The question of how seriously to take Bob Dylan remains vexing. Those of us (myself among them) who believe his importance as an artist can scarcely be exaggerated have had four decades to say why, yet even the most fervent among us must admit that we haven’t been notably successful.
Many essays on Dylan still remind me (shudderingly) of Fifties album covers, with their liner notes attempting to justify jazz music to intellectuals, droning on about “improvisation” and trying to define swing so classical musicians who can’t feel it can understand it by reading about it.
We have had more than fifty years of these explanations, and we have taken jazz right into the universities, yet by and large classical musicians are no closer to being able to play credible jazz than they were when John Lewis and the MJQ first approached them about it.
Older explanations of jazz sound corny today because they adopted the language of the people-who-didn’t-get-it, who in turn tried adopting hipster lingo, with excruciating results. It was a make-the-squares-comfortable kind of racket in those days. Didn’t want to frighten Mr. Jones, did we? So we made him feel hip and sent him on his way.
There are those who seriously believe that to analyze an artist such as Dylan, or to “study” him at all, is to miss the point. He is whatever he is, runs the argument, and there is nothing to be gained by trying to make him into a “literary” figure, for to do so is to concede that his art is somehow inferior to the stuff studied in academies or that he would gain stature by inclusion in their canon. Anyway, trying to explain his art to professors who don’t get it is a fool’s errand, goes this line.
On the other hand, those who have tried to make the case against Dylan have been, if anything, even less articulate than his admirers. They sound like nothing more than rule-obsessed Augustan Age critics condescending to denounce Shakespeare for “violating the Unities”. These people prefer Keats to Dylan, sight unseen, though they have trouble demonstrating, as Allen Tate proved long ago in a devastating essay, that they would know the difference between Keats and a turnip, or between the best line in “Ode On A Grecian Urn” and this one: “More happy love, more happy, happy love!”
From their elitist point of view, to “analyze” one such as Dylan is to belittle analysis itself.
Polarities aside, the number of literary academics who know little or nothing about Dylan is probably far greater than the ranks of defenders and detractors combined.
Into this Chasm of Inartiquity rides the good Christopher Ricks, to at least make a valiant stab at it.
The studiedly Whitmanesque photo of its subject on the dust jacket of “Dylan’s Visions of Sin” announces Ricks’ intent, which is to persuade the good professor’s peers that his lifelong obsession with Bob Dylan is no folly and that Dylan’s work both deserves and rewards serious critical scrutiny. Or at a minimum, is fun to think about. He succeeds at all this.
Ricks is now Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and had he been writing this very sentence, he would follow my first comma with a fantasia about Oxford, England and “Oxford Town”, Mississippi, finding significance if not outright fatefulness in the “fact” that Bob Dylan once wrote a song about a town with the same name as the one where Ricks now lives and moves and has his stipend.
Trust me, “Dylan’s Visions of Sin” is replete with far less compelling “parallels” and “similarities,” many of which cheerfully fail the test of plausibility. And yet the most devoted Dylanologist will probably hear a few of the songs in a new and better way after reading it.
It seems to me that Ricks overcomes two near-fatal decisions in this book. He is the kind of critic who regards criticism as an opportunity to be “creative”, and so he cannot resist the temptation to compete with Dylan, or to discuss any song without entertaining us by archly quoting from other songs. Others will feel differently about all the punning and quoting, but for me it is rather like standing at a Dylan concert next to someone explaining all the songs to his date, with particular emphasis on where he was when he first heard them.
The other decision is the more deadly. Ricks buys into an unnecessarily desiccated notion of what “poetry” is, accepting without thinking too much about it the hoary phallic metaphor of a poem as something that must “stand up on the printed page.” (Calling Dr. Susan Block!) Here his chief guide is the minor poet Philip Larkin, himself a critic, one who notoriously insisted that Charley Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk had “ruined” jazz.
Larkin is quoted, approvingly, as complaining that hearing poetry aloud means you miss such essentials as “the punctuation, the italics.” For Larkin, poetry was an intensely bookish and private experience to be sheltered at all cost from the public, the communal. Not for him the Russian spectacle of Voznesensky and Yevtushenko saying (not “reading”) their poems to a packed stadium in the Sixties. Voznesensky once told me he was astonished to discover that American poets didn’t even know their own poems by heart, but carried books onto the platform with them. “Anything you can forget, you should forget!” he said, with considerable heat.
Well. There have also been those who genuinely preferred “closet drama” to live theater, but would you choose an agoraphobic for your guide to the plays of Oscar Wilde? It is one thing to be “Against Interpretation,” with Susan Sontag, but quite another to be a poet and to argue Against Listening.
Ricks is far from voluntarily deaf, and listens admirably, but although he is said to possess hundreds of Dylan bootlegs, in this volume he consistently complains whenever he finds Dylan departing from the preferred, i.e., printed “text.” Alas, establishing a definitive Dylan text is a bit like trying to determine the definitive “version” of a river.
There are plenty of notable British and American poets who believe that poetry is chiefly an oral art, even that all literature is written to be heard aloud, that much of the meaning of a work is in the noise it makes, but Ricks does not avail himself of them. Indeed, he does not elect to place Dylan in the context of other living poets writing in English.
Most surprising, not to say alarming, is the fact that in a book beginning outside its covers with a photo of the young Dylan dressed as Whitman, the name of Walt Whitman does not appear. Why not, one wonders?
It would be rash to conclude that one so learned as Ricks does not know as much about modern and contemporary poetry in English as he does about other areas. Usually when Ricks knows he doesn’t know something, he tells you forthrightly. He is the first to admit that he is unfamiliar with much of the background and milieu in which Dylan works, meaning that he is often unable to hear the allusions to older songs, and thus cannot always hear in their rightful context the very works he is analyzing.
The decision to organize his effort according to the Seven Deadly Sins, the Virtues and the Heavenly Graces is a mere convenience, as Ricks acknowledges, more or less arbitrary and not especially productive, though not unreasonable. It enables Ricks to look at Dylan not so much through a microscope as through a kaleidoscope. There is some gushing at the pretty colors. People at least casually familiar with Dylan’s songs, or who have seen “Don’t Look Back”, may be mildly surprised to find, out of 517 pages, only seven and a half devoted to Anger (by contrast, Envy gets 38).
I have set forth a few misgivings about Ricks’ project not to discourage anyone from reading his book, but as a way of taking him seriously. True, he is the most prominent literary scholar yet to tackle Dylan. Also true, you may learn more about Dylan’s art from a month or two of following the links on www.expectingrain.com than from this book. Or not. Hear me when I say that is not necessarily the fault of Professor Ricks. That is just the way it is. In any event he has got the ball rolling downhill.
DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, just released a scorching new CD, Way Down Here. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.
He can be reached at: email@example.com
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