Dyllany: Some Pendulous Thoughts

In the dime-stores and bus-stations
People talk of situations
read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall

(Bob Dylan – Love Minus Zero/No Limit)

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?

(Bob Dylan – Ballad of a Thin Man)

The University of Minnesota recently hosted a symposium titled Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan’s
Road from Minnesota to the World, spanning the oeuvre of the state’s most…well…dylannic native son. The symposium offered lectures with such sonorous titles as Dylan as Avatar, Get Born: Dylan’s Body in Time and Space, Highway 61: Dylan’s Chosen Route Through Time And Space. Dylan has a curious relationship with scholastic culture: there is a smattering of academics across college campuses who have worked on the “Dylan canon”; inducting him into their respective scholarly regimens. A great majority of these projects look to be exercises in futility (apt to ask: how is one to determine the utility or futility of intellectual exercises). I speak meekly, however; for ghosts of those many hours I killed in performing exegeses on “Desolation Row” and crafting essays on Dylan’s Sufi bent, follow close behind. What is it that inspires such plucking of Dylan’s lobes? And why is it so difficult to legitimately pronounce “Dylan Studies” ? A friend once proposed that there is nothing extraordinary about Bob Dylan: he was a bad singer by all standards, a mediocre guitarist and as a lyricist, he was at best an excellent imitator. Indeed, Dylan himself writes in his autobiography that there was nothing original about his work. He found it hard to reel in the seasoned folk fans, because he had nothing new to offer, so his primarily audience became the young bohemians of the folk revival scene. His folk and blues renditions were uninspiring. His lyrical content, initially, was derived from the old folk songs and influeced later by the impulses (surrealist, symbolist.etc.) attendant in the works of contemporary poets who he frequently associated with. In his biography Dylan intimates that he read voraciously in his friend’s remarkable personal library–consuming books on a variety of subjects; despite this, one never finds Dylan substantively ‘negotiating’ with literary / poetic artifacts via his erudition.

Arguably, Dylan’s prowess as a poet is not intrinsic to his locution and style or to his lack of correspondence with the academic-poetic tradition, but quite the opposite; his poetics are a poetics of imitation. Not unlike Ulysses, Dylan’s corpus lends itself to scholastic inquiry because of the staggering number of meta-textual tie-ins with innumerable cultural artifacts. The cognitive and semantic distances between those references are so vast that their assemblage creates a unique poetic sensation as exemplified by “Desolation Row”–a poetics, at time, suspended between aphoristic meaning and a sort of rhetorical stoicism, in which it resembles Zen Koans, Sufi stories and “ambient” poetry which has gained some ascendance of late.

The question of whether or not Dylan merits being called a “poet” is a tricky one. With the burgeoning academic interest in his work, the push to firmly place him in the literary ranks has gotten more persuasive. Personally, despite my reverance, I’m not too keen about “literarizing”* his music; but then just as quickly, my doubts about Dylan’s status as a poet are assailed: ll cite just one brilliant instance of Dylan’s pellucid poetic vision, cast upon the murky states of being human:

“And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row”

*His first formal attempt at literature, the unbearably convulted Tarantula is virtually indecipherable, but noticeable for its novelty; Chronicles Vol. 1, however, is a very memorable read.

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