Re: Dylan, Due


Not having read the book I wonder if Ricks addresses Dylan's tendency to change the lyrics of his songs in performances, and how much attention he pays to what the music's doing in the course of a song.


For it must be said: there are moments, while reading Ricks, when you want to shout: The 16-year-old Robert Zimmerman didn't want to be Lord Tennyson, man, he wanted to be Muddy Waters! But Ricks himself wouldn't argue, and that's the strength of his book. The critic has, seemingly, merely wished to test the songs he loves against his own pre-existing context, which happens to be Philip Larkin and Matthew Arnold, not Blind Willie McTell.

This kind of bothers me. How much of Ricks' analysis springs from his own ingenuity, which he could apply to other sufficiently large corpora with interesting results, but which he chooses to apply to Dylan because Dylan's are "the songs he loves"? And if Lethem's claim that Ricks wouldn't argue is right, then it seems that Ricks can't really be making a claim for poetic stature on Dylan's behalf, because so radically transferring them out of their original context is like playing a game with them: what if we took the lyrics to these songs and pretended they were of a type with these literary poems, what then?. (Lethem says that Ricks is uninterested in America and its folk tradition. I wonder if he writes in his book about "High Water".)

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 3:53 PM
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Nobel Prize! Is this hyperbole, or are you insane? Chuck D should get it before Dylan.

Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 3:57 PM
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Ahem. Mr. a, I'm completely serious. Note that the author of the piece puts Dylan in a class with Blake and Whitman. I think that's justified. (I like Chuck D too, but, really....)

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 4:00 PM
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which he could apply to other sufficiently large corpora with interesting results

Like, say, Den Beste's oeuvre? The writing has to bear the analysis, and if it can be read fruitfully in the "high-art" poetic tradition, I have no complaints.

I take your point about fidelity to the source, but can't we read in at least two ways: to see what the author put in, and to see what we can get out?

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 4:11 PM
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Sure, but I think it's a lot harder for the results of reading "to see what we can get out" to redound to the author's credit.

(A friend and I once came up with, in my opinion, some very clever and even interesting interpretations of a design on the t-shirt of some guy on the train into Berlin from Potsdam. It's still just as shirt, though. Interpretation can be a creative act in its own right, and with sufficient creativity a lot of dross can be transformed. But what's interesting there is the interpretation, not the interpretandum, which is why I'm skeptical that it is fruitful.)

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 4:45 PM
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it's a lot harder for the results of reading "to see what we can get out" to redound to the author's credit.

I'm not so sure. Seems like one of the characteristics of great works is that they can be read in many creative ways. To decide whether it's fruitful in this case, well, we'd have to read the book.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 4:53 PM
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Dylan in a class with Blake? This is madness.

I like Dylan. When "Rolling Stone" comes on the stereo, I'll merrily caterwaul along. Is it poetry? Sure, whatever. Is it great poetry, like Blake? Could it possibly be the best literature the world has to offer? Well, take a look:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine

You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"

You thought they were all kiddin' you

You used to laugh about

Everybody that was hangin' out

Now you don't talk so loud

Now you don't seem so proud

About having to be scrounging for your next meal.

Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 7:21 PM
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Not a big fan of "Like a Rolling Stone..." ;)

But when Dylan writes, "There's not even room enough to be anywhere," or "I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinking / And I'll know my song well before I start singing," then yes, actually, you'd be hard-pressed to find something in Blake that I find equally powerful.

Is he Blake's equal as a stylist of English? Clearly not. But over and over, for decades now, in dozens of different voices, he's been writing lines that are just right. And the whole of his output is an amazing catalog of American voices, periods, moods, and events, treating of the intimate, the political, the divine, and the profane. Give him his Nobel.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 7:42 PM
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When he writes, or when he sings?

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 8:07 PM
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(And I'd suggest that direct, powerful impact wasn't Blake's chief interest in his poetry.)

As an addendum to my too-quickly-posted last comment: I like "Like a Rolling Stone" a lot, but the lines sure do look dead on the screen. Reading them with the rhythm and melody with which I know they're sung on the album helps, but I'd never figure that out if I hadn't heard the song before. Changing the lineation would help (as would spelling "meal" "meeeaaaalllllllll"), but as an exercise it seems silly, when the song itself is available. You know how David Byrne said that words are a trick to get people to listen to music longer? Well, music is a trick to make the words sound better.

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 8:18 PM
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Or, as our buddy Nietzsche says, "The poet presents his thoughts festively, on the carriage of rhythm: usually because they could not walk."

Sure (although he's even impugning poets, like Blake, and doesn't even contemplate singers, like Dylan). But I'm not sure I see the relevance.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 8:54 PM
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Funny, that's my favorite aphorism.

Got a letter from the government

the other day

opened, and read it--

said they were suckers!

They wanted me for the Army

or whatever.

Picture me giving a damn:

I said,


Here is a land that

never gave a damn.

About a brother like me and myself.

Because they never did.

I wasn't with it,

but just that

very minute

it occurred to me:

the suckers had authority.

Posted by: FL | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 9:19 PM
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Posted by: [redacted] | Link to this comment | 06-18-04 9:22 PM
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Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos -- great song! And underplayed!

Ben W correctly notes that Dylan's poetry appears better than it is because he's a great performer and songwriter. Rather than creating a "Don Mattingly shuold not go into the hall of fame" style discussion in the comments thread, and citing more Dylan lyrics to support this point* , perhaps we can all agree he's a better poet than Jay-Z.

*You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat

Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat

Ain't it hard when you discover that

He really wasn't where it's at

After he took from you everything he could steal

Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 06-20-04 9:18 AM
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I love Dylan, but as rock-lyrics-being-poetry plaudits go, I don't think he's in a league with Paul Simon or Elvis Costello.

Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 06-20-04 9:28 AM
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Or, for that matter, Tom Waits. Dylan's work gets extra credit for the political import and the voice-of-a-generation impact, but as poetry for poetry's sake, those guys are pretty far up in line.

Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 06-20-04 9:35 AM
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I wouldn't call it poetry. He writes song lyrics. That's a different genre and requires different talents than poetry. I understand that poetry is presumed to be the higher art, but I'm quite certain a great poet wouldn't necessarily make a great lyricist. Ben W's question about the role of the singing is a difficult one; it's particularly hard to evaluate lyrics without having heard them sung: we don't really have a standard for singability (and Dylan's phrasing is always unexpected anyway)--but it's certainly part of their power, and part of his skill that they can be sung powerfully.

As for Simon and Waits (here I admit, losing half our readers, that I've never been able to listen to a whole Elvis Costello song...), some of their lyrics do translate well onto the page, and good for them, I'm a big fan of both, but in terms of how interesting or profound or various their insights are, I think they're best put in the "great minor poet" category.

To make a more general point: it seems like the detractors are concentrating almost solely on style. But, you know, Dostoevsky was a crappy writer on that score. He doesn't write elegant sentences, his plots are clunky and obvious, his symbolism fairly crude. But not many writers see more, and manage to convey it with force. I'm not willing to concede that Dylan is a crappy stylist, because he *does* write great lines, but there are other measures of the greatness of a writer.

[Yes, I'm entirely humorless on this topic.]

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 06-20-04 9:41 AM
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Just a minute, baa. I didn't mean "seems better than it is". I meant "is importantly different", in that you shouldn't (meiner Meinung nach) talk about the lyrics in isolation, but should consider how the performance, backing music, etc contributes to the construction of the song. We don't need to talk about Dylan's poetry; we can talk about his songs, hopefully without worrying that "song" carries with it less prestige than "poem".

Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 06-20-04 9:45 AM
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Yes, I'm entirely humorless on this topic.

So which is the more strongly-held conviction: this about Dylan or the one about Christy Turlington?

Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 06-20-04 10:35 AM
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Oh man, I'm *so* humorless that I have an answer to that: this, about Dylan.

The Helen of Troy choice requires picking just one person, and, naturally, I'm less confident that I have the right *one* rather than just the right kind of one. Also, I have a good idea of Dylan's competition, both historically and contemporaneously, but I'm sure there are many many gorgeous women whom I've never seen, and might make even better Helens of Troy.

Totally humorless.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 06-20-04 10:41 AM
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apostropher -- nice!

ben w -- if there's a nobel prize for popular song lyrics, maybe Dylan should be up for it (or maybe it's called a "grammy"). And I cop guilty to interpreting your "needs to be considered along with delivery" as "relies on delivery as a crutch." But it's the truth, no?

Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 06-21-04 6:00 AM
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Man, just imagine if Christy Turlington had been in that lingerie commercial . . .

Posted by: | Link to this comment | 06-22-04 8:01 PM
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Oops, that was me above.

Posted by: Mitch Mills | Link to this comment | 06-22-04 8:05 PM
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