Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem
‘Discourse’, as we shall see, means attending to language in all of its material density, whereas most approaches to poetic language tend to disembody it. Nobody has ever heard language pure and simple. Instead, we hear utterances that are shrill or sardonic, mournful or nonchalant, mawkish or truculent, irascible or histrionic. And this, as we shall see, is part of what we mean by form. 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.
It would be hard to figure out, just by reading most of these content analyses, that they were supposed to be about poems or novels, rather than about some real-life happening. What gets left out is the literariness of the work. Most students can say things like ‘the moon imagery recurs in the third verse, adding to the sense of solitude’, but not many of them can say things like ‘the poem’s strident tone is at odds with its shambling syntax’. A lot of them would just think that this was funny. They do not speak the same language as the critic who said of some lines of T. S. Eliot: ‘There is something very sad about the punctuation’. Instead, they treat the poem as though its author chose for some eccentric reason to write out his or her views on warfare or sexuality in lines which do not reach to the end of the page.