Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The American Century

I don't remember writing this, but I ran across it while looking for something else, and I decided it wasn't bad, so I'll reproduce it here, now that the disastrous Bush presidency is winding down, and dragging the American Century into ashes with it. Let's hope Obama proves a phoenix, and meanwhile, this must have been my New Century piece for the Woodstock Times, since that's the folder I found it in.

The US emerged from the American Century as the military superpower, the dominant mercantile power. And the arts? How did we compete on the world stage? A better question would be what did we contribute, but hey, it’s the fin du siecle Americain, so let’s go for it.

Because of the limitations of language, literature is always parochial. But Modernism, which dominated the first half century, brought American players to the world stage. In poetry, they included Pound (who encapsulated Modernism in three words: “Make it new”) and Eliot, but these colossi have faded in influence as the century wanes, to two of their contemporaries, Stevens and Williams. Actually, the American figure who most influenced international modernism in poetry was Whitman, whose work only began to be widely known as the century turned.

In fiction, the century belongs to Proust and Joyce, though Hemingway’s impact on short fiction is international. In drama, O’Neill was important, but the real American Century in drama happened between the 20s and the 50s, with the new musical theater of Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein.

The last burst of modernism, in the 40s, was the first significant appearance of American painters on the world stage, an era that began with Pollock and the abstract expressionists, and ended with Warhol and the pop artists. One of the biggest stories of visual art in the century, though, was the collection of it, and the prices paid for it, which was an American/imperial/mercantile-driven phenomenon.

Dance is something we mostly imported, except for modern dance, where Duncan, Graham and Cunningham defined world forms.

Movies are the American form (starting with British immigrant Chaplin), and in film it’s been so totally an American century that one starts looking for exceptions. How many Americans have the vision of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa? But with the probable exception of Bergman, their influences were American.

In music, it’s been an American century, and the course of music is perhaps the most instructive. Armstrong was one of the most important figures of High Modernism, though no one knew it at the time. Music in the first half-century was assimilationist, European immigrants like Gershwin and Berlin consciously trying to make an American tradition.

But a funny thing happens to imperial cultures. They become dominant through military/mercantile might, and at a certain point, they begin to realize that they may have lost their souls, and at that point, they often turn to the cultures they’ve subjugated. So it was with America: the empire strikes back, and from the most systematically oppressed American subculture came the greatest American art form, the most important world art form of the 20th Century: the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll. I’ll go out with a few names: Armstrong, Handy, Smith, Ellington, Johnson, Leadbelly, Jordan, Holiday, Parker, Coltrane, Domino, Williams, Little Richard, Presley, Franklin, Mayfield.

Singapore, Jazz and me

From the syllabus of a course in the American Studies program at the National University of Singapore:

Lecture 10
Popular Music

Michael Baers, "Rock and Roll," in St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture Volume 3 (Detroit: St. James Press, 1999): 235-238. NUS Library Holdings
Geoffrey O'Brien, "Rock of Ages," New York Review of Books (December 16, 1999): 40-46.
Tad Richards, "Jazz," in St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture Volume 2 (Detroit: St. James Press, 1999): 529-531. NUS Library Holdings

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Expecting Rain

Thanks to Expecting Rain, a wonderful site of links to web articles on Dylan and other musical figures, for recognizing and linking to these deserving pieces by my students.
From Kim Shannon -- and Kim, in this paper, has done exactly what one would hope for in teaching Freshman Comp students to look at literature from specific critical points of view: she has used her historical/biographical perspective to illuminate "Shelter from the Storm" both for herself and for the reader.

In “Shelter from the Storm," the narrator first describes himself as “a creature void of form.” Dylan has always felt a need to reject his natural identity and form his own. He then rejects this new identity in search of another one, and the cycle goes on. Ellen Willis, in Cheetah magazine, described him as “obsessed with escaping identity” (qtd. in Shelton 374). When he was a child, he rejected his Jewish heritage and his family, lying to people that he was an orphan who went around America with nothing more than a harmonica and a guitar and fended for himself. He told so many of these lies that the boundary between fact and fiction became blurred even in his own mind (Mellers 111). Perhaps the 2007 biographical film I’m Not There describes this identity crisis best, proposing that there were six “versions” of Bob Dylan, the young wannabe Woody Guthrie, the teen rebel aspiring to be the anarchist rebel Arthur Rimbaud, the protest singer, the rock star, the celebrity trying to balance fame and domestic life, and the born-again Christian, chronologically.

The transition from Woody Guthrie to Arthur Rimbaud happened after he legally changed him name from his birth name, Robert Allen Zimmerman, to Bob Dylan, and was acknowledged by new reporters while playing as the opening act for John Lee Hooker in New York (George-Warren). The evolution from Rimbaud to protest singer came with the release of the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Salas 130). After this phase, he began to reject each version of himself as soon as the world began to accept it. He threw off his protesting adherents with the album Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964 which rejected his protest writer reputation for a more self-centered theme (Marqusee). In addition to this, at the height of his folk career, when he was considered the “young poet-king of American folk music,” he played the ever-famous concert at the Newport Folk Festival in which he went electric at the “sacred annual congress of acoustic purists” (Cave). This completed the transition from protest singer to rock star, but after being renounced, accepted, and finally exalted for his bold decision, he retreated from the mass of followers who he had created. The legendary motorcycle accident of 1966 is said to be not an accident at all, but an excuse to escapxe the worries of the working musician (Shelton 374). It was Dylan’s way of getting away from the stress of the celebrity life and trying to deal with issues at home. This is when Dylan wrote Blood on the Tracks, when he was in his troubled celebrity phase. At this point, there was no creature more “void of form” than Dylan. He had tried all different selves and was satisfied with none of them. This was his constant “storm” that he struggled with throughout his life, and that he was finally coming to acknowledge in “Shelter from the Storm.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Elliot Carter, Bettie Page, Fame and Mortality

Happy birthday to Elliot Carter, the great composer just turned 100. And as the NY Times points out,

Classical music tends to lionize the great composer cut down in youth, but Elliott Carter made a mockery of that trope on Thursday. Mr. Carter, the dean of American composers, celebrated his 100th birthday, on the day, with a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Elliott Carter arrived early for Thursday night’s Carnegie Hall concert. Daniel Barenboim was to play Mr. Carter’s “Interventions.”

He had a piece on the program, of course, but not some chestnut written when he was a student in Paris in the 1930s or an avant-gardist in New York in the 1950s or a Pulitzer Prize winner in the 1960s or a setter of American poetry in the 1970s or a begetter of chamber music and concertos in the 1980s.

Mr. Carter wrote the 17-minute piece, for piano and orchestra, just last year, at 98. In fact, since he turned 90, Mr. Carter has poured out more than 40 published works, an extraordinary burst of creativity at a stage when most people would be making peace with mortality.

His first opera had its premiere in 1999. He produced 10 works in 2007 and six more this year.

All of which made me bow with admiration to Mr. Carter, and to think about my own creative life. I'm still on the sunny side of 70, but not by much, and I don't think I've lost anything creatively -- I like to think I'm still developing, as a writer, as a graphic artist, and as a teacher. Writing a note to the NewPo list, I said "I wonder sometimes if my relative lack of success -- no real laurels to rest on -- has been a spur to my creativity." Anny Ballardini responded with some kind strokes -- which I wasn't really fishing for -- and I amended my original thought: "I'd say, then, that it's maybe a combination of the respect of at least some of my peers, and the lack of laurels, that keep me motivated."

You certainly need that respect...someone has to be out there letting you know that you're not just wallowing in self-indulgence. So my thanks to those editors who have liked my work -- most recently Jim Cervantes in Salt River Review -- and thanks to Anny, and Marvin Bell, and Rachel Loden, and Peter Jones, and Bob Berner, and Dennis Doherty, and Fred Koller, and others whose opinion matters dearly to me, most of all to Don Finkel, whose memorial service in St. Louis is today -- a tribute to Don and his wife Constance Urdang, whom he now joins. I wish I could be there. His kids, Tom and Liza and Amy, know I'm there in spirit.

But what about the other part? What does success do to your creative juices? Richard Hugo once commented on reaching success rather late in his poetic life -- he said that for many years he sent out poems and got them back rejected, with no notes, and he didn't know whether he was any good or not. Then suddenly he got a lot of success, and a lot of acclaim, and he sent out poems and got them back accepted, with no notes, and he still didn't know whether he was any good or not.

A rocker of the 80s -- I forget who now -- who had achieved success in his thirties, after years of hardscrabble living, was asked how success had changed him. "When I get a bag of pistachios, I no longer get a hammer to open the ones in the bottom that haven't split," he said.

Tennessee Williams described it beautifully in his introduction to the print edition of Streetcar, which I don't have in front of me and will have to paraphrase from memory. He described an early career as an artist as scrambling desperately of the sheer face of a cliff, searching for tiny hand and footholds to keep going. Then, if you're lucky enough to make it, and you reach that rarefied plateau of success, you're still doing the same thing, reaching upward for handholds in empty air.

I haven't experienced it. But I'm guessing things change when you do -- that instead of trying to top, or extend, your creative output, you're to some degree trying to top your public acceptance.

I guess I had a little of it. When my first poetry collection, My Night With the Language Thieves, was published, Don Finkel wrote a cover blurb for it that said, in part,

Richards reconnoiters a fugitive terrain whoe inhabitants are disturbingly familiar and unsettlingly memorable -- particularly the women, lithe and button-breasted or forty with stretchmarks or old and bony, wise and tolerant or buoyant under you, as he put it, like a small craft.

That was high praise from someone whose judgment mattered to me, but I did go through a period where I caught myself being tempted, as I tried to work out new problems in new poems -- maybe I can just throw in one of those unsettlingly memorable women here? This, of course, was balanced out by the reviewer who commented on my "near-fetishistic interest in wonen's bodies." I asked friends about that, and they said nonsense, she was completely wrong -- there was nothing "near" about it. Anyway, I managed to fend that off, but it was so minor. What is the effect that significant recognition has on your work?

Hats off and happy birthday to Elliot Carter, who has not only continued but increased his productivity in his 80s and 90s.

And farewell to Bettie Page, a talent of a very different sort, but no less valuable in its own way, who died today at 85., and whose career, of necessity, was much shorter lived. The NY Times obit said that she

steadfastly refused to be photographed.“I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2006. “I want to be remembered as a woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form.”

This turns out not to have been 100 percent true. Here's Bettie at age 80, still wearing bangs and still beautiful.

And here she is as she wanted to be remembered, and as she is remembered, with a season's greeting to one and all. As Tiny Tim said, "God bless us every one," and as Bettie said, "Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Kids Are Alright: Dylan and Lowell

From Alison Gratto:

For example, in the lyric, “Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped, / What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top/ You're on the bottom,” he most likely means that the wheels of his marriage have stopped and now he and Sara are stuck at a standstill unwilling to be together yet bound not to be apart; this dilemma explains why he spent an entire summer away from her. By singing that, “Everything’s a little upside down,” he is also saying that things are not how they should be, for the past seven to eight years he and Sara had been happy, and now they weren’t. The lines, “I waited for you on the running boards, near the Cyprus trees, while the springtime/ turned Slowly into autumn,” is a direct reference to the fact that he spent all summer away from his wife and she never came to visit. Another indicator of trouble are the lines, “I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free, /I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me” implying that he’s had enough of their marriage and wants to be done with it. He’s comparing the tension between them to that of a “Howling beast,” which is not of positive image at all, showing that their marriage was not positive either. A further example of the tension in Dylan’s marriage are the lines, “She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me/ I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” In 1973 Dylan and Sara began building a mansion in California and it became so extravagant and over the top that it became a cause of friction in their marriage. Jonathan Taplin (a road manager for both Dylan and Dylan’s band’s manager, Albert Grossman) said, “That [house] was kind of Sara’s folly. Bob went along with it, but it just got out of control in terms of the cost of building it. I think from Bob’s point of view it was like, when is this gonna end? When are these people gonna get out of my house?” (Sounes 278). By singing about “a million bucks,” Dylan seems to be venting his frustration with the housing project and he may also be sarcastically switching places with his wife in this line, because she certainly would never have been able to afford to build a house like that if it weren’t for Dylan’s success. This theme of marital breakups is also extremely prevalent in the poetry of Robert Lowell; in fact one of his collections of poetry, For Lizzie and Harriet is completely about his failed marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick. In “Man and Wife” from Life Studies, Lowell writes about failed relationships. Similar to Dylan’s talk of tension, Lowell writes, “Now twelve years later, you turn your back. / Sleepless, you hold/ your pillow to your hollows like a child,” implying that though the marriage may have started off well (the first half of the poem deals with happier times) after twelve years neither can stand the other and nothing is working out—they cannot even lie in bed next to each other. Dylan also sings, “Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin' I was somebody else instead,” which is very similar to Lowell’s disparagement of not being able to be in the same bed as his wife. Lowell was married three times throughout the course of his life, and according to author Richard Tillinghast, his work shows a preoccupation with, “Eros, marriage, and the family.” This preoccupation is prevalent throughout the hundreds of poems he wrote and stretched over many years; Life Studies was written in 1959 but he was still covering the same themes in Dolphin and For Lizzie and Harriet in 1973. For Dylan in the 1970’s and for Lowell throughout his career, the theme of relationships ruled, but it was not the only subject they breached upon.
In 1940 at the age of twenty-three, Lowell converted to Roman Catholicism and a few years later began using Christian imagery in his poems (Liukkonen). For example, in, “Mexico 2,” from For Lizzie and Harriet, Lowell writes, “Wishing to raise the cross of the Crucified King/ in the monastery of Emmaus at Cuernavaca—/ the monks, world-names for futurist crucifixes, / and avant-garde Virgins;” all blatant religious imagery. He also used religious language in, “Man and Wife,” stating, “Oh my Petite, / clearest of all God’s creatures, still all air and nerve.” In addition, Dylan used a significant amount of Christian imagery in, Blood on the Tracks. In, “Idiot Wind,” he says, “The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned,” and continues with this trend in the later song, “Shelter from the Storm,” with the words, “She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns. / ‘Come in,’ she said, / ‘I'll give you shelter from the storm’.” All the religious symbolism, particularly in Dylan’s case, implies that both artists were searching for something in their lives that they believed might possibly be found in religion. It appears though that neither found what they were looking for; Lowell did not stay Roman Catholic (Hunter), and Dylan was Jewish to begin with (although he celebrated Christmas) (Sounes 283). It is far more likely that both attempted to use drugs and/ or alcohol to find some meaning in their lives.
Political activism is an activity that both Dylan and Lowell participated in and used their art to get their point across. With the biographical aspect of, “Idiot Wind” discounted, the song could easily be a political statement. The line, “You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies,” suggests distrust in the government that could pertain to the Watergate scandal which was happening during the time Dylan was writing Blood on the Tracks (Marcus 441-442). Many of Dylan’s other songs also have overt political overtones, such as the 1962 song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Much of Lowell’s work, especially in History and Notebook contains political views and opinions. The poem, “West Side Sabbath,” from History for instance, relates his fear of things ranging from communism to the neo-conservatives (Richards). The Cold War was talking place during the time of writing, and most of the remarks in the poem can be traced back to it in some way. The line, “monochrome Socialism,” depicts an American political environment that believed anything that was not democracy was the enemy. He also mentions the, “Student-Left,” which was a new movement of peacefully protesting students such as members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lowell calls it, “anarchists’ faith,” probably alluding to the fact that much of their belief system was based on philosophy and the influence of current artists including Dylan (Newfield). In 1967 Lowell participated in the March on Washington to protest the Vietnam War and his poem, “For the Union Dead” (1964) was written at the height of the Civil Rights movement about an all-black regiment in the Civil War and their leader, Colonel Shaw. In Notebook, Lowell carried around a notebook in which to write his thoughts (although he asserts it was not his diary or his confession) for a year. Being the highly politicized and controversial year of 1967 to 1968, the poetry has political overtones (Tillinghast 88-89). American poetry and music up to this point had focused on social issues, but by viewing the issues from a personal rather than outside perspective, Dylan and Lowell created something new.
Lowell and Dylan had similar life experiences and it therefore follows that their work is equally as similar. Both were obviously influenced by marital relationships, but they were also influenced by outside sources. For example, Dylan was heavily influenced by art teacher Norman Raeben. Dylan decided to take a drawing class in 1974 at a studio in Carnegie Hall, and instructor Raeben soon came to be a mentor of sorts to Dylan. He learned that he might have been looking but not really seeing things, both in art and life, and described Raeben as, “more powerful than any magician.” Consequently however, Dylan began to look at his marriage in a new light, stating, “I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day, that’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it” (Sounes 278). It was after that drawing class that Dylan took off to Minnesota to write, Blood on the Tracks. Not surprisingly, “Idiot Wind” reflects Dylan’s annoyance: “Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at, / I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that/ Sweet lady.” Lowell was similarly influenced by an artist around him: poet William Carlos Williams. Williams was born in 1883, and began his career as a poet of the Imagist movement. Later he began to disagree with the values of other Imagists and sought to create an, “entirely fresh—and singularly American—poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people” (William). Lowell became friends with Williams in the 1950’s, and in 1959 he published Life Studies, his personal break with all strict forms of poetry (Hunter). Williams said he was, “A tiger behind bars,” and it was Life Studies that released him (Ellman). Lowell’s disinterest in the typical poetic mold in Life Studies is very similar to Dylan’s in, Blood on the Tracks. Dylan and Lowell were both influenced by those whose art and thinking was already outside the normal realm, and that influence in turn drove them to completely redefine their art. The public response was, of course, incredible after the release of, “Blood on the Tracks” and Life Studies. Lowell won a National Book Award (Hunter) and Dylan’s album was called his, “Best…work in seven or nine years, or even his best work ever” (Marcus 440).
It is important to note the influence that Lowell and Dylan had on other artists, both during and after their era. Sylvia Plath is probably the most famous poet influenced by Lowell but she was not the only one. Anne Sexton, a confessional poet during the same general time period of Robert Lowell, struggled with post partum depression and was hospitalized more than once at the same hospital that Lowell and Plath were during their mental breakdowns. Much like Lowell, her time in mental hospitals and attempted suicide contributed to her poetry (Anne). For instance, her poem, “Her Kind,” is clearly about suffering from post partum depression and reads, “A woman like that is not a woman, quite. / I have been her kind” (Sexton). Dylan’s influence on the music industry is beyond comprehension and some artists such as James Taylor even owe their careers to his influence. For example, Taylor’s song, “Fire and Rain” is about the time he spent in a mental hospital and the suicide of a friend (Richards). He sings, “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend /But I always thought that I’d see you again” (Taylor). Had Dylan not opened the door to this type of music, Taylor may never have written that song.

The Kids Are Alright: More Dylan Papers

Just as a reminder, these are Freshman Comp papers from students at a state college -- a very good state college, but they aren't English majors at an Ivy League university. So keep that in mind as you consider the question of whether today's kids are capable of writing and of thinking analytically. This is from Pam Ousley:

Rotolo herself expressed in her novel A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties that Bob Dylan had “something about him that broadcast an intensity that was not to be taken lightly.” This intensity is characteristic of both the famous and the music-making, but probably more the latter. Musicians – unlike actors, for example – are obligated to create a persona that is reflected in their lyrics, sound, appearance (Rotolo recounts that “Bob chose his rumpled clothes carefully” on the day the pair was photographed for the cover of Freewheelin’), and actions. Any movement away from the established persona is evaluated by the musician’s fans and may cause rejection by existing followers. This pressure is enough to create paranoia of any external force – such as a lover, family member or band member – that has the power to repress or overshadow the musician’s persona. There is also proof of Dylan’s need to stand alone in the very fact that very little has historically been known about Dylan’s lovers as individuals, rather than as Dylan’s carry-ons.
All of this biographical data is relatively meaningless without reference to Bob Dylan’s songs, where he presents it with more truth – in terms of his own feelings, not necessarily in terms of accuracy – than can be found in the media. There, in the lyrics, lies the psychology of Dylan as affected by his life and fame. First, let us look at “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” a song on the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Without even researching the song’s intended meaning, it is obvious to the listener that it is about feeling immobile in a small town environment. The characters and setting, though seemingly familiar to the songwriter, are dream-like in their phantasmic vagueness. In the song, Dylan states that he has “no sense of time,” a characteristic of a dream state, whether induced by drugs or sleep. But the dreaminess of the song is no indicator that the content of the song is irrelevant to Dylan’s life. In fact, it is indicative of the true meaning – Dylan got in trouble with the law for marijuana in Mobile, but if he had been in Memphis, there would have been no disagreement because it was friendlier to the music culture. Throughout the song, Dylan travels through numerous stages to reach a final resting point, when he succumbs to his environment and his illusional perspective. He has given into the dream, foregoing any introspection into his personal problems. Freudian analysis of this state of mind becomes particularly necessary at the very end, when the conscious mind of the songwriter has chosen to shroud the latent meaning of the dream even more opaquely.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

More Dylan Papers

From Jeremy Strahan:

This brings us to the song “Simple Twist of Fate”. With the knowledge of Dylan’s breakup in mind, the lyrics seem easy enough to understand, as the song immediately opens with two people together in a relationship where love would be quickly found and lost. The persistent use of “wish he gone straight” is Dylan’s own acknowledgement of his faults, placing some of the blame of the breakup on his own shoulders, and perhaps revealing drug use as one of the reasons for the breakup. This, coupled with phrases like “emptiness inside”, “born too late”, and “lost the ring” reveal just how devastated Dylan was over his disintegrating relationship with Sara. However, that much can be gleamed simply from Dylan’s own voice throughout the piece, as he speaks line after line in a mournfully melancholy tone. The theme of regret is further emphasized by the quiet pacing of the guitar and added effect of the harmonica. However, there is something else, more hidden, that the song portrays. Dylan’s conversion to Christianity was far from spontaneous.


Dylan himself called John Wesley Harding (1968) “the first biblical rock album”, and with good reason (Mark 193). Two of the songs contain direct scriptural references; “The Wicked Messenger” comes from Proverbs 13:16-17, and “All Along the Watchtower” is a condensation of Isaiah 21, 6-9, and 11-12, dealing with the fall of Babylon and coming of the apocalypse. This album is stuffed with critiques of American materialism and lack of true spirituality, showing that Dylan’s eventual conversion is not as radical a change as some make it out to be (Mark 109).

A significant portion of the lyrics can be stretched and turn the song into a journey of faith and not of a relationship. The diction is particularly revealing, using the words “sin”, “emptiness”, and the intriguing phrase “born too late”. If we assume the male character to be Dylan himself, it becomes clearer. The women’s gaze that makes him “wish he’d gone straight” can be seen as the savior or an angel of some sort. He is enthralled and filled with a sense of wonder and awe, almost enough to make him confess right on the spot. But he cannot turn away yet; Dylan’s vices still overwhelm him. When he is left alone in the room, we get a sense of Dylan's separation from society, and how he tried so hard to ignore it. He is pondering the state of his life in that room, wondering if there was still a chance to be saved from it all. He wants to fill what is missing from his life. He wants to belong. He was “born too late”, but wants to be born again. His lust for another chance borders on sinfulness, but the ending “maybe she’ll pick him out again”, implies that there is still hope for salvation. Next time, he would be ready to accept the divine calling.

Good stuff from my students: Bob Dylan paper

The research paper assignment was to write about Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks album from one of four critical points of view: political, psychoanalytic, historical/biographical, or New Criticism. I've gotten some wonderful papers, and I'll be posting a few excerpts here.

These are from Hannah Ward:

Independently, “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” offers a great deal of insight into the politics of relationships. As a linear story, it is revealed that all the characters have repressed emotions or motives symbolically presented in the song. The Jack of Hearts is a commanding character, earning attention from all walks of life as soon as he arrives in town. Clearly, he presents a fa├žade in order to appear trustworthy; Lily likens him to a saint and the lyrics also state “There was no actor anywhere better than/ the Jack of Hearts.1” He is blatantly referred to as an actor, not only because he is actually an outlaw, but because his multilayered intentions are masked. It is also stated that “He moved across the mirrored room.” The mention of the mirrors suggests the theme of truth; because the mirrors act as reflecting agents, they show both the surface appearance and the masked truth that the characters can no longer hide from. Though his lifestyle is immoral and he’s a typical western bank robber, his position of villain is actually quite questionable; Big Jim and the Judge seem far more threatening and the Jack of Hearts is actually willing to risk being recognized to meet up with Lily, a possible lover. Rather than evil, he seems clever, capable of disguising his intentions, and incapable of settling down. This is further emphasized through the fact that he looks like the Jack of Hearts and looks like a saint; his true motive is never on the surface.


Rosemary deeply conceals her contempt for her lifestyle. She too desires escape, reflecting female oppression. She seems well off, yet she cannot even earn the attention of her husband. Several symbols surrounding her reflect her rejection of reality; she wears false eyelashes, drinks a great deal of alcohol, and also deals with the confrontation of her own reflection. Yet her reflection is viewed within a knife, most likely the one used to murder Big Jim. The fact that she killed him with this knife shows a very personal connection because she was viewing herself within it. Therefore, she commits murder to obtain truth, or an actual sense of justice.


The other prominent motifs of the song, which often overlap, are playing cards and royalty. The Jack of Hearts is obviously representational of deceptive love. The young man equated with the heart suite displays a more tender side. Yet the fact that he is always a playing card adds the element of risk and bluffing. Big Jim and Rosemary are king and queen, cards of a higher position in most games. However, Rosemary is described as “a queen without a crown.” The lack of such a symbol makes her position questionable. She is technically of a high social position, yet her royalty has been taken away through her husband’s affection for another. Even Lily is described as a princess, youthful and fair in comparison to Rosemary. The allegory of royal figures within the Midwestern United States suggests further social tension as the roles of the wealthy are portrayed in a negative light. The fact that they’re cards also emphasizes luck of the draw situation, as if they are undeserving of such positions.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Simile and Metaphor: Walking Around

I talk a lot in my comp classes about language as a tool for drawing distinctions, and one of the units I use for this lesson is two translations of Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around” – the first by Ben Belitt, the second by Robert Bly. My questions are – what, in general terms, is the poem about? What do both of these translations have in common?

The answer I generally get, and it’s an acceptable answer, is some version or other of “Life sucks.”

Now what about the differences? When do the two versions of Neruda really start diverging from each other?

If I’m lucky, I’ll get an answer like “Stanza four.” It’s a good answer – the level of violence is escalated in the Bly version beyond what it is in the Belitt version. In each case, the narrator is talking about a violent fantasy which he will never enact, but which gives him a tiny measure of satisfaction, a small connection to a life that’s worth living. But Bly won’t be satisfied with finishing a nun; he wants to kill her. My students often go straight there – “kill” is a word that wakes them up.

I say this happens if I’m lucky, because if we start there, I can start directing them backwards…”I can name that tune in three notes!” Does the divergence happen earlier?

Well, yes. Someone will point out Belitt’s desire for a little vacation from things as opposed to Bly’s desire for nothing, or for nothingness – only to lie still like stones or wool. And that’s a good one too, but…earlier?

They’ll take me back another step – what about the Belitt character, relatively involved with life, actually going to a movie and dropping in at the tailor's, vs. the Bly character who walks into tailorshops and movie houses, but with no indication that he actually interacts with the tailor or sees the movie.

But finally…I can name that tune in one note. By the end of the first line, you are looking at two different poems.

And they always get it – the Belitt guy leaves himself an out. He’s tired of being just a man. He can conceivably transcend himself, become something more. The Bly guy is a total nihilist. From there, the rest of the divergences really start to fall in line. Belitt can maybe pull himself together, make something of his life, if he just gets a little vacation from things. Bly doesn’t have a chance. His only ambition is to lie still like stones or wool.

So all of this is my regular schtick with this particular unit, but this time around, we started to look at another place where the two personae diverge – Belitt’s “I won't live like this--like a root in a shadow” vs. Bly’s “I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,”and here you have, in a nutshell, as good an object lesson as I’ve found in the difference between a simile and a metaphor – and one that my freshman comp students were able to pick up and absorb. Belitt is taking a stand – he has the choice of living like a root in a shadow, or breaking out of that shadow. Bly may not want to go on being a root in the dark, but he’s never going to break out of that darkness – which, in any case, doesn’t have the border that a shadow does. If you are a root in the dark, there’s no hope.

Then we went back up to Bly’s earlier simile – “The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool” – and they could see the difference there, too. The simile tells us he’ll never have that perfect stillness of stones or wool,