Sentences — March 18, 2009, 4:33 pm

Remote in Time, or Alien in Language

3

I’m inhabiting a pleasant little temporal interim right now, the lucky space that opens up when a new Bob Dylan record is announced. Dylan’s readers (more upon that apparently errant word in a moment) have been very lucky lately that his records have been coming out not merely with such regularity but with such great quality. Like Roth, he’s proving to be an inspiringly enduring manufacturer, to such an extent that calling current Dylan “late Dylan” miscasts the ageless place that the last 15 years of song have been coming from.

Even the casual reader (that word again) of Dylan’s work will appreciate the sort of WPA project that Dylan assigned to himself in the early 90s to true his art back to its sources. That project has borne all kinds fruit both delicious and strange. Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong featured Dylan alone on acoustic guitar, covering traditionals and favorites, the two records providing a subsidiary, scholarly pleasure similar to the one a reader would get browsing a catalog of Joyce’s personal library: these were songs that fed him, fortified his art, delighted his ear and mind.

Dylan has always been an uncommonly literate writer, one who’s been happy to lard his lines with reference both explicit and tacit. In this way, he’s like Lowell, who understood that “experience” could include both what one did and one read, or, put another way, that reading was no less significant a kind of doing. After Lowell, there’s been, in a lot of American poetry, a great flight away from that category of inclusion–as much, I suspect, a matter of a recent rancid fear of seeming a certain way (“snobbish”) as a more telling incapacity to write a certain way. Whereas the result of Dylan’s very explicitly freighted lines has been, lately, the accusation that he’s been, wait for it, plagiarizing the work of other poets. It points to a clear gulf in our understanding of what poets do and have done and the popular sense of such work. Poets, T.S. Eliot expained in his essay on Philip Massenger, borrow:

A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. The two great followers of Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur, in their mature work do not borrow from him; he is too close to them to be of use to them in this way. Massinger, as Mr. Cruickshank shows, borrows from Shakespeare a good deal.

When Dylan’s 1998 2001 record Love and Theft came out, one could read, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Dylan was a thief of lines; and when Modern Times appeared in 2006, the pilfered poet was no longer Junichi Saga, but Ovid and Henry Timrod, who Suzanne Vega—who should know better—”defended” in the New York Times, editorializing in low dudgeon that Dylan had stolen Timrod’s work. Yawn.

Dylan does have better readers, thank goodness, of what more than ever we can see as writings sewn with sound. As a few lyrics from the new record have come online, the useful hub Expecting Rain has been charting all the chatter. This led me to the very fine postings by Scott Warmuth over at the Fairfield Weekly that seem to predict the latest round of outcry that will accompany the release of Dylan’s April, Whitmanically-titled (scroll down a bit in the following link) record, Together Through Life. Warmuth has been tracing Dylan’s reading of David Wright’s version of The Canturbury Tales, which seems to have informed the new songs (and some from “Modern Times,” too).

Literary criticism aside, I can’t wait to hear the record. Whereas smart and lucky Alex Ross didn’t have to (wait).

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Estimated temperature of Hell, according to two Spanish physicists ‘ interpretation of the Bible:

832°F

The ecosystems around Chernobyl, Ukraine, are now healthier than they were before the nuclear disaster, though radiation levels are still too high for human habitation.

A TSA agent in Seattle was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of women in the airport, a Maryland police officer was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of an off-duty colleague, and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that taking up-skirt photos is legal in the state.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today