Ricks’ idiosyncratic, essentially inimitable (though it is irresistible, and can be valuable, to imitate its more superficial mannerisms and habits) critical intelligence is manifest nowhere more than in his writing so well on a poetical figure that he was first to discover: the anti-pun. The term features centrally in his essay on Robert Lowell, where he hears echoes of violence in words that Lowell intimates but does not include, so as to make conspicuous to a reader what language or effects he has foregone. What is characteristic about Ricks and the anti-pun emerges in the difficulty one confronts in explaining whether Ricks discovered, invented, or first attended to the device (since Ricks’ Lowell essay, John Leonard has written on the anti-pun in Milton): it is, as Ricks would insist, a poet’s place to invent such a device, and even to discover it; but to speak of a critic’s detecting or identifying an anti-pun would suggest that such a category existed prior to the detection. Ricks’ critical gait let him stumble over something that others had stepped (too hastily) across, and also to say what was tripping him up. That felicitous tripping on language that protrudes is something akin to the sensitivity to words that a poet might possess, without the consequent creation whereby the language is fit to new form. That nearness to the poet’s receptivity, without the poetic activity, is the distinguishing characteristic of Ricks’ criticism. He is something of an anti-pun himself: the critic who recalls, but who is other than, the poet-critic, the hyphenated hybrid in whose tradition he stands, alongside his heroes Empson, Eliot, Davie, Arnold, Johnson. The pure critics who excite his imagination–Leavis, Trilling, John Jones–do not define principles as the poet-critics do. He is the critic-who-is-not-also-a-poet.
Whereas the assumption for the poet-critics is (even in the case of Empson, who is the most catholic in his appreciation and understanding) that different poets are entering the fray of poetic activity from different sides, with different intentions and concerns, Ricks would tend not to take too seriously their own proclamations–here again, Empson is most similar to Ricks, pointing out in an essay that listening to poets talk about their views of poetry is a bit like listening to a man ordering drinks for the entire bar: not to be taken too seriously. For Ricks, there are a handful of principles upon which poets are to be received and appreciated; that he has managed to so carefully find and handle the principles, not from a priori theory, but from the experience of analysis, and comparison, is what sets him apart. He is, at his best, guided by the principles that one feels a poet must intuitively have at hand when judging, again intuitively, whether a work is going right.
They receive various articulation in Ricks’ work; in the later essays they are contained, implicitly almost, within key words, such as “gratitude” and “magnanimity,” but in the earlier work especially they are more fully spelled out. If I were to choose the one that has mattered most to me, that I would want to have most regularly at hand, it is from Keats and Embarrassment:
Can we praise and value works of imagination as we should praise and value behavior? I think that we can, should, and do. It is not just that writing is itself a form of behavior; nor that the generosity which I find in Keats’s poems is to me so strikingly like that which animates his letters–and letters, though they entail imagination, are not airily free from the contingencies of the actual: letters are directly behavior in the most ordinary sense….Art and imagination are not free to do as they like; they are indeed more free to choose than we often are in daily life, but the choices made are then inseparable from responsibilities.
This is as far from the priggish schoolmaster as could be, though it would be easy to mistake it for that, honing in on the word “responsibilities.” The key word, though, is “behavior.” It is a word that views literature under the auspices of anthropology (and so it is no wonder that Erving Goffman moves within the book), that sees the behavior of language in poems, letters, conversation as continuous with, and inextricable (even when read) from a consideration of other forms of behavior that are not verbal at all, and that are both social and individual. It is a principle of criticism that takes seriously what a poet is doing when he or she writes (behaving in a certain way), that behavior itself is often the subject of literature (the behavior of inanimate as well as animate matter even; the behavior of children as well as adults, of individuals as well as societies); that language in literature is no more a sculpture than a symphony, but that it shares with these a concern with how properties of the world and of social life behave (how light, sound, words, vision, hearing behave…), and so takes as its pivot not analogy but an axis on which much may turn; and that we ourselves behave when we encounter other behavior, that we try to understand and so must evaluate, in at least the thick descriptions and classifications we provide of the behaviors we encounter; and that we find our own minds and words behaving in ways that might very obviously be influenced and informed–though not in crass or obvious ways–by the behavior that we prize and despise. Most crucially, it holds central the thought that poets are themselves doing something when they write, whatever their writings might or might not do; that assumption is enough to encompass all writers, however much we want to imagine the material, economic, and social worlds they live in–all of which would matter considerably to Ricks, albeit under the hope that they would be humanely and relevantly described.