“Dylan and the Beats,” June 3-5, 2022, Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education, Tulsa
REVIEW BY Robert Reginio, Alfred University
The Zarrow Center for Art and Education is a small space located in the same building as the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Zarrow Center was the intimate location of this year’s conference “Dylan and the Beats,” planned to coincide with the centennial of Jack Kerouac’s birth. It was the perfect space as this conference, unlike the expansive “World of Bob Dylan” conferences, focused specifically on its titular theme. Rarely have I experienced such a warm and convivial coming together of minds and energies as at this conference. It is to the credit of the organizers from the University of Tulsa Institute for Bob Dylan Studies that the excellent range of speakers and panelists were, by and large, experts in Beat literature and not solely dedicated Dylan scholars. Thus, the activity of tracing routes between the literary legacy of the Beats and Dylan’s work energized question-and-answer sessions, and conversations among the scholars and the conference attendees. This meeting should serve as a model for the kind of focused deep-dives of public intellectual inquiry that the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies can facilitate. Ultimately focused on Dylan, such kinds of conferences can draw lines from the affiliated Bob Dylan Center to the multiple histories and cultures the work comments on and is shaped by. Whether the number of participants can be kept to this ideal minimum for intense and unified cross-disciplinary conversations (which was due, in part, to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions) has yet to be seen.
The keynote addresses, spread across the three days, encompassed wide-scale surveys informed by rich historical research (Douglas Brinkley on Dylan, Guthrie, and Kerouac), presentations offering specific analytical modes to evaluate Dylan’s literary debts to the Beat writers (Rona Cran on Dylan and verbal collage and Timothy Hampton on Beat poetics and its modernist predecessors), and unique reinterpretations of Dylan’s poetics of the road (a blistering poetry reading by Anne Waldman and a revelatory return to Dylan’s 1964 “Kerouacian” road trip by David Hajdu).
Douglas Brinkley’s opening keynote address stressed the inescapable influence of Guthrie, Kerouac, and especially Allen Ginsberg on Dylan’s development as a songwriter-poet. Brinkley peppered his talk with evocative quotes from his own interviews with Dylan – “Woody never let me down,” was Dylan’s assessment of his debt to this road-traveler. Dylan’s response to Brinkley that “Allen’s poetry felt like a big city even as he writes about Wichita […] sharp words that seem to sweat when you read them” teased out the differences between Ginsberg’s major vatic style and Dylan’s ever-shifting poetics. As other presenters during the panel sessions would mention, Gregory Corso’s work – especially Bomb – was pointed to as an under-referenced work of Beat writing integral to compositions such as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Brinkley offered a portrait of Dylan as a thinker and composer who has these predecessors ever in mind, his legendary gift of recall keeping the past of this strand of American literature alive at his fingertips.
Regina Weinreich presented a wide-ranging assessment of Kerouac’s immigrant roots, his subsequent outsider status in American letters and culture more broadly, and the place of sexuality in Beat culture in her keynote “Orgasms Against Empire: Thoughts on Outlaw Culture.” The images in Kerouac’s prose, Weinreich argued, are like “neon light against the solidity of red brick,” complicated literary gestures that in Weinreich’s reckoning meant that, to live in America, Kerouac hid his immigrant otherness and, yet, proceeded to live – and write – honestly. Crucially, the confessions of the Beats were means for redemption both on a personal and a national level. In the light of this Beat genealogy, the putatively staid “Confessional poets,” such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, narrowed the scope of poetry’s cultural work. Redemption of the Beats’ complicated and, admittedly, ambitious sort was not a driving force behind the literary confessions of Lowell and Bishop, which the Beats assumed remained focused on personal epiphanies.
Driven by the recent death of Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman paid tribute to this Beat poet by reflecting on the importance of archives. Aptly, in close proximity to Dylan’s sturdy archival edifice, Waldman mused on the precarity of the archives of the Naropa Institute, intoning “What is your one hundred year project to protect sentience?” as if the tangled bits of memory and desire that make up our sentient minds can settle into legible patterns in an archive. Facing death, though, Waldman insists that we must archive nevertheless. Her poem “Archive Litany” was read with feral Beat force. Lines like “An archive is a strange cosmology,” “Archive listens to the marginal,” and “Archive is nest is house is reverie,” revived the anaphoric poetics of Ginsberg and the political valence of such litanies. Of the past Beats who have died, “solid irreversible entities” they are not. They remain for Waldman the “muscle genius” of their texts, as she proclaimed empathy was the way to avoid “the robots from taking over the archive.” It was bracing to hear a Beat poet incanting invectives against the levelling forces of accumulation that made the evening possible.
A dominant mode of Dylan’s late style – textual and lyrical collage – was seen as operative throughout Dylan’s corpus by Rona Cran in her keynote address on Dylan and the art of collage. Arguing that collage begins with a cut – a violence, even – Cran explained how the new context into which cultural detritus or literary allusions are placed allows these bits of culture to retain an aura of strangeness. In a song like “Desolation Row,” the impending dissolution of American culture that shades the song exists alongside a constellation of juxtaposed characters who are stripped of our tendency to read these icons and historical figures in hierarchical terms. Thus the work of Pound and Eliot, but also Burroughs, intersects with folk and blues traditions in Dylan’s work. Cran sees The Basement Tapes as an experiment in collage and archiving, noting that Beat writers and French symbolists shaped Dylan’s collage practice in the songs leading up to those experiments. In those songs (in the great trilogy of 1960s albums) we find “aphoristic non-sequiturs” (think “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) and “psychedelic composite narratives” (think “Visions of Johanna”). Collage is central for an artist who abounds in influences, but who never seems purely derivative.
In his own keynote address, David Hajdu returned us to Dylan’s 1964 “Kerouacian” cross-country trip, famous for producing songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom.” The goals of this trip were to see America, to break from the Greenwich Village folk scene and its insular music, to promote his latest album, and to gather stories for more writing. Hajdu quoted Victor Maymudes: “Dylan was just happy to be in the car, to write, to listen to the radio, and to get high.” Hajdu explored the pivotal music Dylan would have heard over and over again on AM radio: this was Dylan’s first deep immersion into The Beatles’ music. Hajdu offered up the wonderfully provocative results of a particular musical experiment: listening to the songs that dominated the charts during Dylan’s trip, Hajdu discovered that Dylan took the pop aesthetic of the day and brought it to the compositions for and recording of Another Side of Bob Dylan. “These songs sound like demos for a band record,” Hajdu asserted. While the lyrics echo with the influence of Beat poetry, the music was influenced by the popular music of the day. Dylan used harmonic structures of this music to integrate this new pop music with the rhythm and imagery of Beat and Symbolist poetry.
Timothy Hampton’s keynote focused on the ways in which Beat poetics intersected with Dylan’s development as a writer at key points. The tools of his poetics, identified by Hampton as “voice,” “vision,” and “rhythm,” supplied Dylan with a new way of crafting songs. Ginsberg links “voice” (as “Howl” has it, “confessing out the soul”) to “rhythm” (“the rhythm of thought”). This kind of poetry breaks away from traditional meters and bases new poetry on the rhythmic patterns of American speech. Hampton argues that it is only in popular song that voice can become a rhythm instrument. The idea of “vision” for the Beats, or “images,” has nothing to do with metaphor – as in Imagism. Juxtaposition is key for Beat poetry and the movement from one image to the other inaugurates a kind of process rather than stabilizing the verse in a traditional way. Dylan adapted this idea of process to the modality of the popular song. Locating Rimbaud as a key figure in insurrectionary American writing, Hampton argues that, for Dylan, the visionary experience prominent in Rimbaud’s writing is the central focus of “My Back Pages,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” These songs offer up composite figurations, a piling up of rhymes, and a playing of vocal rhythm against the time of the music in order to amplify the juxtapositional poetics of Dylan’s Beat-inspired work in which causality and values are radically transformed.
For the panel on “Writing On the Road,” Jean-Christophe Cloutier outlined the crucial moment when Kerouac, after writing to Neal Cassidy about the key experiences of Quebecois youth, wrote his first novel in French. This dramatically shows us, Cloutier averred, that, as Kerouac himself put it, “I never had a language of my own.” Cloutier argued that Kerouac’s experiments on the famous scroll that became On the Road were deeply rooted in this duality between linguistic homelessness and a dedication to full expressive honesty in the American idiom. The quest for an American language produced the “revolutionary modern sound” of Kerouac’s writing. That the literal quests of On the Road were understood by Dylan as a quest he too would undertake – to find a new American language – was the main thrust of this intriguing survey of Kerouac’s experiments on and investigations in American English.
For a panel on Beat spirituality and the search for a “vision” or a “visionary poetics,” Nina Goss looked closely at the language of prophecy that permeates the work of the Beat writers. For Goss, that language was refashioned in Dylan’s songwriting. Identifying a tension in Dylan’s work between the singer-prophet and the obligations of the filial identity, Goss noted that the listener of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is put in the position of the questioning mother, listening to the unfolding visionary strophes while asking for filial piety in her own urgent demands for sights, sounds, and narratives. Thus the struggle is to compress his childlike yet visionary poetry to the language of the mother, a repository of communal demands for communicable visions. The result is the song’s expression of a drama of a split self, the singer torn between his devotion to his mother and his visionary calling. Looking at a song structured in a similar way (as an address to a mother/listener), Goss argued that, in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” various eclipses contend with the attempt to wrest meaning from vision. Although the prophet/singer insists to his mother he’s “alright,” the question of what it means to be true in language troubles the poet. Ultimately, the drama of these songs reflects the insistence in Beat literature on personal “vision” and its duty to contend with communal, even national, identifications.
In a panel on “The Black Beats,” William Harris spoke about the relationship between Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) and the “New American Poetry,” as Donald Allen’s influential anthology, with Baraka as an advisor, termed it. Although Baraka was quoted as saying that “There’s only one person in New York City I trust: Allen Ginsberg,” he felt the term “Beat” was too limiting. He was shaped by Beat writing, but he also in turn shaped it. Gregory Corso told Baraka, “if you don’t represent the middle class ofay world…you are in trouble.” Yet, when the assumption was made by Beat writers that Baraka was trapped, as a Black writer, because he was called on always to write about “his people,” Baraka retorted, “who are Joyce’s Dubliners, then?” This retort signifies the turn towards cultural nationalism and Blackness that began in 1963. Thus, Harris framed Baraka’s 1964 collection, The Dead Lecturer, as a conflicted book, much like the contemporaneous Another Side of Bob Dylan, in that he questions his relation to the Beat generation. Both the poetry collection and Dylan’s album explore dissolving and emerging affiliations for the writers – a renewed emergent sense of community for Baraka and a deferral of such communal ties for Dylan. Harris insisted that Baraka, even when moving from an avant-garde view to a cultural-national one, always, in his poetry, is talking to his friends, a coterie-poetics found in early Beat writing, which Baraka expanded to include a cultural nationalist perspective.
Maria Damon drew into the ambit of Dylan Studies another African American Beat writer. On a panel titled “Hard Travelin’,” Damon made the convincing case that Bob Kaufman’s “The Ancient Rain” is an American jeremiad in the vein of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Inspired by Lorca’s Poet in New York (coin of the realm in underground, Beat circles) and the folk scene (Kaufman taught “Rocky Road” to Len Chandler and Dave Von Ronk), Kaufman’s poem evokes the “crackling blueness” of the enforced Electroconvulsive therapy Kaufman underwent and the line “into the crackling blueness they go” from a Lorca poem about Harlem. These contextual and intertextual elements brought Damon to the point that historical work – such as reviving the work of Kaufman – is difficult because of the persecution of political radicals, queer people, and Black people. The “crackling blue” – evoking the blue tones of Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue,” itself a meditation on a radical time when “revolution was in the air” – indicates a liminal space where the persecuted live, the “blue zone of fact, memory, and history” as Damon put it. Dylan and Kaufman offer us a mode of “sampling” textual weaves that excavate these liminal zones without demanding clarity from them. In Damon’s reading, the ungovernable “contact zone between fact, memory, and history” is the focus of “Tangled up in Blue” and Kaufman’s “The Ancient Rain.”
In the estimation of Timothy Gray, Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (an admitted literary failure) and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks were artistic retrenchments from personal failures that shifted the writers’ modes from grand visionary literature to personal reflection. Gray’s panel presentation on the Rolling Thunder Revue noted that since Blood on the Tracks was, indeed, such a profound breakthrough in Dylan’s work, it encouraged Dylan’s traveling and performance in the Revue. Thus, for Gray, the tour sought to maintain a balance between the madcap energy of On the Road with a kind of nostalgia for early-1960s folk revivalism. This balance – more of an “oscillation” – sustained a kind of shape-shifting endemic to Dylan’s career and, most pertinently, the performances on this tour. Noting that the figures in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train were at the ends of their rides in 1975, Gray argued Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour was a self-conscious farewell to the 1960s, an era when rock and roll turned into “rock” (its “imperial phase” as Gray put it).
Since “The World of Bob Dylan” conferences, held in a capacious hotel and not the specific, intimate environs of the Zarrow Center, can at times overwhelm with overlapping panels on a myriad of subjects, it is shrewd for the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies to host, in the intervening years, conferences like this. Fans and scholars were able to partake in deep dives which a larger conference might not allow. In contrast, intensely focused conversations, as found in the excellent “Dylan and the Beats” conference, offer a complementary space to work, in a sustained way, on one of the contexts scholars can use to understand the work of Bob Dylan.