Conjurers turn tricks on wizards' coat-tails

June 23, 2006

Can bravura literary criticism overshadow its subject and distort instead of enlighten? Derek Attridge examines the pitfalls of close reading

We often talk of a powerful literary work, and sometimes of a powerful piece of literary criticism. But what is the relation between these two kinds of power? Can powerful criticism enhance or explain the power of the literary work on which it is commenting? And can the criticism ever be too powerful for the work?

Christopher Ricks, the incumbent of what is probably the most prestigious academic post in the world of poetry - the Oxford University professorship of poetry - begins one of his books by raising the question at the heart of this issue, that of the critic's relation to the artist. He rejects the suggestion that the former's power can be at the expense of the latter's by way of a story told by one literary critic about another.

"As a student at Cambridge University long ago, the young William Empson impressed his teacher, the not much older I. A. Richards, by his spirited dealings with a Shakespeare sonnet. 'Taking the sonnet as a conjurer takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of rabbits from it and ended by saying, You could do that with any poetry, couldn't you?' But only if the poetry truly teems, and only if the critic only seems to be a conjurer."

"Only if the poetry truly teems": this is the yardstick by which we are to judge the responsible critic, who reveals no more than is actually there. The sceptical suggestion made by the young Empson - that what is revealed in bravura criticism is more often the skill of the critic than the value of the poetry - is brushed aside. What then, we might ask, is the function of the rhetorical flourishes, the humorous patter, the graceful motions, in much of the criticism we enjoy, if not to bamboozle the audience into taking illusion for reality? Is it not the task of the critic, like the conjurer, to persuade us that the rabbits really were in the hat?

Ricks's Dylan's Visions of Sin , a 500-page study of Bob Dylan's lyrics, exposes a familiar critical method with great clarity. His analysis of two lines from Lay, Lady, Lay : "I long to see you in the morning light/ I long to reach for you in the night" talks of "not only the parallel syntax and the rhyme but the internal assonance (see/reach), with 'I long to see you' reaching across to 'I long to reach for you'". He continues: "The couplet is for a couple and a coupling, and it reaches back (we should see and hear) to two earlier parallel lines: "Why wait any longer for the world to begin/ Why wait any longer for the one you love."

This is a characteristic example of Ricks's method and style. He succeeds in pointing out a number of facts about the two lines: 1) they are parallel in syntax, 2) they rhyme (light/ night), 3) they have internal assonance (see/reach), 4) they contain, in the word "long", an echo of two earlier lines that use the word "longer".

Does this analysis show that the lines are highly effective as poetry, that they evince skill and produce pleasure by their subtle handling of language? One test would be: how easy is it to construct lines that have the same features as the ones that Ricks points out? The answer is, very easy: "I stand and read this lecture here to you/ I stand and keep on reading though I'm blue."

One could produce hundreds of such examples in an hour or two, although it would be a pretty mind-numbing exercise. If Dylan's lines are exceptional as poetry (and we may doubt this), it cannot be for the reasons Ricks gives.

Why, then, is it possible, momentarily at least, to find Ricks's commentary convincing, to feel that he has indeed shown that the poetry truly teems?

His most effective technique is to draw on the language of the lines in his own description, creating the illusion of an extraordinarily close relationship between his words and Dylan's. For Ricks, "I long to see you" doesn't merely echo "I long to reach for you", it "reaches across" to it.

The two lines also "reach back" to the earlier lines. Then Ricks sets up his own echoing sequence by seeming to suggest that Dylan's having written a couplet is particularly appropriate when the subject is a couple who are coupling.

These rhetorical devices are immense fun, but they don't actually say anything more about Dylan's language than a plainer version would; they please the reader in the same way that some poetry pleases the reader. The cumulative power achieved by the multiplication of such examples over the several pages devoted to a single song, and over the several hundred pages of the book, is undeniable. This technique is to be found everywhere in Ricks's criticism.

For example, in The Force of Poetry , Stevie Smith's rhyming of "diffident" and "accident" is called a "diffident accident", and in Essays in Appreciation Byron's rhyming of "resource" and "recourse" is said to be "itself both a resource and a recourse". This trick is, of course, only one weapon in Ricks's armoury, but it shows the way in which his immense skill as a writer is deployed to move, delight and persuade the reader.

Another critic, without this rhetorical flair, might well point out the same features and fail to convince. And one has to ask, in spite of Ricks's own insistence that the rabbits must really be there for such criticism to work, if there is any verse, however limp or leaden, that he could not bring to illusory life.

What I am basically saying is that the more powerful the critic's technique, the less reliable are the critical judgments it is used to make. Of course, there is a great deal more to Ricks's authority as a critic, but I suspect his other strengths would have counted for far less had they not been allied to verbal dexterity and scintillating wit. A critical method should be no more powerful than is necessary for the task it is called on to carry out. Any excess of power will serve only to distort what is supposedly being described - and this is as true in the classroom as it is on the printed page.

If we look at Ricks's predecessor at Oxford, the poet Paul Muldoon, the dangers of this approach are clear to see. Discussing Marianne Moore's poem The Fish in one of his Clarendon lectures, Muldoon quotes the phrase "A fritillary zigzags" and goes on to note that the zigzag is a familiar element in Moorish art and architecture. He then connects Moorish and Moore-ish, and relates them to the Andalusian pansy mentioned in another work, and to the line further on in The Fish that contains a "gold horse-shoe", the horseshoe arch being another feature of Moorish buildings.

There follows a rare moment of reflection on this method of commentary, in the course of which Muldoon, like Ricks, incorporates words taken from the poetry he is writing about:

"Now, I know that this kind of reading may sometimes seem a little fritillarian (in the dicey sense that underlies both the butterfly and the flower), perhaps a little fiddle-headed, but what can I do? I'm sitting at a desk I acquired from the gentleman who looks after surplus furniture at Princeton. His name is Sam Formica. On the desk are two books, The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan and Archie G. Wall's Geometry and Architecture in Islamic Jerusalem ."

The echoes, the coincidences, the interconnections are there in the world, says Muldoon, as real as anything else. He implies the irrelevance of intention (a problem for Ricks, which he solves by adducing "unconscious intentions"): there's no suggestion that Archie G. Wall set out, because of his name, to dedicate his scholarly efforts to arches and walls.

It's dizzying stuff, and there's much more of it in Muldoon's critical writing (as well as in his poetry). In spite of the great show of scholarship the reader is bound to ask: is he being serious? The reader who knows the poetry, in particular, will wonder where to draw the line between scholarly identification carried out in all earnestness and free association indulged in with wicked glee. The point, surely, is that the line can't be drawn: the cultural arena is thronged with a million echoes and reflections, and who can say that any particular one is a matter merely of chance?

Ricks and Muldoon practise two styles of commentary that are, on the surface at least, very similar in their procedures. Muldoon's, however, helps open our eyes to the dangers present in Ricks's. Both demonstrate the immense power of the method of close reading developed in the first half of the 20th century, but only one makes us aware that it is in that very power that its limitations lie.

Derek Attridge is head of the department of English at York University.

This is an extract from his inaugural lecture given at the university in early June.

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