logo

Shakespeare in the Alley


Show twelve--dylan and the traditions

 

summary

This concluding show explores Dylan’s relationship to three traditions: modern poetry, popular song, traditional song.  I argue that he is indebted to all three but at the same time tries to overcome the limitations which each impose on the artist. My conclusion:  he takes the best, leaves the rest.

SHAKESPEARE IN THE ALLEY 12:    DYLAN AND THE TRADITIONS

~INTRODUCTION:  TWO TRADITIONS—TIN PAN ALLEY AND MODERN POETRY

Welcome back, gentle listeners, to this concluding show in this series of shows about Bob Dylan’s poetics.  In the first show I said there is no need to discuss whether Dylan is a poet.  That goes without saying.  This series of shows is rather about his poetics: about how his songs work, what themes run through his work, what forms he explores, and how we as audience can go further into them, not just far enough so we can say we’ve been there.  This final show explores the relationship of Dylan’s songs to various traditions, beginning with American popular music and Modern Poetry.

From the outset Dylan rejected the phoniness of much of the popular music he grew up with, turning initially to the folk tradition and especially to Woody Guthrie.  The songs written by commercial song writers, often labeled Tin Pan Alley, were, for the most part, written to formulas.  Those songs did not do what Kenneth Burke says is the purpose of poetry:  providing "equipment for living."  Dylan comments on Tin Pan Alley at the beginning of his recording of “Bob Dylan’s Blues” on his first album of original songs, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in 1962.

               Well, the Lone Ranger and Tonto
They are ridin' down the line
Fixin' ev'rybody's troubles
Ev'rybody's 'cept mine
Somebody musta tol' 'em
That I was doin' fine

               Oh you five and ten cent women
With nothin' in your heads
I got a real gal I'm lovin'
And Lord I'll love her till I'm dead
Go away from my door and my window too
Right now

Dylan's rejection of Tin Pan Alley parallels his rejection of the modern poetic tradition which in mid-twentieth century was epitomized by the work of T. S. Eliot.   But while rejecting the failures of both of these traditions, he builds on and borrows from both modern poetry and popular music, creating a blend which draws on the strengths of each.  Song, whether popular or traditional, is by its very nature unlike modern poetry.  Modern poetry is written for the page, for the eye.  Song, on the other hand, is not only meant for the ear, it is meant to be performed.  That performance, whether live or recorded, is viewed by its audience first as entertainment, not as art.  Because song is heard as entertainment, it enjoys a wide and diverse audience. Poetry, highly popular in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century cut itself off from all that.  In fact what we have come to label "Modern Poetry" seems to have purposely cut itself off from the people.  Published in special reviews for elite audiences, the poetry of Eliot and Pound and others became increasingly academic and isolated as the twentieth century progressed.  Certainly there was a reaction against such poetry by Robert Frost, by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, and by the Beatniks.  But the general trend was clearly toward poetry which was intellectual, academic, and obscure.  As the audience for poetry shrank, the audience for song grew as a result of the new media: the radio, the phonograph, the movies, and then television.  Song flourished in these media, while poetry retreated into the groves of academe.  Poetry climbed the ivory tower and isolated.

~DYLAN REJECTS ISOLATION:  POUND AND ELIOT IN “DESOLATION ROW”

Dylan portrayed the isolation of modern poetry in the penultimate verse to “Desolation Row.”  He pictures the two chief founding fathers of this modern poetry—aloof, isolated, and guiding us toward destruction:

            Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
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.

The Highway 61 Revisited album, released in 1965, represents Dylan at the height of his popularity, his commercial success.  It contains “Like a Rolling Stone,” his first time in the top ten list. For the modern poet, such success was immediately suspect.  As Dylan put it, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”  Another indication of Dylan’s success was the media attention.  Only four months after the release of Highway 61 Revisited the New York Times ran three separate articles on him in the December 12, 1965 Sunday edition.  One of them suggested the "outlaw" quality of his impact by the title:  it was called "Public Writer No. 1?"  Many of the articles in the press spoke of Dylan’s work as poetry.  Somehow Dylan had created songs which spoke to a wide audience AND was responded to as poetry, not as “just a song.”  Dylan was drawing on both traditions in order to overcome the limitations in each.

Not only does this verse from “Desolation Row” demonstrate that Dylan was aware of himself as a poet working in relationship to the modern poetry tradition; it also illustrates the complexity of his poetics.  The first half of the verse is filled with images and allusions from western history and mythology which are rich in connotations.  Dylan gives us Nero, a Roman emperor from ancient history whose name still evokes a vivid image of Rome burning while he played his violin; then comes Neptune, the one Greek god which almost everyone can identify as the god of the sea; next he gives us the Titanic, that historic symbol of human technological hubris embedded in every modern consciousness.  Then comes a line which is really the title to a song, one not widely known outside the folk song circles of the times.   "Which Side Are You On?" is an old union song, suggesting the need to take sides in a fight for what is right.

While it doesn’t seem to fit on first hearing, like many of those enigmatic phrases of Dylan’s, there’s more there than meets the ear.  The scene portrays the Titanic's departure, so the question becomes a snobbish inquiry about one's berth place—excuse the pun, but it’s to the point.  The berths, i.e., the cabins on such luxury ships were assigned by status.  Those who could afford it made sure their cabins were on the portside out, seaside home.  When abbreviated on reservations “Portside Out, Seaside Home” became P-O-S-H.  Thus our use of the word posh which means fashionable, a word that separates the classes in America.  This class distinction is seen reflected in the verse itself, where the posh images and references are all in the first half and the common, down-to-earth ones in the second. The classy and classical images in the first half of the verse, Nero, Neptune, Titanic, end with the two most famous modern poets:  “Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower" precisely halfway through the verse. 

The second half of the verse is filled with images which, while common, are also universal, even archetypal.  They do not draw their power from a classical or literary or historical source but from universal experience:  sea, singer, fishermen, windows, flowers.  Calypso singers and mermaids, while exotic perhaps, are not upper class by any means; they continue the distinction based on class which I am making.  The opposition is best seen in the contrast between those founding fathers of Modern Poetry in the tower (is it perhaps an “ivory” tower?) and the laughing calypso singers and fishermen holding flowers. More generally, it comes to represent the differences between those on board the Titanic and those not.  The entire verse is unified by imagery of the sea and the Titanic’s departure. 

Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
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 REJECTS OVER SIMPLIFICATION: “ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME”
Another issue is evoked by Dylan’s use of the song title, “Which Side are you On?”  The song makes an over-simplified distinction between "right" and "wrong."  It seemed an easy distinction in the thirties when Henry Ford was having strikers not only locked out but beaten up and shot down. 

During the sixties many people still saw a clear distinction between right and wrong.  It was as simple as knowing black from white.  That’s the way Dylan puts it in “Bob Dylan’s Dream” writtenin 1962, recorded on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan:

As easy as it was to tell black from white,
It was all so easy to tell wrong from right,
Our choices they were few, so the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled, would ever shatter or split.

Dylan, after accepting these views at first, grew to resist over-simplification and the one road did indeed shatter and split.  A good example of his movement beyond an over-simplified view of right and wrong is found in his response to the murder of Medgar Evers.  This black man from Mississippi dared to register to vote and encouraged other blacks to do the same.  When Evers was shot down on his front porch by a lone gunman, some wrote songs condemning the killer, taking a simple view.  Dylan, looking deeper and writing with more poetic power, went beyond such simple condemnation to look at the underlying causes.  He shows us how the murderer himself is “only a pawn in their game.”  It’s not a simple black/white distinction anymore:

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game.

 A South politician preaches to the poor white man,
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid,
And the marshals and cops get the same,
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool.
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

 From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats pound in his brain.
And he's taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide 'neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

 Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught.
They lowered him down as a king.
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He'll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game.

"Only a Pawn in the Game" presents the complexity of the situation.  It goes beyond a condemnation of the act of pulling the trigger to look at the underlying causes of the act.  J. W. Cash in The Mind of the South spends a hundred pages describing these causes, and Dylan condenses it all into five vivid verses.  The poor white, the song suggests, pays an even greater price than the wronged black, for when they bury Medgar Evers he will be "lowered down as a king,"

  But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He'll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game.

It is he, the murderer, the poor white man who pulls the trigger, not the black man who dies from the bullet, who is only a pawn in their game.  Avoiding people’s games is one of Dylan’s mantras. 
The music to “Only a Pawn in Their Game” fits the needs of the lyrics, building tension with a pounding rhythm.   The accordion-like middle section allows Dylan to pile up an increasing number of forceful images.  Each verse is heavily packed with concrete images and strong verbs, avoiding the reliance on adjectives, all made more piercing by powerful alliteration:
A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired a trigger to his name.

The name at which the finger fires, the name which is the most powerful expression of American racism, the name which goes without saying but is on everyone’s mind, is, of course, that most volatile of all racist terms in the American scene: "Nigger." 

The Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame,
He's only a pawn in their game.

Dylan’s feelings about the dehumanization such racial epithets lead to is clear in a letter he wrote to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee after accepting their Tom Paine award:

I've been told about people all my life
about niggers, kikes, wops, bohunks, spicks, chinks
an I been told how they eat, dress, walk, talk
steal, rob, an kill but nobody tells me how any
of 'm feels . . . nobody tells me how any of 'm cries
or laughs or kisses.  I'm fed up with most newspapers
radios, tv an movies an the like t tell me.  I want
now t see an know for myself . . . .

It is clear that Dylan saw much to reject in the media which dominate our society.  In his memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1, published in 2004, Dylan commented on the one medium which was the primary source of music at the time he emerged on the scene. 

Things were pretty sleepy on the American music scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Popular radio was sort of at a standstill and filled with empty pleasantries.  It was years before The Beatles, The Who, or the Rolling Stones would breathe new life and excitement into it.  What I was playing at the time were hard-lipped folk songs with fire and brimstone servings, and you didn’t need to take polls to know that they didn’t match up with anything on the radio, didn’t lend themselves to commercialism….”  (5-6)

Dylan knew that by bringing powerful poetry to radio and phonograph, he would counter those effects that he is so fed up with.  Take e.g., that fine image, "The poor white remains / On the caboose of the train."  This image functions both as metaphor for the poor white's place in society and as image of the politician preaching his racist lies from a caboose, a white politician whose game is what keeps the poor white at the end of the line.

In some of his earlier songs, for example, the one devoted to the murder of Emmett Till, Dylan had succumbed to the kind of over-simplification which draws easy lines of black and white.
That is why he wrote “My Back Pages”—to reject such kinds of songs:


Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin' high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
"We'll meet on edges, soon," said I
Proud 'neath heated brow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
"Rip down all hate," I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.

~COMING BACK TO “DESOLATION ROW” AND THE WASTE LAND
The point I’m making, gentle listener, is that Dylan rejects the weaknesses of all the traditions on which he draws: the over-simplification which is often the tendency of protest songs like “Which Side are You On,” the phoniness so pervasive in the popular song, and the isolation of artist from audience which results from the elitism and obscurity of modern poetry.  When Dylan portrays Pound and Eliot in the captain’s tower of the Titanic, he is using them as representatives of  what modern poetry had become by the middle of the twentieth century: an  elitist literary tradition cut off from a wider audience.  Isolated in their captain's tower, sailing the perilous sea in what they think is an unsinkable ship, Eliot and Pound appear oblivious to the realities of the sea of life.  The people in contact with that sea, the people who know its reality, are the fishermen and the mermaids.  The fact that fishermen and mermaids are images drawn from Eliot’s two most famous and influential poems, The Waste Land and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," is especially fitting of course. 

But it’s easy to get caught up in the images and overlook the closing refrain which tells us that on board the Titanic "nobody has to think too much/About Desolation Row."  It is this “not thinking” which Dylan attacks again and again in his work, the very “not thinking” attitude which often is promoted by popular culture and especially popular music, that tradition which Dylan entered—over vehement objections by many of the folk song crowd—when he laid down his acoustic guitar and picked up the electric.  They wanted him to continue re-writing “The Times They Are A-changin’”—which, ironically, he was doing in a new way. The difference is one of complexity, not just of lyrics but of vision—and, of course, of musical accompaniment.  Compare: the anthem of change in ’63 with the one of ’65:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

But Dylan knew that it was not just the mothers and fathers who had to get out of the new
road, it is also the middle class kids whose feeling of security makes them complacent.  And to reach that audience he needed a new sound, a sound that seemed to be like the Beatles but lyrics that reached into the heart:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Yes, “Like a Rolling Stone” shot to the number two place in Billboard top ten (just behind the Beatles), which made it appear to some a sell out.  Commercial success had to be corrupt.  “There’s no success like failure.”  Despite this, the writers and critics who prophesy with their pens began to be discuss his song lyrics as poetry.  Some made extravagant claims: Robert Shelton claimed that Dylan added more to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare.  Others gave extravagant dismissals.

But while “Desolation Row” was sometimes compared to Eliot’s The Waste Land, most obviously because of the titles, the two are really quite different.  Eliot’s poem is for the eye and the intellect.  It is so filled with obscure allusions that he had to add footnotes to identify them—and to be sure he wasn’t accused of plagiarism.  Later, after Eliot converted to Christianity, joining the Church of England, and after his turn to theater as a literary form, he even said, “I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying” in the poem.   The Waste Land portrays a dead land where there is thunder but no rain, where people lead meaningless lives, waiting for some kind of redemption.  Dylan’s song is really quite different.  It is for the ear and appeals to both the mind and the emotions.  Because it is heard on the radio and the phonograph it is experienced repeatedly, not just once.  It becomes internalized because of the medium through which it comes to us.

But the down side of that medium is that we may hear without listening.  Desolation Row is not the place inhabited by all the bizarre characters described in the song, as many who comment about it seem to think.  Rather it is the state of mind from which the speaker and his lady look out on these bizarre scenes.  Listen to verse one:

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

The preposition “from” in the final line is so unexpected that many listeners miss it.  
But as we see from the other verses, Dylan continues to stress the point that Desolation Row is not where we find the superhuman crew and the insurance men, it is the place they are intent on preventing us from visiting:


VERSE EIGHT:
Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Those who are on Desolation Row see through the games.  The super human crew and the insurance men are there to see that no one escapes to Desolation Row, to, another preposition that makes the point.  The final verse makes it clear that those who do see things this way don’t want to hear from those who don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear:


FINAL VERSE:
Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they're quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

To bring it all back home, let me point to the verse which relates Desolation Row to the songs of Tin Pan Alley and their phoniness.  In the second verse we see Cinderella courted by Romeo, but the two of them are not star-crossed lovers. Cinderella is an inhabitant of Desolation Row but Romeo is star-struck by the phony songs from Tin Pan Alley.  His vocabulary seems to be limited to the titles of sappy love songs from the fifties:


SECOND VERSE:
Cinderella, she seems so easy
"It takes one to know one," she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he's moaning
"You Belong to Me I Believe"
And someone says," You're in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave"
And the only sound that's left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Yes, “You Belong to Me” was a big hit in the fifties:


See the pyramids across the Nile,
Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle
Just remember darling, all the while
You belong to me.


And “I Believe” was a sentimentalized verse of religious faith:


I believe for every drop of rain that falls a flower grows
I believe …

Romeo, a victim of this kind of sappy and sentimental popular culture experience does not belong on Desolation Row. He is much like Mr. Jones who knows something is happening but can’t figure out what it is. Cinderella, however, knows the score.  She sees the ashes that need sweeping up on Desolation Row.

There is an apparent incongruity between the surrealistic and bizarre scenes painted in this song and the sweet and melodious accompaniment created by the smooth single string picking of Charlie McCoy.  Dylan recording Highway 61 Revisited  in Nashville with some of the best  sideman available.  This incongruity illustrates how Dylan is working to make the sound relate to the sense in his songs.  This incongruity between words and music correlates with the incongruity between the world Dylan sees and our response, our unthinking response to it.  For it is our world that he pictures—after changing the names to protect the guilty.  We look at Dr. Filth who plays dice with the very existence of the world—we look at the superhuman crew who rounds up folks for the factory where they strap on the heart-attack machine—we look at this world of blind commissioners and riot squads—we look at this world where they sell postcards of hangings and poison us with words—we look at all this and don’t think too much about it.  Those who do think about it, who do find it desolate; they are the ones on Desolation Row.  

~INADEQUACY OF BOTH SONG AND POETRY TRADITIONS
By now I hope it’s clear that Dylan found Modern Poetry, for different reasons, just as inadequate as the popular song tradition for conveying his visions.  While borrowing from both traditions, he is aware that both suffer from limitations.  By means of a synthesis of the two, he seeks to overcome these limitations—and in many ways he does. 

Dylan did seriously consider becoming a writer for the page in the time leading up to what Griel Marcus calls his crossroads experience, the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965.  He wrote a good deal of free verse poetry, most of it published as liner notes to his and other people’s record albums. He signed a book contract with a major publisher and wrote a series of prose poems for this work, but tried to keep it from publication.  He consciously chose not to enter into the written literary tradition of the western world but instead to pursue the much older tradition of the poet who performs his poetry to music, for in its origins poetry was one with music.  In choosing this path, Dylan establishes a more vital relationship with his audience. 

Many of his songs are addressed to that audience, though couched in the language of the musical traditions he draws on: the folk songs of the British Isles as recalled by the mountain folks in the Appalachian mountains, the original songs of Woody Guthrie who also borrowed from the traditional music of America, the country songs of Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams, and especially that most authentic American tradition, the rural blues of the Mississippi delta and the city blues of Chicago.  One song written during the time Dylan was considering his choices as an artist uses the blues tradition to explore the artist’s dilemma: how to communicate what is real and what is not to an audience.   “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” was released on the Highway 61 Revisited album in 1965.

Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby,
Can't buy a thrill.
Well, I've been up all night, baby,
Leanin' on the window sill.
Well, if I die
On top of the hill
And if I don't make it,
You know my baby will.

Dylan rides a mail train, a train that carries mail, communication from one person to another.  And here on Desolation Row, he’s not sure he’s gonna make it.  But he wants his lover to enjoy life:

Don't the moon look good, mama,
Shinin' through the trees?
Don't the brakeman look good, mama,
Flagging down the "Double E"?
Don't the sun look good
Goin' down over the sea?
Don't my gal look fine
When she's comin' after me?

As in many love songs, Dylan here is speaking of and to his audience.  He wants to share with them that life is hard.  That is one of the poet’s jobs, to provide “equipment for living.”  That means enjoying the beauty of the sun goin’ down over the sea but also realizing that wintertime is coming.

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.

The blues tradition provides Dylan with an entire mythology that has not been killed off like so much of the mythology which has, over the centuries, provided equipment for living, helped us deal with life when our train gets lost.  And as artist, as poet, he wants us to relate to him not as a boss who tells us what to do but as a lover, as one who cares for us and about us.  Dylan draws on the blues tradition for his form and his images.  The second verse is almost straight out of old blues songs.  And by doing so, he draws on the power of that tradition, the tradition in which the relationship is one of lover to lover.  Usually a troubled relationship, certainly, but a relationship based not on money (as boss suggests) but on love.

He’s still drawing on the blues mythology and saying the same thing in 2001 on the Love and Theft album:

LAST VERSE OF ‘SUGAR BABY’
Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one
You got a way of tearin' the world apart, love, see what you've done
Just as sure as we're livin', just as sure as you're born
Look up, look up, seek your Maker, 'fore Gabriel blows his horn

Sugar baby, get on down the line, you ain't got no sense nohow
You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now

T. S. Eliot, drawing on the dead myths of fisher kings and Tarot cards, could not evoke the kind of emotional response that this blues song does.  Eliot’s early poetry is powerful intellectually but not emotionally.  So much in modern poetry is like this.  Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound. 

~THE LACK OF A MYTHOLOGY
This vacuum of mythology which deprives modern poetry of a real power to reach people where they live was described well by Phillip Wheelwright in a lecture at Princeton in 1941, the year Dylan is born.  In his lecture, titled “Poetry, Myth and Reality,” Wheelwright says this:

The poet of today …is profoundly inhibited by the dearth of  shared consciousness of myth.  Our current motivating ideas are not myths but ideologies, lacking transcendental significance. This loss of myth-consciousness I believe to be the most devastating loss that humanity can suffer;  for … myth-consciousness is the bond that unites men both with one another and with the unplumbed Mystery from which mankind is sprung and without reference to which the radical significance of things goes to pot.

We may find Wheelwright’s final phrase, “without reference to which the radical significance of things goes to pot,” humorous today, of course, but the correlation between Dylan's and Wheelwright's perception of the contemporary situation goes far beyond the pun we tend to find. Dylan describes the predicament in his own way in that book which he didn’t want to publish, Tarantula.  After it became widely available in bootleg copies, he finally agree to its publication.  This seems a more poetic expression of the same point Wheelwright is making:

in a hilarious grave of fruit hides the wee gunfighter—a warm bottle of roominghouse juice in the rim of his sheepskin/ lord thomas of the nightingales, bird of the youth, rasputin the clod, gaileo the regular guy & maz, the novice chess player/ the battles inside their souls & gloves being as dead as their legends but only more for the living jesters—victims of assassination & dying comes easy . . . sleeps with his tongue out & his head inside the pillow case/ nothing makes him seem different/ he goes unnoticed anyway.

This picture of the unnoticed poet in his sheepskin evokes the Dylan photo on his first album cover.    We can see that Bob Dylan is quite aware of himself as poet in relationship to Lord Byron (whose lengthy satirical poem Don Juan Bob read in its entirety) and Dylan Thomas (from whom he may have taken his name) and John Keats (who wrote “Ode to a Nightingale”) in the phrase “lord dylan of the nightingales.”  Dylan is in a long, long tradition which includes not only these poets but many others.  He knows that the poet’s job is to revive in us an awareness of life, but how is that to be done in the absence of myth, when “the battles inside their souls & gloves [are] as dead as their legends.”  That is why Dylan turns to the blues, to the old ballads, to folk and traditional music.  That where he finds the mythology, the legends, on which to base his songs.  We’ve already seen his use of mythic images from the blues tradition in “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”.   He manages to graph that tradition onto the popular music of the mid-sixties—or perhaps a better metaphor would be revival, for the blues is actually the roots of rock’n’roll which is the popular white form usually associated with mid-sixties Dylan.

~ART IN THE ALLEY,  NOT THE MUSEUM
While the popular music audience might not be ideal, it at least presented Dylan with a real and vital relationship with which he could struggle.  At least someone was listening when he sang, "I wanta be your lover, baby,/ I don't wanta be your boss.”  By using the forms of popular song Dylan is able to by-pass the artificial responses which ruin many modern readers' response to anything which presents itself as "art" or "poetry."  We adulate Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language, but it is likely that his relationship to his contemporary audience was a more productive and healthy one than that produced by classroom instruction today.  This is why Dylan asks Miss Lonely “how does it feel”:


SECOND VERSE OF “LIKE A ROLLING STONE” ON H61R
You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it
You said you'd never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He's not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

This song went to the top ten when it came out in 1965, and some considered Dylan a sell-out for that reason.  But the key word here is entertainment.  Presenting itself as entertainment, art does not evoke the self-consciousness which results in the "study" of a "poem." 

Once the academic framework is added the artist is isolated from, cut off from the audience.  This problem is given historical background by Susanne Langer in her examination of aesthetic form in  Feeling and Form.  She outlines the developments since the arts lost the protective patronage of the church where they were birthed and nourished.  The arts all began as an expression of religious mythology.  Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex by Sophocles were presented as part of the Dionysian festival in the spring, a religious festival.  The great paintings and sculptures of the medieval and renaissance period such as Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and like Michelangelo’s David  were created for the church. And music?  Bach and Mozart and Beethoven did their best work for the church.  Eventually all the arts were evicted from the sacred space, of course, as they became increasingly secular.  Susan Langer points out the loss art suffers when leaving the church. She writes,
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.  

While the visual arts are Langer's primary example, all the arts have undergone the same process of secularization at some point in history, music later than painting, painting after drama.  The important point, however, it the fact that music, dance, and drama, while they all developed as expressions of religious myth, have gone on to find their place in the world as entertainment.  This is why Dylan rejects the museum in that wonderful and complex song “Visions of Johanna”:


FOURTH VERSE OF “VISIONS” from Blonde on Blonde

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.

A museum perverts relationship of art to its audience.  “Infinity goes up on trial.”   The natural relationship which exists in the theater and in the music hall is not there.  People go to museums to see art preserved, sterilized, judged, not performed. 

 Art, to be experienced, needs a natural relationship to its audience, and the next best thing to the church is, ironically, the world of entertainment.   Dylan works within the "new rules" of the situation which faces the poet today.  He must create his poems within a medium which, because it is accepted as entertainment, provides an audience which receives the work within a natural context.  This is why Dylan once called himself a song and dance man.  But he’s so much more than that.  And he asks for us to give him a chance:


MIDDLE VERSE OF “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.

Further, he must build these poems out of communal elements available to the popular mind, avoiding the esoteric and transforming the familiar, redeeming the commercial.  Finally, he must draw upon whatever mythic resources that remain vital.  The new rules are strict.  It is little wonder that as an artist in the marketplace Dylan once called himself a trapeze artist.  He is describing the artist’s situation in “She Belongs to Me” :


THIRD VERSE OF “SHE BELONGS TO ME”  FROM BABHOME:
She never stumbles,
She's got no place to fall.
She never stumbles,
She's got no place to fall.
She's nobody's child,
The Law can't touch her at all.

~COMPARE DICKENS/NOVEL TO DYLAN/SONG  (omitted in the radio show itself)

I have made numerous comparisons of Dylan to Shakespeare who worked in the entertainment field.  The theater was not a reputable place in Shakespeare’s day.  But the same can be said of the novel.  Charles Dickens worked in that popular medium which was still considered vulgar by the cultured aristocrats of his society in the mid-nineteenth century.  In 1783, Hugh Blair’s book Rhetoric was considered an authoritative source.  He refers to the novel as "an insignificant class of writing," and exhibits the same form of discomfort as some literary critics today when Dylan is called a poet.  They try to qualify in some manner, sometimes by using a hybrid term like "song-poet" instead.5  Dickens was quite aware of the low status of the novel.6  Dickens once said:  "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."   Certainly the novel has achieved full acceptance into the literary canon, but not because of Dickens’s work.  His novels did not come into acceptance by the critics until the 1930s, long after his death.  Dylan, on the other hand, did much more to transform song writing into an art form—and one widely discussed as such.  Much more so than Dickens, Dylan transformed song—or should I say, he demonstrated the potential for song as poetry—almost single-handedly. 

We can hear that longing to reach the potential of the form in one of  those songs from his moderate man period as the 60s turned into the 70s:


“WHEN I PAINT MY MASTERPIECE”
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.

Oh, the hours I've spent inside the Coliseum,
Dodging lions and wastin' time.
Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see 'em,
Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb.
Train wheels runnin' through the back of my memory,
When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese.
Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece.

~CLOSING
Yes, Dylan’s songs through five decades have been attempts to paint a masterpiece, and just as the true majesty of a work of genius cannot be fully appreciated by looking just at one work, be it Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Munch’s Scream, works which most of us know just well enough to say we’ve been there, so with Dylan.  Each new album, each new song gives us a greater understanding of all the others.

 

But I must draw this series to a close. 

It has not been my purpose to analyze all of his songs but to provide a perspective from which his artistic achievements can be appreciated by raising several major questions.  One is the relationship of art to popular entertainment; another is the question of the mythic basis of poetry.  I have argued that the Democratic poet who avoids intellectual obscurity can bring a wide audience back to poetry after having been turn off by what Modern Poetry became during the first half of the twentieth century.   And of course by now the gentle listener who has paid attention sees that eternal dichotomy of moderation and excess in the joker and the thief.  I hope that you will look forward to further explorations of these themes in later editions of Shakespeare in the Alley.  Until then, this is Bill King saying, so glad you came around.

END OF FINAL SHOW (Epilogue, Show 13 in progress)


List the new book reviewed in Atlantic on web site.

5Cf. George Monteiro, “Dylan in the Sixties,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 73: 2 (Spring 1974), 164-72: “it is apparent to me that no poet has worked the comic apocalypse with as much success as the ‘song poet’ Dylan has” ( 169). Also Laurence Gonzales, “Persona Bob: seer and fool,” Costerus, 3 (1972), p. 53: “I have deliberately refrained from comparing Dylan with great artists because ht is a songwriter.”

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

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

 
SHOWS  |   ABOUT  |   DYLAN  |   RESOURCES  |   CONTACT  |   SEARCH  |   SITEMAP  |   HOME
© Shakespeare in the Alley, 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Website Design by Juliana Harrisking