He' sure got a lot of gall / to be so useless and all / muttering small talk at the wall . . . [Dylan]
Best Three Dylan Albums?
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. Iâ€™d go so far as to suggest that Dylanâ€™s best songs have been written at times when Dylan has conceived of himself, however awkwardly, as a poetâ€”or, perhaps, self-consciously, as an artist.]
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 course[2. I donâ€™t presume to teach â€œpopular culture,â€ but only its â€œliterature.â€] 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.
Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.
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