Monday, March 23, 2009

Beware Doll: Bob Dylan in the University

The first thing that a visitor to my office generally notices is the relative absence of ornamentation on my walls, and I admit that if one’s office walls are the windows to the soul, I guess that makes me something of a blank slate. I like to think that I am partially redeemed by the second thing most visitors notice: a signed photo of Bob Dylan (looking very “Another Side of Bob Dylan”) that I use in a desperate attempt to give myself some credibility by giving the illusion of intimacy with Mr. Zimmerman (if I’m being entirely honest, it was a gift from my wife, who bought it on ebay; I’ve never really met the man). Depending on how Dylan-savvy my visitor is, this has the potential to lead to endless conversations about favourite songs, albums and various other Dylan minutiae, but, given the setting, I often find myself fielding questions about the role of Dylan in academia.

One question that I am asked from time to time is, “have you ever considered teaching Dylan as poetry?” Well, yes and no: yes, I’ve thought about it, but no, I’ve generally written off the idea as way too self-indulgent. As much as I would hope that my enthusiasm for the subject would transfer to my students, I am also very conscious that it can be very hard to teach something that one is too close to (I don’t even teach my beloved Byron—arguably the Dylan of the 19th century… but that’s another story—in my English 200 class). Nevertheless, this question, hitherto always posed in the abstract, became the subject of more concrete reflection the other day when, leafing through a sample poetry anthology sent to me by a publisher, I noticed the inclusion of two Dylan songs, “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Tangled Up in Blue” sandwiched between some of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (in case you’re wondering, this anthology was organized in alphabetical order—ooh, edgy!).

The sight of these songs/poems triggered a variety of reactions. As a Dylanophile and self-confessed pedant, my initial reaction was horror at the way that a song that exists in so many different musical and lyrical guises as “Tangled Up in Blue” should be fixed in print as a single authoritative set of lyrics. Where are the subtle modulations between third and first person that have marked the evolution of the song from its original version (later released on Volume 2 of The Bootleg Series) through the “official” Blood on the Tracks version through Dylan’s alteration of the song over the years in live performances? What about those incredible alternative lyrics, such as those preserved 10 years later on Real Live? (I have always, for example, been fascinated by Dylan’s determination, in the last verse, “to find someone among the women and men whose destiny is unclear.”) As a practical, professorial type, however, I quickly accepted that it is in the nature of textbooks to create canons and impose authoritative readings. The price of canonicity is invariably the stifling of the experimental, the edgy, and the uncertain.

I was left puzzling over the larger implications of this newfound canonicity; what, for example, would be the effect of putting Dylan on a course with the luminaries of English literature? That Dylan is a poet is beyond doubt (and if any doubters do remain out there, I refer them to Dr. Keshen in the Philosophy department; he will set them straight on that score more resoundingly than I). Certainly, it would certainly be possible to analyze “Tangled” in terms of diction, rhyme, meter, point of view, and to ask all the necessary literary questions about it. It could work quite well, for example, in a sequence of poetry about love from the courtly love tradition to the modern (Is the “Italian poet from the thirteenth century” mentioned in the song actually Petrarch? Unlike me, Dylan was no pedant, and maybe “fourteenth century” wouldn’t have sounded as good.) But, however academic I can make it seem, the question would still be why study Dylan rather than, say, poor old Prufrock on the facing page?

One possible answer would have to be relevance. Dylan has songs for any listener and for any occasion, and it would be possible to select texts that most students would respond to. For example, I imagine that many local students would feel the poignancy of “North Country Blues,” a song in which Dylan adopts the persona of a miner’s wife, lamenting the changes that have taken place over the years: “my children will go/ As soon as they grow/ ‘Cause there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.” Certainly, there is here a more directly accessible kind of angst than Prufrock’s description of an evening laid out “like a patient etherised on a table.” (All right, I’ll stop picking on poor T.S. Eliot; I’ve got nothing against him really, he just happens to be ready at hand.) Or, if my choices are dictated by the textbook (as they so often are), “Tangled” is itself a heartfelt reflection on love and loss that has a universal sort of relevance. The star-crossed lovers with disapproving parents, and the modern sense of disillusionment and anti-romance, for example, might certainly be used to attract students and to argue for the “literary” quality of the song.

On the other hand, another answer would have to be strangeness; Dylan is not what people usually consider literature, so studying him would allow one to open a whole host of questions about what literature is, and to bridge the gap between popular culture and so-called high art. If a song can be studied as a poem, that might make the study of English literature seem less elitist. The question that still troubles me, however, is this: wouldn’t the inclusion of Dylan on a course syllabus be an inherently self-defeating gesture? It would assert the canonicity of a figure who is being evoked precisely to challenge the idea of canonicity, and would risk being perceived by students as yet another authoritative voice (and I’m sure that there’s nothing Dylan would hate more than becoming canonical). So, if I teach Dylan because I think he’s a great poet (which I do think), I undermine the motive of teaching something substantially different. On the other hand, if I teach Dylan because he’s relevant in a contemporary way that “classic” literature sometimes isn’t (which I also do think), I beg the question: why not teach, say, Nietzschean readings of Kanye West’s “Stronger” (“what does not destroy me makes me stronger”) or Coldplay and the French Revolution? This cultural studies approach helps to defamiliarize common uses of language, and to make students see that there is no cultural product that is not a carefully crafted manipulation of discourse; it is not simply that literature is a privileged discourse that professors “read into” to discover meaning. But this approach seems to necessarily call for a shifting of its object from year to year; if contemporary relevance is what is required, then the class must shift as cultural tastes change (which they do about every 15 minutes).

So, after several digressions (is anyone still reading this?), I’ve boiled it down to two arguments; I can teach Dylan because he is the same as and equal to other canonical authors, or I can teach him because he is different from and opposed to them. But perhaps the real lesson here is that he is both; he offers an example of one who has been an icon of popular culture and is now anthologized as a poet. If nothing else, it invites questions about how such a transition might be possible, and what is at stake in the decisions made by textbook editors. Is literature to be defined as the reproduction of certain “norms” of literary language, or precisely as the experimentation with language and the disruption of such norms? If it is the latter, doesn’t that invalidate the whole idea of a stable canon? Literature would be an approach, not a final product. Literature would be whatever comes next. I would certainly like my students to consider this point of view, and if I can use Dylan to make this point, I could—possibly—be convinced to change my mind and “see it from a different point of view.”

Nat Leach