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Saluszinsky, Imre

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

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

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.

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