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.
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.
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