Shakespeare in the Alley

Show eleven --art/arist/audience



Following up earlier references to the theme of art’s relationship to artist and audience, this show compares romantic/classical modes, folk vs. fine art, popular vs. high culture as seen in such songs as “She Belongs to Me” and “Visions of Johanna” and  “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Here is the script, including some text which was cut to keep within the time frame of the show.

Welcome back, gentle listeners, to this  eleventh show in the series on Dylan’s poetics.  If you’ve missed some of the earlier shows, check the web site at dylanalley.org.   Last week I considered the John Wesley Harding album song by song, discussing how the album traces the transition from joker to thief, from Dylan the artist using the mask of the outlaw through the rejection of that mask and the creation of the new moderate man mask, the family man who says the mocking bird’s gonna fly away and I’ll be your baby tonight.  It is Dylan’s most carefully crafted album, an album of supreme artistic design.  Dylan’s most important albums are not just collections of songs but thematically unified arrangements of original songs.   Each song is a fusion of lyrics and traditional or popular American music which 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 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’s songs bring poetry back to music and bring people back to poetry.   That’s my focus for this week:  the way Dylan returns art to the people, breaking down the barriers between the artist and the audience.  I’ve touched on some of these ideas in earlier shows, but this week our central concern is Dylan’s use of the popular medium of song to return poetry to the people.

%PLAY “I’m a poet, hope I don’t blow it”

Dylan's songs represent a unique experiment in creatively responding to poetry’s unhappy situation as the twentieth century passed the mid-point.  Part of what made the situation so unhappy for poetry is the dominance of an academic and intellectual kind of poetry which put itself in an ivory tower cut off from the people.  Poetry had become the property of the elite few and cut itself off from the democratic many.  Dylan addresses this situation in the penultimate verse of “Desolation Row.”   He puts the two major figures of modern poetry into the tower of the Titanic, signally his rejection of  the modern poetry tradition which has lost contact with the people and is headed for destruction:

Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting
"Which Side Are You On?"
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Dylan's songs represent a creative response to this unhappy situation. In nineteenth century England it was the hope of Matthew Arnold that the masses could be taught to know ‘the best which has been said and thought.’ Dylan's strategy is to embody in modern popular forms his own original explorations of those very questions which have been asked by great art through the ages.  The answers of the past—the myths and legends, the tragedies and the comedies— all that is dead to so much of the modern audience, trivialized by modern banality—or by the school systems.  Scholarship is to old art what anthropology is to old civilizations, and the mass of people will never be either scholars or anthropologists.  You can lead a mule to Shakespeare but you can’t make him think.  On the other hand, you can’t put poetry on the juke box without startling people.  Many just couldn’t figure out what was happening in 1965.  Dylan described them in “Ballad of a Thin Man”:

You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well read
It's well known
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?


That Dylan’s songs have a level of serious artistic design is obvious to anyone capable and willing to give sympathetic attention.  His use of the popular music medium makes it difficult to relate to his songs in the way we relate to the things we typically label “art.”  Jacques Martain, the French philosopher points out that we have to first agree to see it as art.  In his book The Responsibility of the Artist he says that art requires that we give a "previous consent to the intentions of the artist and the creative perspective in which he is placed."  This, as Maritain says, is a "first condition" for the judgment of a work of art.   Many find it difficult to give that “previous consent.”  This same kind of resistance was there for the novel when Charles Dickens was writing a hundred and fifty years ago.  The novel was still considered "an insignificant class of writing" by many in the nineteenth century. George Ford, in Dickens and His Readers, says that Dickens "was distressed by the status of the novel and fully aware that it was the least respected of art forms."6  He then quotes Dickens:  "If I have an object in life, it is to leave my calling (as I do believe I shall), much better than I found it."  Dylan seems to have similar aspiration and even more success.

But Dylan found himself between the unhappiness of high art like that of T. S Eliot which cuts itself off from a wider, democratic audience and the vapidity of popular art, epitomized by the popular love songs of the 50s which he grew up with.  In  previous shows about Dylan’s love songs I pointed out songs which address this, songs which attack the myth of “true love” which mess up our minds.  As Susanne Langer says in Philosophical Sketches, “. . . the arts we live with—our picture books and stories and the music we hear—actually form our emotive experience . . . .   Bad art is corruption of feeling.”   Dylan attacks such bad art, both high and low.  In “I Want You” he describes his act of stealing the medium of popular music while rejecting the phoniness of the sappy love song tradition which he replaces with real love songs:

Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit,
He spoke to me, I took his flute.
No, I wasn't very cute to him, was I?
But I did it, though, because he lied
Because he took you for a ride
And because time was on his side
And because I . . .
I want you, I want you,
I want you so bad,
Honey, I want you.


The dancing child in his Chinese suit makes me think of the Beatles in their Nehru jackets on their first tour of the U.S. singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”  Their lyrics began to change after meeting Dylan in 1964, as did his music took an dramatic change.  He stole their flute! 

Further complicating the issue is money.  Dylan is working in the marketplace where to make records you have to be a success, or as he says it, SUCK-cess. 

In the dime stores and bus stations,
People talk of situations,
Read books, repeat quotations,
Draw conclusions on the wall.
Some speak of the future,
My love she speaks softly,
She knows there's no success like failure
And that failure's no success at all.

That’s Dylan at the beginning of his rise to fame in 1965.  Ten years later he’s tired of taking his songs to the marketplace.  He’s looking for a way out:

FROM — "Tough Mama"
I'm crestfallen
The world of illusion's at my door,
I ain't haulin'
Any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore.
The prison walls are crumblin'
There is no end in sight,
I've gained some recognition
But I lost my appetite.
Sweet Beauty!
Meet me at the border late tonight.

Yes, Dylan’s art is on the border between high and low art, between music and poetry, between entertainment and instruction, between performance and page.  And he asks us, his audience, to meet him on the border.

To survive in this situation, Dylan would have to be Lucky.  He describes his life as Lucky metaphorically in a lovely little song called “Mistrel Boy,” one of the many songs on The Basement Tapes:

Who's gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who's gonna let it roll?
Who's gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who's gonna let it down easy to save his soul?

               Oh, Lucky's been drivin' a long, long time
And now he's stuck on top of the hill.
With twelve forward gears, it's been a long hard climb,
And with all of them ladies, though, he's lonely still.

               Who's gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who's gonna let it roll?
Who's gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who's gonna let it down easy to save his soul?

               Well, he deep in number and heavy in toil,
Mighty Mockingbird, he still has such a heavy load.
Beneath his bound'ries, what more can I tell,
With all of his trav'lin', but I'm still on that road.

               Who's gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who's gonna let it roll?
Who's gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who's gonna let it down easy to save his soul?

“But surely you don’t expect us to take this simple little song so seriously.”  That may be what you are thinking right now, gentle listener.  But I have already been through ten shows demonstrating the way Dylan uses the forms and images and myths in folk music and adds the sounds from a variety of musical traditions to create a new way to express a new reality while at the same time exploring the ancient, universal themes which literature has always explored.

The Shakespeare parallel which I suggest in my title, Shakespeare in the Alley,  is not just superficial.  In Shakespeare’s day there were the hoi poloi in the pit at the Globe theater.  These commoners paid little, drank a lot, and enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, probably catching lots of his subtleties which today are explained in footnotes.    The plays were bootlegged by publishers, then published in a somewhat more legitimate form.  Soon, in his own lifetime, Shakespeare’s plays gained attention as literature.  Plays, like novels after them , and film after that, became a respectable art form.

Dylan chose as his medium a form that is still not widely accepted as art, yet it is probably the oldest form of poetry: song.  Only in comparatively recent times did the arts of music and poetry became separated.    Our tendency today to reject this association of song and poetry is understandable, since we use the word “poetry” in an honorific sense usually, meaning “good verse.”  Thus, since a great deal of present day popular song is inferior verse, we keep the two separate in our minds.  Song lyrics are, however,  just a special form of lyrical or narrative poetry.  I consider Dylan the finest artist using this oral form of  poetry who is writing in the English language today, as does the Oxford Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks, whose book Dylan’s Visions of Sin compares Dylan’s poetic techniques to some of the finest poetry in the British tradition.
One of the realities about Dylan’s chosen form for his poetry which puts off many literary types is its emphasis on oral over written form.  Most literary critics are tied to words on the page.  Dylan’s songs, while available in print, usually reach an audience not in written form but through live performance or through recordings.  And many of his songs seem quite clearly addressed to that audience.  Let me play you a song written specifically for the occasion of Dylan’s return to live performance after an eight year hiatus of live performance following the 1966 motorcycle accident.  It certainly seems to be addressed to his audience.  That’s how I felt in 1974 as I sat in the huge stadium in Charlotte, N.C. with ten thousand others listening to Dylan and the Band perform this song.  This is form the live album from that tour:

On a night like this
So glad you came around,
Hold on to me so tight
And heat up some coffee grounds.
We got much to talk about
And much to reminisce,
It sure is right
On a night like this.

As with many of Dylan’s love songs, the real focus is not on a romantic boy/girl relationship but on the artist/audience relationship.  He has returned to live performance in this 1974 tour, the first since the 1966 motorcycle.  He and the Band rolled out a rug on the stage, inviting us, his audience who has waited so long, into the living room as it were for a reunion.  The song ends this way:

Let the four winds blow
Around this old cabin door,
If I'm not too far off I think we did this once before.
There's more frost on the window glass
With each new tender kiss,
But it sure feels right
On a night like this.


This song addresses metaphorically one of  the central problems for the arts: the disconnect between artist and audience in the modern world.  It is created by the way democratization has altered the audience and mass media has altered the relationship of artist to this audience.  Ernst Fisher, in his book The Necessity of Art, says this disconnect is “alarming.” 

[O]n the one hand, (he writes) the necessary search for new means of expressing new realities. . . ; on the other hand, masses of human beings for whom even old art is something wholly new, who have yet to learn to distinguish between good and bad, whose taste must be formed, and whose capacity to enjoy quality must still be developed.

Dylan's songs represent a creative response to this unhappy situation. In nineteenth century England  Matthew Arnold, the poet and school inspector in those days before universal public education, hoped that the masses could be taught to know ‘the best which has been said and thought.’ Dylan's strategy is to embody in modern popular forms his own original explorations of those very questions which have been asked by great art through the ages.  The answers of the past—the myths and legends, the tragedies and the comedies—all that is dead to so much of the modern audience, trivialized by modern banality—or killed by the way it’s presented in school.  Scholarship is to old art what anthropology is to old civilizations, and the mass of people will are uninterested in both scholarship and anthropology. Many of those who do go to school are too much like Mr. Jones:

You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well read
It's well known
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

It is the Mr. Jones of the world which T. S. Eliot had in mind when he told his Harvard audience in 1933 what he wanted in an audience:
I believe that the poet naturally prefers to write for as           large and miscellaneous an audience as possible, and that it is the half-educated, rather than the uneducated, who stand in his way:  I myself should like an audience which could neither read nor write.  The most useful poetry, socially, would be one which could cut across all the present stratifications of public taste.27

Usefulness.  Uhmmm.  “The most useful poetry, socially,” Eliot says, would be widely appealing, not just for the elite.  Useful.  Yes, poetry should be of a social benefit, but not narrowly so.  Not “Say no to drugs” kind of usefulness.  But in a much larger sense, “Say no to meaninglessness.”  As Kenneth Burke says, it should provide “equipment for living.”   But for art to be useful in this sense it has to have a means to reach its audience, that wide, diverse audience Eliot spoke of.  That led Eliot to turn from poetry to the theater as his medium, though he did write his plays in verse.  The theater provides a more natural relationship with an audience than there is for much we call “art.” Art can’t have a natural relationship with an audience in a museum.  That’s why Dylan rejected so much of the modern cruel way of relating to art, as he made clear in the fourth verse of “Visions of Johanna”:

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, you can tell
by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

This captures the perverted relationship of art to its audience in the modern world.  Dylan made clear his rejection of this kind of art in the 1965 Playboy interview which he did with Nat Hentoff.  It’s more of a creative work than the typical interview.   Hentoff  provides the set up question:

"Popular songs," you told a reporter last year, "are the only art form that describes the temper of the times.  The only place where its happening is on the radio and records.  That's where the people hang out.  It's not in books;  it's not on the stage;  it's not in the galleries.  All this art they've been talking about, it just remains on the shelf.  It doesn't make anyone happier."  In view of the fact that more people than ever before are reading books and going to plays and art galleries, do you think that statement is borne out by the facts?

Dylan’s reply is cryptic but to the point:

Statistics measure quantity, not quality.  The people in the statistics are people who are very bored.  Art, if there is such a thing, is in the bathrooms; everybody knows that.  To go to an art gallery thing where you get free milk and doughnuts and where there is a rock'n'roll band playing:  that's just a status affair.  I'm not putting it down, mind you:  but I spend a lot of time in the bathroom.  I think museums are vulgar.  They're all against sex.  Anyhow, I didn't say that people "hang out" on the radio, I said they get "hung up" on the radio.

So Dylan’s challenge is not simply to reject the traditional artistic media and choose the mass media instead.  

The mass media too is a challenge to the artist.  Radio creates “hang-ups.”  Both high and low culture confront the artist with problems.  High art tends to lose contact with the people and low art tends to sell out to phony commercialism. 
This problem of the artist's relation to his audience is given some historical background by Susanne Langer in Feeling and Form.  She outlines the developments since the arts lost the protective patronage of the church where they were nourished during youth.  In leaving the church, she says, art "loses its traditional sphere of influence, the solemn, festive populace and runs the danger of never reaching beyond the studio where it was created . . . . For the average person, their work no longer has a natural place of display . . . . The museum, therefore, comes into being."28 

While the visual arts are Langer's primary example, all the arts have undergone the same process of secularization at some point in history.  Sophocles wrote his plays for a religious festival.  Bach wrote his music for a religious audience to hear in the church.  But gradually the arts were  later than painting, painting after drama.  The really interesting point Langer makes, however, is about how the arts adapted to the secular environment.  Some of the arts became relegated to artificial contexts (museums, classrooms, recitals) and others adapted, found new patronage as it were.  "Music, dance, and drama," Langer says, found  the very opposite of the sacred precinct where they were born;  they have found acceptance as entertainment."29

Must the people in the street, therefore,  be cut off from the enjoyment and benefit of art because the modern world has been stripped of its myths and left desolate?

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

               Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.

Yes, the modern poet faces a real challenge, for when he wakes from dreaming his dreams, when “evening’s empire has returned into sand” and vanished, how is he to reconstruct it?    A few years later Dylan would sing of some of those ancient empty streets which are too dead for dreaming:

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you're seein' double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room,
Where I've got me a date with Botticelli's niece.
She promised that she'd be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece.

Creation of that masterpiece, yes, all artists have that dream.  Dylan longs too do that, to recapture in words what is there in his dream. Coleridge, another Romantic poet, makes this point at the end of  “Kubla Khan.”

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


This poem raises another point which I should raise in discussing the artist’s relationship with his audience.  Alienation.  Isolation.   In Coleridge’s poem that relationship is one of awe:  “Beware, beware, his flashing eyes, his floating hair.” I touched on this briefly in show five and promised to get back to it.  In that show about love songs I made the point that not all love songs are about romantic love.  In the case of “She Belongs to Me” it’s really about the Romantic artist.

She's got everything she needs,
She's an artist, she don't look back.
She's got everything she needs,
She's an artist, she don't look back.
She can take the dark out of the nighttime
And paint the daytime black.

This is the Romantic artist with a capital R.  Not the classical artist who holds the mirror up to nature, showing us an imitation of life, but the Romantic artist who holds up his lamp, creating bizarre shadows on the wall which sometimes reveal to us things we would rather not know.  That is why we cry “Beware, beware.”  Or in Dylan’s way of putting it later in “She Belongs to Me”:

Bow down to her on Sunday,
Salute her when her birthday comes.
Bow down to her on Sunday,
Salute her when her birthday comes.
For Halloween give her a trumpet
And for Christmas, buy her a drum.


Yes, the Romantic artist is to be bowed down to, for his creations are an attempt to see into the ultimate reality, to capture the visions of Johanna, to paint the masterpiece which will reconcile those opposites of life and death, the sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice.  And when we see his creation we shall cry beware, and close our eyes with holy dread.

One of the great burdens of the modern artist is that of isolation by this image of holy dread.  The Romantic artist does not speak for us.  That’s the classical artist, who, writes “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”  Those are the words of Alexander Pope, the English poet of the 18th century.  That’s the century which ends with the Romantic Rebellion against the Age of Reason, the age of Neo-classicism and Enlightenment.  Since then our image of the artist has been that of the Romantic, that of one apart who sees visions and dreams dreams. Herman Hesse provides some insight into this in a little essay called “Language” in which he gives a psychological explanation of the holy dread we have of the artist:
The average citizen is right in feeling that he would immediately go mad if, like the artist, the man of religion, the philosopher,  he allowed himself to become acquainted with the abyss within him.  We may call the abyss the soul … The average citizen has set a watchman between himself and his soul, a consciousness, a morality, a security police, and he recognizes nothing that comes directly form that abyss of the soul before it has been given that watchman's stamp of approval.  The artist's constant distrust, however, is not directed against the region of the soul but precisely against that border watchman's authority;  the artist secretly comes and goes between this side and that, between the conscious and the unconscious, as though at home in both houses. 14

In show ten, I related this quotation to the closing verse of “All Along the Watchtower”:


All along the watchtower, princes kept  the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Yes, the princes keep the view in the watchtower, attempting to hide the growl of the wildcat, trying to deny the howl of the wind, but the two riders are approaching.  These two riders are the joker and the thief, the masks wore, alternately by the artist we call Bob Dylan.  These two masks allow him to come and go secretly, as Hesse says, between the conscious and the unconscious.  These two masks, the outlaw and the moderate man, make it possible for the artist to give voice to the visions which he brings back from that abyss of the soul.

Dylan's songs, rooted as they are in the blues and other roots music, bring to a large white middle-class audience an "extensional" and mythic view of the world just as the blues has in the past done for specific audiences such as the Delta black audience.  But the audience’s size and cultural diversity pose problems for the modern artist who finds himself pushed by changing political and economic realities into the marketplace.  If we place Dylan against the background of this general situation his reasons for choosing to work within the popular music medium emerge.
Attitude  toward audience is a major indicator of an artist's philosophical position in the dichotomy I term the Democratic-Aristocratic debate with Dylan and T. S. Eliot as major representatives.  The Aristocratic position argues for minority privilege to preserve an elitist cultural tradition based on the premise that only a small percent of the people are capable of living fulfilled lives that are of value.  The Democratic position argues that privilege itself is destructive, that we are all potentially equal, that art is a communal creation, everyone's achievement—or else no one's.  The Aristocratic artist in the modern context is isolated from both himself and his audience.  His claim that his work is its own justification ("art for art's sake"), as Meredith Tax points out, is "the response of producers of art to a market which [is] as mysterious and alienating to them as . . . to the producers of other commodities."1  This attitude only further separates poet and people, artist and audience.  Dylan the artist, however,  wants to reconnect, and often uses the love song as metaphor for the kind of relationship he longs for,  as in this wonderful bluesy plea which closes “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”:

Now the wintertime is coming,
The windows are filled with frost.
I went to tell everybody,
But I could not get across.
Well, I wanna be your lover, baby,
I don't wanna be your boss.
Don't say I never warned you
When your train gets lost.

Dylan the artist wants a different kind of relationship with his audience: in his poetic idiom he says,  “I want to be your lover, baby, I don’t want to be your boss.”

            Dylan's name is often invoked by those who claim that something new is "happening" to change this situation, which is true up to a point. But Dylan is part of an on-going Democratic Tradition in America which includes such figures as Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, and Alan Ginsberg.  Dylan stands out for two reasons:  first, his much wider audience, and second, his more radical experimentalism.    He has chosen a medium for his poetry that not only makes possible but demands a mass audience.  Rather than accepting typical passiveness of audiences faced with mass-media, however, he attempts to evoke participation in the creative process, turning the passive mass audience into an active Democratic audience.  It is this participating, responsive audience which Browning lacked in Sordello and Eliot in The Waste Land.  It appears, in fact, that when Eliot realized the kind of audience response his condensed epic evoked he decided to write for a more communal medium; he seems to have longed for an end to his isolation in the Titanic's tower.
Dylan's concern that he too was becoming isolated by his outlaw myth and its tendency toward individualism (a sort of reverse elitism) led him to reject the outlaw mask and create in its place the myth of the moderate man.  The natural question, given this analysis, is:  Why does he return, again and again, to the outlaw myth.  We see that return in Blood on the Tracks in 1975, as the outlaw looks longingly back at the comfort found when he found shelter from the storm and accepted the mask of the moderate man:

Well, I'm livin' in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

We see it again on Time Out of Mind in 1997:

I was born here and I'll die here, against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

 Most obviously because of discontent with moderation:  "I wish I was back in the city/ Instead of this old bank of sand," he sings in "Watching the River Flow."  The Romantics' desire for the full, passionate life makes moderation unsatisfactory.  As that ultimate Romantic William Blake wrote, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  

But Dylan is not choosing isolation when he returns to the outlaw myth, he is reaffirming his conviction that life is a never-ending quest for an end to isolation, for community, although any permanent end to isolation short of death itself is accepted as an impossibility.  He always knew that the moderate man's sunny pleasure dome was but a winterlude.

The Democratic artist does not accept the dictates of the mass audience, for the mob never elicits what Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy calls "our best self."  The Democratic artist sees that "best self" within the people who make up "the masses"; he never loses sight of the humanity which is often covered by our stereotypes and "distorted images."  It is the loss of this vision which distinguishes the Aristocratic from the Democratic artist.  The Aristocratic artist (or critic) lacks faith in that potential or ideal audience, lacks hope that everyman can appreciate the "best which has been said and thought," lacks love for all those who have been taken in by the false myths of our society.

By 1965 Dylan began to realize the aesthetic potential of the popular music, a potential which he seemed in a position to release.  All three of the mid-sixties albums of 1965-66 reveal his excitement about this new possibility of conveying to a wide audience his vision.  A great many of Dylan's songs, therefore, concern his relation to that audience, an audience he calls to be that ideal participating Democratic audience.  He wants to be “[our] lover, … not [our] boss."  It’s a concern often discussed in that tumultuous decade we call “the sixties.”  Leslie Fiedler, the respected but iconoclastic literary critic, published Waiting for the End in 1964.  He wrote this:

If the contemporary American poet must be understood in terms of his difficult and ambiguous relationship with the great audience, created by the dream of democracy and the fact of mass culture he must also be understood in terms of his equally difficult and ambiguous relationship with the great tradition, impugned by the same dream of democracy and the same fact of mass culture.5

Artist, audience, tradition, the three variables to be considered.  How shall they be contained in one formula?  How can they be brought within the same critical perspective?  The key which links the three is myth, the stories and story elements which belong to the communal traditions and which express certain universal human experiences shared by the members of Dylan's diverse audience.  Once these myths are seen as the basis of Dylan's art the formula balances and the necessary critical perspective emerges.  It is a perspective which views art as an important part of human experience, having a significant social function in creating and perpetuating traditions which make possible human community.  The community of values which finds its best expression in Dylan's poetry would be less possible, less realized without the fact of his poetry.  Dylan affirms the value of each person, inviting us to join that community by our active participation in the Democratic tradition:  "Imagine a place where it's always safe and warm;/  Come in [he says], I'll give you shelter from the storm."  Our imaginative participation is required; we cannot draw back from the artist, crying,

Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Dylan elicits our participation in creating a Democratic poetry.  He makes his pledge and asks the same of us.

VERSE FROM -"Pledging My Time" on BoB
Won't you come with me, baby?
I'll take you where you wanna go.
And if it don't work out,
You'll be the first to know.
I'm pledging my time to you,
Hopin' you'll come through, too.

Next week I’ll be concluding this series of shows by focusing on Dylan’s relationship to tradition.   What tradition?  Actually, several traditions.  He draws on the traditional music of America, the blues and country and western, but also the popular tradition, albeit rejecting the phoniness of Tin Pan Alley.  At the same time he draws on what has been “the great tradition,” our literary tradition going back to the Greeks and the Old Testament.  So tune in for the concluding show of Shakespeare in the Alley and remember, you can find out how to get shows you missed and explore additional resources on Bob Dylan’s poetics by visiting dylanalley.org.  Until next week, this is Bill King saying “So glad you came around.”


Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), p.61.

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Jacques Maritain, The Responsibility of the Artist (New York: Scribner’s, 1960), p.90.

6George Ford, Dickens and His Readers (New York: Norton, 1965), p. 23.

Reference Wheelwright from AnM

John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton: Princeton Univ.  Press, 1961), presents the history of this divorce in his opening chapter.

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27T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 99.152-53.

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28Susan Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner’s, 1953), p. 403.

29Langer, p. 404. Langer stresses the difference, noted already in this chapter, between entertainment, which is “always work of the mind,” based on interest, and amusement, which connotes relaxation and is a “temporary stimulus.” Thus television is difficult to use as an art medium because we tend to use it to relax; psychologically we have classified it as amusement. Film has shown the way I making the transition.

14Herman Hesse, My Belief (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974), pp. 30-31.

1Merdith Tax, “Culture is Not Neutral, Whom Does It Serve?” Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. Lee Baxandall (Baltimore; Penguin Books, 1972), p. 22.

5Leslie Fiedler, Waiting for the End (New York: Stein and Day, 1964), p. 192.


Chapter one ofThe Artist in the Marketplace, my dissertation on Dylan's poetics, is available online. Click on the title.

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