Starting and Ending Well

A Review of Dylan's Visions of Sin
by Christopher Ricks



by Paula K. V. Radice




Well, the long-awaited Dylan opus from Professor Christopher Ricks has finally arrived; a 500-page-plus beauty of a book, too. Many have been looking forward to reading it since the late 1960s, when Ricks first declared his literary love (and maybe more, according to the tongue-in-cheek, or rather, just cheeky interview he gave in The Sunday Times recently) for Dylan: I have only been waiting for it since I heard him lecture at the Royal Geographical Society a year or two back - a fabulous lecture which centred on The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll - but my wait has been no less impatient. Professor Ricks is not, of course, the only academic to have "come out" on Dylan's side, as it were, but he is unique in the loftiness of his stature in the groves of academe, and has long been the most prominent of the heads which have raised themselves over the risky parapet of the "Is Dylan a real poet?" debate. 

That it is still a risky parapet has been more than amply demonstrated by the critical ferocity with which Dylan's Visions of Sins has been received, at least in the British press. Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate - who has more than a slight vested interest as another highly visible pro-Dylan lobbyist - has been just about the only positive reviewer of the book (his review appearing in The Guardian). Although many of the negative reviews have acknowledged the weight of Ricks' authority (for example, John Sutherland in The Independent allowed that Ricks is "the best reader of English poetry we have") all have found more in the book to object to than to praise.

So what is it they don't like? Their objections seem to fall into three categories: one, that Ricks' verbal trickery dazzles and astounds, but is more style than substance; two, that Ricks is clearly unable to be objective about Dylan - there is nothing, apparently, in Dylan's work that Ricks doesn't like - and that this therefore rules him somehow unfit to carry out critical analysis; and three (and this is much less overt in some reviews, but I think is central to the negative barrage that has met the book), Dylan is not a "proper" subject for a "real" intellectual to be enthusing about in the first place, and therefore the whole basis of the work is compromised. 

And they are wrong on all three counts. 

Dylan's Visions of Sins is, I think, the most insightful, entertaining and worthwhile critique of Bob Dylan's writing ever published (note that I said Dylan's writing; nobody has yet to top Paul Williams for understanding Dylan as a performer) and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who wants to access a new perceptiveness about Dylan's words

Dylan is a master user of language, who loves turning it about in his hands (and his mouth), loves turning it upside-down, inside-out, twisting different layers of meaning from hoary old clichés, making us and himself laugh out loud with double entendres, puns, slapstick linguistic silliness. And so does Ricks, and that is why he can do Dylan more justice than other writers: he understands and shares Dylan's impulse to play with the words. It should be fun, and not po-faced. How many literary reviews have you ever read that make you laugh out loud, not just occasionally, but as a matter of course? What some reviewers have chosen to see as "Tricky Ricks-iness" is instead just a very Dylanesque appreciation of language as plaything. What  Andrew Motion calls the "shimmer and scintillation" of Ricks' writing style stamps his own personality on every line; he does not maintain a steady critical distance from Dylan, but enters with him into his light-footed dance of praise to the English language. It's all a game, he says; enjoy it, revel in it. 


Christopher Ricks - Dylan's Visions of Sin

For all Ricks' erudition, this is an easy book to read, not full of technical poet-jargon, but brimming over with little lightnesses of touch. "Brownsville Girl  starts Well", for example. (It does. It starts, "Well, there was this movie I seen one time..." This review starts Well, too). Just a daft, deft little touch, but endearing. Here's another of my favourites: during his appreciation of Blind Willie McTell, Ricks throws in the phrase "to wit the owl, and the maidens to woo".  Dylan would love to have written that, wouldn't he? It reminded me of some of my Dad's jokes: often you can't decide whether to laugh or groan, but they're entertaining, and a crucial part of who he is.  Certainly, there are "dazzling fireworks" of "cleverness", as one reviewer scornfully put it (about Ricks, not my father), implying that the linguistic dazzle substitutes for substance: but fireworks are beautifully illuminating. Sean O'Hagan's conclusion, in The Observer, that "Ricks seems unable, or unwilling, to write clearly and concisely for the benefit of the common, or indeed informed, reader" simply baffles me.

Much of the writing is just lovely, and brings an instant sense of recognition. Of Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, for example, Ricks says "it enters a mythological once-upon-a-time where the clock doesn't tick". Yes, it does, we nod. Of Blind Willie McTell, "we arrive at this conclusion, at art's being a glory of man that does not wither". Absolutely right. There's no tricksiness there, just a getting to the heart of things, clearly  and beautifully. The whole exploration of Blind Willie McTell is lovely, actually. I didn't think anyone would be able to get as close to the real heart of the song  - "this lucid, mysterious song", as Ricks terms it - as John Bauldie did, but Ricks does. For example: 

The refrain is perfectly pitched and poised. And even the form that the magnanimous praise takes... is one that very humanly and decently combines the utmost praise with a somewhat different inflection, one that emphasizes McTell's uniqueness, not simply or solely his superiority... Perfectly judged, and determined to do justice to McTell.  

Anybody bewildered by that? 

There are many less profound examples of Ricks' felicity with words working to throw light. Under the Red Sky is full of "cursery rhymes", he says. How could anyone not love that phrase?  It perfectly sums up the album. 

Perhaps the reviewers missed the point because they didn't know their Dylan well enough? There are so many Dylan in-jokes that perhaps we should all have volunteered to act as interpreters for the uninitiated. Ricks talks, for example, of  

...songs that stroll and songs that stride, those that prance and those that saunter. Amble or gambol, meander and maunder. Foxtrot, lope and pace

Uncredited Dylan lyrics pop up all through the book, tossed into the mix. We will pick them out and appreciate their resonances, but I suspect many of the reviewers didn't. Perhaps it wasn't Ricks' fireworks but Bob's that confused them. 

Which brings us to the second point. Does being an unashamed "fan" of someone's work rule you out of meaningful criticism? One reviewer concluded scornfully, "The writing of this book was, I'm told, a labour of love..." Should Ricks have included more discussion of the weaker points of Dylan's writing, to give a better balance and objectivity to the book? Or is it simply not just natural that, faced with the challenge of decanting Dylan's ten-gallon-sized output over the last forty years into a pint-pot of 500 pages, Ricks should choose the songs he values highest, and cares most about, to discuss? 

None of us, even the least sane (amongst whose number I count myself), would argue that Dylan's corpus is of a wholly consistent quality. Whose work would be, over a forty year period? It's just consistently better than everyone else's, that's all. 

We all, I hope, accept that some (slight) criticisms might conceivably be made of songs like Wiggle, Wiggle and To Make You Feel My Love. But why should Ricks waste pages on them? This book has been a long time a-coming; he wants every page to count, and who can blame him? He has said himself in interview that he wanted to include only songs to which he felt he could bring some original appreciation - thus ruling out even some very central songs, like Visions of Johanna. And I know that Ricks can be objective about even songs universally acknowledged as great Dylan works. In the lecture I referred to earlier, for example, he criticised one of the verses of One Too Many Mornings as being significantly weaker poetically than the others. So it's not that he can't be objective, it's just that he chooses not to be, not in this book, anyway. He's waited a long time to gush about Bob. It's a very natural, normal instinct. 

So what about the third point? I can sense in nearly all of the negative reviews (with the exception of Sean O'Hagan's piece in The Observer) an underlying resistance to the idea that the work of a mere songwriter, a popstar for God's sake, can be treated with the reverence due to "real" literary figures. It's much easier to ridicule the academic who has lowered himself to popular culture. This is clearly the line taken, for instance, in the - admittedly very funny - pastiche in last week's issue of Private Eye, a Ricksian dissection of Cliff Richard's "Congratulations". Of course, it's funny that Cliff Richard is compared to Blake and Eliot. But it's not incongruous that Dylan should be, and it's rather disappointing that this battle still feels like it needs fighting. 

Still, if there are some that remain to be convinced of Bob's legitimacy in the literary canon, Dylan couldn't wish for a more able or committed advocate than Christopher Ricks. Anyone who can describe the Bard of Avon as "that Dylanesque writer William Shakespeare" must be A Good Thing, don't you think? If the literary establishment doesn't like Dylan's Visions of Sin, I know a lot of fellow Dylan fans who will enjoy every page, and feel that here is a writer who connects with Dylan in the same way as themselves, but is able to bring a unique perspective and expertise to the quality of the connection. Dylan's Visions of Sin does Dylan justice, nothing more, nothing less. It does what it has to do, and it does it well.