Iâ€™ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcusâ€™s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcusâ€™s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge ofÂ popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcusâ€™s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figureÂ (or personality), but as a poet. People donâ€™t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poetâ€”whether he meets the qualificationsâ€”but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought thisâ€”after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1
I seem to have buriedÂ my thesisÂ in a footnote. Iâ€™m getting ready to teach Dylanâ€™s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I donâ€™t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylanâ€™s â€œmost importantâ€ work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, Iâ€™d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. Itâ€™s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylanâ€™s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylanâ€™s career, but perhaps Iâ€™ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.
At the singing competition the other night, most of the songs were sentimental tributes to the relationship between students and teachers, but maybe a quarter of them were in a genre the Vietnamese unselfconsciously call â€œnháº¡c Ä‘á»,â€ red music. It is both frankly patriotic and martial. Imagine a genre of contemporary American pop based on Sgt. Barry Sadlerâ€™s â€œBallad of the Green Berets,â€ complete with march time and military drumming.
Found this recording of David Rakowski’s setting of my poem “For Wittgenstein” on You Tube. I received a copy of the CD when it came out, but I’m happy to see it out on the web. It would be nice if whoever posted it had given credit to the author of the text: “For Wittgenstein” isÂ the final poem in my book Magical Thinking (2001), an over-determined triolet written specifically for Rakowski.
Days are like grass the wind moves over:
first the wind & then the silence–
what cannot be said we must pass over
in silence, or play some music over
in our heads. Silently, a wind goes over
(we know from the motion of the grass).
Days are like grass; the wind goes over:
first the wind & then the silence.
There are a lot of performances of Rakowski’s music–mostly for piano–on You Tube. I loved his etude “Fists of Fury,” especially the middle section played at the high end of the piano that sounds like the first message arriving from an alien civilization.
Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.
I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.
That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.
By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.
Daniel Bowling really ought to do this study with Vietnamese speakers. In Vietnamese, there is a long tradition of interaction between the six tones of the spoken language & the (mostly pentatonic) music used to accompany songs & poems. Last weekend, I was invited to the home of a family of very talented traditional musicians & treated to an informal concert of various forms of Vietnamese music. In most of these forms, because the language itself is tonal, the poet or songwriter has followed forms that place rising or falling or level tones in particular places in the verse line. The instrumentalist(s) & vocalist, also following a set of conventions, but also improvising within the conventions, perform the text so as to emphasize & play with the composer’s intentions. My sense is, though I’m not entirely sure of this, that, contrary to the Western art song / lieder tradition, the music is driven by the vocal text rather than the other way around.
The musicians I listened to played the đàn tranh & the đàn đáy, stringed instruments with a pentatonic tuning & the ability to bend notes in order to suggest the tonal slides & glides of the Vietnamese language. There is also a two-stringed lute that has no natural tuning & can be tuned to any of the other instruments. Half-way through the concert the other night, a young man showed up who was a virtuoso on this instrument, playing incredibly complex runs of notes on the raised frets. In the south, I have seen Western guitars with the spaces between the frets scooped out in order to play microtones.