Poetry: form is constitutive of content

Terry Eagleton:

People sometimes talk about digging out the ideas ‘behind’ the poem’s language, but this spatial metaphor is misleading. For it is not as though the language is a kind of disposable cellophane in which the ideas come ready-wrapped. On the contrary, the language of a poem is constitutive of its ideas.

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Poetry above all discloses the secret truth of all literary writing: that form is constitutive of content and not just a reflection of it. Tone, rhythm, rhyme, syntax, assonance, grammar, punctuation and so on are actually generators of meaning, not just containers of it. To modify any of them is t0 modify meaning itself.

 * * *

Poetry is an image of the truth that language is not what shuts us off from reality, but what yields us the deepest access to it. So it is not a choice between being fascinated with words and being preoccupied with things. It is the very essence of words to point beyond themselves; so that to grasp them as precious in themselves is also to move deeply into the world they refer to. Not to see this is like claiming that you can’t use a spade to dig with because the iron bit at the end of the handle keeps getting in the way.

How to Read a Poem


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