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Dylanology 101

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / March 20, 2009
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Academics started sniffing around the Bob Dylan corpus about 40 years ago. There was something happening there, but you weren't sure what, were you, Professor Jones?

Now it's official. This month Cambridge University Press is publishing "The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan," edited by Pomona College English professor Kevin Dettmar, with 17 essays by scholars from Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Virginia, and so on. Consider Dylan officially ossified, entombed, and entomed alongside "The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus," "The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus," and so on.

I would be the first to mock the hapless PhD-toting gradgrinds who torture our language thusly: "Dylan's lyrics construct an author-reader relation posited on the model of an irresolvable enigma which is both the incitement to and the perpetual frustration of readerly desire." On the other hand, consider: Dylan won a special Pulitzer Prize last year and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize every year since 1996. (Admittedly by the same person, originally acting on behalf of poet Allen Ginsberg.) Rolling Stone magazine has called "Like a Rolling Stone" the greatest song ever written. And the Oxford Book of American Poetry prints the lyrics to "Desolation Row" - yes, it's on my iPod - alongside Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Attention must be paid.

The first high table academic to embrace the bard of Hibbing was Boston University's formidable Christopher Ricks, who is simultaneously professor of poetry at Oxford. Ricks started comparing Dylan to Milton, Keats, and Tennyson decades ago, as "deserving a deeply respectful attention." Ricks even spoke of Dylan in the same sentence with the capital B Bard: "[Dylan] has a Shakespearean size and ambition in the themes he explores and what he achieves."

Rick's reading of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is breathtaking. He calls the poem "Byronic," fully knowing that Dylan named one of his sons Byron. "There's not a word wrong with it," Ricks once told me. " 'Desolation Row' is his 'Waste Land,' " Ricks added; " 'Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/Fighting in the captain's tower'; modernism as the Titanic, it's hilarious, it's brilliant."

Apres Ricks, le deluge. Now Dylanology is a party, and it's not just for English professors anymore. The ethnomusicologists, the structural anthropologists - they are all gambling for his clothes.

Harvard classics professor Richard Thomas sent me his fascinating article "The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan," which documents Dylan's reliance on Virgil and on Ovid's "Tristia" and "Black Sea Letters" (!) in his songs. Dylan spent two years in his high school Latin club, though Thomas admits that Dylan probably came across Ovid in translation later in life. Thomas argues that Dylan, who changes his songs from performance to performance, is a modern rhapshode, the Homeric, storytelling bard of the fifth century B.C., "a poet on the cusp of oral and literary cultures."

I hear you sniggering in the back row - but check out the many different performed versions of "If You See Her, Say Hello," which exists in varying degrees of menacing misogyny. One alternate: "If you see her, say hello/She might be in outer space/She left here in a hurry/I don't know what she was on." Surely you remember the famous line from "Tangled Up in Blue," about the book of poems by an "Italian poet from the thirteenth century." ("Every one of them words rang true/And glowed like a burning coal.") A lively academic debate has sprung up as to whether Dylan meant Dante or Petrarch. "Plutarch, is that his name?" Dylan said in a 1978 interview, hopelessly clouding the waters.

They read Dylan, but academics wonder: Does Dylan read them? It's hard to know. Dylan's lawyers generally don't hassle scholars who want to quote from his songs, and the official website bobdylan.com occasionally takes note of scholarly work. Much was made - too much? - of Dylan's naming a recent album "Love and Theft," the same name as a well-regarded book on blackface minstrelsy by Eric Lott.

In his Cambridge Companion essay, Lott notes that Dylan's publicist wouldn't confirm or deny that the singer had read "Love and Theft." Gods do not answer letters was John Updike's famous line about Ted Williams. But they probably do read them.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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