This I Believe

Andrew - Westtown, Pennsylvania
Entered on September 11, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: creativity

Why a Sexagenarian Shares His Bob Dylan in an Elective

At mid-career I wrote a five-page summary of what I thought was special about

teaching English at Westtown in Leonard Kenworthy’s Quaker Education: A Source

Book. I emphasized how the teacher must develop a knack for finding the added

dimension to enhance what could happen in the disciplined and deliberate classroom.

A large part of the teacher’s resourcefulness was the selective, productive energy, that

if shared properly, could be contagious.

Fast-forward twenty years to the Bob Dylan course. Students knew they liked the

material but, by and large, did not know why. They wanted the tools to, in the words of

the critic, Christopher Ricks, known to me for his impressive work on John Milton and

T.S. Eliot, “take hold of the [Dylan] bundle” (Dylan’s Visions of Sin ,Ecco Press, 2003,

6). This follower of the even more famous Cambridge critic, William Empson, was

accustomed to Empson’s “teasing meaning out of the text.” So we had this wonderful

convergence that was centered by an important literary critic saying in 2003 to take

Dylan seriously as a poet. Ricks’ mantra to the students was “Read books, repeat

quotations, draw conclusions” 302. Moreover, many of his own conclusions about

Dylan’s choric repetitions and revisions had come from his earlier work on Eliot’s

“visions and revisions.” Dylan in Biograph joins this convergence of writer, critic and


To the aspiring songwriter and singer, I say disregard all the

current stuff, forget it, you’re better off, read John Keats,

Melville, listen to Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie.

(Ricks 361)

Crichton—–p. 2

No one denies that Dylan is a wordsmith, that his rhymes and rhythms are captivating,

or that his output is Shakespearean in magnitude; it is worth attending to seriously.

Son Stuart and the internet provided the music and lyrics. All I had to do was not to be

afraid to be innovative, to be willing to work hard on a project and never to stop


What were my responsibilities in the project? In order to convince students to

look closely at the material, both Dylan and Ricks’ “take” on Dylan, I had to be

very attentive to detail and to aural detail that was often difficult for someone who

deals primarily with the written word. As I said in my article in the 80’s, my ignorance

was transparent; I was dependent on my students to fill gaps in my understanding. To

take such a role responsibly, you must be honest and dependable. Moreover, you must

communicate effectively, at least most of the time. I was unsure exactly what I dreamt of

for this course. I knew I had played Dylan’s “Desolation Row” in a poetry lecture to

600 University of Florida freshmen in October of 1971, so the idea had been

germinating since then—the same idea/question my students had about how to talk about

Bob Dylan’s lyrics as poetry. All we needed was Ricks’ Dylan’sVisions of Sin as a


So with a portable CD player and 36 CDs and records, we began moving

inductively from individual lyric to the larger context. We tried to acquire as many

of the items in Ricks’ “bag of tricks” as we could master. His book might be viewed

as a series of solutions to poem-puzzles rather than a standard critical work, a fact that

was appealing to students once they adjusted to it. Dylan is urbane. He believes and can

convince you that just as Shakespeare had his proper moment, so did Bob Dylan

to create something beyond himself. Ricks can blend the jazz of Charlie Mingus

(143) with Dylan’s music. He can extend visual images as a good literary critic must.

In short, he can be a pied-piper who allows students to revel in a medium they have

already accepted as their own. My role as aging hippie was as an approving stage

manager and prop man.