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.

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