June 9, 2004

The professor and the calypso singer.

The NYT reports on Christopher Ricks, a 70-year-old poetry professor who's written a 500-page book analyzing the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs and is taking the whole mass of verbiage deadly seriously. He takes the concerts awfully seriously too:
Dylan concerts have a particular beauty and also a certain sadness, he explained, because Mr. Dylan himself is the one person who has to be at a Dylan concert and also the one person who can't go to a Dylan concert. "It's sad," he said, "the way it's sad that Jane Austen couldn't read a Jane Austen novel."

I thought a lot about the meaning of Dylan lyrics when I was a teenager. When I got a little older, I still liked the songs but thought a lot of the lyrics were chaotic ramblings that were often entrancing but had no real meaning to give up. But this professor was already an adult when Dylan arrived on the scene and he's been taking this stuff seriously since 1968, when some Smith College dinner party host imposed "Desolation Row" on him. The line "Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot/Fighting in the captain's tower/While calypso singers laugh at them" got his attention. He was already a poetry professor when that struck him as "wonderful" and "great." Interesting, I think, that the "calypso singers" were laughing at the fighting poets, isn't it? You'd think the poetry prof would identify with the poets, yet the poets appear as the object of ridicule. Perhaps the "calypso singer" would have seemed to be Dylan himself, laughing at the fighting of two serious poets, poets in a tower, and the 34-year-old poetry prof would have felt that he had been spending his life struggling over serious poetry in his ivory tower and that perhaps the "calypso singer" was laughing at him too. That's my speculation about how the old prof was seized by a deep passion for Dylan.

The book is called "Dylan's Visions of Sin."

UPDATE: And I bought the smitten professor's book. Borders had to pull the book out of the back room. "It just arrived two days ago." If I ran a bookstore, I'd make damn sure I knew what books were talked up in the morning paper and put it right out on the shelf where people will see it. Who knows how many shy people walk out without asking for a book they came in to buy? "Dylan's Visions of Sin"? I was almost too embarrassed to ask, for a number of reasons. (I'm still looking for the meaning of life in Dylan lyrics, like a teenager? Visions? Sin? It's all too pompous and ridiculous!) Now I know I sound like I'm making fun of the book throughout this post, so why did I buy it? This is a case where I can tell you the exact sentence I read that made me decide to read the book. It appears at the top of the second page, in the introductory chapter, as the author explains why he decided to use the seven deadly sins as the framework for his discussion of Dylan's lyrics. This is a paragraph of Ricks', with no quotation marks to show where the Dylan lyrics are:
She opened up a book of poems and handed it to me, written by an English poet from the fourteenth century: Handling Sin. Handling sin is for me the right handle to take hold of the bundle. My left hand waving free.

So that last sentence is what got me. I'm utterly charmed by the old professor talking about Dylan, seamlessly weaving in the words he loves.


Meade said...

I have a crush on you.

Ann Althouse said...

I have a crush on you too!