Ricks: Small words are powerful

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Prepositions and conjunctions – seemingly small and humble words – play a significant role in language and communication, said renowned literary critic and editor Christopher Ricks.

Ricks spoke to graduates from Brescia University College, Huron University College, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, the Don Wright Faculty of Music, as well as the Engineering, Health Sciences and Science faculties at the Thursday, October 27 afternoon session of Western’s 308th Convocation. Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters, honoris causa (DLitt.), upon Ricks in recognition of his distinguished literary career.

No one pays much attention to prepositions and conjunctions – words such as of, to and from, among many others, Ricks told graduates. These words do not exist independently – they depend on others around them. Still, their power must be noted and graduates must consider the power and significance of something as small and inconspicuous as a simple preposition.

“Think about the ways in which prepositions change how you think of everything,” he said. “‘Free from’ is different from ‘free to.’ A starting point for a big, central word will be what preposition it is in the company of.”

After serving as a soldier in the 1950s, Ricks started his academic career at Oxford University (and was the first person in his family to attend university). He has divided his six-decade career equally between England and the United States. Between 1957 and 1986, he taught at the universities of Oxford, Bristol and Cambridge, where he was King Edward VII Professor of English Literature. Since 1986, Ricks has been the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. In 2004, he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a chair that was created in 1708 and has been held by many well-known poets, among them Matthew Arnold, Cecil Day Lewis, W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, the late Seamus Heaney and the late Sir Geoffrey Hill, to name a few. Ricks was knighted in 2009.

As a literary critic, Ricks has done great service to poetry and poets. Many eminent poets, including Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill gained a wider readership after receiving laudatory reviews from him in the 1960s. “He is exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding,” W.H. Auden said of Ricks. John Carey, Emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford has likewise called Ricks “the greatest living critic.”

A champion of Bob Dylan since the early ‘60s, Ricks’ faith in Dylan’s art was recently vindicated when Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Ricks has written and edited dozens of books, among them seminal works on a number of influential English poets and authors. His first major book, Milton’s Grand Style was first published in 1963 and is still in print today. His edition of T. S. Eliot’s Poems, published with Jim McCue in 2015, was awarded the prestigious Pegasus Award.

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In 1999, Ricks and Geoffrey Hill founded the Editorial Institute at Boston University. In 2003, he was awarded the $1.5 million Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award.

In his citation English professor John Leonard praised Ricks as a talented, ambitious and influential literary critic.

“After the triumph of Milton’s Grand Style, a lesser critic would have been content to enjoy a lifelong career as a world class Miltonist, but Christopher Ricks is not a lesser critic,” Leonard said.

“After writing the book that many Miltonists (myself included) think the greatest book on Milton ever written, he went on to write equally celebrated books on Keats, Tennyson, Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill and Bob Dylan,” he added.

“Ricks’s criticism is as remarkable for depth as for breadth. He can find more in a line of verse than anyone else and when lecturing he is able to quote long passages of verse as if he had all of English poetry stored away in his head.”

Sure, prepositions and conjunctions are micro words, Ricks added. But micro things change big things and micro things can be small, yet potent. Consider micro aggression. Micro invalidation. Micro assault.

Prepositions “are extremely alive words that signal all of the relations we may have,” Ricks said. This is why they are worthy of note and consideration for today’s graduates.

“Language is like a collection of tools, but some of the most important words in our language are not like tools – they are like nails. They are all the words which challenge you to imagine a picture of them.”