November 19th, 2007


Trains of thought

I'm so glad I spotted this little advert in the Gazette a few weeks ago:

PROFESSOR CHRISTOPHER RICKS will lecture at 5 p.m. on Monday, 19 November, in the Examination Schools.
Subject: 'Rhythms: 1. Trains (Dickens to Dylan).'

When I was doing my A-Levels, enjoying being keenest of the keen at English (and not just because I had a crush on our inspirational English teacher), I started reading proper literary criticism. ("But that's cheating, reading books about it before writing the essay!" cried my classmates.) Loughborough Library isn't the best place to start when you're hunting for hot lit. crit., but I read pretty much everything they had, on the offchance that some of it would be useful. Most of it was just that -- useful, like York Notes for grownups, a help with the homework; but there were a few gems, and among them was a huge white book about poetry by a chap called Christopher Ricks. Looking at the years and the dates and the covers, I think it must have been The Force of Poetry; it would have been brand new then, so I should probably apologise to anybody else in Loughborough who was hoping to read it when it came out, because I hung on to it for weeks, devouring it. One of the things I'd enjoyed most about Eng. Lit. at school was the sort of close reading that came under the heading of "practical criticism", picking poems and prose to pieces, a kind of intense and hungry dissection that if I'd ever had the experience then I might have likened to picking the white meat from the convoluted shell of a crab. Reading Ricks, I realised that this was a man who could pick the meat from the bones of poetry with razor-edged chopsticks and stir it into the colourful, flavourful, meaningful salad in the large earthenware bowl which he held in one hand behind his back, all without appearing to break a sweat (much less the bowl, which I would have probably fumblingly dropped at some point halfway through such a tortuous metaphor). I was, like the crab or its fishier ocean-bedfellows, hooked.

Since then I've read a fair bit of Ricks, and Beckett's Dying Words remains one of the few works of non-fiction I've read several times, every time delighted anew by Ricks' delight in the language, laughing out loud at the ludic linguistics. You might not expect this sort of reaction to a detailed dissection of a famously despairing dramatist's dialectics of dying; but how many literary critics could include the line "Cryonics, and let loose the dogs of law" in a discussion of the rites/rights of death? But it's not all shameless punning -- a longer extract may extract more of the flavour, if you can bear it:
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After that derailment (which may have lost me all my listeners): today's talk was mostly about trains, quite a lot about Dylan, very little about Dickens. It is sheer joy to listen to a lively and erudite academic talking as confidently and eloquently about Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley and Meade Lux Lewis as he does about Whitman, Eliot, Larkin, Dickens, Johnson, Beckett ... and Leigh Mercer, the unsung genius (Ricks left looking up the author as an exercise for the listener) who crafted the palindrome (or poem) "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama". The lecture had the shape of a train journey, rattling along from one point to another (from birth to death? from damnation to salvation? every track goes both ways) but with neither the beginning nor the end of one's own travels necessarily being a terminus (funny how in railway terms it's an end even when it's a beginning -- I had thought they were different), and with so much to distract one inside and outside the carriage that time flies by as fast as the countryside.

A shorter review: this man helped to train my mind.

I'm running out of steam, and I won't try to revisit all Ricks' points (though one interesting one which survives as well without as within its context was that English has no words equivalent to 'visualisation' for the senses other than sight -- a thought for the day, if you like) but I will encourage you to look out for the next lecture in this series of three, in February 2008. Worth its weight in words.