Christopher Ricks was all set to rest on his laurels until he was given another opportunity to convey the beauty of Eliot, Milton and Dylan (Bob, that is). Michael North meets a dazzling man.
There is a moment when Christopher Ricks shuts his eyes to listen to a Bob Dylan track and I wonder if this is some kind of practical joke. Is the Oxford University professor of poetry really expecting his audience of undergraduates and academic luminaries to accept that a popular songwriter merits an hour's discourse and inclusion in the canon of great English poetry? The audience probably includes critics who have accused him of "selling out to vulgarity and populism" with his tome on Dylan.
But then Ricks dazzles with his exegesis and mastery of language, causing murmurs of appreciation and knowing laughter to ripple through the packed lecture hall - as the poet laureate Andrew Motion once put it, "he doesn't so much analyse as dance (one hand waving free)". Here is an academic at the very top of his game proving a point with style.
Ricks, who is 71, has proved a lot in a career that has spanned the heights of academe in the UK and US, and he has published many acclaimed works. But he admits that he was surprised at his election to this latest prestigious post. He says he was rather "resting on his laurels". "I had about four years in which I had at last got something done [including Dylan's Visions of Sin , a book on allusion in poetry and a work on T. S. Eliot]. I was thinking, very nice really, Lord, now let us thy servant part in peace."
Ricks's ambitions as professor of poetry - a five-year appointment during which he has to deliver 15 lectures - appear modest: "I want the lectures to be talks that are worth being in the room to hear." And, when asked how people will look back on his tenure, he jokes: "They'll say, I think it's time we had a poet!"
His engagement with literature began at the age of eight, when, during the Second World War, he was sent to boarding school in Berkshire. "Like a lot of people I used to protect myself [with books]. The first chapter of Jane Eyre is wonderful about the way in which people quite rightly but very dangerously use reading to protect themselves. So you tuck yourself away on a window seat and, of course, then some little boy comes in and throws the book at you, your head is bleeding and the book, far from having been a weapon of defence, is turned into a weapon of attack against you."
Ricks's parents divorced when he was young. His mother gave him a subscription to The Times Literary Supplement as a schoolboy. It set him apart from his peers, who had their noses buried in "the Naturist Nudist magazine" and other forms of puerile titillation. Milton's Paradise Lost came as an epiphany for the young Ricks. It appealed to him as a sort of glorified science-fiction comic and because his two English masters vehemently disagreed about its worth. He would later prove the poet's greatness in Milton's Grand Style .
When Ricks arrived at Oxford after national service, during which he served as an officer in the Green Howards, "he knew what he wanted in a way that very few others did", according to a contemporary, the writer John Gross. Ricks gained a first in English.
Today, this sense of purpose goes hand-in-hand with an awareness of how privileged he is in doing what he does. Ricks says: "I think the worst thing that has happened in literary studies is the institutionalising of ingratitude. There is something terribly wrong with a schoolteacher... not thinking 'how extraordinary that I am given this opportunity to live among great works of art and great products of human consciousness and conscience to pass along to people in the years in which they are the most receptive'. Universities are even worse. People are always going on about 'the stint' of 36 lectures a year, not a term. Then, given great writers, they say, ' Huckleberry Finn is full of racism, Henry James is full of sexism...' It's all bloody grumbling."
Ricks does not shy away from his "stint". At Boston University he still has a full teaching load divided between literature and the history of ideas, as well as the obligations of keeping "visible within the subject" through publication and co-directing the Boston Editorial Institute. He says his UK counterparts underestimate the rigours of US academe. "The assumption is that anybody in a good British university, especially Oxford and Cambridge, could have the grandest job in America if he or she simply intimated that they would like to take it. But being a fellow of an Oxford or Cambridge college, though a genuine honour, has often gone with long traditions of doing extremely little."
Nineteen years ago, in the aftermath of the "theory wars" at Cambridge - a dispute between the literary theorists and those, such as Ricks, who defended the traditional approach to studying literature - he left the UK for the US, ostensibly to be with his second wife, the photographer Judith Aronson. His North American colleagues viewed him with suspicion. "I remember a friend of mine at a conference in Canada said, 'I don't know if you realise how disliked you are here.'"
Ricks still argues forcefully against the ascendancy of literary theory. "An [ex]-colleague of mine at Boston said on one occasion that 'at least since 1968 or something, it has been necessary to think about literature'.
I do see red. You mean that Aristotle, Matthew Arnold and Dryden didn't think? This is empty Whig progressivism... what was claimed as a widening of intellectual speculation was actually a narrowing."
As professor of poetry, Ricks believes he has an obligation "to resist the propensity of people more and more to become interested only in that which is recent or current. The young have been propitiated by being told that the very latest thing is what you are going to be spending your time on."
Of course, Ricks could be accused of propitiating a younger audience in his work on Dylan - a 20-year labour of love by a man who owns 1,700 of the musician's bootleg recordings and studio outtakes. But his mission in minutely scrutinising Dylan's art chimes with his other projects on earlier writers: seeking to prove that T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis, the influential literary critic, were wrong in labelling Milton a bad poet; getting to the heart of Samuel Beckett's genius of injecting his words about death with comic vitality in Beckett's Dying Words .
In his Oxford lecture, Ricks sets out to prove that other people writing about Dylan have often got it wrong. At one point he rounds on the popular novelist Nick Hornby. "Hornby says that it never enters Ricks's head that Dylan at this point [in Positively Fourth Street ] just thought, 'Fuck it, that will have to do.' Well, I actually think Dylan is an artist and a genius, and probably repeatedly when Nick Hornby is writing a novel he probably thinks, 'Well, fuck it, that'll have to do.'" He adds: "Maybe my account of why that one rhyme is distinct from all other things isn't persuasive." Ricks seems to be taking some of the blame for Hornby's misreading - a momentary lapse by the astutest of critics. He tells his Oxford audience at one point: "The trouble with me is that I think of everything." He can subject one line of poetry, or just a word, to pages of analysis. And, in the way his language often mirrors that of the artist he is examining, you feel that he is not just getting under his subject's skin, he is walking around in it as well.
Motion says: "Ricks's close readings make most other people's look standoffish." But he accuses Ricks of evolving from "someone who took a pretty plain approach to things into a supreme dandy... He opens a text by pestering it with puns, allusions and jokes".
Ricks says, in his defence, that he fits his style to the subject: "I try to use words differently if I'm writing about William Barnes than if I'm writing about Beckett... I think there can be too big a discrepancy between the ways with words that the critic has and the ways with words that the person he or she is attending to has."
Motion's comments suggest a pretension on the part of Ricks the writer, but Ricks has no illusions about the gulf that separates the critic and a great artist. "It's a sort of service industry I'm in. I think I only notice things about what other people have noticed." In a self-deprecating aside, he relates how he recently came across an essay he had written in 1964 for the London Magazine in a second-hand bookstore. It was the first critical appreciation written of the English poet Geoffrey Hill and Ricks had been proud of it. On closer inspection, however, it turned out to be Hill's own copy. This amused Ricks: "I thought, 'Geoffrey, you're a hard man.'"
Ricks's close readings display great empathy with his subjects. He ends his book on Dylan - who berated his critics for having no idea what it is like to create and perform a song in front of ten, let alone 10,000, people - with the poignant sentence: "He (Dylan) is the only person who has to be at a Dylan concert and the one person who can't go to a Dylan concert." Ricks comments: "I'm really pleased with that because it brought home to me the kind of tragic side of artistic creation."
He has been privileged to meet a few of the writers he has studied. He corresponded with Beckett about the use of different editions of his work - "his characteristic reply would be, 'I don't know which it is I dislike more'" - and met him once in Paris.
Not long ago, Dylan invited Ricks backstage after a concert: "That will probably be the only time I ever see him... If I were he, I would steer even clearer of critics than of fans."
The thing about Ricks is that he often seems as much a fan as a critic, certainly where Dylan is concerned. So when he closes his eyes for Just Like a Woman and exalts in the opening words "Nobody feels any pain tonight as I stand inside the rain", he is losing himself in the wonder of great art, as well as perhaps escaping to the protective world he discovered as a boy. Ricks says he will be inviting poets to give readings at Oxford during his professorship and in the week of his lecture he awaits the arrival of the American poet Ted Richer. He says he will take a back seat: the critic will allow the artist to shine. "I will do nothing but give him a glass of wine and simper."