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Shakespeare in the Alley


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The following course was offered every other year here at Western a Junior Seminar in the English Department.

An Invocation

We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art. . . Piping is our people's daily speech, only many a one pipes his whole life long and does not know it, where here piping is set free from the fetters of daily life and it set us free too for a little while. . . This piping, which rises up where everyone else is pledged to silence, comes almost like a message from the whole amidst grave decisions is almost like our people's precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.

-Kafka, "Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk"

teacher and student

The Dylan course focuses on Dylan's poetry, most of which takes the form of song, rather than his life or his place in popular music. Song is probably the oldest form of poetry and it has only been in comparatively recent times that the arts of music and poetry became divorced. In the time of Aristotle the Greek word mousike still indicated the art of composing song. The contemporary penchant to disallow this association is not followed here; that a great deal of present day popular song is inferior verse hardly displaces it as a special form of lyrical poetry. Dylan is without a doubt the finest artist using this oral form of creation in the English language today. The basic body of his poetry reaches its audience not in written form but on long-playing records which contain thematically unified groups of songs, each song being fusion of poetry and traditional or popular American music. His poetry returns to and emphasizes that historical link between poetry and music, a link still evident in their basic shared characteristic, rhythm. His poetry is in this sense more than in any contemporary political sense radical: it returns to the roots of poetry. Ezra Pound says, "Music rots when it gets too far from dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music."

Dylan himself avoids categorizing his work or himself. "I don't call myself a poet because I don't like the word. I'm a trapeze artist." He published his first major collection of song lyrics, free verse and liner notes under the title Writings and Drawings. The latest expanded collection of Dylan lyrics is the 2004 : Lyrics: 1962-2001.

Let me stress at the outset that Dylan's literary achievement is not represented by these published versions of his songs but by his oral delivery of on the record albums themselves. These albums represent a major poetic accomplishment: the recreation of our perception of poetry as an aural experience. Dylan's poems are for the ear. His language is the spoken vernacular, the language "of the street." He tells Miss Lonely in "Like a Rolling Stone," "Nobody ever taught you how to live out on the street/But now you're gonna have to get used to it." His songs are the recreation of poetry as an emotional experience. They are the expression of feeling rather than thought; they are psychological rather than philosophical, universally personal rather than academically abstract.

I began my study with the intention of interpreting Dylan's songs and analyzing his use of language. I soon became "tangled up in blue," however, enmeshed in questions raised by Dylan himself and by the response to him, or should I say responses, for both those who admire and those who disparage his work demanded my attention. The scope of my reading spiraled outward into theoretical works on art and its relation to society, on the artist and his relationship to his audience, on folk, popular and high culture. Understanding Dylan's response to some of these larger issues grew to be one of my major goals, and I found that only after concentrated study of these issues could I understand my response to some of his poems.

For this reason, in my dissertation Bob Dylan: The Artist in the Marketplace I place Dylan in as full a context as possible in this study. I begin by presenting his relation to his immediate context, American popular music, for it is within this context that he has chosen to work. The inadequacy of that context as a background for his work emerges soon enough, and the chapters which follow discuss the larger contexts necessary for a full appreciation of Dylan's poetry: the mythic basis of poetry, its communal source in the Volk, the debate surrounding the relation of literature to folk art, and the situation which faces the artist in the modern world. While there is extensive close analysis of specific songs and albums, especially in chapters one and five, my main concerns are with the unifying themes which run thought all the songs and with the answer which Dylan's unique reuniting of the divorced arts of music and poetry offers to certain major questions about the artist's relation to his audience and about the compatibility of art and mass-media in democratic society.

Throughout the study parallels are drawn between Dylan and other artists, especially literary artist, on the basis of theme (Dylan and Kafka), style (Dylan and Blake) or attitude toward audience (Dylan and Whitman). These parallels are not intended to "prove" that he is an artist. Indeed, I feel no responsibility to provide "proof"; that he is an artist is obvious to anyone capable and willing to give sympathetic attention. His medium, as Dickens' a hundred years ago, makes it at first difficult to give that "previous consent to the intentions of the artist and the creative perspective in which he is placed" which, as Jacques Maritain says, is a "first condition" for the judgment of a work of art. These parallels are drawn, therefore, to facilitate insight and to illuminate Dylan's relation to tradition.

 

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the first classTHE 1999 DYLAN CLASS

 
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