Setting a different human example


LITERARY CRITICISM: True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and PoundBy Christopher Ricks, Yale University Press, 258pp. $28

CHRISTOPHER RICKS’S True Friendshipis a collection of lectures, originally given in 2007 in honour of Anthony Hecht, that amazingly artful American poet, who died in 2004. Hecht had taught for many decades at various American colleges, including his alma materBard College, Harvard, Yale, and Rochester, and among his critical work, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry(2003) is dedicated to Ricks. In the spirited introduction to that book, the then 81-year-old remarked, “long years of examining the work of other poets have taught me that not a few poets, under the pretext of freeing themselves from the bondage of prosodic and formal consideration, have found in such manumission a convenient way to avoid the very obvious risks entailed by submission to form and meter: unskilled attempts are instantly to be detected, and on these grounds alone it is literally saferto play the role of independent radical. (One such radical has recently affirmed that anyone who observes formal constraints is unambiguously a fascist)”.

The drift here is much caught up in local rows, as Kavanagh might have it, but, like Hecht, Christopher Ricks makes few compromises when it comes to understanding the inner formal and technical complexities that exist inside the three poets he discusses – Geoffrey Hill, Robert Lowell and Hecht – each of whose writing has been, in one way or another, haunted by the intensifying presence and aura of TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. “Allusion”, Ricks remarks, “at its best does catch something but in the form of the illimitable, bringing into being a new being.”

This is not a book for the impatient. Ricks builds up a steady flow of evidence-based textual proof, (“the words on the page”), similar to his performance in Beckett’s Dying Wordsand his (essential) collection of essays assembled under the banner The Force of Poetry. What True Friendshipshows, without a shadow of doubt, is simply what every poet knows: that we live (or die) by the creative use of the tradition that has spanned western literary civilisation.

By the latter half of the last century, after modernists such as Pound and Eliot had broken ranks and tried to recalibrate the whole business, looking far afield to other cultures and civilisations, the authority of poetry and the context within which the poet was to exist – all this had changed utterly. “I saw Pound here last spring,” Lowell writes to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop in 1969, “very silent and gone”.

Like Hecht, Geoffrey Hill and Robert Lowell viewed poetry as first and foremost a form of art but also as the last resort of a spiritually viable, imagined alternative to the ways of the world and a telling portrayal of its pleasures.

This visionary sense of what they did as poets, needed (and in Hill’s case, still needs) an alert intelligence and self-belief; it also requires the sustenance intellectually, technically, morally, of those who have gone about the business before. “Before” being timeless and placeless, Ricks has one of the most learned and adept minds at spotting the connections, echoes, and rewritings that connect one poet and another, sometimes almost clairvoyantly.

Like visual artists extending or refining, rebuking or re-visioning the way things have been seen in previous generations, Ricks’s study maps the language and formal sampling that takes place in the work of these three transatlantic poets. Quoting the 21-year-old Lowell, writing in the Harvard Advocatein 1938, an unctuous tribute to TS Eliot on his 50th birthday, Ricks remarks that Lowell was “a man with astonishing powers of growth [who] grew to extirpate the snooty; more crucially, he grew to write a great deal that was desperately precious, its preciousness often its understanding of desperation”.

Under the critical signage of Anthony Hecht, Ricks brings to mind another of Hecht’s comments, “Poets can be bad, as they can be good, in any number of ways, and both the metered and meterless can exhibit emotional indiscipline, snug self-satisfaction, indolence of mind, and every kind of flaccidity. Too often such poems fail the way a bad joke badly told will fail: the teller sits back grinning in foolish triumph and still more foolish expectation of uproarious laughter only to be greeted by embarrassed silence. And what does he do then?” One idea would be to get a hold of Christopher Ricks’s True Friendship, sit down in a calm corner and read the book from cover to cover and then, simply, go about the world a bit more knowledgeably.

IF, AS RICKS MAINTAINS, “poets are characteristically more generous than critics, and poems . . . often prove more generous than their poets”, then True Friendshipis poetic criticism. The use of quotation is a wonder of knowledge and memory but in sampling the words of each in their turn, the grim realities are not eluded in the face of artistic privilege. Here is Hecht, who had served as a (Jewish) infantryman in the second World War and witnesses the release of prisoners from Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria, Germany in April 1945.

“I am not a concentration-camp survivor, I feel that undue indignation on my part would be a vulgar appropriation of the sufferings of others for cheap rhetorical purposes and a contemptible kind of self-promotion. At the same time, I cannot help identifying with all Jews who have experienced persecution, for I have felt the effects of anti-Semitism throughout the whole of my life, though not in extremis, and I invariably wince at finding it widespread in Western literature.” From which point Ricks leads the reader into a maze of ghosts and ghostly echoes from Shakespeare and Eliot in Hecht’s powerful, dramatic More Light! More Light! .

The procedure works and is testament to how art, in this instance Hecht’s glorious poems, can stand up to terrible acts of man and even to the lesser noxious anti-Semitic strain in both Eliot and Pound and other writers of the period by setting a different kind of human example.

This is a fascinating, challenging, demanding, intently interior, almost forensic work; not perhaps to everyone’s taste, but for those to whom poetry is more a way of life than a lifestyle, the real deal.

Gerald Dawe’s poetry collections include Lake Geneva and Points West. He has recently published The World as Province: Selected Prose1980-2008. He is senior lecturer and director of the Oscar Wilde Centre in the School of English, Trinity College