Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.

— Bob Dylan [1]

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Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg at the grave of Jack Kerouac, 1975. Photo Credit: Ken Regan

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FOR BOB DYLAN, the writing of a song can be said to take place “at the intersection of lyric, music, and performance” as well as through an achieved compression of language saturated with living tensions, stances, and idioms of American cultural history. [2] Timothy Hampton, commanding a richly comparative knowledge of world poetic traditions along with that of postwar musical genres and songs, situates Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work at the intersection of voice and form across shifting decades, masks, styles, mores, and modes.

Even as Hampton tracks Dylan’s career of song-making across a 38-album trajectory that “just keep[s] on moving,” the lyrics “work as compositions, as structures, as systems of signs that create meaning and elicit emotion.” “Tangled Up in Blue” is here read, rather amazingly, as crafted into Petrarchan stanzaic form and phrasal nuance, as “in effect, a condensed musical sonnet sequence”; “She Belongs to Me” becomes a lover’s homage of Rimbaud-drenched visionary imagination, whereby the artist-heroine “remakes reality” in a feat of absolute modernity that turns the male lover (or jealous listener) into “a walking antique.”

For most “major artist” writers who have been afforded the Nobel Prize in Literature, as Dylan was against-the-critical grain in 2016, such a close reading or formalist approach to an overall aesthetic corpus might seem obvious, belated, or by now, redundant. Books on Dylan proliferate, from biography and ideological polemic to cultural history and scriptural hermeneutic. Even Dylan has grown scornfully tired of the myriad books explaining his life and work, as if by some secondary body of demystification, a virtual publishing industry of meaning-making and decoding. As he told Rolling Stone interviewer Mikal Gilmore when Tempest came out in 2012, “There’s a whole world of scholars, professors and Dylanologists, and everything I do affects them in some way. And, you know, in some ways, I’ve given them life.” [3]

For a disruptive cultural-political hero and pop icon, Dylan has been understandably decoded by social contexts, auras of American history, as well as anti-conservative polemics. Not to mention his audience’s shifting admiration and animadversion across six decades, which has followed him from (say) triumph to decline to relentless return, as if he were some perpetual Lazarus of vision. It is perhaps this volatility that makes the close reading of specific texts still necessary, if not exceedingly difficult. Timothy Hampton’s detailed-laden study of text and form in Bob Dylan’s Poetics is a resource of literary-musical interpretation to start from and return to — and will likely prove to be indispensable.

Chapter by chapter, decade by decade, and work by work, from “Chimes of Freedom” and “Visions of Johanna” to “Tangled Up in Blue” (wherein “blue” signifies not only the blues genre but the azure of Rimbaud-like symbolist vision), and “Every Grain of Sand” read as a “herky-jerky structure of conversion” and penitential psalm, Hampton interprets Dylan in close-to-the-grain poetic ways of composition that have never been done before even by literary, history, and cultural critics as deft as Christopher Ricks, Richard F. Thomas, Greil Marcus, or Sean Wilentz. [4] Setting some gold standard for what Dylan-based works can do, Bob Dylan’s Poetics goes chord by chord and line by line, showing “how the songs work” in form and are changed through performance.

Old works are made new by being placed into more convincing contexts. A much-interpreted album like Blood on the Tracks (1975) becomes deeply tied, beyond the torments of autobiography, not only to Kerouac’s On the Road cartography of mobility and line-of-flight roads and to the Dante-like journey of the soul, but more intimately to the desire-haunted Petrarchan love sonnets of idealization and demystification. A much-interpreted work like “Jokerman” from Infidels (1983) is read as an ode laden with irony, self-rebuke, and delusion, reflecting “the situation of Dylan’s own work after the Christian digression, as a new class of grifters comes stepping it to take over the country.” A disjointed “late style” work like “Mississippi” is read as a “moribund allegory” fusing geography into moral cliché, time-out-of-joint closures, and anxious entrapment into “[d]ead metaphors,” as Dylan tries to reflect and refract the American transnational “crisis of the neoliberal self” in Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft” (2001).

Even in his magpie transformations of quintessential “American” genres like the blues, as Hampton shrewdly states, Dylan “does not sing the blues: he uses the blues.” Dylan is shown to be not only projected into his various songs, masked in an array of personae, but also to be talking about them. Dylan doubles and ironizes perspectives in any given song, enacting in such a “double register […] both the role of the character and the commentator on the song.” Songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming (1979) pressurize the audience to question their perspective and face their own worldly commitments. Dylan’s “longstanding interest in the rhetoric of unmasking” becomes one of Hampton’s interpretive keys from start to finish. Whether this unmasking is directed against tearing masks from the rich, the deluded, the exploitative, the faithless, or the corrupt and the various social institutions that back them up in The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964) and Highway 61 Revisited (1965) or Blonde on Blonde (1966), Dylan later unmasks his own pre-converted Robert Zimmerman self. He enforces this stark credo ut intelligam choice that will change his life if not keep him from de-converting back to landscapes of nothingness, betrayal, and delusion: “You may call me Bobby or you many call me Zimmy […] Indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Throughout his career, Dylan enacts this transformation of idiom and self-transfiguration in tactics of postmodern “musical prowess” that Blind Willie McTell or even Robert Johnson had not quite imagined in blues or gospel. For Hampton, not given to charges of cultural appropriation, bad faith, or political correctness, Dylan’s achievement is a feat of utterly poetic imagination and musical form, even when he offers a gruff remaking of those Tin Pan Alley hits of Frank Sinatra in his late-style recursion in Shadows in the Night (2015) and Fallen Angels (2016). For Dylan, as Hampton finally affirms, “summons his vocal imagination to leave a mark on the language, on rhythm, on sound itself.” Dylanesque problems like figurative misogyny, racial appropriation, plagiarism from sources, or aesthetic decline in any given album or song are not so much discussed and analyzed as explained away as functions of literary technique and style as when, for example, we just encounter “yet another of Dylan’s fallen female figures” in “Sweetheart Like You” from Infidels or the venomous castigations of “Idiot Wind” are explained away as tropes of Petrarchan “erotic obsession” and loss.

Still, Dylan’s place in the American “national imaginary” effectively gives way to his broader entanglement within “global musical culture” and a more worldly sense of his literary influence, form, genre, tactic, and stylistic fusion. In a dazzling set of readings that are textured and resonant, Hampton links Dylan’s works to literary precursors Rimbaud (“Chimes of Freedom”), Brecht (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), Kerouac (“Meet Me in the Morning”), Petrarch (“Tangled Up in Blue”), T. S. Eliot (“Dignity”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Summer Days”), Homer (“Blind Willie McTell”), and Dante (“Shelter from the Storm”) most prominently. Even Joseph Conrad and Jack London are given a (less convincing) thematic hearing in the exotic flux that is the 1976 album Desire. Hampton tracks these literary refigurations such that “Blind Willie McTell” remains close not just to the epic but also to the “Statesboro Blues” melody, and “Jokerman” stays close not only to anti-Christ figurations from Yeats but also to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and reggae chords. As Hampton writes of the chord shifts in “Jokerman,”

Yet this template [from Chuck Berry] is driven in a different direction from classic three-chord rock and roll by the nervous plucking of eighth notes on the tonic chord from the great Jamaican bassist Sly Dunbar […] along with the drumming of his partner Robbie Shakespeare, that drive the musical machinery of the album. [5]

Across a set of six chronologically organized chapters, Dylan’s work is read, in effect, as some kind of composite-dialogue structure or polyglossic combinatoire, mixing, citing, quoting, self-referencing, miming, if not collaging voices, chords, and codes into another “Bob Dylan” mask. [6] Consequently, Dylan is shown to be the maker of myriad characters in any given work, his autobiographical character held in abeyance, masked within the post-Whitmanic multitude of voices contained. Hampton invokes what the poet-critic Robert Pinsky calls the poem, a “somatic ghost” of multiple social alliances and written struggles in and beyond its historical moment. But to label this postmodern is not quite right either, for Dylan is a transfigurative poet rooted in the full duration of “modern times,” enacting an artistic modernism whereby the love lyric meets Petrarch and the folk road figures from the Dust Bowl meet the pilgrims of Kerouac and Saint Augustine. “To a degree unrivaled by any modern popular artist,” Hampton writes, “Dylan is a miner of old forms, an expeditionary heading back into the hoary world of predigital models of expression — old songs, old sentences, old images, old chords.”

Dylan invents himself song by song, and this song count by now is over 500 of his own — no small feat of relentless reinvention, musical-lyrical fusion, and endless stylistic collage. In a way, Dylan has become one of those “early Roman kings” haunting this postwar American cultural empire, as he calls them (or himself) in a song by that title from Tempest. He can absorb into his “singing persona,” as in the post-Beat congregational mask of marginal community that is “Desolation Row” (the song title itself echoing Kerouac’s trope for downfallen beatitude), a plethora of shards, poses, and clichés as well as radiant images and postures of the surrounding post-literary culture-scape in the pop-mediated age of Warhol, Jagger, Nico, and Ginsberg.

Hampton can flesh out this cast of allusions, metaphors, and masks into a stunning and convincing array for any given lyric, as in his de-collaged reading of Dylan’s “Dignity” (1991) as a meaning-quest centered around a Los Angeles noir-detective protagonist combining Raymond Chandler’s sardonic voice with T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” Whitman’s blade of grass, and St. Paul’s “through a glass darkly,” trying to find “something like dignity at the end of the 1980s, the decade of arbitrageurs, Teflon presidents, and Spandex.” Some of these allusive gestures can seem a bit thin or arbitrary. Nonetheless, Dylan’s chronology of masks, poses, and personae, as well as his experimental openness to characters and characterizations of American voice and idiom from hillbilly to hipster and archaic to urbane, is tracked with an interpretive deftness and world-literary care.

The literary allusions do not so much close in upon a realist narrative plot and unified hero as they do open up a citational field in which the purpose of the song “Dignity” becomes “a quest for meaning in a meaningless world, for goodness in a den of thieves.” In such a citational web of trope and truth, the lyric “I” of any given Dylan work “is in his songs but not of them,” containing dictions (hobo, archaic, lefty educated, et al) that are “constantly intertwined, combined and recombined.” As Hampton sums up this poetics of “stylistic collage,” even in the post-Guthrie or post-Seeger phases of the early 1960s, “If Dylan is anything, he is a historical poet.”

Hampton has turned Dylan not just into an American poet but a world poet, some of whose works will outlast the ages, fashions, accusations, and prizes. He gives back to Dylan’s works, as Deleuze advised the critic must, some of the joy, spirituality, and the politics that went into their creation. We can remain grateful for such a timely, inventive, well-scaled work like Bob Dylan’s Poetics as a vade mecum to read along with the ever-renewing world of poetic and musical creation that is Bob Dylan. Dylan once admitted to his earliest biographer-critic, Robert Shelton, in the restless London summer of 1978, “I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.” [7] By now we begin to realize that Dylan’s poetry, as Timothy Hampton’s fine study yet again shows, might just live on and on across the ages.

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Rob Wilson is professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he first taught a course on “Bob Dylan as Poet” in 2004.

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[1] Mikal Gilmore, “Bob Dylan Unleashed,” Rolling Stone online (March 27, 2012):  https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylan-unleashed-189723/.

[2] Timothy Hampton, Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work (New York: Zone Books, 2019), 9. Further references will occur parenthetically. 

[3] Mikal Gilmore, “Bob Dylan Unleashed,” Rolling Stone online (March 27, 2012): see footnote 1 above. My own contribution to this “Dylanologist” industry takes place in Rob Wilson, Be Always Converting, Be Always Converted: An American Poetics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009), Chapter 6, “Becoming Jeremiah inside the U.S. Empire: On the Born-Again Refigurations of Bob Dylan,” 166–207; and “Bob Dylan in China, America in Bob Dylan: Visions of Social Beatitude and Critique,” boundary 2 41 (2014): 159–178.

[4] Works of Dylan scholarship referred to here are Christopher Ricks, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (New York: HarperCollins, 2003); Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2017); Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (New York: Picador, 2011) and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (New York: Perseus, 2005); and Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America (New York: Vintage, 2011).

[5] At a more complicated level of musical composition fusing form and content, see Hampton’s reading of how musical breaks enforce discursive breaks in “Tangled Up in Blue” and the “self-sufficient progression of chords” in the song’s stanzas reflects “a recursive movement that seems to circle, with no point of rest, like the characters of the song itself, as they wander the country from ‘the great north woods,’ to ‘New Orleans,’ from ‘the East Coast,’ to ‘out West’” (133–34).

[6] On this French structuralist-derived tactic of combination as used by Fredric Jameson to read  class antagonisms and plots of realist and modernist novels, see Terry Eagleton, “Fredric Jameson: The Politics of Style,” Diacritics 12 (1982): 14–22.

[7] Bob Dylan talks to Robert Shelton, “How Does It Feel to Be on Your Own,” Melody Maker (July 29, 1978) as archived online at: https://www.expectingrain.com/dok/int/shelton1978.07.29.html