The Poetical Mollusc

True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell under the Sign of Eliot and Pound by Christopher Ricks

Eric Ormsby

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote: “Opposition is true Friendship.” This aphorism supplies Christopher Ricks with both his title and his theme. The three poets he discusses — Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell — are united here in contentious friendship not so much with one another as with the overpowering shade of T. S. Eliot and, to a lesser extent, that of Ezra Pound. Behind all five looms the even more pervasive presence of Dante. Who could claim that the course of true friendship, especially among poets, ever ran smooth? Ricks argues that all of these three poets — each great in his own right — struggled to come to terms with their hovering, inescapable predecessors by a variety of artistic stratagems. In the case of Hill (the only living poet among them) by subtle obstinacy, in Hecht’s by barbed eloquence and in the case of Lowell (who saw himself as inheriting Eliot’s mantle) by a sense of privileged affinity. The three poets could not have been more different, both from each other and from Eliot or Pound (let alone Dante). Yet their allusions betray them. In glancing echoes, in ricochets of phrase, in their very punctuation, they reveal the impress of their masters, at once contested and revered.

Ricks’s argument, though spun out with impressive ingenuity and an abundance of learned references, isn’t entirely convincing. While there’s obvious indebtedness, particularly in the works of Hecht and Lowell, the stylistic divergence is also strikingly apparent; and Ricks’s “coincidings” and “corroborative convergences”, as well as the “massive concurrences”, to use his somewhat torturous terminology, often seem playful when they aren’t simply adventitious. Thus, in his Speech! Speech! of 2000, Hill twice uses the word “haruspicate”. Many readers will recall Eliot’s use of that word in “The Dry Salvages.” Ricks is right to note this but his interpretation seems forced. “Hill, whether he altogether wishes to or not, is set to communicate with Eliot as well as with us, to converse with his spirit as well as ours, to divine all that he can, all round.” Well, maybe. But couldn’t Hill simply have chosen that unusual word because it suited his purposes best? Taken in context, Hill’s lines may reveal what Ricks calls “amiable frictions,” but they don’t contain the least hint of what he elsewhere terms “the threat of congealed Eliotry”:

over the unmentionable, the occult                 
of bladder and bowel.

When Ricks smuggles in the clause, “whether he altogether wishes to or not”, he lets slip another agenda. He somehow knows what Hill is up to better than the poet does himself. Perhaps this explains why Ricks’s essay on Hill displays an urgency missing from the other two essays — a “friendship of opposition” is in play here too. 

In certain of his critical essays, Hill detects a decline in Eliot’s work. In Four Quartets, he has argued, “tone” has come to predominate over “pitch”. This comment troubles and puzzles Ricks. Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t understand why Hill’s distinction so puzzles Ricks. The pitch of a voice is individual and unmistakable, while tone is how we all inflect certain utterances: Prufrock’s tone varies but his Prufrockian pitch remains indelible. For that matter, Hill’s use of “haruspicate” above shows distinct pitch — who else could sound quite that note? — while Eliot’s earlier line, to which Hill supposedly alludes, is all tone (“Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry”). I disagree with Hill about Eliot’s supposed decline. If in Four Quartets he sacrificed the intense quirkiness of individual pitch in favour of a more neutral tone, that may be because he meant to speak to and for all of us, and to do so in a common voice, during a period of unprecedented menace. Prufrock’s pitch would have been drowned out in the Blitz. 

Ricks has long been fascinated by punctuation — or its absence — in poems. In his masterful The Force of Poetry of 1984 he wrote brilliantly on Geoffrey Hill’s cunning deployment of such markers. Twenty years later, in Dylan’s Visions of Sin of 2005, he lavished praise on the singer-songwriter’s “dramatic punctuation”, largely because the singer’s hesitant replies in an interview were transcribed as hyphens. Now, in True Friendship, he extols Hill’s “imaginative hyphenation”. Ricks is positively bewitched by hyphens and here they make a triumphal return, though charged with virtually cosmic significance. He can speak of “a hyphenating patience” or declare that the hyphen “realises the metaphysical union of the one and the many”. The placement of commas still enchants him too and in Ezra Pound’s poetry, the ellipsis “has a way of musing; there is a bizarre play of dot dot dot…” He admires Eliot’s “parenthetic power”. The crucial difference between Robert Lowell’s poetry and prose has “everything to do with punctuation”. 

In an age of slapdash reading, such meticulous focus is admirable. And it is impressive to see just how much hidden significance Ricks can wring from a cunningly deployed comma or the hush of a hyphen. Still, to admire, even to applaud, is not to be held spellbound. For all the playfulness and occasional elegance of his prose, despite his witty puns and extravagant wordplay, there is something oppressive in Ricks’s microscopic attention to detail. He may insist that “the difference is miniature but substantial” and yet a little of this goes a long way. As still another punctuation mark bobs into view, the reader is apt to feel not merely dazed but well-nigh comma-tose. He draws with commendable thoroughness not only on the texts themselves but on transcripts, interviews, manuscripts, letters, typos and misprints, book-jacket blurbs and record-sleeve liners in his search for “allusive illumination”. Though Ricks is a fine anthologist and chooses many magnificent examples from his chosen poets — he only falters when he includes some drab doggerel by “California poet Fred Smith” — the effect of his method is to direct attention less to the genius of his poets than to his own ingenuity as a critic. 

To follow every jot and tittle of Ricks’s analyses feels at times like being made a benumbed witness to the slow, excruciating digestive processes of some predatory mollusc. There’s something all-consuming in his regard. If this is a form of “true friendship”, it’s one in which — in true Eliotic fashion — only “the indigestible portions” are left untouched.

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