March 6, 2015

Ricks On Dylan (Bob, Not Thomas)

Literary Matters- Cover
Introduction by Samantha Madway, Editor, Literary Matters

Both J. Chester Johnson and Kasia Buczkowska wrote articles about the third gathering in the series of talks given by Christopher Ricks at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City during October 2014. Each author took such different messages away from the presentation, entitled "Just Like a Woman? Bob Dylan and the Charge of Misogyny," that to have both accounts appear together is a stunning testament to how literature itself, and works of scholarship about literature, can inspire so many unique interpretations and understandings. How could there be room to debate the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics, and room to debate the merits of the debate itself, if we didn’t all consent—whether explicitly, or so innately that it never needed to be considered before moving forward—to the premise that a work of art doesn’t mean only one thing?
That even if we were to ask the poet or the playwright, what is the meaning of this?, that we might not be satisfied with the creator’s own answer. Once a work is released to its audience, its shape and space and substance are different for each person experiencing it, and even for that person, it may transmute further the next time he or she takes it in. All of these encounters between reader and text generate individual — perhaps conflicting at times — accounts, but we need not select only one to serve as the absolute truth, the authoritative analysis.


Ricks On Dylan (Bob, Not Thomas)
By J. Chester Johnson
The third and last of three lectures given by Christopher Ricks and sponsored by the ALSCW was held at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York City on the evening of Wednesday, October 22, 2014. The two previous lectures by Ricks had been wide ranging and illuminative, explicating works by T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot, with frequent and satisfying side trips into the literary landscapes of related writers and poets. The final lecture, entitled “Just Like A Woman? Bob Dylan and the Charge of Misogyny,” dealt with one of Ricks’ favorite subjects, Bob Dylan.

I admit I’m a fan of Christopher Ricks; he’s a treasure for the literary arts of the English language—on both sides of the pond. I read his work and listen to him whenever I have a chance. Having acquired and read much of Ricks’ book Dylan’s Visions of Sin (Penguin Group, 2003) in advance of the lecture, I was especially interested to hear his remarks.

Reflective of both Ricks’ writings on Dylan and the lecture’s title, two areas given special consideration at the third lecture were the poetic construction of the poem-songs and the degree to which Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” bears some prejudicial characteristics of misogyny. Once I had listened for a while to Ricks’ exploration of the former area— Dylan’s poetic construction—it became clear that Ricks has, in fact, done a great service to American poetry; I would also guess he has done much the same for English poetry, but I have less experience in the British venue to conclude that is the case. Through his focus on Bob Dylan, Ricks has given us reason to expand, in crucial ways, our view of American poets and poetry.

For years, I listened to and enjoyed Dylan’s music without thinking that a serious poet— maybe even a major poet— stood behind the songs. Though this notion changed over time, Ricks enabled a number of us to shed more thoroughly the limitation of that earlier impression. Of course, Dylan had, many years ago, told music critic Robert Shelton that he considered himself a poet first and a musician second; indeed, Dylan stretched the geography beyond the traditional pools where convention suggests notable American poets may be found.

Regarding the second way Ricks has, through his work on Dylan, affected positively the American perspective on verse, I have feared for a long time now that we Americans were choosing to narrow both our practice and our appreciation of verse into contemporary bastions to an extent that certain traditional techniques, such as rhyme—whether in the form of line endings or internal or elastic structures—couldn’t and wouldn’t be acceptable at all. By stressing the compositional aspects, dramatized on the evening of October 22 through our listening to Dylan recordings, and delving into the seductive force of rhyme, a theme he also underscores in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, Ricks provides an attraction to rhyme too often eschewed and discarded. Though a few of us may take some issue with Ricks’ apparent sharp preference for line ending rhyme, as opposed to internal or elastic rhyme, he makes his point effectively nonetheless.

In the end, whether “Just Like A Woman” should be deemed misogynistic isn’t easily confirmed one way or the other—I didn’t leave the lecture with a steadfast conviction. Through my own discussions with folks familiar with the poem-song, I’ve come to find that views vary: I’ve heard it’s a sincere love poem with the woman’s shortcomings recognized and with her vulnerabilities (“but she breaks like a little girl”) accepted for what they are—individual, if not peculiar, vulnerabilities that can undo human beings. At the same time, I’ve been told the poem-song definitely displays misogynistic aspects, not toward womankind in general, but toward a specific kind of woman. These subjects of possible or overt prejudice should rightly occupy considerable attention for those who serve to enlighten through the literary world, whether the focus is on this Dylan poem-song or, by way of another example, on poetic works by T. S. Eliot that may mirror anti-Semitism. Similarly, when poems are used as tools in defense of autocratic political regimes, the practice should also be called out; in this respect, I’m reminded of the debate a number of years ago held in the West that surrounded Yevtushenko’s poem “Bratsk Station”—had it been written by the poet to exalt the Soviet system, and was it being employed internally and externally by the USSR to justify the Soviet State? It is not enough to call a poem or poem-song simply good or great from an artistic or structural perspective; rather, even though a fixed conclusion may not necessarily be "Ricks on Dylan (Bob Not Thomas)" apparent, an obligation still exists for the piece also to be judged by its ethical and human messages.

Personally, I regret that the lecture series by Christopher Ricks has now ended. Still, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to attend, especially on a rainy night in New York City with Bob Dylan playing along.

Click to download PDF of entire Literary Matters Publication. This article starts on page 16.


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