Some sketchy notes on the first chapter of Terry Eagleton’s book How to Read a Poem.
1.1 The End of Criticism?
Hardly anybody practices literary criticism as close reading anymore. Why?
Eagleton wants us to treat poetry as discourse, as language attended to in all it density. The poem’s language is constitutive of its ideas. Form and content should not be divorced. Form does not just contain content like a wrapper around a candy. It shapes the content. The ideas are not the ideas they are without the form. We should read for the literariness of the work.
He illustrates his approach by launching into a multi page close reading of Auden’s "Musee des Beaux Arts" -- a real tour de force analysis, beginning in a summary, then analyzing style, grammar, stanza structure, tone, etc. He unpacks the poem and unwinds its strands, then elaborates on its theme of private suffer- ing and the indifference of the public to it. He questions the poem. He pushes back against it. He uses the analysis to think through the poem’s content. He is willing to elaborate and go off on tangents.
1.2 Politics and Rhetoric
There is something odd about a politically minded literary theorist calling us back to close reading. "There is a politics of form as well as a politics of content". Eagleton sees form as a way of accessing history. Form reflects historical developments in society and culture. He uses this section to survey the high points of literary criticism, the way critics have paid attention to "the grain and texture of literary works, and to those works’ cultural contexts."
Language is a bridge between Culture with a capital C (the realm of literature as Art) and culture (human society). Criticism is sensitive to the texture of the medium that makes us what we are. Attention must be paid.
Nietzsche, radical philosopher and expert philologist, knew the value of reading. He advocated slow reading. By reading slow, you are rebelling against the modern age (apparently there is a politics of criticism and a politics of reading too).
"To attend to the feel and form of works is to refuse to treat them in a purely instrumental way, and thus to refuse a world in which language is worn to a paper- like thinness by commerce and bureaucracy. The Nietzschean Superman is not an e-mail user."
So, what is the relationship between politics and the way we read literature? A historical survey is in order. From late antiquity through the Middle Ages, criticism was called Rhetoric, and it served both textual and political purposes. Rhetoric meant the study of verbal tropes and figures of speech, and the art of persuasion (primarily through public speaking). Rhetoric was the overarching term and within it was included disciplines like poetry and history. By studying rhetoric, you could learn how to practice rhetoric in your own public life. There was a close relationship between speaking well and thinking well. It was the purview of not only emperors but all educated citizens. In democratic Athens, a distinguishing feature of the free, civilized man was the capability of being persuaded by speech rather the threat of violence.
By the Middle Ages, the Roman empire had withered away and rhetoric was divorced from practical public life. It became more of an academic pursuit, something more to be studied than practiced.
With the Renaissance, rhetoric was revived for a time. It was used as a weapon against Medieval tradition and as a public tool in a time of political expansion. It gradually became reduced to matters of style and poetics, and lost much of its political dimension.
In the age of Scientific Rationalism, rhetoric became a kind of dirty word. Its flowery eloquence and figurative language smacked of "bombast, hot air, specious manipulation." (You might say B.S.). It wasn’t clear enough, direct enough, accurate enough for scientific taste. Rationalists and empiricist thought it to be so much embellishment, an elaborate distraction from factual truth.
Romanticism injected poetry back into the forefront. Enlightenment reason was pale and anemic. But poetry was pitted not alongside rhetoric. Rhetoric was still thought to be "deceitful, manipulative public discourse", but the better way to resist it was not rationality but authentic human feeling. Poetry was the product of individual inspiration, and it spoke a language very different from the public discourse of the marketplace, science lab, or political body.
Around this time, the notion of Literature gained currency. This new definition of literary meant writing that was more fiction than fact, a product of feeling, and it aimed at transcending the mundane reality of everyday life. Uniqueness was a virtue. It avoided abstractions and dealt in the specific, the individual experience. Although the tangible particulars were standards of Romantic poetics, Romanticism also aimed at universal truth, without shedding the unique. Its solution to this was found in the Romantic symbol, which finds a form for the universal truth in the particular form.
By getting down into the details more than mundane public discourse, while simultaneously aiming at higher universal insights than the mundane, Romanticism had two ways of avoiding actual humdrum history. This distance enabled it to engage with public discourse, however, and Romanticism offers a critique of modern industrial, instrumental culture.
In the Victorian period , the sense of imagination as political force, faded. Poetry became privatized. It was the novel that took up the mantle of engaging with the social.
The Modernist period sought to revive poetry as a vital genre. Modernist poetry, which is intensely private and isolated, in a way reflects the spirit of the modern age (alienated, anxious).
Nietzsche proposed that rhetoric should be studied not as persuasion but as tropes and figures, because these are the ’truest nature’ of language. In this sense, all language is rhetoric. All language, to one degree or another, is not reliable.
Post-structuralist theorists celebrated the fact that meaning never quite can be pinned down. All kinds of discourse are shot through with figurative speech. This undermines any claims to truth, meaning, and political action. Paradoxically, the post-structuralists assert that studying poetry reveals the truth that language is untrue.
Other lines of critical theory in the 1970s and 1980s set out to examine literature "as both patterns of meaning and historical events, places where power and signification converged". But as the millennium approached, and capitalism shook off all contending political challengers, political criticism has been withering away.
This leaves us in a crisis situation. Criticism is in danger of abdicating both of its traditional purposes. Critics are both less sensitive to literary form and less attendant on the social and political uses. It is in danger of "breaking faith" with classical rhetoric, Renaissance humanism, Victorian reformers, and Twentieth century cultural traditionalists.
1.3 The Death of Experience
What really is the culprit in our fading ability to be more sensitive readers of poetry is "the depthless, commodified, instantly legible world of advanced capitalism, with its unscrupulous way with signs, computerised communication and glossy packaging of experience."
Experience itself is threatened with extinction. "Astonishingly, what is in peril on our planet is not only the environment, the victims of disease and political oppression, and those rash enough to resist corporate power, but experience itself."
The Eternal Now of modern urban existence has eroded tradition.
We consume not objects or events, but experiences of of object and events. Experience is ready-made, pre-packaged, already interpreted. Like commodities, they are interchangeable.
The other side of the argument: post-structuralists thought the death of experience was something to be celebrated. It signaled the end of Man. The idea of Man as complete human subject, cultivating his feelings and thoughts and experiences like a museum curator, is historically anachronistic, something belonging to an earlier era of middle class (bourgeois) life. Consumer capitalism has over- come it. The inwardness of the bourgeois man was called Culture. It depended on the idea that a coherent, continuous human subject could develop himself, and he was the center of this private reality. One’s personal narrative is singular and uninterrupted, without contradiction. Everything fits in the story of one’s life.
It is this kind of coherent experience that underlies much modern criticism of poetry, the assumption that it is unified, harmonies, integrated. But language itself is a lot more slippery and unpredictable than that.
We need a dialectical viewpoint that weighs the pros and cons of modernity.
And yet, something has been surely lost. Poetry seeks to restore it. "In a world of instant legibility, we had lost the experience of language itself. And to lose our sense of language is to lose touch with a great deal more than language. The largely pragmatic uses to which we put our speech had staled its freshness and blunted its force; and poetry, among other things, could allow us to relish and savour it anew. Rather than simply allow us to consume the stuff, it forced us to wrestle with it; and this was especially true of modern poetry."
"Poetry is something which is done to us, not just said to us. The meaning of its words is closely bound up with the experience off them."
Another distinctive feature: poetry deals in the finer nuances of meaning and re- fined consciousness but it pursues this in the context of less rational , more subterranean dimensions of experience in hardness and actuality.
Studying literature is often seen as a way to exercise and attune your imagination. This is a little too easy, says Eagleton. The imagination is not always a gentle, positive faculty. It can be dark and dangerous too. The modern idea of imagination emerged in England alongside the rise of selfish individualism. It we are isolated individuals, we need imagination to shoot the gap and allow me to empathize with you.
We need a stronger appeal to rationalize the study of literature.