On Terry Eagleton’s Conception of Teaching Poetry as Poetics of Materiality

01/04/2017 19:55
Wang Jin

On Terry Eagleton’s Conception of Teaching Poetry as Poetics of Materiality

Wang Jin[1]

(Faculty of Foreign Studies, Jinan University, Guangzhou 510632)


Abstract: In the four textbooks of literary studies Terry Eagleton has published so far, he presents in his ideas of teaching poetry not only his personal emphasis on politics of language and forms, but also his consistent commitment to literary and aesthetic education. Starting from two fundamental issues of “what is a poem” and “how to read a poem”, Eagleton takes a discursive approach to re-examine current situation of poetry, and explores its paradigmatic problems between content and form, discourse and language, experience and experiencing. Through a revaluation of poetry in its rhetoric tradition, language politics, material culture, Eagleton highlights his conception of teaching poetry as poetics of materiality, along with a formalistic turn from ideological critique to rhetoric education.

Key Words: Terry Eagleton, teaching poetry, rhetoric criticism, politics of forms, poetics of materiality


Terry Eagleton has always been regarded as the most prominent Marxist literary theorist in Britain today. Since the publication of The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Eagleton has always been related to cultural Marxism and ideological aesthetics. This leads to a great popularity of Eagleton as a cultural theorist, but also results in an almost oblivion of him as a dedicated professor of literature. In fact, Eagleton has published four literary textbooks, presenting theoretical insights into his interpretation of literary works. The third one is How to Read a Poem. This book compromises Eagleton’s ideas of poetry teaching once scattered elsewhere, and represent Eagleton’s conception of teaching poetry as poetics of materiality. As both a experienced teacher and a passionate reader of poetry, Eagleton hereby attaches importance to reading poems with pleasure, and claims to present “an introduction to poetry for students and general readers”, with a hope to make “an intimidating subject as lucid and accessible as possible”(2007: vii). However, as far as this essay tries to argue, Eagleton’s conception of teaching poetry as poetics reveals his transformation of interests not only from ideology to rhetoric, but also from politics to education.  


Eagleton’s Apology of Today’s Poetry

    As a literary theorist with a Cambridge tradition, Eagleton cannot avoid explaining his theoretical standpoint when writing about literature. He points out his awkward identity as “a political minded literary theorist”, as it is usually acknowledged that “literary theorists killed poetry dead because with their shriveled hearts and swollen brains they are incapable of spotting a metaphor, let alone a tender feeling” (2007:2). In his teaching of poetry, Eagleton first of all have to provide an apology of today’s poetry and poetics. With this mission, he starts his interrogation of the opposition between poetry and theory: poets usually complain about the criticism of theoreticians, and are even hostile to their theoretical interpretation which murder the untranslatable beauty of poetry; while the latter criticizes the naïveté of poetry criticism without any theoretical values, and are happy to offer their helping hands to a dying poetry. With the rise of critical theories and cultural studies, the traditional space of poetry and poetics has been undergoing a real crisis in its deflating or even dying future.

 However, Eagleton believes this pessimistic view for poetry is “one of the more obtuse critical platitudes of our time” (2007: 2). He continues to argue that the real problem for poetry in theory is not the application of theories but the misapplications and abuses of theoretical discourses: poor theoreticians prefer an easy way of content analysis and reject any close reading of poetry and its formal elements, while qualified critics emphasize languages and forms of poetry and advocate interpretation and appreciation of artistic forms of poetry. To exemplifies his idea of qualified critics, Eagleton presents Roland Barthes as a language expert and Michele Foucault as a literary stylistics, as the two theoreticians share a common interest in both the close reading of content and the discursive analysis of form. In terms of the discursive analysis of poetry and its forms, Eagleton suggests a historical turn to the language of poetry and its tradition of rhetoric between “literariness” and “materiality” (1981: 132-135).

 In Eagleton’s argument, poetry and literature in an extended sense refers to both the literariness of textual structures and the materiality of cultural contexts. As a result, he believes that “form is not a distraction from history but a mode of access to it”, and in this case “a major crisis of artistic form…is almost always bound up with an historical upheaval” (2007:8). To be specific, Eagleton presents several important stages in the European history of poetry. The amalgamation of artistic forms and political contents can be traced back to practices of rhetoric in Ancient Greek and Roman era. Until the Middle Ages, poetry and its language has been placed at the intersection of argumentative discourse and political power, as “public events and social relationship”. During the age of Enlightenment and new classicism, poetry starts to take a historical form which is “performative”, “dialogical” and also “political” (2007: 11).

The Romanticists became bored with poetry of didacticism and turned to either “human creativity” of poets or “transcendental force” of nature, along with their emphasis of the poetical language of “privatization” and “retirement”; and the movement of realism further developed the “privatizing effects” of poetry and poetics (2007: 14). When leaving its tradition of materiality for literariness and privateness, contemporary poetry starts to focus only on language and its elegance. Modernists have an exclusive concern with signifying practices of poetry while post-modernists deny it the dimension of reference and understand it in a signifying game of metaphors, by claiming poetry can achieve its most value only in its ignorance of the real world (de Man 50). However, social movements change the modernist/postmodernist track of poetry, and literary movements, such as feminism, post-colonialism and etc, restore the tradition of rhetoric in studying poetry and turn to explore the materiality of literary forms.

In his defense of today’s poetry, Eagleton personally admires F. R. Leavis, I.A. Richards, William Empson and their Cambridge tradition. For Eagleton, they are experts of letters and technician of language, based on sensibility, tradition, history and culture. They conceive literary forms bridging literature and society, examining the literariness of poetry and present traditions of cultural values through exploring the materiality of poetry. In this way, Eagleton take poetry as “phenomenology of language - one in which the relation between word and meaning (or signified and signified) is tighter than it is in everyday speech” (2007:21). For its forms, poetry usually relies on signifying practices of everyday language, referring to the signification and its textual worlds; for its materiality, it often depends on poets’ performance of imagination and readers’ competence of reconstruction, and finally leads to dialogic space of interpretation. In this way, Eagleton emphasizes the rhetoric of poetry and its language. He believes the real value of poetry can only be perceived in subjective worlds of both poets and readers, arguing that only a traditional framework of rhetoric can help today’s poetry out of oppositions between the passion of literariness and the reason of materiality. In his conception of teaching poetry, Eagleton does not approve traditions of imagination, experience, and intuitions, and instead he proposes a poetry and poetics of materiality in his pursuit of literary forms.


Eagleton’s Pursuit of Literary Form

In his idea of poetry, Eagleton notes that “the literary work was neither a vehicle of ideas, a reflection of social reality or the incarnation of some transcendental truth”, and emphasizes “criticism should dissociate art from mystery and concern itself with how literary texts actually worked”, shifting the critical focus to “the material reality of the literary text itself” (1983: 3). The material approach towards literary rhetoric, assumes the form of literature as a way to empower meaning and value and explores the signification process of poetical signifying practices (Belsey 85). Eagleton’s conception of poetry in terms of rhetoric contrasts with other genres of literature. First, poetry is different from prose not in such linguistic techniques of rhyme, rhythm、image, diction, metaphor or etc, but in its unique structure of literary form which determines its meanings. On the other hand, it aims at not a presentation of human values, meanings and styles, but a meta-narrative of its formal structures of literary presentation. Besides, poetry distinguishes fiction in its unique forms of presentation, which are beyond any reference framework in a practical way. And the ultimate concern of poetry is anti- Unitarian re/presentations of the real world, committed to a more profound understanding of world in the world of word.

The art of poetry, as Eagleton argues, is always perceived as the personal innovation of form or the sweet violence of language because of “a predominance of the signifier over the signified, or the texture of the language over its meaning,while in this regards he personally proposes to understand poets as “materialists of languages” and explore poetry as “events of literature”(2007: 46-47). In Eagleton’s conception of poetry as “events of literature”, the essence of poetry lies not in linguistic techniques of images or metaphors, nor in literary elements of styles, subjects or contexts, but in its rhetoric traditions of letters, words, signs or even sounds. However, Eagleton is not repeating the discourse of Russian formalists. The concept of literariness for Russian formalists focuses on innovative or violent transformations of everyday language into poetical discourse, and defamiliarization refers to effects of contrast and parody of signifying practices in different discursive structures. Hereby, Eagleton points out, poetry with literariness refreshes the referential usage of everyday language and ordinary experience, and Russian formalism through demilitarization implies “a poetics of materiality” about “the alienated society” only to “alienate the alienation” and “estrange our automated language and experience so that we can begin to live and feel them anew” (2007:50).

 Poetry can be viewed as some kind of “encounters” and “conflicts” in signifying practices of language and signs, and poetical effects arises from the “confrontations” or “alienation” of form and content. As a result, “a poem is a piece of semiotic sport, in which the signifier has been momentarily released from its grim communicative labours and can disport itself gracefully”, and “freed from a loveless marriage to a single meaning, it can play the field, wax promiscuous, gambol outrageously with similar unattached signifiers” (2007:58). In the history of poetry criticism, poets and critics have always been seeking a poetics which assimilates contents of poetry into its form, or vice verse. For example, F. R. Leavis takes the language of poetry as some ripe apple, and in this way reading activities are equal to the process of chewing and consuming its contents. Eagleton takes this idea as the Incarnational Fallacy and criticizes it. He emphasizes the poetical structure and material context of poetry as a form of art, and proposes to explore poetry for both ontological meanings and formal implications. In this case, F. R. Leavis and his Incarnational Fallacy make an easy mistake with the relationship between content and form in reading poetry. The binary oppositions between signifier and signified, content and form, even though facilitating the reading and teaching of poetry and its ontological meanings, still fail to pay close attention to the essence of poetical language and its formal implications.    

For Eagleton as a professor of literary studies, the essence of poetry language has always been its ontological identity beyond any boundaries of forms or contents: as to its contents, the signified of poetry language is the product of various signifiers in the interplay of each other, while for its forms, readers of poetry always take advantage of poetry language as the media of our experience to experience (2007:68). The essence of poetry in fact involves Eagleton’s conception of poetry as “performance” with both the performativity and materiality of language. He notes that there is a tension between content and form of poetry and its language, and he personally believes it comes from those conflicts of poetical conceptions in performance: as a textual product, poetry refers to the re/presentation of signifying practices of language itself, while as a social event, it also involves re/interpretation of literary production of meaning itself. Based on such a performative conception of poetry, Eagleton further present his two ideas of “meaning” (based on traditional rhetoric) and “force”(based on reading experience) as two different forms of poetry language, and in this way make a distinction between two forms of poetry as “events of materiality” or as “fields of forces”. Nevertheless, Eagleton insists that any study or discussion of poetry should first be based on a thorough exploration of its language at an ontological sense (2007:89).

Eagleton’s Conception of Poetry as Poetics

Poetry is generally viewed as an art form of language for talented poets, untranslatable in form and unpresentable in content. For poetry, Eagleton believes “what is said” (content) is not as important as “how it is said” (form), and in this way “the content is inseparable from the language in which it is presented”. However, in reading and teaching poetry, there is always “a tension between form and content”, and Eagleton takes “this discrepancy as part of the meaning of the work” (2011: 3). Eagleton, out of his theoretical background, adopts a professional way to analyze the elements of poetry at its different levels. He demystifies the mechanism of poetry in a rather technical way. In terms of literary techniques, poetry consists of objective elements of tone, mood, pitch, rhyme, rhythm, metre and etc; in term of reading experience, it also involves subjective constituents of sign, imagery, metaphor and figures of speech; in terms of culture, it refers to material aspects of meaning, events, forces and other narrative motifs. Any reading or criticism of poetry, if sticking to one of the three levels, cannot present a satisfying panorama of the poetical implications. Perhaps Eagleton may agree with Ludwig Wittgenstein in his conception of language as images, but obviously the former focused more on materiality of poetry and its language, with a clear purpose to restore in reading and teach poetry its lost essence of material culture in its rhetoric tradition. As Eagleton argues, “one cannot raise political or theoretical questions about literary texts without a degree of sensitivity to their language, and he also insists that “my concern here is to provide readers and student some of the basic tools of the critical trade, without which they are unlikely to be able to move on to other matter”(2011:2-3).

In Eagleton’s conception of poetry as poetics, the language of poetry has in fact two sides in its reference structure: one refers to signs and words at a textual level, while the other to events and contexts at a social level. In this case, any reading or teaching of poetry should not only focuses on a close reading of the presentations on pages, but also more important a cultural analysis of the presented in society. At the ontological level, poetical language transcends the original context of poets or readers, and in this case poets produce their unique lines while readers present their personalized interpretations; at the social level, it also implies some metaphorical space of signs, images and sounds, and in this way language refers to a collaborate performance of not only meaning and force, but also content and form. As a result, Eagleton concludes that any effort to read and teach poetry should aim at decoding the unexplainable and mysterious beauty of poetry and poetical expressions. For Eagleton, reading poets’ poetry is similar to watching dancers’ dancing, and readers/audiences can understand and appreciate its events, meanings and cultures only through examining the whole process of reading or dancing. In the case, any reading or teaching of poetry should be based on a detailed analysis of its poetical languages at the following seven aspects of either techniques of form or events of materiality. 

First is about the tone, mood and pitch. The three elements of poetry not only present in the form of sounds different emotions and sensibilities of narrative voices, but also reflect emotional and psychological cultures in different context as some part of our morality and culture. The second is intensity and pace. The words of high frequency and the speeds of narration in poetry reveal both deliberations of poets and their individualized patterns of sense and sensibilities. The third is texture. It refers to specific modes of poetry to organize words and sounds, seeming to arise from poets’ preference for certain dictions and sound patterns but virtually subject to the production of poetry and poetics in different social and cultural contexts. The fourth element is syntax, grammar and punctuation. Although they are usually seen as the rational murder of poetry, post/modernist poets(such as e.e.cummings) prefer to have a language play with them to produce poetry of forms and style, and highlight the linguistic aspects of poetry through violating both correct rules of grammar and traditional practices of diction.

The fifth one is about ambiguity or indeterminacy. As the most charming part of poetry, ambiguity in both meaning and emotion reflects the semantic clusters of everyday words as poetical language, and present the world of possibilities in interpreting poetry as events of literature. The sixth is rhyme, rhythm and meter. They may be the most basic skills of poetry. Rhyming ones present subjective emotions and personal experience of poets towards languages, forms and styles of poetry, while unrhymed ones represents not only the real world which is usually chaotic and without any order, but also the poets’ personal attitudes of inaction and inability to change. The seventh element is always image. As the “visual language” of poetry, images usually refer to the mind-pictures of readers evoked by specific allusions or figures of speech. It bridges the gap between poets, poetry and readers, and facilitates the production of cross-gap dialogues and resonating imaginations at the horizon of readers’ expectation and interpretation (Eagleton 2007:118,123,140).    

To conduct a successful analysis of these poetical elements, Eagleton first clarifies two theoretical fallacies of poetical language between concrete and abstract, form and history. As to such relationships, most critics suggest to analyze and restore abstract aspects of poetical signification. But, Eagleton conceives of the concrete itself as a network of relations and interrelations, and proposes to take the poetical language as a vehicle to examine material aspects of poetry and explore its social and cultural significances. Critics in studying poetical languages usually pay close attention to its structure of signification and its space of metaphor, and draw a conclusion that the talents of poets and the beauty of poetical language is beyond any critical boundaries of politics, culture and history. In a sharp contrast, Eagleton argues that “to write a history of poetic forms is a way of writing the history of political cultures” and “to do this, we have first to grant those forms their material reality” (2007: 118, 142, 164).

In Eagleton’s conception of poetry as poetics, any reading or teaching of poetry, if failing to have a textual or stylistic study of poetical language and formalistic significance, amount to nothing but a reductionistic interpretation of the imitated world; while any criticism of poetry without a historical or materialistic analysis of literary forms and poetical skills, results in nothing but a meaningless play of words, signs and sounds. In this way, Eagleton argues that reading or teaching poetry should first of all seek a balancing position between the two sides of “concrete forms” or “abstract history”, and “take its forms as its content, rather than draw from a common fund of meaning” based on a dialogue or assimilation between the poetical form and material content (2007:164). In fact, it is interesting to know that Eagleton as the most eminent Marxist theorist in today’s Britain should be so interested in writing literary textbooks for general readers, and it is even stranger to find his conception of teaching poetry as poetics contribute to another important turn of poetry criticism to literary forms and poetical languages. His ideas about how to read a poem is by no means a repetition of the Russian formalists and their concept of literariness, but a shifting of his theoretical center from ideological critique to aesthetic education. Such a transformation involves not only assimilating literary forms with political meanings but also constructing a poetics of poetry as events of literature.


Acknowledgement: The paper is supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (Code: 15JNQM021) and the Research Funds for Outstanding Young University Teachers of Guangdong Province (Code: 2014-108-31).


Works Cited:


[1] Belsey, Catherine. The Future of Criticism, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, p.85. 

[2] de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, p.50.

[3] Eagleton, Terry. ”A Small History of Rhetoric”, in Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, London, Verso, 1981.

[4] Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

[5] Eagleton, Terry. How to Read a Poem, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

[6] Eagleton, Terry. How to Read Literature, Oxford: Blackwell, 2011.

[1] Wang Jin, is currently an associate professor of English literature in the Faculty of Foreign Studies, Jinan University (Guangzhou). He is mainly interested in the studies of literary theories and cultural poetics.

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