Saturday, June 13, 2009

`Highly Trained and Deeply Instinctual'

Most news accounts led with the knighting of another Christopher, Lee, but readers are gratified to learn Christopher Ricks has been named a Knights Bachelor for “service to scholarship.” Ricks, 76, was, until recently, Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, and remains Professor of The Humanities at Boston University. Name another critic who reads the words of others with so acute an ear and whose own words so please the same organ. Sometimes his mentor, William Empson, but as a poet-critic he came hyphenated. Ricks is a hyphen-less critic who merely writes as a poet ought to write, with precision, concision and wit:

“What kind of poems? Well (well and good), short poems. Agreed. These are short poems that are not – the critics have rightly insisted – epigrams exactly, or (rather) are exactly not epigrams. A different kind of wit is at work. Or aphorisms, really. A different kind of wisdom is at work. Yet these are poems that do belong within wisdom literature, that of the Psalms, say, or of Blake’s shorter poems (Menashe often offering moreover not Proverbs of Hell but Proverbs of Heaven). Apophthegms, I’d say. Menashe, who relished the shorter forms of things (including words), would be likely to prefer the form apothegm.”

That’s from his introduction to Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, edited by Ricks for the Library of America in 2005. It’s typical of Ricks, in introducing a poet new to many of us, to enter into the spirit of the poet’s work, to celebrate it as the poet might himself and not get puffed up with pretensions: “Well and good.”

My favorites among Ricks’ books – not counting his editions of Tennyson, Housman and Eliot – are Milton’s Grand Style (1963) Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Beckett’s Dying Words (1993) and Allusion to the Poets (2002). He’s probably best known for championing the words of Bob Dylan, a longtime admiration that culminated in Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003). In that volume he humbles himself as a critic before the artists he celebrates:

“…I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious. Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual. So if I am asked whether I believe Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn’t. And if I am right, then in this he is not less the artist than more.”

Gratitude in a critic is always unexpected and worthy of our gratitude as readers. If a critic writes badly, how can we trust him? But is it possible for a critic to write too well? Merely formulating such a question honors Sir Christopher.


WAS said...

Thanks for focusing my attention on Ricks. I've had a chance to read his extraordinary essay "Literary Principles as against Theory", which is nothing less than a go-for-the-throat takedown of the deconstructionist literary studies revolution.

It takes as its centerpiece TS Eliot's distinction between intellectuality and intelligence: "intelligence, of which an important function is the discernment of exactly what, and how much, we feel in any given situation." Rather than deconstruct, Ricks' asserts the true aim of modern literary theory is to "obstruct discernment of feeling." Behind the veneer of philosophizing about a text's ultimately unknowability, the theoretical approach deliberately denies the possibility of feeling anything at all about a literary work, and so obscures the ability to discern our feelings for why literature moves us or not, and to separate sentiment, sensation and correspondance. And that makes the actual teaching of literature impossible.

Aside from the delicious irony of using the founder of New Criticism to skewer a movement that essentially developed as a reaction to New Criticism, I loved Ricks' ability to engage the literary pettifogging on its own terms. Consider these lines:

"[The Fall from 'the garden of pre-structuralist and pre-deconstructionist innocence' (Prawler)] is manifestly the myth or metaphor with which to rebuke the gullibility of any attempt to put the clock back...But even if we were to accept the loaded metaphor of the Fall, is it loaded exactly as 'enlightened modern thinking' would wish? For there is something 'unreflective' and 'naive,' and insufficiently de-constructive about this marked refusal then to interrogate the Fall. For the Fall is not the story of pure gains, but of great gains and great losses...criticism feels impelled to become meta-criticism, and duly corrugates itself, very like those 19th century agonizers confronting the dreadful possibility that, if God is dead, all is permitted."

"It has been said of D.H. Lawrence's religion that it is all going to church and never getting there; it may be said of the theory revolution that it is all marching to the barricades and never getting there."

"Nowhere in such a 'critique of the current debate' is any attention paid to the creation or the creators of works of literature. We hear repeatedly and balefully of a 'hegemonic tradition', 'hegemonic values', 'a hegemonic bourgeoisie,' 'hegemonic paradigms', and a 'hegemonic sociolect', but there could not be a more unremitting hegemony that that which is so unmisgivingly circumscribing what is called 'the production of texts' to something in which writers apparently play no part."

From this Ricks examines the poet Hopkins' critical facility and concludes with a final, stunning blow, located in Hopkins' consideration for his correspondent reader that he could not presume to read into his mind. The human inability know what currents flow in another mind yet to, as Hopkins puts it, "jump together even if it be a leap in the dark" is the starting point for Ricks of literary studies, but it is most emphatically the end-point of the Deconstructionism.

To me, it "speaks volumes" that, while deconstructionist literary critics have written thousands of tomes on Madonna, this "practical" critic focuses on Bob Dylan.

In the end, I suppose, it could be argued that, like Hamlet, Ricks is arguing with ghosts, but aren't those the best kind of arguments?

Donald said...

There was something very knowing and literary in how Bob Dylan greeted Christopher Ricks when they eventually met, like an arch-criminal meeting his detective nemesis: "So, Mr Ricks, we meet at last."