Terry Eagleton’s: How to Read a Poem — A Graph Review

                  A Graph Review:    60 with highpoint at 85

How to Read a Poem       by  Terry Eagleton      

published 2007 by Blackwell Publishing              How to read a poem graphpaperback  180 pp

I am quite old and have only recently returned to reading seriously but over the years I have many assorted fiction and poetry authors plus a smattering of biography and non-fiction bits and pieces.  Literature (for me this means any genre of fiction, poetry and drama) has therfor left a lot of interesting debris in a mind that I well know has beenhalf-filed or mostly forgotten.

how to read a poem cover imageTerry Eagleton writes in his preface that one could get away with only reading chapters 4,5 and 6 and that the next best would be to follow these up with reading 1,2 and 3.  His ideal way was to start at page one and continue through to the end………So I did……..

By the end of the first chapter I was quite enthusiastic, even excited  though my brain was running pretty hot trying to cope with all the information.   The run-through in ‘Functions of Criticism’ is a time-line of poets, poetry, styles and reasons why.  Philosophers both classic and continental throw in their literaru theories with critics old and modern who are (usually) poets too.  Semantics and theories abound.  Freud did not make an early appearance here but did, albeit briefly, towards the latter stages of the book.  I expected Jung, Adler and R D Laing to appear stage right, maybe stage left but that ended as just a whim on my part.  Many theorists and critics are thrown into the pot, always with a reason but which might be hard for the less determined student or general reader.  But if you like the style and wit ( I nearly used ‘irony’  but as it doesnt appear in the otherwise very useful Glossary at the back I wasnt sure!!) of Terry Eagleton then I would guarantee that every word here and to the end of the book is worth reading.

Well, except by the end of the book, the couple that had letters missing, maybe an act of spacing in ‘typesetting’.  There was also where the word ‘stoke’ was used when I think it should have been ‘stroke’.  It gave me  moments of reflection on its intention which amused.  It shows how carefully I read the text as each word seemed to count.

I felt my mind had been sand-blasted by the first chapter, a little numb, then as I covered chapters 2 and 3 I realised it was more in the nature of a hard-drive undergoing defragmentation and gaps partly filled. Not always with enough information but as flags of needs and pointers to process.

Chapter 2 covers ‘What is Poetry?’ and chapter 3 is ‘Formalists’ and here again the water seemed a little deep on the essence of what a poem might be and for whom.   Wit and elements of balanced options kept me reading.    Intently, eagerly, laughing out loud at times with occasional re-reads to follow the flow better. For me the whole flowed like a novel,though one with an awful lot of characters and bit-parts.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 were like the so-called smooth water after the rapids whilst white-water rafting.  Chapter 4, ‘In Pursuit of Form’ examines a number of poems in greater depth on their form and content in a cogent style, building understanding.  Next, ‘How to Read a Poem’, which could well be the nub of the book assuming you have absorbed the previous Two chapters.  Chapter 6, ‘Four Nature Poems’ seemed a nice gentle way to finish. Pointing out the many different routes, techniques and potential readings available to taking into account the current and historic time, place and author of a poem; Terry Eagleton enables us to discover what poetry may be about, at least on the readers personal level.

The Glossary is useful (no irony here) and of course a good index.

This was quite  a complicated read for me.  A sign of my level as an ‘old student’ but it is all-encompassing whilst continually pursuing the objective with spurs of examples and possibilities.  This short book is knowledgable, informative, witty and entertaining from the first to the last page.  There is a single paragraph on the last page and it is almost worth pinning up on my wall.  For now I will quote one sentence from page 32 that lets me pin my colours to the mast:   ” A poem is a statement released into the public world for us to make of it what we may.”

How much of this book will stick in my now-refreshed, language-centred mind? It doesn’t matter because it will have a permanent place on my shelf and be considerably re-read.  It is surely one of my desert-island books.  Armed with the contents of  ‘How to Read a Poem’ I will happily continue my adventure of reading and offering reviews with the knowledge that any conclusions I come to will be thanks to a much wider perception offered by Terry Eagleton and this book.