The Books Interview: Christopher Ricks

Your new book is the third you have written about T S Eliot. You obviously quite like him.
Ah, bathos! I think he is a genius. Mind you, I didn't like him at school. I thought John Masefield was a much better poet, which is not to say that Masefield is contemptible. I was very lucky to have two English teachers who disagreed with each other and thought that disagreeing was important, but that you are obliged to give reasons.

One of them was a Leavisite, so he didn't care for Milton, but he was very strong on Joyce, Lawrence and Eliot. The other was a traditionalist, and that's where the Milton came from. I remember buying the little grey edition of Penguin Poets and not having much joy with Eliot. But I had not sufficiently acknowledged the degree to which "genuine poetry can communicate" before it is understood.

You have also written about Bob Dylan. Is the line about Valerie and Vivian in Dylan's song "Too Much of Nothing" an allusion to Eliot's wives?
No, I think it is a coincidence; there is such a thing as a coincidence. But it feeds my fantasies, and that's not nothing. I think that Eliot was right to talk about "cumulative plausibility". He is very explicit about the principle. No single instance will work, yet after a while you get so many things. At first the onus is on the claimant, but there comes a point at which it shifts to the sceptic. Mind you, it's never a knock-down thing, and poets could lie: "Yes, I was quite deliberately doing this." All men are liars. And a lot of women, too.

There are many poets whom you praise in passing, but have never written much about, such as Thomas Hardy. Why not?
Well, you've made a connection there, because Hardy was Eliot's one great blind spot as a critic. It's when he is praising Yeats - nothing wrong with that - and he says that "Thomas Hardy, who for a few years had all the cry, appears now what he always was, a minor poet". As for why I haven't written a book on Hardy: there was never anything I thought I had to say. It's the same with some of Dylan.

There is mention of "I Want You" in my book Dylan's Visions of Sin, but not very much. It's my favourite of all Dylan's songs; I simply don't have anything to say about it.

You say there was nothing wrong with Eliot praising Yeats, but you don't do it.
I think that Yeats is a rhetorician of genius: I just don't think he ever had a quarrel with himself. That is why the letters are so boring. And when Yeats revises his poems, he succeeds only in making them more sonorous.

Take the lines: "Now that my ladder's gone,/I must lie down where all the ladders start,/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." What is "foul" doing here? What would it mean to have a "fair" rag-and-bone shop? Pope's line in "The Rape of the Lock" about "the moving toyshop of their heart" is much more painful, but it's true that it doesn't have quite the same throb. We notice these things if we attend closely to the words.

Yeats is like someone who's forever crying, "Oh, I'm the most terrible miser!" and you want to say to him: "No, no, you're just a bit stingy - you never buy a round."

What about those critics who have praised Yeats, such as Helen Vendler and Frank Kermode?
Helen Vendler is a very remarkable critic - she is the only true aesthete among critics - but she is interested almost exclusively in poems as products of the imagination. I think she would accept that. She has very little interest in what poetry may provide in terms of wisdom or truth.

Frank Kermode's writing on Yeats in his first critical book, Romantic Image (1957), is special, though I think we have to be careful praising very early work. Kermode has had a very, very remarkable career. It was mounted, at least initially, in response to F R Leavis - the aim being to widen literary history beyond close reading. He is terrific.

He once said, and I quote it in True Friendship, that certain kinds of narrative are too consolatory to console. I don't know where he said it, but it's wonderful.

Christopher Ricks's "True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound " is published by Yale University Press (£16.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy