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Friday, Mar 24, 2023

Music Lover, Essayist, Critic Speaks on Poetry of Bob Dylan

Author: Kate DeForest Arts Editor

There is a peculiar self-perpetuating phenomenon that occurs in art, music and literature, in which the iconoclast becomes icon, only to be deconstructed by the next iconoclast. The cycle is most apparent during the transitional periods between movements; when that which was avant garde slips into its comfortable middle age, and that which was inconceivable before becomes the most immediate and thought provoking. Eventually, that which is middle aged grows into patriarchal conservatism and becomes established within the canon, a grandfather to whom one pays tribute. Interestingly, this progression really has little to do with the art itself, and much to do with the clime of the artistic and interpretive community. It is the changing perspective of the public, not the actual aging of the canvas or yellowing of the page or mellowing of voice, which creates this cycle.

One of the artists who has reached, or nearly reached, the apex of this cycle, is Bob Dylan. He is at that point in his career where he has been established as an icon in the lexicon of American music, yet he continues to add to a body of work in ways that are both innovative and familiar. Under certain circumstances, it would be seen as an assumption of gross magnitude to speak of a so-called "popular artist" in the same terms as one might speak of modern poetry or post-modern painting, but such a statement becomes substantiated when one discovers that a literary critic of the caliber of Christopher Ricks considers the rhyme of Dylan to resonate with the likes of T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin.

Ricks began his talk with the puckish caveat "I am not trained as a musicologist, though I listen to music," before launching into what would proved to be a fast-paced, yet thoughtful narrative elucidating both the place and function of rhyme within Dylan's lyrics.

Rhyme, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, is "Agreement in the terminal sounds of two or more words or metrical lines, such that the last stressed vowel and any sounds following it are the same, while the sound or sounds preceding are different." Ricks stressed the terminal nature of rhyme throughout the talk: when done well one cannot "draw the line between technique and things of lasting human concern." Rhyme, paradoxically, represents at once the termination of similar sounds and the creation of a lasting image, or feeling.

Delving into Dylan's rhyming style, Ricks singled out several examples of particularly striking word pairs, neatly delineating the difference between appreciating finely wrought conscious rhyming and wordplay, and the tendency some critics have towards overanalyzing diction. He highlighted the tightly constructed verse, "The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense/ Take what you have gathered from coincidence," from "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." The punning on "gambler" and "better," and the similar feminine endings of the words create an easy flow to the phrase, the fact that "coincidence" is used as part of a rhyme, the presence of which is obviously not coincidence, but makes "sense" in terms of what the listener expects from music and the fact that "sense" is indistinguishable when spoken or sung from the kind of "cents" in which a gambler would have interest, all contributes to the richness of the rhyme. However, Ricks draws the line at one critic's reading that "coincidence" is also punning on the word "coin."

Proving himself to posses the "truly extraordinary ear for language" that Stephen Donadio, professor of American literature and civilization, attributed to Ricks in his introduction of the critic and essayist, Ricks cited the fact that the auditory experience of "coincidence" is unlike the experience of the word on the page, therefore the supposed pun must be rendered void because of the nature of the medium in which Dylan works.

The idea that Dylan's words are meant as an auditory experience arose again and again, especially through a particularly engaging anecdote about Larkin's spoken word album, and the way the "lugubrious old misery," as Ricks termed the poet, presented as publicity for the album a list of reasons why his poetry belonged to the eye, not the ear.

Ricks elaborated on that distinction: "the eye can see a larger unit than what it is looking at … but the ear cannot hear a larger unit than it is listening to." This both creates and destroys some limitations of verse, but perhaps most importantly, it allows for a certainty of tone within song that is nearly impossible to achieve on the page.

Among the many concerns when considering the work of a popular artist in an academic context is the place of that artist among academia in general. While terming Dylan a "great artist" Ricks was unwilling to place him in the same realm of critical acclaim as the great modern poets. However, his hesitation was not the result of any lack of confidence in the merit of Dylan's lyrics, but rather the disparity that arises from the differing mediums.

Ricks closed the lecture by playing a recording of "Lay, Lady, Lay," asserting that the song's excellence lie in its frankness, an attribute which, it seems, has served Ricks well as a lecturer, critic, essayist and lover of the lyrics of Dylan.