I regret reading this book, and were I not quite certain that I'll forget the bulk of its content within the next few days, I'd regret it bitterly. I suspect that, like a good many fans of Bob Dylan's work (the silent but sympathetic majority if you will), my communion with his work is a link between the intimate minutiae of my personal life and a moiety which, while non-specific, is still a great deal larger. Call it the baby boomer generation, the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, the rock'n'roll movement, serious dope-smokers, the bohemian left-liberal caucus - whatever. Suffice to say that, when I listen to Dylan's music, I subconsciously apprehend this connection, although at the same time I am transported to a place where, vis-a-vis with my own wellspring of feeling, I am alone.
This sense of being a communicant at an altar rail that is shared by millions has always inclined me to limit the amount I know about the artist himself, or even the wider context of his work. For lyrical music to conjure up such a powerful level of identification, it is better that it be shrouded in numinous ignorance. No one minds making love in a hotel room (although aware that a thousand different couples have done so in that bed before), as long as the room doesn't have glass walls. My Dylan needs must remain mine alone. From the proleptic punk who snarled Highway 61 Revisited (the first of his albums that yanked me into consciousness, aged 16 in 1977) to the keel-on-shingle, warbling eschatology of Time Out of Mind (the last one of his albums I bought and played to death), I have neither felt the need to justify my Dylanism, nor to qualify it even to myself.
Yet it has been profound. At times - usually bad ones - his has been the only contemporary music I will listen to at all. If I think of my relationships, my children and even my own books, each can be associated with a Dylan album. If I were to reread my own work I'm certain I'd find many tropes I have stolen from Dylan lyrics, and not only the ones I filched with intent. And given that I was able to encounter Dylan - apart from a few sonic outcrops - in the full flower of my musical youth, and given that not belonging exactly to his generation has meant that I've felt no need to keep in step with his output, I've been liberated from any Nick Hornbyesque nerdiness. I can pick 'n' mix my Dylan, and still own probably less than two-thirds of his total output. I've seen D A Pennebaker's luminous Don't Look Back umpteen times, but skilfully dodged Renaldo and Clara. Before this book, I had never read more than liner notes on his work (the best are Greil Marcus's for The Basement Tapes), and I don't think I'll be reading anything more for a long time to come. Christopher Ricks, I do not know you.
Because not only is there a desire to protect my own private Dylan, there is also an acute consciousness that to deconstruct his words would be to open up a Pandora's box of lyrical ills. Dylan's greatness as a writer teeters constantly on the edge of righteous nonsense and awesome self-parody: "On the back of the fish truck that loads/while my conscience explodes" indeed. And yes, I have always understood - something that many of the contributors to this book felt they had to remind me of - that Dylan is a white-faced minstrel, a Jewish, middle-class Middle American who has invented multiple musical personae with which to plunder the rich storehouse of folk music. Yes, even at 17, I grasped intuitively that "Highway 61 Revisited" was a modern jeremiad against the hypocrisies of imperialist Uncle Sam; and yes, I've never felt the least requirement to place his misogyny within the context of his misanthropy. All of which is by way of remarking that Dylan, like the greatest and most universal of writers (whether poets proper, novelists, essayists or songwriters), so powerfully transmutes his idiolect into the contemporary discourse that his songs have no need of any interpretation save for themselves.
So how can I explain why I not only read this book but also agreed to review it? The answer lies in the preface by its editor, Neil Corcoran, who wooed me with the vulnerability of his own account of conversion, during Dylan's legendary 1965 tour of Britain, and kept his academician's hat well hidden. True, in his introduction to the essays that comprise this volume, he reveals a tetchiness with his subject's refusal to accept formal interpretation; but still, Corcoran's is the sanest, most reasonable voice to be heard here.
He grants that Dylan "cannot be viewed without reserve as a poet", but asserts that "[his] lyrics often do merit and repay patient expository and interpretative attention, just as complexly organised poems do". Of his uniformly literary contributors, only Simon Armitage offers an essay that takes serious issue with this idea. Armitage's "Rock of Ages" is a bewilderingly silly piece, in which the poet animadverts at length on why it is that he came to Dylan so late (his mid-twenties), concluding with a deliberately wrong-headed close reading of "Tangled Up In Blue". At least he has the honesty to understand - in a semi-conscious recess of his fertile mind - that Dylan is the enemy. The same cannot be said for the other "poets and professors" on show here.
At best - Mark Ford, Corcoran himself, Bryan Cheyette - there is an attempt to add genuine flesh to the Dylan corpus. Ford traces Dylan's roots in the Emersonian tradition of American self-reliance, and raises the teasing possibility that Dylan may be the great national lyrical poet whose imminence was proclaimed by Walt Whitman (who also erroneously telegraphed his subsequent arrival in the form of himself). Corcoran fuses observations of the historical Dylan with moments of historical importance, and offers a clean and uncluttered account of the presence of death in the work itself. As for Cheyette, he prefaces his essay (quite rightly, in my view) by revealing a little of his own private Dylan, before engaging in a commentary that links the cultural - and practical - significance of the American railways with his subject's often torturous spiritual journey.
Lying about on the ground everywhere else in this collection, like the obsolete machinery in Piranesi's etchings, are huge chunks of the redundant language of literary theory. This is Richard Brown: "Don't Look Back seems to have much in common with the Bakhtinian notion of the carnivalesque or Michel Foucault's idea of a 'heterotopia' where the orders of syntax that govern reality are temporarily suspended in new forms of discourse." Aargh! It's bad enough that such mad mangling of ideas should take place within the padded cells of the accepted canon, let alone that they should spill out on to the general wards. And although there are sterling efforts by some of these poets and professors to strive against their own conditioning, the truth is that, time and again, they collapse into the kind of parodic posturing you would expect when convoluted reasoning is used to describe an irrational convolvulus (if I can so characterise Dylan's work).
I think it not accidental that there are some Dylan songs which are repeatedly analysed in these essays - "Highway 61 Revisited", "Desolation Row", "Ballad of a Thin Man" - while others, no less significant, are ignored. This selectivity may be a generational phenomenon: presumably, for many of them, Dylan's "electrification" of the mid-1960s represented a profound schism. However, there is mostly the ever-present canard on which the whole collection is predicated: the idea that Dylan's lyrics can, and should, be subject to the same kind of critical analysis as poetry.
I have not read any of the other reviews of this book, but I would wager that a good many of them took issue with this and stoutly maintained that Dylan's lyrics were nonsense when set against the inspired, metrical musings of, well, whoever. I come at the issue of Dylan-as-poet from a diametrically opposite position. What all of the poets and professors refuse to accept is the calamity that has befallen poetry itself during the 40-odd years of Dylan's songwriting career. Contemporary poets would do well to acknowledge that one of the reasons Robert Zimmerman was to change his name to that of a Welsh poet was because a decade earlier, Dylan Thomas had been drawing the kind of adulatory crowds on American campuses that they can only wet-dream of. Yes, it is a perversely satisfying irony that, during the past 40 years - in which Bob Dylan has moved from copycat folkie to revelatory bard - poetry itself has withered into being a mere appendix of contemporary literature. Modern poetry is now in the position of the folk revivalist of the 1960s, a beer-toping, woolly-sporting beardie, who sits "authentically" yodelling in the corner of the bar while the rest of the clientele studiously ignore him. If you think this is unfair, just ask yourself when you last heard somebody quote a line from a contemporary poet to you in conversation. For older people, it was more than likely a couple of decades ago, and for the younger among us it was, like, never man. Given this, it is not so much that Dylan's work dare aspire to the status of poetry; it is, quite simply, that along with work by a host of other inspired songwriters, it has completely replaced poetry, in that portion of the collective soul that requires the lyrical. That none of the contributors to this book should have dared to touch on this uncomfortable truth is, I think, a perfect testimony to the redundancy of their own enterprise. As for myself, I wouldn't say that Dylan was the national bard of America whose coming Emerson and, later, Whitman foretold, but then there's absolutely no one else who fits the bill.
Will Self's most recent novel is Dorian: an imitation (Penguin)