News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

The Dylanist

BU's Christopher Ricks parses Bob

YEARS AGO, WHEN Christopher Ricks was teaching at Cambridge University, he discovered that some of his students were playing a game called Ricks Bingo during his classes. It involved filling in a grid of 25 squares with literary names that seemed likely to come up during the lecture and then checking them off as they did. The first person to get a row of five was the winner, and the winning card invariably included a handful of dependable names: Tennyson, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan.

Ricks, a professor of humanities at Boston University and one of the most widely admired living critics of English-language poetry, says he has never taught a course on Bob Dylan, but it is probably just as accurate to say that since the late 1960s he has never taught a course not on Bob Dylan, either.

"He seems to me a natural artist to invoke," says Ricks. "I think he's available all the time for comparison. The plot of the unjust magistrate in 'Measure for Measure' is the plot of 'Seven Curses,' irrespective of where Dylan gets the song from."

Should Ricks ever officially devote a course to Dylan, he's now got the textbook for it. All of those classroom riffs, it turns out, were also dry runs for the command performance that is "Dylan's Visions of Sin," a 517-page exegesis of the songwriter's lyrics published in Britain last month and expected from Ecco Press in the United States next June. Ricks believes that Dylan has always been a writer of religious songs -- since long before his "born-again" phase of the late '70s -- and that the seven deadly sins, along with the four cardinal virtues and the three heavenly graces, provide a useful starting point for an appreciation of his art.

"The danger in a song that rebukes somebody's anger is that it will itself lapse into anger," Ricks says. "I think that the shape of this book is a good shape for getting at something really important about Dylan, because I can talk about how he deals with these sins and does not fall into them, how he praises these virtues and earns such praise himself."

In "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Dylan earns Ricks's praise for the delicacy with which he handles the combustible subjects of racial and social iniquity. It's the true story of William Zanzinger, a wealthy white man who was sentenced to six months in prison for beating a black woman to death. A songwriter can credibly condemn this injustice, Ricks writes, only by being a reliable witness -- betraying neither anger nor sentimentality. Dylan pulls it off by rendering the social gulf between Zanzinger and his victim with the utmost subtlety. Ricks finds the song's first two lines almost inexhaustible in their implications because of the way Dylan orders his words: "William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger."

"The song opens with a line that takes a risk," Ricks writes. "But `poor' is saved from any soft pity because it is a hard fact. The word is compassionate but it is dispassionate, too, for it does not lose sight of the plain reality that she is poor." William Zanzinger, by contrast, has a "diamond ring finger," the ultimate accessory of excess. "It's not that he had a finger that had a diamond ring on it; he had a diamond-ring-finger. He may well have had, too, an amethyst-ring-finger, an opal-ring-finger, and a ruby-ring-finger. His diamond ring finger has this extraordinary feeling of affluent agglomeration."That sort of noun-stacking, Ricks adds, is a device Dylan employs throughout the song to depict wealth and power. "`At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin'.' Add up the nouns like that and you're really propertied. Nouns are items, and you can possess them. . .."

. . .

Ricks approaches Dylan's work with the meticulousness of a scholar-editor and the energy of a teenage fan. On the wall of his BU office, among black-and-white photographs of 20th-century literary luminaries like T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell, are a framed poster from an early-'60s Dylan concert and an autographed color glossy of Dylan onstage, circa 1975. On the floor of his Cambridge (Mass.) dining room, and in the cupboards of a nearby front room, are stacks of CD jewel cases containing about 1,700 Dylan bootlegs and studio outtakes -- "my Dylan," Ricks calls them. A friend has indexed much of the collection by song title; even if Dylan never gets around to recording the obscure death-row lament "Stone Walls and Steel Bars," Ricks will always have five different live versions at his fingertips. Tiny red stickers on the spines of some cases denote especially good recordings. Poorer reproductions, the sort of thing Ricks wouldn't want to listen to "except in the interest of research," are kept in the basement.

The marks of this obsessive attention are all over "Dylan's Visions of Sin." Ricks catches Dylan rhyming "owed" with "the nightingale's code" in two stray performances of "Visions of Johanna," one from 1965, the other from 1966; he introduces this bit of esoterica to buttress his claim that a 1997 Dylan song reflects the influence of John Keats. "`Not Dark Yet,"' Ricks writes, "is owed to a nightingale."

Ricks, of course, is not the first fan to subject Dylan's lyrics to microscopic scrutiny, even at book-length. Along with countless dissertations and web pages, Dylan's songs have inspired such distinctive investigations as Michael Gray's "Song & Dance Man," which has grown across three decades and as many editions into a comprehensive critical companion, and Greil Marcus's "Invisible Republic," a meditation on Dylan's legendary ("bootlegendary," Ricks calls them) Basement Tapes and the shadowy "old, weird America" from which they emerged.

But Ricks brings a unique set of credentials to the subject. He himself is a Dylan-like figure in the world of literary criticism -- someone whose last name alone is sufficient to identify him. His first book, "Milton's Grand Style" (1963), permanently changed the way readers approach "Paradise Lost." According to Harvard professor Helen Vendler, Ricks's contribution was "to look at Milton primarily as a writer rather than as a thinker or an activist in politics -- to take his language less in the service of his ideas than as it made a linguistic fabric of its own, and a gorgeous fabric, too."

Subsequent studies of Keats and Tennyson were similarly influential, solidifying Ricks's reputation as a peerless close reader. T.S. Eliot's widow asked Ricks to edit a collection of her husband's early poetry; Oxford University Press invited him to choose poems for the latest edition of the "Oxford Book of English Verse"; and W.H. Auden famously called him "exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding." So when Ricks calls Bob Dylan "the best contemporary American user of words," as he has on at least one occasion, people take notice.

They don't necessarily take his word as gospel, however. Initial reviews of the Dylan book have been mixed at best. In Britain, along with admiring write-ups in the Sunday Herald and the Guardian (the latter by Andrew Motion, England's poet laureate), there were takedowns in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, and the Observer, where Sean O'Hagan dismissed the book as "too knowing, too clever, too clumsily conversational." These responses were so unsparing, in fact, and so prominently placed, that they spun off a side debate in the British books columns about what effect "killer previews" have on sales.

Ricks quotes John Wain good-naturedly -- "A bad review should spoil your breakfast but not your lunch" -- but he's clearly disappointed. He says he hasn't read the negative notices because he wants "to keep good-tempered," but they've been on his mind. "My daughter last night said, `Why do you call them adverse reviews? They're bad reviews,"' Ricks says. "I was protecting myself slightly with this good word 'adverse."'

He had expected to hear from people who believe either that Dylan isn't good enough to deserve an academic treatment or that he deserves better -- that explaining his songs has the same joy-deflating effect as parsing a punchline. Most of the criticism, however, has actually concerned the book's emphases and exclusions. Several writers have remarked on Ricks's playful, punning prose style and his love of flourishes. ("I know I do overwrite sometimes," Ricks says, withholding the qualifier he once added when making the same observation about Greil Marcus: "But then only those who truly can write can truly do so.")

Some of the reviewers have taken this objection a step further, arguing that the self-conscious cleverness may be symptomatic of larger problems: that Ricks is projecting his own particular genius onto Dylan, whose gift is of a very different sort, and that Ricks's hyper-attentiveness to the lyrics is really just a means of calling attention to himself. John Sutherland, writing in the Independent, noted that the salient names in Ricks's index are not the poets commonly known to have influenced Dylan -- Rimbaud, Ginsberg -- but rather those "who have interested Ricks over the years": Eliot, Larkin, the old Ricks Bingo crowd.

That shouldn't matter, Ricks says, because his principal subject in "Dylan's Visions of Sin" is affinity, not influence.

"I think I'm more interested in coincidences and analogues than some other people are," he says, "and I certainly don't make many claims for allusion. That is, I don't think that 'Lay, Lady, Lay' is an allusion to 'Come, Madam, come.' I think that there are an extraordinary number of affinities between the Donne poem [`To His Mistress Going to Bed'] and the Dylan song, and the affinities I think are very illuminating."

The same is true, he says, of "Forever Young." "I want to compare Dylan's blessing with the kind of blessing Yeats and Larkin issue to the young or the newly born. The point isn't that Dylan is alluding to them -- it's just that you might be able to see how difficult the thing is that he's doing and how well he does it if you think about how other people have done it very well, or less well."

Almost every reviewer, even the otherwise approving Andrew Motion, wished Ricks had said more about Dylan's music and life. But this seems a bit unfair. There's no question that Ricks privileges words over voice and instrumentation -- he is, after all, a literary scholar -- but he writes frequently of the ways in which aspects of performance, especially Dylan's vocal presentation, punctuate or subvert the lyrics' apparent meaning. Responding to Dylan's singing of the lines, "Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed," Ricks writes: "He sings the word `bed' king-sizedly. It's not a monosyllable when he sings it, something happens to it by which it becomes extraordinarily wide."

As to the absence of biography and social context, Ricks pleads no contest. He can only do so much, and his critical calling card has always been close attention to the text. Ricks believes this is a virtue as well as a necessity. "Artists," he says, "take a great deal of trouble to produce something that is, in an honorable way, truly independent of them."

This conviction may be one of the reasons Ricks is such an uncommonly discerning listener to Dylan: He blocks out all competing noise. In his treatment of "Positively 4th Street," Dylan's notorious 1965 kiss-off to a former friend, Ricks raises the question of the addressee's likely identity only to dismiss it: "Who, except an uncouth sleuth-hound, cares?" Just about everyone, of course, as Anthony Quinn pointed out in the Telegraph.

But Ricks honestly doesn't. His incuriosity about Dylan's life is as absolute as his curiosity about Dylan's songs. He hasn't read the recent biographies, he says, and when biographical material briefly appears in his own book he almost apologizes: "If I now quote something that Dylan himself said, it is not in order to invoke whatever biographical facts might exist outside the song, or to adduce Dylan's own character -- it is the character of his songs that interests me."

Indeed, Ricks has always declined to talk publicly about his one meeting with Dylan. But half-accurate accounts have been popping up in the British press recently. One version, inexplicably, has Dylan recognizing Ricks in a New York hotel. Another has Ricks becoming flustered and inarticulate -- which would probably have been a first. To preempt further speculation, Ricks has agreed to furnish the basic facts:

At Dylan's invitation, following a Nov. 10, 2000 concert at the BU Armory, Ricks and his wife went backstage. "Mr. Ricks," Dylan said. "We meet at last."

"And I did say, 'Read any good books lately?"' Ricks recalls. "But it wasn't because I was tongue-tied. I thought it was a perfectly good thing to say, because books matter to me as they do to him, even if sometimes he pretends otherwise. And it went from there, and I won't go further into it. But he did pick up the question of what he'd been reading lately."

Eric McHenry is a writer living in New Hampshire.

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months