Out of Ear’s Reach

An ambitious scholarly treatment of Dylan puts his lyrics beneath the microscope.

Cherish the cultural moment: Just as Bob Dylan sells his soul for a Victoria’s Secret Venetian holiday, the academy ushers him into the Great Hall of Poets. With Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Boston University’s Christopher Ricks, the eminent Milton and Eliot scholar, delivers his long-awaited Dylan treatise, Visions of Sin. (It was published last year in Britain.) Organizing his thoughts around the traditional seven vices—and virtues—Ricks burrows deep into Dylan’s lyrics for intriguing comparisons to Keats, Tennyson, and other canon members, with enough gusto and substance to win over any remaining Dylan holdouts. The writing is admiringly learned, the observations insightful and often piquant. Yet the Ricks style is overly pleased with itself, Old School straining to sound New School, and, at 500 pages, an arduous read even for Dylan fanatics.

Ricks elevates an old prejudice—ranking the poet above the songwriter—to dizzying new heights: He repeatedly reminds us that Dylan’s words are heard rather than read, but the words on the page are really his main concern. For all the smarts he brings into play, Ricks has no interest in Dylan’s rock ’n’ roll context, his epic interaction with his audience, or the serrations of his perplexing career. Dylan’s “poetry” all boils down to his text. The problem is, Dylan’s rock ’n’ roll mowed down these assumptions long ago: The recordings are the new text, and separating the persona from the material, especially with Dylan, is misleading at best. Even though Ricks has listened closely to the records and been to plenty of concerts (although apparently no bad ones), the mongrel glory of Dylan’s style eludes him.

As an eminent poetry scholar who has written pivotal books on Keats and Tennyson, Ricks works Dylan over with a seasoned confidence, a lifetime of cross-references heroically pushing back against years of rock prejudice. (He is especially good on Dylan’s use of rhyme.) In Ricks’ vision, Dylan is teeming with ideas and telling links to other poets (especially Racine, Wordsworth, Kipling, Pope, Swinburne, Longfellow, Hardy, Larkin, Coleridge, and numerous Shakespeare comparisons, most of which seem forced) and critical concepts from F.R. Leavis and Philip Sidney. The sublime Dylan listening experience, for Ricks, consists of a handy Bible (chiefly the Book of Ecclesiastes), and a stack of dictionaries: The Oxford English, the Oxford American, the Random House Dictionary of American Slang, the Oxford Literary, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, The Oxford Dictionary of American History, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings, etc. You can practically smell the port.

Yet none of these handles honor Dylan’s own references: “Pledging My Time,” widely heard as a rewrite of “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, or “Fourth Time Around,” Dylan’s obsequious answer waltz to Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood.” Reading Ricks, you’d never guess “Positively 4th Street” has anything to do with Phil Ochs or Pete Seeger. This single, notes David Boucher in his ambling yet tame Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, a study of Dylan and Leonard Cohen, followed swiftly on “Like a Rolling Stone” for subversive effect. It was recorded four days after the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and “has widely been interpreted as a bitter attack on Dylan’s former friends in the folk world.” (Boucher is better at Cohen than Dylan; Cohen was actually a published poet before he became a songwriter.)

Most conspicuously, Ricks ignores Dylan’s debt to Woody Guthrie. Although rhapsodic about Dylan’s “Song to Woody,” Ricks seems unaware that Dylan snatched its melody from Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.” This connection would only strengthen Ricks’ admiration for the way Dylan’s “emulation … skirts envy.” “Like a Rolling Stone” doesn’t detail and amplify a generation’s coming-of-age. Who is the song’s subject? Greil Marcus once wrote that the narrator of the song is singing to and about himself; that’s the kind of insight that alters every successive experience of the song.

If you care about rock’s aesthetic triumph, Ricks’ old-world slant is more than troublesome. He drinks from the rarefied literary waters the music itself trumps. “You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books/ You’re very well read/ It’s well known,”* Dylan snarls contemptuously to Mr. Jones, his straw man for everything academics didn’t get about the rock scene that bulldozed their “refined” aesthetic. (Tellingly, there’s not much about “Ballad of a Thin Man” here.) Now, of course, rock’s context has changed utterly. Rock has become both “respectable” entertainment for adults and a multi-billion dollar global industry where nobody thinks twice about using his Rolling Stones-branded credit card to buy stock in David Bowie’s song catalog. And academia, the scene and target of so much ‘60s dissent, now caters to bulging rock history classes.

This is a rich subtext that Ricks chooses to ignore; he also neglects many of rock’s better critics, especially its Dylan scribes. (He trounces Greil Marcus in a curt footnote for disdaining the born-again brand of Christianity Dylan embraced in the late ‘70s.) But in one crucial—and not very useful—way, Ricks aligns himself with the Dylan apologists (including Marcus): He portrays Dylan’s strengths as a kind of pure field of creativity, sidestepping reams of songs and unlistenable albums. Dylan’s good work so far outweighs his bad, Ricks implies, there’s no need to explain stinkers like Self-Portrait or Empire Burlesque. In reality, Dylan presents a far more complicated case of creativity than many appreciate: sequencing brilliance next to mediocrity on a single album, Dylan’s waywardness is his great uncharted theme. How do you trust an artist who left the now-classic “Blind Willie McTell” off Infidels? * By now, Dylan is worse, even, than Lou Reed: You might as well toss a coin as to whether the next album will be great or horrible.

For every song Ricks hoists up a few aesthetic notches (“Trouble in Mind,” “True Love Tends To Forget”), there are numbers he drastically overrates (“Disease of Conceit,” “All the Tired Horses” [!], * “Seven Curses,” which gets an elaborate comparison on how different it is from Measure for Measure). In each case, he resists tying individual tracks to their album’s concepts.

And aside from his antirock bias, Ricks writes with an unnerving tic—the end-of-paragraph sentence fragments, puns, epithets, and conundrums, which sap his intellectual momentum: “O O O O that Dylanesque rag. It’s so elegant. So intelligent. So Dyligent. Never negligent.” “Every letter, every microsecond, might count now that ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.’ Not that it is all over until the fat lady sings instead of the thin man.” This gets tiresome and suggests an over-indulgent editor at the helm.

Where literary lions might read this as a splash of cold intellectual water on rock criticism’s hot air, Ricks has missed the extraordinary vigor rock has brought to poetry. Dylan has always been a poet of song; at least half of his accomplishment is rending the Great Poet myth asunder. Trying to make him something else snubs the very rock style he rebuilt around his quirks. Can’t we all just get along? Can’t poets be poets and songwriters be songwriters? Worry some of these lyrics enough and you miss the force of Dylan’s renderings—how his delirious beats frame underrated melodies, how his oddball deliveries surf on choppy psychic waters. Marry his words up with the harried yammer of rock ’n’ roll and BAM!—now that’s poetry.

Correction, June 21, 2004: An earlier version of this piece gave the wrong title in reference to the song “All the Tired Horses.” It also referred to Empire Burlesque, not Infidels, as the album that left off the now-classic “Blind Willie McTell.” Also, this piece originally stated the following lyrics incorrectly: It’s “You’ve been through all of …” not “You’ve read all of …” as was originally stated.