Yale £16.99 242pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

True Friendship, By Christopher Ricks

As an undergraduate 45 years ago, I never missed Christopher Ricks's lectures. He was the most engaging expositor of poetry; what's more, he generally had time for serious conversation afterwards with any student who tagged along to the King's Arms. His book Milton's Grand Style taught many of us how to read poetry and was our oblique introduction to the ambiguities of William Empson: we got many things "at one remove" through Ricks as teacher and critic.

True Friendship, his Anthony Hecht Lectures at Bard College, exemplify Ricks's clarity and versatility. Each of the three lectures centres on the relationship between a modern poet and his Modernist antecedents. The first, on Geoffrey Hill, is a partita: intense, agonisingly precise; the second is chamber music, less substantial, ceremonial in feel. Anthony Hecht's memory is the occasion for the lectures, after all.

The third is grand, Ricks mastering the whole orchestra of modernism and showing himself entirely at home in that curious mid-Atlantic culture of Pound, Eliot and Lowell which is, after all, now his as well: a place in which one can elude the old and the new country's "quiet ways of betrayal".

Hill's American exile was more Solzhenitsyan: "I myself am England, nor am I out of it," the Mephistopheles in him may have declared. As always, Hill is different in kind, and has come home.

The lecture on Hill is nuanced, cautious, forensic: brilliant. The critic deals with a living poet who has a habit of answering back, about whose work he has been writing for a long time. Ricks has experienced the poet's now tetchy, now angry, wry and rueful resistances down the years. His critical investment in Hill has had creative effects on the poet, he maintains: "I do believe that the criticism that I have devoted to Geoffrey Hill... may play a small part within the complexity that is Hill's relations to TS Eliot."

The lecture addresses audience and reader, but also the poet himself: a complex negotiation because of the tense, unwritten relationship between the two. Throughout we are aware of an intimate subtext, the sparring, the parrying at one level, at another the formal public discourse. "Hills's poems as well as his criticism wrestle angelically with Eliot, with Pound, and with Lowell," Ricks declares, as he himself wrestles with Hill. He particularly resists Hill's "disparagement of consolation", his apparent sense that "disturbing and alienating readers are intrinsically the good or the better things to do". Hill regrets and relishes "the hissing of my own animus".

Ricks distinguishes between the ways in which Hill's poems and prose respond to Eliot. The poems provide "Eliot's memorial in Hill", whereas the prose qualifies and finds grievances with Eliot. Hill has some brilliant things to say about Eliot, not all of which Ricks, who is currently editing Eliot's poems, finds agreeable. Most suggestive is this: "The deepening failure of Eliot, both as a poet and critic, to focus his powers, I attribute to his increasing inability – and it begins fairly early, in the 1920s – to contemplate the heavy cost of being, of becoming, radically, irretrievably, alienated." Not only radical but irretrievable: had Eliot gone that way, Sweeney Agonistes would have been the beginning of an amazing work, and Four Quartets would not have been.

Ricks doesn't always entirely get Hill, finding some of his terminology wilful and obscure, in particular his distinction between pitch and tone in verse. This strikes me as a distinction so central that Ricks's "reading short" is an unexpected disappointment. While pitch inheres in a poem, tone is performative, the voice controlled by deliberate artifice. The creation of personae in poetry creates tone; a close focus on subject produces pitch: a poetry of the first, not the second order.

Anthony Hecht's poetry is of the second order, his poetic language not close to common speech, apparelled, exiguous, ironic in relation to its large themes - which include the Holocaust. Ricks graciously does it more than justice. And Lowell he celebrates, reading the American poet's draftings and re-draftings with illuminating care.

Michael Schmidt's 'Lives of the Poets' is published by Phoenix

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