Thursday, October 13, 2016

Congrats Bob! Dylan's Dunciad

I am going to succumb to my temptation to make a lit crit point. Although I don't think Bob Dylan was reading Alexander Pope during what I consider to be his richest period - 1964-1968 - he was producing what I think of as an American dunciad. Instead of Fleet street, the mockery was aimed at the circle that was located between Andy Warhol's The Factory and Greenwich village. Alexander Pope was a master at catching a certain English conversational tone - something nosepent, with its fraudulent assumption of cultural supremecy - and collaging it into the most classical of English meters. He even makes it an object of one of his great lines, from Essay on Criticism: “A needless Alexandrine ends the song, / That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.” Dylan of course exists in a different environment, one that mixed the inheritors of the romantics - with their creed that all arts ideally merge in music - with the reality of pop and advertising, where all language becomes a caption to sell a product. When in Like a rolling stone the princess on the steeple says, finally, to the "mystery tramp" - do you want to make a deal. These songs are, on the surface, close to Warhol's product pieces - Brillo pads or Campbell soup - but they are supercharged with affect, instead of being cool and .affectless. It is just hard to make out what the affect is about - unlike Pope, Dylan doesn't have any vision of a classical order. He does, or at least Greil says he does, have a vision of a weird order - the order he finds all over the American songbook. The weird order transmutes all deals into moments of dread, I suppose you could say, since what is dealt comes down to who you are. The art of the deal eats the dealer. Or, as Hugh Kenner puts it in the counterfeiters, writing about Pope's rewriting the Dunciad as if a dunce had written it: "“’The Mighty Mother, and her Son who brings
The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings
I sing’
The bard stumbles into his kettledrums and falls headlong. A hideous cacaphony (brings – Kings – sings); a failure to assess the compatability of end-stopped lines with a system based on caesura; an insufficient breath, which terminates the opening period in mid-gesture: these Pope has imitated with the care a Lichtenstein bestows on comic book panels, or a Warhol on soup labels.”

Dylan got this not only from the american songbook, but, evidently, from Eliot. The wasteland is the easiest modernist masterpiece to read because Eliot, too, has a certain devastating talent for interrupting the elegy form with the banal conversational tag. It was what Berryman was doing in the sixties, too. If you have a taste for it, as I do, it is what you crave in poetry and in song. It is the hardest thing to do in the world, although it looks like the easiest.

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