"In everyday life, talking about imaginary people as though they were real is known as psychosis; in universities, it is known as literary criticism."
So says Terry Eagleton in his entertaining book How to Read a Poem. While the book provides a fount of helpful information about the history of literary criticism and the relationship of form and content in poetry, I'm mostly enjoying his pithy asides, such as the statement on the first page that "[l]ike thatching or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be something of a dying art."
What nightmare haunts the literary critic? "Literary critics live in a permanent state of dread--a fear that one day some minor clerk in a government office, idly turning over a document, will stumble upon the embarrassing truth that we are actually paid for reading poems and novels. This would seem as scandalous as being paid for sunbathing or having sex."
How is a poem different from a candy bar? "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."
How is a poem different from an e-mail message? "[T]hey 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. Maybe the computer got stuck."
And so on. I'm halfway through the book so I've reached the part where he writes in depth about specific ways to approach and analyze poetry, and while my goal is to determine how useful this book might be in an undergraduate survey class, I'll keep the book even if I decide not to use it in class--primarily because it's pleasant to spend time with someone who shares my peculiar psychosis.