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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.

Having said that distinguished academics ought not to try and be ingratiating with the young, I pull myself up a bit and realize that true Dylan fans are probably well into their fifties by now. It must have been in 1965 that I first heard what Philip Larkin called, in a quasi-respectful review of Highway 61 Revisited, his "cawing, derisive voice." And it will be with me until my last hour. Some of this is context. The "sixties" didn't really begin until after the Kennedy assassination (or "Nineteen Sixty-Three," as Larkin had it in another reference), and Bob Dylan was as good a handbook for what was supposedly happening as Joseph Heller. Much of it of course also had to do with the sappiness, in both "sap" senses, of adolescence. Yet even at the time, I was somehow aware that Dylan wasn't all that young, and didn't take "youth" at its face value. A good number of his best songs were actually urging you to grow up, or at any rate to get real. Dylan respected his elders, most notably Woody Guthrie. And he was braced for disillusionment. How does it feel? Don't think twice, it's all right. It's all over now, baby blue. I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.

Ricks essentially wants to argue that Dylan has always been swayed by the elders and that his verses consistently defer to the authorities. How else to explain, for example, the many latent affinities between "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and the Book of Ezekiel? The kings of Tyre, the dying music, the futility of earthly possessions. . . . That's Covetousness taken care of, with Pride (or at any rate hubris) given a passing whack into the bargain. Six sins to go.

Ricks has no success with Greed (as he admits) and not much with Sloth, either. There is a good deal of anomie and fatalism in Dylan; a fair amount of shrugging and dismissal and an abiding sense of waste and, equally often, of loss. It's pervasive but nonspecific in "Time Passes Slowly," which Ricks interrogates without any great profit. So I pushed on to "Lust," and was taken aback.

"Lay, Lady, Lay" is one of the great sexual entreaties, and it has in common with "I Want You" and "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" a highly ethical reliance on the force of gentle persuasion. There is no blackmail, moral or otherwise, and no hint of a threat or even a scene in the event of nonconsummation. But nor is there any doubt of what the minstrel wants: His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean. / And you're the best thing that he's ever seen. Of this false modesty and abject flattery, Ricks astonishingly says that "his hands are clean because he is innocent, free of sin: no lust, for all the honest desire, and no guile." Had Dylan written "his clothes are dirty but his mind is clean," this might have been believable. And is there no guile in the succeeding stanza?

Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile

Why wait any longer for the world to begin?

You can have your cake and eat it too.

Why wait any longer for the one you love

When he's standing in front of you?

Ricks then moves to a laborious comparison with Donne's "On His Mistress Going To Bed," at which point I thought, well, as soon as I turn the page he'll stop clearing his throat and make the obvious metaphysical connection to Andrew Marvell and "To His Coy Mistress." But no. And here's the clue to Ricks's method. The words "bed," "show," "see," "man," "hands," "world" he says all appear in both Donne and Dylan, while the words "unclothed" and "lighteth" appear in Donne, balanced by "clothes" and "light" in Dylan.

Shall we agree that all the words just specified are in somewhat common use today, and were in equally ordinary employment in the seventeenth century? Whereas, if you care to glance again at the Dylan lines I just cited, not only do you think at once of Marvell's Had we but world enough and time / This coyness, Lady, were no crime (which gets "lady" in there, right enough, and in delicious apposition to "world" at that), but you also find yourself grappling with Marvell's gentle but urgent sense of delay and frustration. Dylan further beseeches the lady to stay while the night is still ahead and to have [her] cake and eat it too: Metaphysically speaking this is not so remote from Marvell's reminder that the darkness of death will last an awfully long time, while in the grave the worms may dine long and well. This is something different from Donne's poem, which swiftly becomes a near-raunchy celebration of achieved carnal knowledge of someone familiar to him. Finally, Marvell speaks beautifully and seductively about keeping the sun in motion since there's no chance of making it stand still, and Dylan longs to see his beloved "in the morning light," having banished the night in the only way that lies open to him. I hope I don't boast about my own poor exegesis, but Ricks's procedure is more like that of the people who pore over Bible codes or kabbalistic crossword puzzles.

DYLAN'S VERSION OF ANGER is sardonic and bitter: an exemplary match for the "cawing, derisive" tones noted by Larkin. In "Masters of War," "Only a Pawn In Their Game," and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," he said to the military-industrial complex and the racists, in effect, "You win. For now. But for now you also have to live with your shame. And judgment will follow, and is coming." (I have always hoped, for this reason, that Joan Baez was wrong in claiming that Dylan wrote "When The Ship Comes In"--his most Jeremiad and vengeful poem--in response to bad service at some hotel.)

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" was based on a real event in 1963: the lethal beating of Hattie Carroll by William Zanzinger in a Baltimore hotel. Zanzinger's lenient treatment by the courts fired Dylan into a hot rage, yet producing his most glacial and most measured poem of outrage and contempt. He simply relates the story, with deadly counterpoint as between the rich and careless white man and the dispensable black servitor. The song never uses the words "black" or "white," as Ricks points out, but just: He owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres, while she emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level. Thus is the plantation relationship re-cast and, as Ricks rightly says, "it's a terrible thing that you know this [their respective colors] from the story." But then again, as Ricks also emphasizes, Dylan's affecting line And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger is a sort of clue. I have always thought that this was Dylan ventriloquizing, without condescension, the "Black English" demotic comment on the affair. Ricks improves on my intuition by giving the example of James Baldwin in The Amen Corner: "He hadn't never done nothing to nobody."

Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle, in Dylan's haunting phrase, Zanzinger slew Hattie Carroll with a cane that he twirled around his diamond-ring finger, and who would pass up the chance to recall the first murderer, Cain, in this context? Not Ricks, who also calls attention to the words lay slain by a cane and to the triple repetition of the word "table," which closes three consecutive lines. "Does this -able" he inquires, "prepare for the word that soon follows, 'cane'? Cain and Abel, masculine and feminine endings?" Well, no, I shouldn't think so. Whatever the song is about, it most decidedly isn't about fratricide. And Cain and Abel--scarcely unique metaphors where murder is concerned--appear in other Dylan songs under their own names. Ricksian hermeneutics has its limits.

I could, nonetheless, have used some more counsel from Ricks about the title. In what way was Hattie Carroll's death "lonesome"? There is an unmistakable sentimentality in this word; a tear-jerking note that is wondrously absent from the song itself. Insufficient guidance is forthcoming: Ricks proposes without much brio that Dylan "perhaps" wanted the word to evoke a contrast between Hattie's death and the crowded hotel. But with or without that "perhaps," ultimately, everybody dies alone.

Ricks's closing thought is superior. He argues that T.S. Eliot understood the difference between writing religious poetry and writing poetry religiously, and that Dylan with "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" has written politically rather than merely writing a political song. That seems to be a distinction well worth observing, most especially at a time like the present with its ephemeral garbage of pseudo-protest. ("We've suffered for our music--now it's your turn.") The finest fury is the most controlled. One still feels a generous anger when listening to the song--incidentally, William Zanzinger turned up again a few years ago in the Baltimore courts, for leasing black people squalid, waterless cabins that he didn't even own--and the pairing of generosity with anger (annexed from Orwell out of Dickens) might license some interpenetration of sin and virtue, or even sin with grace.

It's back to hermeneutics in Ricks's study of "Love Minus Zero / No Limit," which occurs in the chapter on "Temperance." As you will recall, the song begins My love she speaks like silence / Without ideals or violence, while in a succeeding verse:

In the dime stores and bus stations

People talk of situations

Read books, repeat quotations

Draw conclusions on the wall.

For Ricks, this is Belshazzar's feast in the fifth chapter of Daniel: "In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king's palace. And this is the writing that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it."

Building upon this, Ricks insists that the biblical "candlestick" furnishes Dylan not only with his song's reference to candles and matchsticks, but the biblical word "numbered" may have a relation to the "Minus Zero" in Dylan's title. This same chapter of Daniel has the words "people," "tremble," "wise men," and "gifts"--and also "spake," "said," and "that night." What more could one want as proof of the direct influence of the prophet Daniel upon the song?

Something more, as it happens. The words of the prophets are written on the subway wall, as Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were to say in "The Sounds of Silence," and it was as obvious to me the first time I heard "Love Minus Zero / No Limit" as it is today that Dylan was alluding to graffiti: a special emphasis in that time and place. If you really want to connect Babylon to Dylan, you might have better luck with "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts": The cabaret was silent--except for the drilling in the wall.

AT THE SAME TIME I was digesting all this in Dylan's Visions of Sin, I noticed that Ricks deals with an obvious contradiction in his account (the king being "reduced" to the pawn) in the following evasive manner: "'Even the pawn must hold a grudge.' Even the king? Even Dylan, whom I ungrudgingly admire?" This is ingratiation raised to the level of unction. I remember the first time that I ever felt a qualm about Dylan's claims. It was early on as well: He said that he had written "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" at the time of the Cuban missile crisis--and he had been in such an apocalyptic hurry that every line could be the first line of another song. Even in my early teens, I knew that that was bravado.

Oddly, perhaps, Ricks spends almost no time on the influences that Dylan actually does affirm or the influences that we know about. "Blowin' In the Wind" borrows from an old slave spiritual called "No More Auction Block," with its haunting words about "many thousands gone." Dylan was actually sued by Dominic Behan, brother of Brendan, for plagiarizing not only the tune but the concept of "The Patriot Game" for his "With God on Our Side." More recently, his song about a Japanese yakuza was tracked down to an obscure but identifiable source, while the deft Daniel Radosh has blogged a near-perfect match between Dylan's "Cross the Green Mountain" (written for Ron Maxwell's movie Gods and Generals) and Walt Whitman's "Come up from the Fields, Father." If I had to surmise another influence, it would be William Blake, not just for the speculative reasons given by Ricks but because, as Blake phrased it: "A Last Judgment is Necessary because Fools flourish."

Even secularists often find themselves thinking things like that, and there is a store of words in the Bible that springs ready-made, as it were. Thus, Ricks could well be correct in thinking that Dylan's "how many times" is an echo both of "How long, oh Lord, how long?" and of Christ's injunction in Matthew on the number of times that it might be needful to turn the other cheek. (He may also be right, though coming down-market more than he likes, in discerning a vague sacred/profane overlap between "I Believe in You" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.")

But Christianity as a religion of peace and tolerance and forgiveness is not, superficially at least, compatible with ringing phrases about judgment and the sword: In order to believe in the apparently kindly and reassuring verses about taking no thought for the morrow, one had better have a lively sense of the second coming. This was the line that Dylan actually did take in his born-again period, where he spoke of "spiritual warfare" as well as his "precious angel," and warned that there would be no hiding place on the day. But this, which produced some of his most beautiful writing (and singing) would appear to have been as lightly affected as the gritty dustbowl socialism which the Old Left was already denouncing him for abandoning as far back as 1964. Dylan dropped it and kept moving on.

Indeed, I am sure I remember Ricks welcoming him "back," as it were, when he came up with "Most of the Time" about fifteen years ago. But here, and in his discussion of this superbly apt and lovely and troubling song, I began to write heavy notes in the book's margin: "Most of the time," Ricks writes, "'Most of the Time' consists of repeating the words, 'most of the time.'" [Marginal note: Oh no it doesn't.] Unbelievably, Ricks manages to go on for a half-dozen pages about this song, without ever achieving the realization that it is one of the most vertiginous, knife-edge accounts of a post-love trauma ever penned. You should only listen to the song if you are not currently trying to persuade yourself that "it" is all over and that you are all over "it."

Ricks wraps up blandly: "It is only most of the time that the man in this long black song succeeds in being not disturbed. But he is halfways there. On the other hand, 'She's that far behind.' One too many mornings and a thousand miles behind, to be exact." [In the margin: To be inexact, you mean, you fool. She's right behind him and in front of him and all around him, all of the time. His attempted banishment of her is a hopeless failure! What have you got in your veins--tapwater?]

There follows a lengthy Ricksian contrast between the words of Dylan's song "Not Dark Yet" and Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale." Not, you understand, that our author wants to be taken too seriously. "I don't believe that Keats's poem is alluded to in Dylan's song. That is, called into play, so that you'd be failing to respond to something crucial to the song unless you were familiar with, and could call up, Keats's poem." [In the margin: Oh no, of course, not that.] After all, the deep connection between Keats's My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains and Dylan's Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain is transparent neither in sense nor rhythm.

It is true that the words "dark," "shadow," and "day"--together with "sleep" and "time," or their cognates--are to be found in both sets of verses. I am quite ready to believe that Dylan had a subliminal memory of being taught the poem in school. But Renata Adler did much better than this, during the 1968 Republican convention that nominated Nixon in Miami. Surveying the sea of placards with their jaunty slogan "Now More Than Ever," she suddenly recognized that it came from verse six of the "Nightingale" ode: Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain.

I think that might have afforded Dylan a smile, and possibly Ricks too. But only one of them has an attitude to sin that is in any sense original.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. He is writing a study of Thomas Jefferson in the Eminent Lives series.