Tennyson, Milton and . . . Bob Dylan?


The distinguished literary critic sat on stage in front of a nearly full auditorium, rocking back and forth in his chair. He has written books on Milton and Tennyson and edited T.S. Eliot's unpublished poetry. Boston University professor Christopher Ricks was educated at Oxford and has taught at Cambridge; he is in his mid-60s, nearly bald and wearing a tie and slacks. Yet he looked like nothing so much as a teenager alone in his bedroom as a scratchy recording began playing: first a harmonica riff, then a familiar nasal, almost atonal voice. "Tell me," Bob Dylan whined in "Not Yet Dark" from his recent "Time Out of Mind" album, "what you're going to do when you can't play God no more."

After the song finished, Ricks launched into a pyrotechnical scholarly decoding. You could almost hear the footnotes flying: Byronic half-rhymes, Tennysonian dark immanences, Shakespearean genius. Ricks raced through the canon, dexterously dropping quotes from the most revered English writers, mixing jokes, detailed technical analysis and pure glee before finally parsing out an allusion to Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" in the Dylan song.

"It is saturated in Keats' ode," he said. "Here is a great song that is based on a great poem. Each is half in love with easeful death--a good idea when you're in your mid-50s, making friends with the necessity of dying."

But Ricks came to praise Dylan, not to bury him, and he had plenty of company: His speech Saturday at Stanford University opened the first academic conference in the U.S. devoted to the bushy-haired songwriter and his legacy to Western civilization. Scholars from across the country spent the day exploring everything from Dylan's status as a poetic successor to Rimbaud and Kerouac to the political Weltanschauung of an artist who claims to have no politics.

And the 400-person audience, which paid as much as $14 a seat, ate it up, finishing quotes from lyrics as soon as the scholars started and wildly applauding even video snippets in which Dylan was barely identifiable and his singing, to put it charitably, was not at its strongest.

"It's impossible to study these things without having some rock 'n' roll in your soul," exclaimed one leathered hippie during one of the many spirited question and answer sessions when panel members and the audience argued over Dylan lyrics with the fervor of over-caffeinated Talmudic scholars.

Dylan, in case you've lived in a cave for the last half century, was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., in 1941, dropped out of college, picked up a guitar and rewrote the history of popular music. Although he is not known for his enunciation (and some of his lyrics are baffling enough even when not mumbled), Dylan's words, poured forth in a flood of more than 40 albums, have seeped into the souls of more than one generation.

"Dylan, in word and music, has created an almost unlimited universe of art which has permeated the globe and, in fact, changed the history of the world," wrote one of his more modest admirers, professor Gordon Ball of Virginia Military Institute, a member of a committee that has been campaigning on Dylan's behalf for a Nobel Prize in literature. "In catalyzing whole generations of youths, his oeuvre has shown more than any other poets in this century the power of words to alter lives and destinies."

At the Kennedy Center Honors last month, Dylan, who received a lifetime achievement award, was described as "perhaps the single most compelling presence in American popular music and foremost songwriter of our time."


Still, the very fact of the Stanford conference itself was as contrary as a chain saw through a dictionary, as organizer Tino Markworth pointed out. Dylan has expressed little but disdain for academics, accusing them of supporting the existing order and obscuring truth.

"Those who don't play music over-intellectualize," Dylan told one interviewer. Another time, the songwriter declared: "Colleges are like old-age homes, except more people die in colleges than in old-age homes."

Academia, in turn, has been slow to embrace Dylan studies as an academic discipline. Conservative scholars turn up their noses at treating ill-groomed guitar players as the artistic equals of Tolstoy, while trendy, postmodern theorists are equally dismissive of the elitism implied by claims for Dylan's greatness and would rather spend their time studying the sexual and class themes of Madonna's oeuvre or deconstructing the power relationship and homoerotic latency of the skipper and the first mate in "Gilligan's Island." "Dylan scholars fall between the cracks," Markworth lamented.

Markworth, who is a graduate student in German studies and humanities at Stanford, discovered this himself last year when he tried to organized a class on Dylan but couldn't find any department to sponsor it and finally had to stage it as a continuing education offering. Still, Markworth was optimistic.

"I hope we can make his art a permanent part of the curriculum," he said.


Rush Rehm, who teaches in the Stanford drama department, tried to explicate Dylan's politics--which turned out to be similar to his own. The songwriter has always denied being political, but Rehm, drawing on the work of political critic Noam Chomsky, found a deep current of subversiveness in Dylan's lyrics. He noted especially that Dylan was influenced by black blues and white hillbilly music (two historically and economically repressed groups) and that by embracing both, he rejected attempts by the power structure to pit one group against the other--to become, as Dylan put it in one song, "A Pawn in Their Game."

But even Rehm was given pause by Dylan's recent deal to sell the rights to "The Times They Are A-Changin' " to the Bank of Montreal for use as an ad jiggle. "Only 'A Pawn in Their Game' couldn't be sold to the Bank of Montreal because they wouldn't want it," Rehm said, triumphantly. "And that's the mark of a great political song."

Mark Gonnerman, a research fellow at Stanford's Center of Buddhist Studies, examined Dylan's religious outlook.

"Song is the highest form of prayer," Dylan once said, and Gonnerman found a profound strain of invigorating religious skepticism, a probing and questioning faith, in the songwriter's earlier work. Paradoxically, Gonnerman said Dylan's least moving and least interesting treatment of religion came during his born-again phase, after he claimed to have seen Jesus in 1978. "Who knows?" Gonnerman said. "Maybe all his questions were answered."

One scholar even dared question the premise of the conference. Moderator Susan Dunn, who teaches at the university's Humanities Center and looked as if she would rather be listening to Paul Westerberg, suggested that the event was nothing more than an exercise in grasping baby boomer nostalgia.

"In the words of those occasionally insightful rock critics Beavis and Butt-head, I want us to think about what sucks about Dylan," she said, prompting no applause.

She, clearly, was in the wrong church.

"We're not supposed to fall in love with him?" asked Ricks at one point. "We only think he is the most amazing phenomenon in our lifetime."

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