And if the latter, then how does one read this kind of poem. Eagleton writes that “what is important are the few great things that human beings share in common, not their arbitrary deviations from this uniform nature” (146), but it’s perverse at best to dismiss heterogeneity — “arbitrary” or not — as deviant. As mentioned, one can appreciate Eagleton’s reasons for thinking in terms of universals and for his critique of excessive relativism without in turn confusing epistemology with ethnography. Moreover, as theorists such as Rancière, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek have all pointed out in regard to the Bush and Blair administrations’ “global war on terror,” with its violent abrogation of individual and shared human rights, the universal can only be known by what’s outside of it, by what’s excluded from it.


There are more salient modes than poetry for expressing the universal, and poetry that tries to capture the universal in the particular tends to be more trite than profound — though not always, of course. Rather, poetry regained its post-War social and cultural foothold precisely when it began placing particulars in relation with other particulars. Critics and scholars may conjure a vision of poetry’s decline, but what they’re actually depicting is a loss of uniformity and generally agreed-upon definitions and values for poetry. Whether they realize it or not, they’re also usually referring to poetry’s loss of prestige within their white, middle-class constituencies. Poetry may be less public, but it’s more ubiquitous than ever, and the past twenty-five years have witnessed an explosion of its forms and audiences. In this regard, poetry is a microcosm for how culture functions these days: as separate spheres with varying degrees of overlap. This is also how markets increasingly function, with their niche and lifestyle targeting. Given his decades-long irritability with pluralism as a broken politics, Eagleton might not feel much sympathy for such a disharmonious view of culture, especially when there’s a convincing argument to be made that no effective oppositional politics can occur without mass-based social movements oriented around common goals. But the latter is a bulky perspective to graft onto poetry’s endemic slipperiness.


Eagleton’s reliable and seemingly congenital contrariness sets an example for readers to brush his thinking against the grain of itself, to find points of agreement as well as places of departure. Poetry’s nostalgically celebrated bygone public role was frequently not much more than a ceremonial one, and so some deviance is welcome. (Doesn’t Eagleton tell the story in his memoir The Gatekeeper about how he sometimes skipped Cambridge’s stultifying High Table rituals in order to help deliver food for Meals on Wheels?) One person’s contrariness may be another person’s deviance, and vice versa. In vintage Eagleton fashion, How to Read a Poem expresses a caveat or two for even revered English poets such as John Keats and T. S. Eliot, and it subtly — and not so subtly — makes Irish poets into the book’s heroes and their work paradigms for poetry. It’s also amusing to watch him upbraid a British national treasure like William Blake’s “The Tyger.” (How could he? Even children like it!) Not surprisingly then, Eagleton does weave an implicit politics into his otherwise mostly depoliticized close readings. Where Hirsch can be folksy and charming, and Gioia a bootstrapper urging poets to fix it themselves, Eagleton wants a populist poetry more than simply a popular one.


[1] Collected in the volume Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2002 (tenth-anniversary edition).

[2] New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

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