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Christopher Ricks, Dylan's Visions of Sin, Viking

Is Bob Dylan worthy of literary criticism? For literature professor, Christopher Ricks, the question might be better put the other way round. Is literary criticism worthy of Bob Dylan? The Keats versus Dylan argument has been rumbling on for years now, and, if the contest were ever televised, Ricks, author of studies of Keats and Milton, would be well-placed to sit himself down on the judge's MDF throne. In keeping with his subject's longstanding resistance to dubious propositions disguising themselves as public debate, he refuses to do so.

Instead he gives a detailed account of how very nuanced Dylan's language is, both on the page and in performance, and how steeped it is in both the Bible and the English poetry tradition. Although his own style has rather too many parenthetical remarks to make this an easy read, Ricks is a convincing enthusiast.

He certainly had his work cut out for him. There are so many different Dylans. There’s the “hobo” of the earliest albums and the protest singer who developed from them. There’s the electrifying hollerer of Highway 61, the cowboy of Nashville Skyline, and the riddler of John Wesley Harding. A bittersweet songsmith of genius emerges in Blood on the Tracks, and a dramatic storyteller (with Jacques Levy) is the Dylan in Desire. There’s the apparently conservative gospel singer of the religious albums and today, after a period of undistinguished work, a kind of lugubrious bluesman is the Dylan we appear to have now.

There is also the problem that Dylan is himself singing his songs, however raucously, with such emotional intelligence. It can be hard to remember that he is as likely to be dramatising a point of view as stating his own. Ricks is alive to this difficulty, and reminds the reader of how Dylan himself has used the distancing idea of fiction to describe what he is doing: "Every time I write a song, it's like writing a novel. Just takes me a lot less time, and I can get it down... down to where I can re-read it in my head a lot." As Ricks shows, from the earliest to the lastest records - and this book takes us right up to the most recent, Love and Theft - these works suggest that as much as re-read they have been re-written, again and again, for the most finely judged word or phrase. Re-performing serves revision, too, and Dylan is renowned for his risky renovations of classics. Perhaps Robert Creeley, a poet with such a judicious use of line endings, recognised Dylan's finely honed obliquities when he said that Dylan had a "subtle mind". In any case, Ricks is particularly attentive to contemporary language, and Dylan's way of just slightly altering the everyday to mine its artistic resources (the sulky angry "It's Alright Ma, I'm only Bleeding", the immobilised "Stuck Inside of Mobile, with the Memphis Blues Again"). Ricks also understands just how humanely funny Dylan is. Perhaps, as Ricks points out, Dylan is nowhere so impish as on the first track of Self Portrait, on which Dylan elusively, playfully, does not sing at all, instead allowing his "backing" singers to sing just a few words and hum a little. Dylan can even be a genius with silence.

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