Sunday, November 14, 2021

Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem: A Short Summary

If anyone judges Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem by its cover, they are sure to fall into a trap by thinking the book yet another how-to pedagogical manual with an agenda to explicitly teach how to read and teach poetry. However, this observation of mine does not mean that the book is without any pedagogical goals. The book has pedagogical goals, which are, however, presented in a way that differs from the pedagogical goals of teaching poetry we have seen in the selections of the previous weeks. Eagleton’s observations about poetry, which are mostly influenced by his own theory of poetry, are polemical in nature. He starts chapter-2 with a succinct definition of poetry, which he develops throughout the chapter drawing comparisons and contrasts to prose, morality, fiction, and pragmatism. While the chapter has several implicit pedagogical values, my most favourite takeaway pedagogical lesson from this chapter is his assertion not to limit the meanings of poetry that “A poem is a statement released into the public world for us to make of it what we may. It is a piece of writing which could by definition never have just one meaning” (32). I think unlike chapter 2, chapter-5 has more explicit pedagogical goals. Here Eagleton develops his observations and suggestions through dialogues and questions, which are very much instructional in tone. I agree with what Sam has said in his discussion that Eagleton has taken a middle course between extremes of purely subjective and objective approaches to poetry.

Terry Eagleton has not said anything explicitly as to how to teach poetry or how to discuss the observations he has shared about poetry in a poetry class. However, the things he has discussed poetry frequently occur in a poetry classroom or poetry workshop. In this case, I find chapter 5 to be more like an instructional guidebook for poetry teachers and students. To discuss the subjective and objective approaches to poetry, he takes an example of the poem Porphyria's Lover" by Robert Browning (103) and also “mood, address, implication, connotation, symbolism, sensibility, rhetorical effect and the like” (105). He also explores the nuances of Tone, Mood and Pitch (114) and shows us how enjambment as a device could be used to pace up verses e.g. Shelly's Ode to the West Wind (119). To sum up, the way Eagleton models the interpretations of the elements of poetry in the contexts of various poems in this chapter sets an example for the poetry teachers and students as to how to read a poem.

Needless to say, Eagleton’s discussions exclusively focus on poetry in these two chapters. What he says about the language and approaches to poetry and also the elements of poetry establishes the idea that poetry is distinctive from of literature and, of course, requires a distinctive pedagogy. The opening of the chapter-2, “A poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end” (25) clearly sets the stage for exclusive discussion poetry in this and also following chapters. His blunt and bold opening gives the message that the language of poetry is not special, rather poetry makes the language special.