Why Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas
Controversy about the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan (76) raged for months over 2016 and 2017. In Why Dylan Matters Richard F. Thomas, a classicist at Harvard, provides an impassioned validation of the Swedish Academy’s decision. Dylan matters to Thomas because his songs have been a constant in his own life – important even before Thomas studied Latin and Greek. But Thomas also thinks Dylan matters for everyone because his work will endure just like that of Virgil, Homer, Ovid and Catullus.
Thomas mourns the fact that the young of the twentieth-first century rarely study the languages or literatures of the ancient world. Like Robert Zimmerman I studied Latin in my formative adolescent years. Like Richard Thomas I went on to spend my career teaching poetry, prose and drama. Unlike us, Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan and wrote the lyrics and music for some of the world’s greatest songs.
Speaking of his life recently Dylan remarked that ‘if I had to do it all again I’d be a schoolteacher – probably teach Roman history or theology’. 60 years ago he was one of the male members of the mainly female Latin club at Hibbing High in Minnesota. But from 1957 onwards his path was directed only towards being a musician, although as Thomas writes ‘Rome and the Romans turned up in his songs from early on, and they continue to play a role in his creative imagination’.
At Harvard Thomas teaches a seminar course entitled Bob Dylan. He treats the work as he would that of any other writer. It is possible that Why Dylan Matters is a transfiguration of those weekly classes. With his students, and now his readers, he undertakes close reading and draws attention to the sources that resonate in the songs. He provides grids to illustrate the material that Dylan reuses. Here are some lines by Catullus. Here is a song by Hank Williams. Here is a letter from Ovid. Here is Woody Guthrie. Here are Rimbaud, Verlaine, Cavafy, Timrod and Burns. And here, on the other side of the chart are Dylan’s ‘transfigurations’ of their words.
Thomas is an apologist for Dylan’s process. What research reveals is that Dylan’s work, like many texts, is full of allusions or intertextualities. In this way knowledge of the inspiratory work increases understanding of a song. But, insists Thomas, Dylan is actually a plagiarist or thief because he does not acknowledge or cite his influences. And he does not care to talk about what his songs mean.
In spite of his career as an academic, Thomas seems to admire this magpie behaviour. He quotes T.S. Eliot who maintained that it was the habit of immature poets to imitate whereas mature poets steal and turn other people’s work into ‘something better or at least different’. As we know one of Dylan’s albums is titled Love and Theft.
Why Dylan Matters is about what Dylan calls ‘transfigurations’. Thomas records and annotates these borrowings in detail but he develops his treatise with some discussion on the effects of translation. Greek, Roman and French literature has to be translated for most anglophones.
Versions of the Odyssey, for example, differ from each other: the most famous perhaps being the one championed by Keats in his iconic sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. The Odyssey, in English for the first time, was transfigured for the Romantic poet.
Peter Green’s Penguin translation (1994 – now out of print) of Ovid’s poems of exile appears as a ruling concept in Dylan’s album Modern Times. Thomas compares four lines from Workingman’s Blues #2 and one from Ain’t Talkin’ with five lines from Green’s translation of Ovid’s Tristia and one line from his Black Sea Letters.
So, according to Green Ovid wrote ‘I’m in the last outback, at the world’s end’. Dylan sings: ‘In the last outback at the world’s end’ in Ain’t Talkin’. Ovid writes in Tristia ‘wife, dearer to me than myself, you yourself can see. Dylan’s version in Workingman’s Blues #2 is ‘You are dearer to me than myself as you yourself can see’.
Dylan clearly lifted the words and phrases directly from Green’s translation, barely transfiguring them at all. And these letters or poems of Ovid obviously appeal to him, states Thomas, because they are ‘artistic creations of the voice of one suffering from solitude in a hostile, unwelcoming setting at the end of the earth’. Thomas suggests that in Modern Times Dylan was making himself alternate or ‘other’ selves with which to populate the stories of the album.
Dylan has obviously been using Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation of The Odyssey. Like Green’s Ovid, Fagles’s Homer is reasonably contemporary. But it would be interesting to know if Dylan has yet read the 2017 iteration by Emily Wilson. In this, the first published translation by a woman, Wilson changes the focus of the story from patriarchal misogyny and exposes centuries of prejudiced translations that call Helen of Troy a ‘shameless whore’ (Fagles) or ‘bitch’ (Stephen Mitchell). Wilson has Helen explain that the Greeks ‘made my face the cause that hounded them’.
Dylan, who writes often about women, likened himself in his Nobel lecture last June to Odysseus saying that both of them ‘have shared a bed with the wrong woman, have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies’. He seems to see himself, like Odysseus, as a trickster who is ‘greater than them all and the best at everything’.
In the same lecture Dylan suggests that he’s ‘one against a hundred, but they’ll all fall, even the strongest’. In his own life Dylan has striven to keep himself ‘other’ from the Dylan that many fans want to preserve in aspic. A Dylan about whom every detail is known and whose songs can be mapped precisely against his personal experience.
Dylan however refuses to be pinned down. For him his songs are timeless – not about one marriage but about all marriages, not about one war but about all wars. He explains that reading Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front in high school was a life-changing event that led him to the realisation that wars are designed by people who ‘hide in your mansions / As young people’s blood / Flows out of their bodies / And is buried in the mud.
He spent a third of his Nobel lecture talking about the novel thus underlining the fact that his song Masters of War is no more about the war in Vietnam than it is about the Trojan War or any future war.
For me lyrics on the page are not poetry. Dylan is a songwriter and his words are for singing. The patterns that he creates work as music and performance but not as printed poems. The singing voice can compress or stretch words to create emphasis and rhythm and, of course, repetition is precious to the listener. Ironically the Odyssey and the Iliad were conceived as songs and what we actually experience now is the lesser form of printed translations.
Thomas describes Dylan’s working process as ‘a creative act involving the “transfiguring” of song and of literature and of characters going back through Rome to Homer’. But for all his scholarship he makes it a rule to attend several Dylan concerts every year. He lists Dylan’s set for November 19th 2016 and advises a visit to YouTube to get the full flavour. Because, as the final chapter heading reminds us, The Show’s the Thing. Listen to Bob Dylan in performance. But read this book for help on how to hear his lyrics.
Dylan, Bob. ‘Ain’t Talkin’. Modern Times. Columbia. 2006. Album.
—. Love and Theft. 2001. Columbia. Album.
—. ‘Masters of War’. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. 1963. Album.
—. Modern Times. 2006. Columbia. Album.
—. ‘Workingman’s Blues’. Modern Times. Columbia. 2006. Album.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. 2014. Atria. Print.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. 1996. Penguin. Print.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Emily Wilson. 2017. Norton. Print.
Ovid. The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters. Trans. Peter Green. 1994. University of California Press. Print.
Remarque, E. M. All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A. W. Wheen. 1929. Little Brown & Co. Print.
Thomas, R. Why Dylan Matters. 2017. Harper Collins. Print.
A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 17th February 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.