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Dylan’s American Poetical Company

By Richard Marshall.


Stephen Burt, This Poem Is You, Harvard University Press, 2016

The best general notion which I can give of poetry is, that it is the natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it.’ (Hazlitt: On Poetry in General, 1818)

The great white whale and Ahab of the American Empire has always been his centre of gravity. All the great empires have had their poets and writers capable of wrestling with its sublime, monstrous protean strength. Empires write history from victory’s veranda. The great Empire poets see the dangers, the costs, the defeated left in the wake of colossal bathos as well as the grandeur and immeasurability of powers reaching towards mortal limits of death and inevitable fall. Shakespeare is an obvious example. Dylan has been working on America’s road since the very beginning.

I’ve been surprised by those poets like Simon Armitage who have said that they like Dylan but he should never have won the Nobel Prize. It strikes me that what is enjoyed in contemporary American poets is also what can be enjoyed in Dylan. If you can speak about technique, content, spirit, form, about whether the work is catching ‘the natural impression of any object or event,’ whether there’s ‘vividness,’ ‘imagination’, ‘passion’ and ‘a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it’ which is what Hazlitt was asking from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and the rest of the band back in his day, and if you can do so without it seeming not to fit, then I think you’re talking about a poet. In reading Burt’s great book on 60 contemporary American poems there seemed an easy fit between how Burt discusses them and how you can write about Dylan. If it looks, walks and quacks like a duck then its a duck. Naysayers are off the mark. Of course Dylan stresses a distinct route to his poetry in harnessing his writing to sung lyric. It’s a route that overlaps with what fellow American poet Allan Ginsberg writes about in ‘Explanation of First Blues’ :

‘I had some kind of American Blues in my heart without knowing it—I could sing but didn’t reckon it important poetically, until I met Krishna & remembered Ezra Pound’s ken that poetry & music, song & chant (and dance) went together before the invention of the printing press and long after—forgotten by the same academies that forgot that the genre of American Black Blues & rags was as great a treasury of poetics as Bishop Percy’s Reliques & Scottish Border Ballads & Elizabethan song books & Tom O’Bedlam folk treasuries.’

There’s a clue to Dylan’s subject matter in Ginsberg’s comment too. The great white whale and Ahab of the American Empire has always been his centre of gravity. All the great empires have had their poets and writers capable of wrestling with its sublime, monstrous protean strength. Empires write history from victory’s veranda. The great Empire poets see the dangers, the costs, the defeated left in the wake of colossal bathos as well as the grandeur and immeasurability of powers reaching towards mortal limits of death and inevitable fall. Shakespeare is an obvious example. Dylan has been working on America’s road since the very beginning.

It’s like a circus route. In 1922 the circus was the talk of the town. Dylan’s father was a child in a six room house on Lake Avenue. He had seen the great forest fire a few years earlier. His own father Zigman had reassured them that the fire would not reach the town. And he had been right. But there had been hundreds killed in the fire. But then the circus was in town, coming through old weird America again. Think of Jonah who was told to get to Ninevah and tell them the Truth before it became too late – and he just ran in the opposite direction.

So with Dylan we’ve been running opposite routes ever since.

‘Keep whatever you think is best, keep whatever you think is worst. Then you can show them the best and the worst whenever there is a need.’ Perhaps the advice of Rabbi Reuban Levi, or one of his Lutheran neighbours, but Dylan puts down this advice which means he ignores it, puts up with it and records it accurately for the archive somewhere all at the one same time. The circus came to town. The whole town went to see the show. The black trapeze artists soared across the great tent, heaven bound above the smell of roast chestnuts and the women’s perfumes and the greasy hell noises of the small-town audience. Their physical art was a hushed tension, men and women working above on the high wire, high above death and the laughter of the tumbling clowns below in the thread and fibre of the sand …

They hanged three of those black circus performers. Hanged them in the street of Deluth in 1922. The same crowd that had been at the circus watching their beauty earlier were now in the street. It was night and there were so many different stories. Some woman had been raped. Some man had been murdered. Someone robbed at knifepoint. There were reports that the sheriff had opened the jail to the mob when they came. That the sheriff had fought the mob but had been told by the governor that he couldn’t use his gun. That no one had been attacked. No one raped. No one robbed. There was something that shook everyone up. But it was a secret. There was a great rushing sound, like a wind that blew across the streets of Deluth as the three dead black men were hanged by their necks from street lampposts. And the crowd of crazed white people watched from a very American hell the dead men hanging by their necks, astonishingly, like on tiptoe in the invisible air.

Postcards of the hanging showed the dead men and the crowd of Deluth’s fine citizens. Lynching of black men was common in the South but the North was supposed to be different. But this was the far-reaching thing that Dylan’s songs and the traditions he comes into have to measure up to. This is the sign of his measure, the source of his sorrow, is the flood that supplies him with everything. That’s why he got the Nobel.


‘Minneapolis . . . I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the beat scene, the Bohemian, BeBop crowd, it was all pretty much connected . . . people just passed through, really, carrying horns, guitars, suitcases, whatever, just like the stories you hear, free love, wine, poetry, nobody had any money anyway . . . there were a lot of house parties. . . . There were always a lot of poems recited—‘‘Into the room people come and go talking of Michelangelo, measuring their lives in coffee spoons’’ . . . ‘‘What I’d like to know is what do you think of your blue-eyed boy now, Mr. Death’’. T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings. It was sort of like that and it woke me up. . . . Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti—‘Gasoline’, ‘Coney Island of the Mind’, . . . oh man, it was wild—‘‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’’: that said more to me than any of the stuff I’d been raised on . . . whatever was happening of any real value was . . . sort of hidden from view and it would be years before the media would be able to recognize it and choke-hold it and reduce it to silliness. Anyway, I got in at the tail-end of that and it was magic …it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley. Pound, Camus, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, mostly expatriate Americans who were off in Paris and Tangiers. Burroughs, ‘‘Nova Ex- press’’, John Rechy, Gary Snyder, Ferlinghetti, ‘‘Pictures From the Gone World’’, the newer poets and folk music, jazz, Monk, Coltrane, Sonny and Brownie, Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Christian . . . it all left the rest of everything in the dust . . .’ he writes down in ‘Chronicles’ twelve years ago.

The doomed trapeze artists are art, music, song, lyric, balancing and swinging on high wires beneath heaven and earth, lying all undiscovered before us in power, harmony, beauty, motion, growth, both folly and madness. They are what Hazlitt wrote of poetry when he said:

‘ … poetry is the most emphatical language that can be found for those creations of the mind ‘which ecstasy is very cunning in’. Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the heightenings of the imagination. The light of poetry is not only a direct but also a reflected light, that while it shows us the object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it: the flame of the passions, communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with a flash of lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our whole being. Poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms; feelings, as they suggest forms or other feelings. Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe. It describes the flowing, not the fixed. It does not define the limits of sense, or analyse the distinctions of the understanding, but signifies the excess of the imagination beyond the actual or ordinary impression of any object or feeling.’

It’s against this uneasy, uncontainable measurement that Dylan has made his different route. He can stand far away from his contemporary American poets, is neither one of them nor au contraire but rather has distinctions of understanding and impressions that strive to find impatient limits and then plough on over along with all the rest. He is no less a poet if he doesn’t present language true to conventionalities or point of those facts. Why? Because he conveys the impression of whatever passion makes on his mind and imagination, and his passion is a visionary America that chokes on the blood of its victims and yet still sings beauty.

What would you see crossing America since Dylan started his alternative route? It’s probably only now that we’re beginning to see how important the end of the counter-culture was to poetry and the arts by the 1980s. Dylan had already had two decades writing out his strange American modernism and the 80’s threatened to trash all that along with everything else. Times were indeed changing. Reagan in the USA, Thatcher in the UK, they brought in a definite ending. Everything was no longer understood. American poetry became estranged, agile, exultant, nimble and protean, its poets becoming valiant faces with levelled faces against the new glacis, capable of the bogus and the jibe, the sullen and the pose as all shipwrecked crews can and do. It was the poetry of a rainbow bursting through, black-eyed and beaten up by trade and the rattle of the time that began with politicians handing out the hoary ‘end of society’ where society did indeed get lost, and so did whatever preceded it, including its poetry and its definitive poets.

Dylan, like everyone, was looking for what was left, what stayed, what got invented new. He goes hiking in New Hampshire, watching the comic book artists in Portland, noting grassland restoration and the Ojibwe language in Minnesota, surfing long beaches, long galleries and longer melancholy, catching Union fights and rounds, all these desultory energies until it became clearer, more than ever before, that you can get lost in this America gone insane. He was travelling but not as a tourist snapping the high points, but catching what might well be the main variety that gets missed if you stick to highlights. He traced interior lives tried out as our own. And made his language strange again, with the alienation that runs through songs of souls as loaded lyric. He was lighting a match in the dark so we see outlines .

Critic Stephen Burt says there is no single route, no single highway in post-80’s American poetry but just as there are many branches from Interstate 95, say, so this idea of trying out different poems as yourself allows him to catch up the poems all together and say how one leads to the next. When Dylan started off the 1960s American poetry was free verse paraphrased by the tradition of the confessional of Plath and Lowell. Vietnam stirred the protest currents of, say, Adrienne Rich and Robert Bly and Amiri Baraka. By the 70s things were mainly naked, unmediated, visceral and uncomplicated but there were push-backs like Richard Wilbur doubling down on European commitments. New York was unpredictable and chaotic with Ashbury first then Bernadette Mayer round the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, and then language writers working outside both voice and prose sense.

From the 70’s non-white poets erupted through protest movements – American-Indian poets, Chicano movimiento poets, but there were others more autobiographical and print-based. By the 1980s poets were having to handle their relationship with modernism, the avant-garde (what was left of it), the confessionals, the international lyric, the English and European past and little journals and magazines, writer’s retreats, bars and restaurants shook up the poetry scene as printing made it easier to work outside of the elite universities.

From the 80s to the 90s we had new formalists, neo-confessionals, free verse mainstreamers, performance and proto-slammers, post-avant gardeists. After 1990 there was a time of integration and synthesis. Some looked out to society and politics, some inward to formalism. In New York City they negotiated between anti-prose-sense and lyric and voice based traditions. Elsewhere (and there too) others enjoyed the messiness and were heterogenetic and eclectic.

Disasters like 9/11 and Katrina impacted. There was the conceptualism of Tan Lin, Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith who were about repeating, reframing, reshaping non literary texts: Flarfists who, according to Drew Gardner, deployed ‘corrosive, cute or cloying awfulness’ to attack taste. There was the Black Took Collectivists whose non-prose, non-autobiography experiment attempted to define a different sense of blackness. Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum’s Gurlesque poetry went to scandalous extremes to resist patriarchy. Neo-avant-gardeists went from Ali’s “real Ghazal” to the Golden Shove and the verse form of Terrance Hayes in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks.

African American poets became central. The National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer, the Kingsley and Kate Tufts awards, The Los Angeles Times Book Prize all went to more than one African American poet between 2010 and 2015. Some whites at the same time were writing about white privilege eg Bruce Smith, Tess Taylor, Ed Pavlic, Martha Collins but it wasn’t a black or white scene anymore. Non-European immigrant heritages started writing their books looking for hybrid styles to fit their identities. John Yau and Khaled Mattawa extended/discarded idea of tribe, inheritance and the voices of confessional, autobiographical poets. Asian American poetry flourished from networks begun in the 1990s. Native American poetry was sourced in Santa Fe at the Institute there with Arthur Sze, Sherwin Bitsui, Layli Long Soldier, dg nanouk okpik. But again, not all new institutions were ethnically marked. Some were devoted to modern rhyme, metred technique, eclectic choppy aesthetic, digital media, enthusiastic conversational style, ‘ultra talk’ programmes, journalistic and documentary prose style, epigrammatic revival (Kay Ryan, Graham Foust, Pam Rehm, Joseph Massey), cool observational modernism and Objectivism and who knows what else.

Dylan had his finger in all these pies, and the idea that his mimic and magpie mind wouldn’t have been picking up on these various scenes beggars belief. As I read Burt’s book on the poets of this period it struck me how often Dylan has worked in the same ballparks, or at an oblique angle to them. It’s a cliché but it’s the case that Dylan never really contains himself in his sources, and its useful just to take a survey of what else was in his hinterland. So what follows is just a brief survey to help see a deeper perspective than just the ‘countercultural hero’ stereotype or the more sophisticated ‘old weird Amerika’ one. Shakespeare is more than ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Henry Vth’ and ‘Macbeth’ and Dylan is more than ‘Times they Are A Changin’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Blind Willie McTell’. The counter-culture years were important but they aren’t our time now, which is the world of prose. Antinomian heaven is further off and grown astronomical, times that are straight as Hazlitt found in his day: times

‘… averse to the imagination, nor will they return to us on the squares of the distances… Rembrandt’s picture brings the matter nearer to us. — It is not only the progress of mechanical knowledge, but the necessary advances of civilization that are unfavourable to the spirit of poetry. We not only stand in less awe of the preternatural world, but we can calculate more surely, and look with more indifference, upon the regular routine of this. The heroes of the fabulous ages rid the world of monsters and giants. At present we are less exposed to the vicissitudes of good or evil, to the incursions of wild beasts or’ bandit fierce’, or to the unmitigated fury of the elements. The time has been that ‘our fell of hair would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir as life were in it’. But the police spoils all; and we now hardly so much as dream of a midnight murder. Macbeth is only tolerated in this country for the sake of the music; and in the United States of America, where the philosophical principles of government are carried still farther in theory and practice, we find that the Beggar’s Opera is hooted from the stage. Society, by degrees, is constructed into a machine that carries us safely and insipidly from one end of life to the other, in a very comfortable prose style.’

But in the world outside of prose there are still the monsters, and murders, the furies erupting, police killing sprees, wars and maniacs at the levers. And perhaps too obscurely, the poets turn Mercury’s prose into Apollo’s songs, but they do.

Burt starts with Ashbery who invites and evades any sense that the poem is for you. Burt starts in 1981 so he catches Ashbery’s ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ – ‘a poem that does double duty as an invitation to read challenging, slippery poetry and as a claim about the connection between poet and reader, between “you” and “me”, that all poems attempt to make.’ By then the pre-60’s poets were dead: Lowell in ‘77, Zukovsky in ‘78, Bishop in ‘79, Hayden and Wright in ‘80. The year’s a pivot: Reagan came to bring neoliberalism and end the counter-culture.

1981 seems far away; small, white, dependent on New York trade presses such as Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Alfred A Nopf. No one knew what a ‘Poetry slam’ was back then and there was no Dark Room Collective, no Cave Canem, no Kundiman, no Asian American Writer’s Worksop, no Electric Poetry Centre at the University of Buffalo, no genius.com, no poems.com, no 3:AM!

Self portrait  *oil on canvas  *70 x 60 cm Hazlitt, Self portrait

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 26th, 2016.