From: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: "The Genius of Dylan" Date: 13 Apr 92 18:20:15 EST Organization: Queensland University of Technology From: "The Australian" Weekend Review, March 28--29, 1992. An article by Imre Saluszinsky, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Newcastle (NSW, Australia). Words are Saluszinsky's, typos are mine. The Genius of Dylan Robert Allen Zimmerman (B. May 24, 1941) is the most important poet to have emerged in the United States since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1954. And he is a very unusual fellow --- especially for a poet. Unlike most major American poets, Zimmerman was born a Jew, and into the lower-middle classes (his father was the part-owner of a hardware store). Unlike most major American poets, Zimmerman is from the Midwest, not from any of the traditional centres of culture, along the north-eastern seaboard. Unlike most major American poets, he does not have a tertiary education. And unlike most major American poets --- or poets anywhere --- he is rich and famous. For all these oddities, though, Zimmerman's claim to poetic greatness is beyond question. He is the author of 26 collections of poetry, which have appeared between 1962 and 1991. Although all of them contain fine poems, two alone, "Blood on the Tracks" (1975) and "Desire" (1976) would be enough to ensure Zimmerman's lasting poetic greatness. But Zimmerman's most compelling creation is to be found in none of the 26 texts mentioned. His masterpiece is a character --- a character called Bob Dylan. At the moment he became Bob Dylan, sometime in late 1959, Robert Allen Zimmerman created one of the most complicated and fascinating personae in 20th-century poetry. Now the time has come for critics to begin the serious work of picking apart the complicated skein of traditions that contribute to Dylan's art. Evasive about many things, Dylan has been perfectly open about his early influences: "I came out of the wilderness, and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene . . . it was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti . . . I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic." The Dylan of the early and mid-'60s is a Beat poet. Indeed with his chains and loops of surreal, stream-of-consciousness imagery, with his street-talk idiom, with his hostility to "straight" social-conditioning , and with his sense of the continent of America as a challenge that had to be faced and crossed --- early Dylan is _the_ beat poet: Johnny's in the basement Mixing up the Medicine I'm on the pavement Thinking about the government The man in the trench coat Badge out, laid off Says he's got a bad cough Wants to get paid off It is hardly surprising that an unusually creative young poet, just breaking out of a claustrophobic, small-town upbringing in the late '50s, should have turned to the Beat aesthetic for inspiration. After all it was the most exciting, subversive thing in the air; but it was not the only thing. For example, Dylan also picked up form the Modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot (and his French symbolist precursors) a sense of the self as unstable, elusive, and capable of limitless reinvigoration: Ah, but I was so much older then I'm younger than that now. This sense of the endless twists and permutations of the self --- so that, for example, two people who meet again after a separation may have become quite different people --- eventually climaxes in those masterpieces scattered across "Blood on the Tracks": poems like "Tangled up in Blue" and "Shelter from the Storm". Also among the early influences was '60s Existentialism, which warned Dylan about all the malign forces that threaten to fix and stabilise the self unless its authenticity is jealously guarded. These forces include social canons of patriotism and decency: "the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency". Hence Dylan's lifelong infatuation with rebels and outcasts who upbraid or discountenance social propriety: Woody Guthrie, Joey Gallo, Reuben Carter, Lenny Bruce, and, most notably, Jesus Christ. But Dylan also has an Existentialist's sense of the threats to the self and freedom that issue from the family ("I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more / Well he puts his cigar / Out in your face just for kicks") and even more disturbingly, from the entrapments of love: She wears an Egyptian ring That sparkles before she speaks She's a hypnotist collector You are a walking antique Most of these connections have been made before. What has not been seen, I think is that they are all quite secondary. Because, above all, Dylan, as a poet is an American Romantic visionary, in the tradition of Emily Dickinson, Hawthorne, Whitman and Thoreau. In other words he is one more among the distinguished progeny of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803--1882). Dylan's debt to Emerson has hardly been noticed, and yet he is a thoroughly traditional Emersonian Transcendentalist. In all his guises, Dylan preaches the Emersonian gospel of "self-reliance". Here is Emerson: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." And Dylan: "Trust yourself / Trust yourself to know the way that will prove true in the end." In fact the Beat idea of the American continent as the ultimate source of all inspiration comes from Emerson, who singlehandedly convinced the young American poets and thinkers of the 19th century that they could forget Europe and history, and forge an original relation to nature. And the radical individualism of the Existentialists, with its sense of all worldly power as corrupt and corrupting: that is also there in Emerson, who writes, "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members." Emerson's chief lesson --- that memory and history are death to the creative spirit, which must be committed to novelty and change --- is evident everywhere in Dylan, who saw immediately that one way of changing the times is simply to assert that they already are a-changin'. This spirit of Emerson and Hawthorne --- who looked West from New England and there, in the opposite direction to Europe, found a symbol of action and renewal --- is still alive in Dylan's verse: Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you, Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you . . . Strike another match, go start anew And it's all over now, Baby Blue. Self-reliance is not in every respect a comforting or easy truth to live by: it teaches that we must compete and struggle endlessly, if we are to escape the limiting influence of others. This side of Emerson's legacy is apparent in all those characters Dylan conjures who, once upon a time, had it all over him, who, once upon a time, dressed so fine, and threw the bums a dime. But now they neither talk so loud nor seem so proud: You got a lotta nerve To say you are my friend When I was down You just stood there grinning. But this is the kind of hard justice that operates in this world. But Dylan like Emerson is a Transcendentalist, and has always envisaged a more ultimate justice. Seen against this eternal background, worldly power looks tenuous and fragile, so that "even the President of the United States / Sometimes must have / To stand naked". Dylan's social commentary is less a form of protest than an apocalyptic challenge to America: return to a vision of innocence and honesty, or die. When Dylan started to write poems that were directly about God in the late '70s and early '80s, he was written off by a section of his audience, who seemed not to have noticed that Dylan had never written about anything but God. Looking for a theology across the body of Dylan's work, I do not think it is possible to find anything that is orthodox from either a Christian or a Jewish perspective. Dylan's religion --- the religion that is in the poems --- so utterly privileges the individual's search for spiritual authenticity, for the inner light, over any sense of community, that once again it is impossible to see it as anything but the highly displaced version of Protestantism we call Romanticism. "Power ceases in the instant of repose," wrote Emerson. "It resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state." This is why Robert Zimmerman's greatest work is Bob Dylan: nowhere more clearly than in Dylan's own ceaseless self-fashionings is the potency of the self, and its knowledge that "he not busy being born / is busy dying", visible. Dylan said once: "What hangs everybody up is that I'm not _stopping_." Now on his fourth visit to Australia, he has for some years been embarked on what he calls the "neverending tour". There could be no better description of the Emersonian authentic life. Bob Dylan's artistic achievement now stretches across 30 years, and most of us who've lived those years with our eyes and ears open have managed to see something of our own inner visions and crises reflected in the spectacular light that has been cast by this courageous and original man.