Five Easy Pieces

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BBC Radio 3, 30 May - 3 June 2011
In this series of five talks in The Essay series, first broadcast in 2010, Christopher Ricks explored some memorable short poems, including Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, William Blake's "Hail Matrimony," T. S. Eliot's "Morning at the Window," and Andrew Marvell's "A Dialogue."
As I listened to Ricks' beguiling voice taking us through each poem, I became aware of two contradictory responses. Despite their brevity, the poems were incredibly concentrated: each word assumed significance within each line, as much for its sound as its sense. Listening to the poems read aloud proved beguiling, as listeners were drawn into their specific - and very idiosyncratic - worlds.
On the other hand, Ricks was forever trying to explain each poem in terms I used to associate with old-style practical criticism. I first encountered this kind of analysis at school, where I was encouraged to look at a poem's content, followed by its form, and explain in detail why poets had chosen particular words and/or rhythms, and how they worked in terms of the overall structure. The process of critical analysis was often laborious; while giving me an insight into how the poet wrote, it rendered me largely insensible to the experience of the poem.
I felt much the same about Ricks' meticulous attempts to unpick each poem: while admiring his technique, I felt that his comments detracted from the emotional experience of listening to the poems being read out loud. I often use poetry in the classroom, even though learners often think of it as "boring" or "complicated." In an attempt to overcome such prejudices, I often liken a poem to eating chocolate or other sweetmeats; savour its beauties of language and rhythm, and perhaps you can gain an insight into its purpose. Detailed explanations of the kind Ricks offered are useful, but not vitally necessary to appreciate the experience of the poem - especially when read aloud. This is why programmes like Radio 4's Poetry Please work so well, as listeners request to have their favourite poems read aloud.
Nonetheless I have to admire Ricks for his dedication and tireless energy in dealing so meticulously with each poem. The producer was Tim Dee.