True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, by Christopher Ricks, Yale University Press RRP£16.99, 258 pages
Do not be put off by the esoteric-sounding subtitle. This is a profoundly rewarding book about poetry for the non-academic reader; hardly surprising when the author is the most brilliant reader of poetry of his generation. But Christopher Ricks, famous for ground-breaking critical works such as Milton’s Grand Style and Keats and Embarrassment, has not made it easy for readers – or for his publishers – on this occasion.
“Under the sign of Eliot and Pound” suggests an unbending adherence to the tenets of high modernism, in particular its love of allusion and ellipsis; and the later poets Ricks discusses are not known for making concessions to the reader. Neither are they fashionable: English poet Geoffrey Hill is famous for his unrelenting difficulty, Robert Lowell seems to be in critical eclipse and Anthony Hecht is less well known in Britain than in the US.
But if you have the patience to stay with Ricks’s extraordinarily subtle teasing out of conscious and unconscious influencings and echoes among these five fine poets, you will be richly recompensed. The area that Ricks is concerned with has a more technical name in the world of postmodern critical theory – intertextuality – but characteristically he refuses to speak in jargon. Friendship, however you define it (Ricks quotes Blake’s “opposition is true friendship”), is hardly a technical term, and the book illuminates personal connections as well as poetic ones between the five men.
The first of the three essays is about Hill’s often oppositional literary relationship with TS Eliot; the final one charts Lowell’s admiring friendship with Ezra Pound. But the major theme of the book is the enduring influence of Eliot on the three later poets.
The points Ricks makes often require deep, slow attention and well-tuned ears. At the same time they get to the heart of what poetry is about – a strange, often involuntary haunting, by language, within language; sometimes a deliberate summoning of ghosts, sometimes an exorcism.
This doesn’t mean that poetry is not also about life. Some of the most powerful pages here consist of an analysis of Hecht’s “More Light! More Light!”, a poem that bravely confronts the Holocaust. Ricks’s analysis of this brilliant and terrifying poem is typical of his method. He finds that behind “More Light! More Light!” stands another work by Hecht, “To a Soldier Killed in Germany”, ultimately rejected as flawed by the poet (himself a US infantryman in the second world war). “More Light! More Light!” is also haunted by Eliot’s “Little Gidding”. And of course the poem is not just a summoning of literary ghosts; it commemorates the murders of three men (one forced to bury the other two alive, then shot) and through them the uncounted others.
Hecht comes out here particularly well, a hidden star deserving himself of more light. But the dominant figure is undoubtedly Eliot. When asked about an echo of lines from “The Waste Land” in his “Meditation II” Hecht said, “It’s an index of the authority and durability and resonance of [Eliot’s] words ... [but] quite unconscious.” Hecht also pointed out that the effects were quite different, his “vaguely hopeful ... and gentle”, Eliot’s “agonised and full of despair.”
Eliot haunts these later poets but is himself haunted, particularly by Dante, and the book ends with a Ricksian tour de force showing how the Brunetto Latini episode from Dante’s “Inferno”, in which Dante pays generous tribute to his former mentor as he consigns him to hell, inspired not only the ghost section of “Little Gidding” but a magnificent translation by Lowell. In a final, moving twist the aged Pound, mentor to both Eliot and Lowell, who had been through his own, self-inflicted inferno, made a recording of the Lowell translation.