Thursday, July 01, 2004

I'm Only Bleeding: Dylan fans must be feeling pretty vindicated right now. Both the New Criterion's Eric Ormsby and critical gadabout Christopher Hitchens make kissy face to old Garglin' Bob Zimmerman, if not the to the painfully overwrought exegesis he gets in Christopher Ricks's Dylan’s Visions of Sin, an attempt by a "serious" critic to lasso Dylan's ouevre for the canon. Ormsby:
I for one am perfectly prepared to acknowledge that Bob Dylan is a poet and sometimes a fine one. Certainly many of his lyrics are superior to much of what passes for poetry nowadays in America; they are marked by strong and sometimes subtle rhythms, they rhyme wittily, they deal with themes of general import rather than mere coterie or private concerns, and, best of all, they are remembered by people who don’t usually read poetry or even care about it.
Most of these claims can be argued of Snoop Dogg. Here's Hitch:
Other cryptic or pretentious observations, made by Bob Dylan down the years, have licensed the suspicion that he's been putting people on and starting wild-goose chases for arcane or esoteric readings that aren't there. There are also those who maintain that Dylan can't really sing. (This latter group has recently been reluctantly increasing.) Of his ability as a poet, however, there can be no reasonable doubt . . . [Reading "Mr. Tambourine Man" as blank verse] works so well, you hardly care that a tambourine man can't really be playing a song.
The New York Times, not surprisingly, gets into the act with Jonathan Lethem's review of the same book (though Lethem fawns over both Dylan and Ricks, whereas Hitch and Ormsby find Ricks's exertions over the top). Here's Lethem:
Ricks, surely aware of the oddness of his enterprise -- the elevation of a member of the Traveling Wilburys to a place among the greatest poets in the English language -- has anticipated not only the possible resistance of his usual readership to his subject at hand, but also the probable unfamiliarity with his aims and methods in the potential new readership he will have attracted. "Most people who are likely to read this book will already know what they feel about Dylan, though they might not always know quite why they feel it or what they think," is how he opens the book, with typical brio and warmth. Soon enough Ricks also addresses concerns that Dylan might not be properly treated as a poet: "The case for denying Dylan the title of poet could not summarily, if at all, be made good by any open-minded close attention to the words and his ways with them. The case would need to begin with his medium, or rather with the mixed-media nature of song, as of drama." Translation: if the lines in Shakespeare's plays, written for and much enlivened by (sufficiently inspired) performance, make a legitimate object of reverence and study, what's your problem? Might it really only be that you never had to see Shakespeare sing on "We Are the World," or accept an Oscar by live satellite feed from Australia? If so, get over it.
The Dylan generation, above all, seeks to make each of its experiences the apotheosis of its category. No surprise that they would make Dylan the poet laureate of their experience; but it is still somewhat surprising that those aging boomers who went on to study literature would court enough hubris to jam a crowbar into the list of canonical bards and wedge open a space for Bob Dylan.

I'm not entirely opposed to finding a quantum of merit in Dylan's work. His influence on rock and roll is not to be discounted, from the Byrds and the Beatles to every singer-songwriter who came since. Even my own favorite of the type, John Hiatt, owes a lot to Dylan. Dylan brought topicality to the mainstream, pushed aside the puppy-love ditties that dominated teen idol phase of rock, and unloaded something that we'd never heard before . . . except that we had. From Burl Ives and Glenn Yarborough, who had taken up the folk music that had been topical since the troubadors. Nor did Dylan improve much on the form, lyrically. Something like "Simple Twist of Fate" can quickly go from the jejune (They sat together in the park/As the evening sky grew dark/She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones) to the embarrassing (He hears the ticking of the clocks/And walks along with a parrot that talks/
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in). "It's Alright, Ma" showcases Dylan's cheap rhyming banality at its best (Darkness at the break of noon/Shadows even the silver spoon/The handmade blade, the child's balloon/Eclipses both the sun and moon/To understand you know too soon/There is no sense in trying). And the mannerisms are distracting, like the touch of throwaway sophistication (Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad/Mine've been like Verlaine's and Rimbaud) that seems horribly misplaced in a folksy love song.

Not everything is so bad, and Dylan had his occasional Dylanisms that, while still soaked in their own preciousness, work well enough (Well, she don't make me nervous, she don't talk too much/She walks like Bo Diddley and she don't need no crutch). The point is that while he is a diverting writer of topical, pseudo-folky pop songs, he is not seriously in the running with Tennyson or Donne, as Ricks argues. He is significant, perhaps, in that he brought literary aspirations to the pop song, where he arguably stood out much like Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs.

1 comment:

Razor said...

You're absolutely right. He's only getting this treatment because he's the boomer icon, the validation of all the "dropping out" they did. I mean, I love Dylan songs, not all of them, but certainly most that I've heard. As topical as he was, his words are adaptable to things that happen today, and for that, he deserves his props.

However, as you show quite clearly, his lyrics were pretty fucking tortured at times, which I'm sure his adherents looked upon as a sign of superiority or a sense of "You just don't get it, you square."

Why can't he just be a good folk singer? What's next? Indigo Girls as Sylvia Plath's reincarnation?