Hampton makes the crucial distinction that Dylan’s real medium is song, not just the written word and not just poetry.
Bob Dylan’s defining quality as a songwriter has always been his literary lyrics, and those who claim him to be a genius point to their poetic nature as evidence. In 2016, when Dylan was controversially awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the debate about the worthiness of his lyrics as literature reached a fever pitch, and the subsequent opinion pieces were, for the most part, not especially illuminating. Luckily, Timothy Hampton, a Berkeley professor renowned for his work on the French Renaissance, has given us Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work, the best account thus far of Dylan’s poetics: how—by what concrete means—Dylan’s songs come to signify, and how remarkably they do.
Some readers, self-professed Dylanologists in particular, will recall when eminent English literary scholar Christopher Ricks published the extraordinary Dylan’s Visions of Sin in 2004. Though that book remains an impressive and prescient achievement, its incisive readings of Dylan’s lyrics depend largely on drawing connections, thematic, formal and otherwise, between Dylan and other figures firmly ensconced in the poetic canon—Keats, Yeats, Donne and others. The approach makes sense. Show that Dylan’s lyrics have features similar to the writing of established poets, and you’ve made a case for him as a kind of poet.
But it is Hampton’s great strength that he builds his own, bold case for Dylan’s poetics by reading and interpreting his lyrics on their own terms, showing them to have a self-standing strength and cohesion. Hampton pays as much attention to a neglected aspect of Dylan’s music—namely, its musicality! The details of his singing, his musicianship (which Hampton, unlike many others, does not dismiss), his chords and arrangements—these, too, are all essential components of his poetics, without which his lyrics, too often treated in isolation from their musical context, would not have the same force they do, would not be able to do the same work.
Hampton charts the transformations in Dylan’s career in a more or less chronological fashion, tracing the shifting strategies of his poetics from his early, disruptive interventions within the folk idiom to the modernist experiments of the late ‘60s, from the restless self-examination of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the “mature” style honed in 1997’s Time Out of Mind and beyond, in his albums of the ‘00s so far. He shows how, from the beginning, Dylan ably navigated the vicissitudes of identity and “authenticity,” thematizing them explicitly in his songwriting through a mixing of registers, idioms and personas.
There is much to love in the book, from Hampton’s tour de force reading of Blood on the Tracks and its poetics of evasion—which manages, among other things, to combine Kerouac and Petrarch—to his bravura readings of “Jokerman” and “Every Grain of Sand.” Rich and indispensable endnotes tease out a fascinating array of implications from even the minutest observation.
In Bob Dylan’s Poetics, Hampton takes a daunting body of work and makes it remarkably accessible, offering rich analysis of virtually every song he addresses, while never giving the reader the sense of imposing his interpretation on us at the exclusion of all others. He shows that, as an interpreter, he is the equal of his material, having mastered not only Dylan’s music but also the cultural history of the country that spawned it, as well as the backdrop of European modernism—literary and philosophical—that served as a bottomless reservoir for the Minnesotan bard.
But most importantly, Hampton makes the crucial distinction that Dylan’s real medium is song, not just the written word and not just poetry; and that it is not until we think long and hard about the connection between literature and song, as Hampton does, that we’ll have a chance of figuring out what that enigmatic navigator of the American unconscious was on about this whole time.