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Remote in Time, or Alien in Language

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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).

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