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Visions of a Songwriter

Was Bob Dylan a visionary or a poet?

Dylan’s Visions of Sin
by Christopher Ricks
Ecco, June 2004

Since the beginning of his career, Bob Dylan has been labelled a poet—usually (as Ellen Willis pointed out in the New Yorker in 1968) because the labellers have confused the word “poet” with “visionary.” Dylan is many things, but he is no more a poet than Tarantino is an oil painter. This “poet” label is largely an artifact of another time—Björk has just released an album based almost entirely on voices, but you don’t hear critics clamouring to call her a poet—yet the tag seems to have stuck to Dylan. And now we have a book that takes that label quite literally: in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Christopher Ricks treats the songwriter as though he were cousins with Andrew Marvell and brothers with T. S. Eliot. This kind of cross-disciplinary flattery would normally make me cringe (like I do whenever I hear an opera singer trying to perform a jazz standard), but Ricks’ five-hundred-page epic of erudition does wind up revealing some new things about Dylan’s songs, perhaps because it is so unrelenting.

The book is organized according to the seven deadly sins, the four virtues and the three heavenly graces (the divisions are practically a decoy, to help you forget you’re diving into an ocean thick with literary flotsam). Each sin, virtue and grace gets its own chapter, and various Dylan tunes are analyzed according to how they embody their chapter heading. But don’t sweat your Christian ethics: Ricks’ real framework is literary—not surprising, given that he is an English professor who has written on Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Eliot and Beckett. Often, Visions of Sin reads like a “best of” compilation of his usual scholarly work, and I found myself swinging from fascination to annoyance at what can read like a drain clogged with one too many literary allusions.

On that score, it doesn’t help that Ricks has written this book in a madcap, cornball style. Here he is, for example, getting a little high on the idea of sloth: “It asks of us a positive effort even to imagine Dylan’s being lazy, slothful, idle, slack, inert, sluggish, languid, or lethargic (to pick up sticks from the thesaurus). The opposite of slothful? ‘Diligent’ is the opposing term that is everywhere in the Book of Proverbs (which Dylan knows like the back of God’s hand). O O O O that Dylanesque rag. It’s so elegant. So intelligent. So Dyligent. Never negligent.” Ricks puns and japes his way through the entire book; while it’s sometimes witty, I don’t think you need to be a book reviewer to get weary of it.

Such gleeful tics aside, there’s no disputing Ricks’ analytical IQ. Early in the book, in what seems almost a strategic move, he dissects Philip Larkin’s “Love Songs in Age,” giving it a lovely, close, expert reading across six pages. After that, you’re willing to follow him through many an unpromising lyrical thicket—and he usually succeeds in showing you just how the branches fit.

One of Ricks’ most rewarding ideas, which he returns to and elaborates on throughout the book, is the difference between written words on a page and the sound of words heard. If you think literary criticism can’t address pop songs, you should read Ricks on the subject of “You Angel You, ” an uncomplicated song whose smoothness he manages to ripple: “There is no equivalent outside song to what song does when it separates one syllable to live within more than one note” (a device known as melisma). “So it is a profoundly simple accomplishment,” Ricks continues, “that has only one word in the whole of ‘You Angel You’ be committed to melisma, this aspect of the art of song: the very last word of the song, the word ‘sing’ itself: ‘I swear it would make me sing.’”

Unfortunately, Ricks alternates such congenial, astute observations with lazier literary analogies: he seems to think abutting Dylan’s lyrics against parts of the canon that happen to use similar techniques is enough to establish it as poetry. Thus, of the first verse in “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” he writes, “So it opens, this tender pitying admonition that is sung with sweet solemnity and yet has its own implicit comedy. For there must be something rueful about starting a tune by saying that it is time to stop it.” I like that paradox, and I am grateful that Ricks articulates it, but he then quotes a poem by Andrew Marvell that employs a similar contradiction. This too is gratifying to read, in a “Gee, I didn’t know that” kind of way, but the tactic threatens to detract from Ricks’ thesis. I, for one, felt like the constant analogies distracted me from the question of whether Dylan’s work is itself “poetry.” Just because Dylan’s lusty “Lay, Lady, Lay” mentions the “colors you have in your mind,” and Wallace Stevens’ “The Plot Against the Giant” mentions “cloths besprinkled with colors” and later “Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals,” doesn’t mean that Dylan was thinking of labials when he mentioned colours, or that the two are forever locked in an aesthetic embrace (not that there would be anything wrong with that).

If the book has a literary lodestar, it is T. S. Eliot. Ricks is sensible enough to admit at the outset that “there are many admirers of Dylan who instinctively feel that adducing Mr. Eliot when talking about Dylan is pretentious and portentous.” To assure these people that they simply suffer from a bad attitude, he points out, in another argument by analogy, the semantic overlaps between Dylan’s “Maybe Someday” and Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”: besides “hostile cities” and “unfriendly towns,” the song borrows five other phrases (in some cases only single words) from the poem. The parallels may not persuade me that Dylan’s work is poetry, but I can’t deny that it’s fun to roam around in Ricks’ enormous card-catalogue brain, exploring the connective tissue between items like Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” and a passage from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. After forty years and many yards of culturally and politically based commentaries on Dylan’s work, there’s no harm in welcoming a voraciously readerly account of how the songwriter stole some tricks from literature.