Educated Rap. Week 4 at the Y

imagesIf it weren’t for Eadward Muybridge’s photography, we would not know that a galloping horse does in fact have all four feet off the ground at some point in its stride. Also, because we have human eyes and human brains, we can *see* movement in a strange new way by moving our eyes across these images. We see into the horse’s stride, we have a secret about how a horse moves. We know the bigger picture the horse doesn’t know.

 We like to do this. We like to stop time, trace the arrangements that can’t be seen in the moment of their passing, or in their own motion. We  hold the pause button, make the cross-section, see what’s lying still before us. Observation yields knowledge.

images-6Let’s get back to Bob Dylan, and our guests from last night’s class, through this timepiece, which both stops time by claiming that Bob Dylan is indeed iconic–someone whose value and visibility in culture are cemented and permanent, no longer in question–and it keeps time a-movin’—I’m late for that Bob Dylan concert where what’s familiar to me could be an astonishment to the person next to me, and where I know at some point I will be… moved. 

51uc0i1MenL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_51TH5YEZTFL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_41A0M68R3QL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_Robert Polito, David Hajdu, and Ben Hedin have each performed cross-sections of Bob Dylan’s art/life/career. I can talk about the great service Hedin provides by assembling a chorus of many timbres that have talked about Bob Dylan over the decades.  Studio A is a treasure chest for serious listeners, who might not believe they can have the New Yorker piece on the recording of Another Side of Bob Dylan right in the same package as Rick Moody’s wild and beautiful ride through Blood on the Tracks. David Hajdu really does take on the stories of the Baez sisters, Bob Dylan, and Richard Farina, with a novelist’s sense of character and plot. The feat of not allowing Bob Dylan to dominate the narrative is remarkable, and the book has to be read to really appreciate its uniqueness in the Dylan library. I am making my way slowly through the Cambridge Companion, and can’t speak yet to Robert Polito’s work. Let’s say that if their work is effective for us, it is like the Oris  Bob Dylan watch: by conferring a certain value and telling a certain story,  it makes History out of Time; and if their work lights up/changes/refreshes your listening to Bob Dylan’s music….if it moves your relation to the art it engages, then it’s keeping time, fluid and forward and no stopping.

images-9The writing itself fed into last night’s discussion, but the discussion itself is what matters here. Hedin, Polito, and Hajdu invited different kinds of cross-sectioning, and it’s for each of us to decide how and where we’re moved by their invitations.


images-1Polito and Hajdu spoke interestingly about the anatomy of Dylan’s later songs. Polito talked about Dylan as “collage artist.”  A collage can “intensify” boundaries between its assembled parts, or it can erase boundaries. Dylan has always incorporated matter from other origins into his work, and he is doing this lately with a peculiar emphasis on literary sources, and with a peculiar promiscuity. Polito described Dylan “dropping lyrics in with tweezers….He’s interested in seamlessness.”  David Hajdu spoke about Dylan being criticized by people who are “applying the wrong set of standards” to his compositions, which challenge the commercial models of assumed *originality*, songs as discrete and frozen objects.  Ben Hedin added to this discussion by remarking that with  the “allusions on “Love and Theft” …the simple act of using [other people’s work] is integral to the renaissance he began to enjoy in his late 50s.”

images-10Don’t start me talkin’–Everything about collage can be found in Dylan’s recent work. The greatest collage work combines illusion, audacity, the thrilling razor’s edge between order and disorder, and  between new and used. Great collage demands great impudence and extraordinary formal control. Great collage makes its audience feel inexplicably voyeuristic, inexplicably cheating,  inexplicably cheated, and offers its own special intoxication. It’s incredibly hard to pull off, and the artist has to be so fluent, have such command, over the form they’re working in. David Hajdu talked about the “line” of the song, Dylan’s effort to keep “paraphrasable meaning at bay.” Because the coherence of a collage is an illusion, it can’t be honestly paraphrased. And because a song is not an idea, but an address to feeling, it can’t be paraphrased. Because Dylan seems so often so effortlessly able to make syntax and melody one single thing, and then put across a character behind the lyric–that can’t be paraphrased neither. Ben Hedin mentioned “some kind of inevitability” in Dylan’s turn from “conventional originality” into this collage mode.  I find this idea so intriguing, the inevitability, of loveandtheft, that if I start dissecting it now, I’ll just kill it dead.  

images-2There’s anatomy, and there’s excavation too. David Hajdu excavated documents and a recording to provide more fodder for observation and scrutiny. He read from a 1965 interview with Robert Shelton, in which Dylan riffed a little acidly on the label “poet.”  “Anyone who would call themselves a poet is not a poet.”  “To be a poet doesn’t mean you have to write down words on paper.” Even though we know it’s self-defeating, we have such a strong hunger for any declarative statement Dylan has made. We sift through the record, and painstakingly remove and examine anything that looks as though he might be saying something we can frame and freeze. This is a futility we have awful trouble resisting.  Even beyond that, we’re comfortable criticizing the original preservers of this history. Hajdu was certainly right when he gently dispraised Shelton for letting his “celebration” of Bob interfere with creating the most thorough documentation possible. Bob’s unhealthy habits, the confounding contradictions and tensions and “chaos” of his mind–Shelton glossed over these rough spots and the Bob Dylan of Oris Watches has attained, in his lifetime, a status where we can be discontented with poor Robert Shelton’s misguided and affectionate reverence for a young artist who merits austere reverence. Then I listened with practiced and exceptional alertness to a perfectly uninteresting recording of young Bob Dylan playing the harmonica somewhere behind Richard Farina and Eric Von Schmidt. Such is the life.

IMG_0215If we pick up and travel to locales of historic interest, we thicken up those cross sections. Our Bob Levinson shared his pilgrimage to The Basement, and I saw for myself that The Basement is indeed a basement.  I guess in 1967 squirrels could have scampered outside and footsteps could have been heard overhead and maybe a phone ringing in a distant room, and meanwhile Tears of Rage.  Robert Polito talked of Hibbing, and the impossibility of condescending to the place once you’ve seen it. The way the ordered and scaled town winds down into that gigantic iron pit, past the foundations of the old Hibbing that a person can stand on–the sense of place here  offers too strong a feeling of time, and too many visual contrasts, to be at all insipid. The high school is everything you may have heard it to be: a glorious monument to a frontier community’s devotion to ideals of assimilation and permanence that I dare anyone to belittle once you have stood beneath the crystal chandeliers in the auditorium. Where the piano Bob assaulted still stands. The photo shows  yours truly and BJ Rolfzen, the man who gave Robert Zimmerman the B on that Steinbeck essay. We talked about teaching high school, about William Carlos Williams,  and nothing about Bob Dylan. If you’re a Dylan fan and you want to be humbled and troubled by the Search for History, go visit Hibbing. 

images-13Ben Hedin says, “You put on Dylan because you want to have your heart broken.” He feels Together Through Life is “a dud.” David Hajdu spoke elegantly about the “diminishment of strengths” that is influencing Bob Dylan’s recent compositions. As a songwriter who composes with his voice, the soi disant deterioration of his voice has prevented him from creating complex melodies. Robert Polito feels Together Through Life sounds like “outtakes,” with all the songs at a “certain level of quality,” which is not especially high. 

images-14 Stop. Observe. Determine. Stop. Go.  I’ll be missing class next week. I’ll be on a plane to Milwaukee to see Bob Dylan perform there on July 1. I’ll be in the seventh row, almost close enough.




3 thoughts on “Educated Rap. Week 4 at the Y

  1. I’d love to know what Rolfzen had to say about William Carlos Williams, especially whether he mentioned if WCW was in his syllabus when he was teaching Dylan. I’ve always thought I heard a lot of Williams in Dylan, especially in the early-to-mid 70s (Blood on the Tracks especially), but more generally in a shared creative personality–that blend of “impudence and formal control” you refer to in discussing collage.

  2. Rolfzen has a powerful and authentic sense of himself as a teacher. Other teachers will know what I mean. He is a teacher first, and Robert Zimmerman happened to have been one of his students. His aesthetic seemed to me hardcore proto-modernist American (I am sure I just made up an inane category): Whitman, Frost, Williams. I wish I had asked him his views of Eliot and Pound. I can see he was a robust and demanding presence in the classroom, and Robert could have learned a model of a type of masculine intellectual presence from him. If you haven’t seen this mythic Steinbeck essay, it will make anyone who’s taught literature to teenagers weep. “This paper will discuss the theme of heroism in John Steinbeck’s literature. Heroism is an important theme in John Steinbeck…” and so on, quite seriously, for several pages. Having taught high school English, I was simply floored to see that plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose (sp?) fifty goddamned years down the line. And a mere 5 or 6 years later?……. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Find me the social constructionist theory to explain THAT.

  3. I saw the Steinbeck essay–the first couple pages anyway–when I attended the Dylan conference at the University of Minnesota in March 2007–it was on display as part of a traveling exhibit (the name of which I forget) that started out in Seattle (if my memory serves me well). The main thing that struck me was what an ordinary high school kid he was–bright, in the top end of the class, to be sure, but ordinary–like me. And he turned into Dylan, and I didn’t. Wow. There’s nothing inevitable about this guy. But he had the “will power” (to quote him), and I didn’t. And thousands, millions, of us didn’t. Dylan, Muhammad Ali, Koufax–there are lots of people who have that talent, put these guys had the extraordinary will. And where does that “will” come from? I have no idea.

    Speaking of the Minnesota conference, Polito gave a talk there, which seems to be the basis of what he said at the class you attended, and a revised version of which is in the new book of essays from U Minnesota Press of talks from that conference–it is very much worth getting. Polito’s essay is brilliant, but he is not the only one. I attended the conference, and I wrote up some notes, which my friend Lou Renza posted at All the plenary sessions I report on are in the book (in revised form, for the most part).

    But, Nina, you didn’t answer my question: Did Rolfzen say anything that would indicate that Dylan learned anything of Williams from him?

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