Friday, October 24, 2014

`A Lonely Activity Which Can Yet Be Shared'

The poet and classicist John Talbot sent me a link to a video of Christopher Ricks, his former colleague at Boston University, discussing his 2010 volume True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, which I reviewed here. The video sent me back to a poem by Talbot, “To Professor Christopher Ricks, on the Publication of His Book on Literary Allusions,” part of a sequence titled “The School of Mastery” collected in The Well-Tempered Tantrum (David Roberts Books, 2004). This, in turn, sent me back to the Ricks title in question, Allusion to the Poets (Oxford University Press, 2002). Reading is endless and unbounded, and always circles back on itself in a happy spiral. 

No one reads more closely and carefully, and sees and hears more as a result, than Ricks. Take “Loneliness and Poetry” in Allusion to the Poets, first published as his contribution to Loneliness (ed. Leroy S. Rouner, 1998). In it, the critic explores his theme by looking at poems by E.E. Cummings, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, Dickinson, William Barnes and Larkin, with brief side-excursions into Geoffrey Hill, Samuel Beckett, Bob Dylan and Kierkegaard, among others. What might come off as pretentious in the hands of a dimmer critic resembles the conversation of a remarkably fluent, enthusiastic and well-read spell-binder. Ricks, as always, is excellent company, which emerges as one of his sub-themes: 

“One immediate challenge for any artistic realization of loneliness comes from the fact that, whatever else art may or may not be, art always constitutes company. Not all company, it is true, is comfortingly companionable, and there is a good company that is not feel-good company.” 

Along the way, Ricks notes that lonely and loneliness have no synonyms in English; that dictionary definitions of the words are inadequate and possess none of the “emotional colouring, none of the plea” they have; that there are no lonely proverbs, catch-phrases, metaphors or similes; and that the only rhyme for lonely, rather pleasingly, is only. Ricks tells us that Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary defined loneliness as “solitude; want of company; disposition to avoid company” – almost but not quite our modern meaning, and adds: “Loneliness is in critical respects a Romantic phenomenon.” We post-Romantics tend to think of loneliness, thanks to Wordsworth & Co., as a stylized adolescent emotion, the bread and butter of pop-song writers and Chet Baker. Ricks concludes his essay with a superb reading of Larkin’s “Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel” (High Windows, 1974): 

“Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet.  A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room. 

“In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.  How
Isolated, like a fort, it is --
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on.  Waves fold behind villages.” 

What I’ve always admired about Larkin’s sonnet is the way he suggests absence by the way we leave behind traces of our former presence – empty chairs, an “unsold” newspaper, full ashtrays, “shoeless corridors,” lights left burning. The only human present is the night porter. The salesmen left for Leeds. It’s an Edward Hopper strategy, and the American might have painted this English scene. Ricks emphasizes Larkin’s elaborate weave of sounds, all those l’s (“larger loneliness”), the absence of an l in only one line (“The headed paper, made for writing home”), the deployment of “Light” and “Night” at the start of the first and last lines, and the “unspeakability” of “(If home existed)”. Ricks’ closing paragraph is a decrescendo of unhappiness and hope: 

“The poets have more than a narrowly therapeutic aim, but they would agree with Robert Graves that one at least of the things that poetry can be is a medicine chest stocked against mental disorders (and emotional deprivations), and they would agree with Dr. Johnson that the only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it. As to my own enterprise here, it has been to try to show the ways in which, in the very moment in which a great poem realizes loneliness for us, it acknowledges humanely the limits of the human imagination. A poem can claim so much, yes, and can claim only so much. And the `close reading’ of poems, a lonely activity which can yet be shared, may do something to ameliorate our propensity to evacuate the suffering, not only of others but of ourselves, into abstraction. There are the particulars of rapture and, likewise takingly, those of grief.”

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