Positively Oxford Street
"i would want to be bach mozart toistoy, joe hill, gertrude stein or james dean they are all dead." Bob Dylan wrote on the back of Bringing It All Back Home Dylan has long demanded to be accepted for what he is. And Christopher Ricks, professor of English the Winthrop House Junior Common Room two weeks ago that the academic establishment has began to listen to him seriously.
Ricks comes to America with a long list of academic achievements. At the age of 28 a tender one for a literary critic, he wrote Milton's Grand Style which his remained a seminal work in the field of Milton criticism. His subsequent studies of Keafs and Tennyson have contributed to an appreciation of those poets. During his current tour of American campuses he has been lecturing primarily on the works of W. B. Yeats and I.S. Pliot.
Dylan and his admirers have often been an loggerheads with the academic establishment, but Ricks feels that this stance has at least on Dylan's part been more of a pose than a visceral anti intellectualism. As evidence of Dylan's sensitivity to the judgment of academics. Ricks cited Dylan's hesitation on publishing his volume of poetry. Tarantula, after Allen Ginsberg warned him that it night not be well received by establishment cities.
And Rick's meticulous approach was a welcome change of pace from non establishment criticism of Dylan's works which has been uniformly trite and unhelpful Jon Landau of Rolling Stone refers to the "multileveledness" of Mr. Lambontine Man," which sounds fairly impressive but doesn't mean much Similarly Pen Hamill on his liner notes to Hlood on the bracks which Dylan wisely decided to funk on the next shipment of the album-makes mysterious allusions to the Oran of Camus and using a favorite critical catch all phrase phrase, praises the "spaces" in Dylan's songs which "allow us to create with him."
"Some people have compared your works to Yeat's and Eliot's," a reporter said to Dylan a while ago. "I've never read Yeats," answered Dylan coyly intimating that he read Eliot. From Desolation Row:
Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting
"Which Side Are You On?"
And lezra Pound and I.S. Fhot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calvpso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
Ricks says Dylan is comparing the Titanic to modernism a vessel that seemed so promising for twentieth century poetry, but instead floundered miserably. The image of mermaids is lifted from the last lines of Eliot's "Prufrock." Dylan is not simply making fun of the cerebral poets and identifying himself with the more usual creature Ricks pointed out that Dylan's style is an thing but calypso.
In his talk Ricks chose to stay away from the more surrealistic songs from Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. Instead, he spoke on five songs from Dylan's early period: "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Boots of Spanish Leather." "Blown in the Wind." "Positively 4th Street," and "Seven Courses" a song that Dylan never released. As a literary critic, Ricks apologized for not having the expertise to deal with the musical aspect of Dylan's work to analyze it chemically the things he does with his votes to emphasize and color the meanings of his song.
To paraphrase a line from Dylan's latest album Ricks does what he must do, and he does it well. Using tools he has sharpened on poetry form Milton to Eliot. Ricks demonstrated the extent Dylan's mastery of words and rhymes. "Lonesome Death" is a deceptively simple song coming from the early '60s era of civil rights agitation William Zanzinger a tobacco plantation owner, kills Hattle Carroll, one of his servants with a cane in a spontaneous, unprovoked fit of anger. "In a courtroom of honor" where "the ladder of law has no top and no bottom" a judge releases him on bail and later him off with a six month sentence.
Ricks pointed out the careful way Dylan chooses his words. William Zanzinger twirls the cane around his "diamond ring finger" here Dylan uses a noun as an adjective a device that may be rejected by the Iowa Poetry Workshop" but that makes for evocative poetry. The rhymes in the second verse, about William Zanzinger, are all masculine that is, the rhymed syllables an stressed In the third verse which recounts the life of Hattie Carroll, the accents are feminine kitchen-children; table-level etc.
Unlike most songs in the protest genie the tone in "Lonesome Death" is not sentimental or heavy handed Dylan uses sarcasm and irony, but without indulging in polemics. His only direct comment on the crime is childlike in its perception of injustice. And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger Ricks used the same baste critical devices on analyzing the other four songs paying close attention to rhyme schemes emphasis, and tone.
Perhaps it was because Dylan freaks so rarely get the opportunity to assemble in force that the atmosphere in the Winthrop JCR was so electric Ricks's was enthusiasm lot his subject was contagion's. He proudly described his collection of twenty legitimate albums and some sixty-odd bootlegs. Evens time Dylan sings a song differently Rick notes the change in his well-worn copy of Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan (It makes a great deal of difference, Ricks said, whether the Thin Main in the ballad is told that he should wear "earphones" or "telephones"-the issue being played with here is whether he should be totally shut off from the world or instead be forced into constant communication with it.) Ricks punctuated his scholarly criticism with exclamations of "Isn't that fantastic!" and "He's just fabulous, isn't he?"
It was not simply a burst of excitement however that led him to declare that "Dylan is the closest thing we have to Shakespeare." Poets like Eliot, he argued, may have displayed more genius in their verse, but they were never to reach the large audiences that Dylan appeals to Because of his medium, music and the ways he is able to manipulate it (from the folk song tradition to electric "folk rock" to the Nashville sound), Dylan is capable of communicating good poetry to more people than the modernists could ever have hoped to.
While Ricks did not pursue it, the other side of his argument also holds up Dylan has never had a number one single (Like a Rolling Stone say the closest: it climbed to the sixth position of the WABC hit parade) and the Rolling Stones have always outsold him in terms of records But the appeal of the Stones is purely sexual Admittedly they are the masters of hard-core eroticism, but an Norman Matler said in a recent interview the Stones always bring you to a certain point and then leave you've been manipulated into a state of sexual excitement, but nothing about that moment will stay with you. The Stones records may be listened to a hundred years from now as documents on urban sexuality in twentieth century America, but the lyrics from "Boots of Spanish Leather."
Oh how can how can you ask again
It only brings me sorrow
The same thing I want from you today
I would want that tomorrow
wull endure not simple as a documents but as good poetry.