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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, December 03, 2009


Starting to catch up with the issues of London Review of Books that come through the door every fortnight, I reach that for September 10 and in a letter from an Anthony Paul in Amsterdam I find this terrific thought from the poet Paul Muldoon, from his Author's Note to his Poems 1968-98, pursuing the logic of feeling that there is a mystery, or visitation, or transcendence, at the heart of poetic creation:

"I have made scarcely any changes in the texts of the poems, since I'm fairly certain that, after a shortish time, the person through whom a poem was written is no more entitled to make revisions than any other reader."

I love that. Of course when it comes to poets who did feel free to revise their texts substantially, the first people who spring to mind are Wordsworth and Whitman; but when Muldoon calls himself "the person through whom" the poems were written, I think too of early Bob Dylan, saying as he did that he felt the early songs seemed to exist in the air and that he was just the person who wrote them down.

All this relates to a similar thing I've always believed about art: that since the artist can only know about the work done by the conscious part of his or her mind, and not about the undoubted contribution of the unconscious, the artist is no more an authority on the work than the rest of us, provided that we're interested, receptive and attentive. This is why had I been writing a biography of Dylan, an interview might have been helpful but writing a book about Dylan's work meant that I felt no need to try to interview him. People have often expressed surprise when I've explained this; Paul Muldoon would not have been surprised.


Blogger Frank said...

An interesting point. Against Muldoon's view you could, of course, hold Paul Valery's assertion that "A poem is never finished, only abandoned". This would seem to advocate successive refinements, and certainly Dylan has improved certain of his lyrics over the years.Tell Tell Signs shows us, interestingly, how, over a shorter timescale, Dylan made massive improvements to Dignity, one of his great creations of the last twenty five years.

5:23 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Then again, as this recent "ptervin" comment (on the Hoagy Carmichael entry) reminds us, Dylan seems still to feel sometimes that a song can simply "arrive", as it were:

"Don't forget the comments Dylan made as a DJ on Theme Time Radio Hour concerning Carmichael:

'One of the most famous songs Hoagy every wrote was “Stardust” and like many song writers he wasn’t sure where it really came from. This is what he had to say the first time he ever heard a recording of “Stardust”: “And then it happened. That queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it at all. The recollection of how, when, and where, it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it. Maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you.” Hoagy Carmichael on “Stardust”. I know just what he meant.' "

9:40 am  
Anonymous Bev said...

Absolutely, and I think in literature that's a well accepted point (D H Lawrence, Barthes etc. etc.) To my mind, Wordsworth's revisions are in effect different poems.

But then once a novel, poem etc. is published it is out there and in a sense 'finished' whereas a song can be recreated every time it is sung live. And here all the dreaded questions of 'authenticity' seem to come a creeping in: "What does Bob think about x, y, z?" To which I always think, "Forget Bob - what do YOU think?"

Without wanting to sound too gushing, I think one of the great things about S&DM3 is that it sticks to this approach.

6:39 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

You're right - and thank you.

8:43 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

visual artists are continually revising their work, at least the ones who draw do. The act of drawing, particularly from life is a continual and essential act of revision.
however I often find visual artists first thoughts are the freshest and best, as in final pieces the hand and eye "tighten up". John Constable springs to mind, his preliminary sketches for the "Leaping Horse" are far more interesting than the final piece

11:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is most refreshing to read this thread. I'm in total agreement and have often, in discussion with Dylan fans and authors, been lambasted for them. There are so many examples of giant literary figures (especially Romantics as opposed to Classicists and Modernists as you'd expect but even among those latter groups)saying similar things about where the inspiration came from for poems in particular.

I empathize totally with Bev's comment: "What does Bob think about x, y, z?" To which I always think, "Forget Bob - what do YOU think?" but I would have to point out (again) that it had no connection to what I mean by authenticity in singing (see comments under Peter Doggett's review) as that can apply to covers of songs by anyone (either gender0 at anytime far less self-penned lyrics.

those who insist on seeing art through an autobiographical light can never see the art itself. Perhaps especially in the case of Dylan (a 'pop star' after all)they never really have any interest in it. They do not seem to realise that just because we know external facts (and myths and lies and misinformation) concerning Dylan’s life it does not mean we know anything of the private man and we are even further from having the slightest insight to the creative imagination of the artist.


12:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dylan, of course, talked about learning to do consciously that which he had previously done unconsciously, in connection to that masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. It's true that the unconscious has a huge impact on the creation of art; but so does the conscious mind. The artist isn't necessarily the best judge of his own work, but still - he can, if he chooses, nearly always offer insights no one else would be able to. Ricks said this :
“…I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious. Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual. So if I am asked whether I believe Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn’t. And if I am right, then in this he is not less the artist than more”.

3:15 am  
Anonymous likeatrain said...

Re: authenticity. With a singer, there is rhythm and melody, in addition to lyrical content, to consider. Which is to say that any senese of 'authenticity' derived from a performance of 'Wagoner's Lad' need not be the result of the singer's empathy (be it 'real' or merely the empathy of a fine actor) with the lyric. Particularly for Dylan, a singer with such a gift for improvisation,it may be that in such cases we are hearing a passion for the in-the-moment possibilities of melody and rhythm, a 'joy of song' if you like, even an abandonment to song - a moment where all else melts away and it is perhaps not even important whether the sung words are 'hard is the fortune of all womankind' or 'jump into the wagon, throw your panties overboard.'

I'm not suggesting that this is always the case, just that it might help account for those moments of 'authenticity' where the listener wonders what 'personal connection' the singer can have to the lyric.

It may also account for a point made on another thread, namely that Bob in concert can appear to sleepwalk his way through a song and then suddenly deliver a couplet as if it were 'written in [his] soul.' I would suggest that such moments are more likely lit by a musical spark than illuminated by any sudden reconnection with the lyrical content.

11:07 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Again, thank you for these three further comments of real thought and interest.

2:29 pm  
Blogger Waldo said...

And Dylan remarking on Van Morrison's work, "'Tupelo Honey' has always existed and Morrison was merely the vessel and the earthly vehicle for it".

12:57 am  

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