Bob Dylan’s Poetics –
How the Songs Work
By Timothy Hampton
Zone Books – £24.00
Dylan has always been interested in having it both ways. That is, he has wanted to be taken seriously by his listeners and by the press, but not too seriously. He has wanted to be famous, but to keep his privacy. He has wanted to be popular, but not mainstream. He has wanted to express himself through song, but not to be on display in ways that will lead listeners to pin his compositions to his biography. The poetic technique of ‘Dignity’ shows how Dylan can be ‘’in’’ his songs both as an actor, as the performing ‘’I’’ who speaks, and as the clever commentator who sews the lyric with citations that suggest some larger meaning. He is in his songs, but not of them.
The voices of the past are violently available to the imagination at any time. They ring through the present. A body on the street in Manhattan could be from Gettysburg. If Dylan is anything, he is a historical poet.
Two days ago, Bob Dylan turned seventy-nine; an age many might consider getting up there in years. An age where many a songwriter and musician would surely choose to rest on their artistic laurels. The Rolling Stones for instance, who are not that much younger, have been doing so for years.
As have many artists, to which many might well refute: who can blame them?
Absolutely – why not?
But Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan.
Always has been, and always will be.
By which I mean a menagerie of things: unique, exceptional, different and beyond any form of any pale. For instance, he recently released ‘Murder Most Foul,’ a single, which, clocking in at four seconds short of seventeen minutes, would already suggest an ambivalence and total disregard for ‘chart success.’ That the nigh epic is about the assassination of President John Kennedy, would seem as unlikely a subject matter as one could possibly imagine during the current worldwide Covid-19 pandemic.
But that’s Dylan for you: a bright shining light of artistic endeavour, who for years has now stood alone, both within and against the inexorable tide of beige and tedious repetition.
What is more, he has done so on the merit of his most incredible song-writing.
Surely a colossal understatement if ever there was one?
This is where Bob Dylan’s Poetics – How the Songs Work comes into play.
An altogether meticulous, beguiling, and fascinating book that addresses the relationship between form, genre, and the many socio-politico themes which notoriously traverse Dylan’s work. A body of work which has always been partially ignited by his devout curiosity – not to mention thirst for knowledge – within the varying traditions of the (American) musical landscape. Something the author, Timothy Hampton, addresses very early on in the book: ‘’Dylan’s deep sense of history and his curiosity about different musical traditions – from Mexican border ballads to western swing – have led some commentators to see his work as a kind of parable about American identity and inclusiveness. Here he is taken less as an existentialist hero or a great ethicist than as a quintessentially American bard, the heir to Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, speaking of and to the promise of America […]. The aesthetic range of Dylan’s achievement is especially important to acknowledge going forward, as his work now circulates in a global musical culture. And the next generation of listeners, working in a new digital landscape, will doubtless hear (and sample) this music in ways that we can scarcely imagine today.’’
Along with the actual placing of Dylan within said songs of considerable thematic variation (as touched on in the very opening quote of this review), Bob Dylan’s Poetics’ covers a most comprehensive gambit in the Dylanologist making. Each of its six chapters bequeaths the reader with an abundance of thought-provoking information, which, however one chooses to look at it, is always open to invariable interpretation.
A fine example of this is where Hampton negotiates the depth of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ in the second chapter, ‘Ramblin’ Boy,’ where he writes: ‘’The song alternates between prediction and description. It works through the balancing of commands (‘’admit,’’ ‘’accept it,’’ ‘’don’t speak too soon’’) and warnings (‘’he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled’’). These two operations stand in tension with the futurity that the song constantly projects through its image of time. It imputes change, not to actors, but to ‘’the times,’’ some grand historical force. Yet to mediate the distance between ‘’the times’’ and actual human people (‘’wherever you roam’’) it infuses the mere fact of generational change with pseudo-biblical language (‘’the curse, it is cast’’). Much of its power derives from the fact that we are left not knowing whether the simple changing of generations – a natural phenomenon, after all – is the effect of a cosmic plague, or its cause.’’
With coronavirus deaths now reaching 100,000 in the USA, ‘‘the effect of a cosmic plague’’ are words which resonate with a particularly, provocative substance right now. As indeed, do most of these 233 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography/Discography, Lists of Songs Cited and Index).
If nothing else, Bob Dylan’s Poetics’ will leave the reader with a far deeper understanding and appreciation of Dylan’s songs – which can only be a good thing.