Saturday, December 23, 2006

Terry Eagleton on "How to Read a Poem"

I'm enjoying this how-to book quite a great deal. Eagleton combines close reading of famous poems with a quick overview of poetic theory and criticism, in the belief that close reading and theory must inform each other. He is particularly good on the semiotics of Yury Lotman. The style is witty and opinionated.

Eagleton defines a poem as "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." He readily admits that the definition sounds "unpoetic to a fault," but defends it as "the best we can do."

I am particularly intrigued by the element of morality in his statement. He writes,

...morality in its traditional sense, before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live most fully and enjoyably; and the word 'moral' in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience. Moral language does not only include terms like good and bad, or right and wrong: its lexicon extends to such epithets as 'rash', 'exquisite', 'placid', 'sardonic', 'vivacious', 'resilient', 'tender', 'blase', and 'curmudgeonly'.

Later in the same section, Eagleton continues,

Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purposes. So another opposite of the word 'moral' here might be 'empirical'.

His words express a vague feeling I've always had that a poem conveys a moral vision, whether it is "The Inferno" or "Jabberwocky." By "moral vision," I don't mean a coherent moral philosophy or a moral code, but a certain angle of looking at human behaviour. Another art, say, painting, may not have that moral vision at its heart. I can enjoy fifty paintings of apples in a bowl, for what they tell me about apples, but I cannot enjoy fifty poems about apples without wondering what they have to do with me.


monkey said...

Hi Jee Leong,

I'm also enjoying Eagleton's book a lot. I don't have a precise understanding of what he means by "moral," but it may be something he associates with all the arts. After contrasting moralists with scientists and philosophers, he says "we are all moralists; and artists, who necessarily deal in values and qualities, are no doubt more so than most."

Might Eagleton's "moral" vs. "empirical" distinction apply to journalistic vs. artistic photography, or police sketches vs. artistic drawing?

It's interesting that you chose the example of apples. Cezanne's apples especially give me a vague feeling of a moral vision, though I'm not sure why.

Eagleton notes later in the section that "from antiquity to the Enlightenment, the distinction between the moral and the empirical is less of a hard-and-fast one than it generally is for us. Literature in the eighteenth century could include works of science, history and philosophy." Martha Nussbaum (e.g., in The Fragility of Goodness and Love's Knowledge) has argued that moral philosophy cannot be adequately explored without literature.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi monkey,
so nice to see you here. In my reading of Eagleton, I think he would have agreed with your examples of the "moral" and the "empirical." Journalistic photography is an interesting case, because some of it is exhibited as art, and not as mere reportage. Another example of the blurriness of that distinction, I guess.

I was thinking of Cezanne's apples when I hazarded that ill-conceived difference between literature and painting. I was thinking about literature's moral concern with human behavior to other humans, and how that kind of concern is not as apparent in some genres of painting. What I overlooked was that morality is also an angle at which we relate to the world around us, including apples. Some kinds of literature, too, are more concerned with our relationship with the world, than with other humans. Thoreau is the obvious example. Thanks for pointing out that misleading reading of Eagleton.

Jee Leong

Larry said...


A good place to test the definition would be to ask what distinguishes a poem (or a story) from a work of polemic or philosophy which also attempts to shape our attitudes towards life. There are formal differences, certainly, but there is also a distinct feeling that the work of art addresses a different zone of experience, and asks for a different kind of listening.

A thesis works through a claim of objectivity and employs the analysis of facts and reasoning. The more subtle means of persuasion are basically hidden under this appearance of rational debate.

In art this is reversed: the contract with the artist begs the artist to put up a show, surprise with novelty, dazzle with beauty, touch with cunning and sympathy and drama. The rational, informative, polemic element may be present or not, and if so it will be subservient to the general artistic vision, with an emotional point riding close behind it. Being touched by a great work of art is transfomative in a different way than the way in which a great, well-presented idea sways us.

That's about as good as I can do off the cuff. But what I really wanted to do is to congratulate you for the new, edgier, sexier picture you're using now in your profile. Good choice!


Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Larry,
thanks for giving me your thoughts on the difference between a moral argument and an aesthetic work. I agree that both work very differently on us. What I value in an aesthetic work, besides its formal properties, is a thoughtful or thought-provoking moral perspective ("moral" as described by Eagleton). A poem created by a bunch of monkeys on a computer keyboard may surprise and delight with its verbal felicities but is ultimately facile. Some poems lie closer to this pole than to the other, I guess.

Thanks for the compliment on the photo. I'm screwing up my courage to post a sexier one.

Jee Leong