The Magazine

America's Poet?

From the July 5 / July 12, 2004 issue: Bob Dylan's achievement.

Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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Dylan's Visions of Sin

by Christopher Ricks

Ecco, 528 pp., $26.95

"Not all great poets--like Wallace Stevens --are great singers," Bob Dylan once suggested. "But a great singer--like Billie Holiday--is always a great poet."

It would be an enterprise in itself to disentangle the many ways in which this brief statement is dead wrong. The antithesis, if it is meant as an antithesis, between poet and singer, is false to begin with. The "not all" is based on a nonexpectation: How many poets have been singers at all? Certainly not Dylan Thomas, the Welsh boozer and bawler from whom Bob Dylan--a Jewish loner from Hibbing, Minnesota, who was born as Robert Zimmerman--annexed his nom de chanteur.

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. I used to play two subliterary games with Salman Rushdie. The first, not that you asked, was to re-title Shakespeare plays as if they had been written by Robert Ludlum. (Rushdie, who invented the game, came up with The Elsinore Vacillation, The Dunsinane Reforestation, The Kerchief Implication, and The Rialto Sanction.) The second was to recite Bob Dylan songs in a deadpan voice as though they were blank verse. In addition to the risk of the ridiculous, it can become quite hypnotic. Try it yourself with "Mr. Tambourine Man": It works so well, you hardly care that a tambourine man can't really be playing a song. "Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts," "Chimes of Freedom," and "Desolation Row" all have the same feeling.

But as a guide to Dylan's poetic moments, do we really need help from Christopher Ricks, author of Keats and Embarrassment, editor of T.S. Eliot's juvenilia, instructor on the funny side of Tristram Shandy, and all-around literary mandarin? Need him or not, we now have Ricks--who, in Dylan's Visions of Sin, performs over five-hundred pages of literary criticism on the lyrics. Reading Dylan as the bard of guilt and redemption, Ricks takes his stand on the recurrence in the songs of the seven deadly sins, only just balanced as they are by the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues (or heavenly graces: faith, hope, and charity).

It's Ricks's own potentially deadly virtues that bother me. What temptation should one avoid above all, if one is a former professor of English at Cambridge? The temptation to be matey, or hip, or cool--especially if one is essaying the medium of popular music. But Ricks begins his book like this: "All I really want to do is--what, exactly? Be friends with you? Assuredly I don't want to do you in, or select you or dissect you or inspect you or reject you."

The toe-curling embarrassment of this is intensified when one appreciates that Ricks is addressing his subject, not his reader. Why did he leave out other verbs Dylan had in that song: simplify you, classify you, deny, defy, or crucify you? And surely, he's already at least "selected" him?

Then, accused by one of his usually admiring rivals in Dylanology, Alex Ross of the New Yorker, of "fetishizing the details of a recording," the prof resorts to unbearable archness. ("What me? All the world knows that it is women's shoes that I am into.") Some of Ricks's jokey attempts at making puns work ("cut to the chaste"), but "interluckitor" is a representative failure. This last is coined to deal with a claim by Dylan, made in 1965, that every song of his "tails off with--'Good Luck--I hope you make it.'" Such a claim, if taken seriously, would in any case vitiate most of Dylan's claims to profundity.