Christopher Ricks spoke to DR about The Lyrics, co-edited in 2014 with Lisa Nemrow and Julie Nemrow of Un-Gyve Press.
DR: The book is a large, hefty, pricey object. It’s over 1,000 pages and weighs nearly 15 pounds. The printer actually had to hand-bind each copy. So whose idea was it to make the book so imposing, and so impressive?
CR: The creation of the book was very much the work of the sisters Lisa Nemrow and Julie Nemrow who are alumnae of Boston University. I taught Lisa many years ago, and I met Julie subsequently. They are businesswomen, and one of their enterprises has been to create a publishing house of their own called Un-Gyve. They have long loved Dylan and when we started discussing this venture, there came into play very promptly their interest in creating beautiful books. So the design of the book was very much theirs. It’s quite unlike physically any book that they have published.
DR: You’ve accrued many accolades in your career, written many works of critical analysis, including 2003’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin. So why, in the scope of your career, was it time to tackle this collection of Dylan’s lyrics?
CR: The time in a career has to do with, hmm, when one’s going to die, quite honestly. It’s a little bit like Frederick Wiseman, the great documentary filmmaker, wisely making when he did his six-hour film, Near Death, which takes place at the Beth Israel Intensive Care Unit. There was a moment in Fred’s life when he could make that film. If he’d left it much longer, it wasn’t so much that he would be dead, he’s still alive, and in January he’ll be 90 and still producing really first-rate documentary films—but there’s a moment where he was perhaps near enough to imagining incipient death, and yet not so near to it as to find perhaps that he couldn’t get purchase on it. So just as I had long hoped to write a book about Dylan, and took some time to do that, after Dylan’s Visions of Sin I became even more aware of what I felt were unnecessary sacrifices in the previous printing of the lyrics. And so the three of us tried to set out in this book the principles and the practice. It wasn’t anything as grand as a theory, but there are principles about how a song might best be set, and there are principles about what you do about the fact that the printed text is at no point a platonic or definitive version of a song. One knows that very clearly. There are great American traditions of pretending that the printed page is a performing art, so Whitman goes on and on revising, and Henry James goes on and on.
DR: It brings to mind Dylan’s revisions. We’ve seen from the archives page after page of rewrites and revisions.
CR: Yes, well you’ll remember that he had earlier editions, first of all Writings and Drawings, and then Lyrics (1961-2012). He had permitted the printing occasionally of an alternative version. So we do have two or three—we have “Down Along the Cove” in more than one version, we have “Tight Connection,” as well as “Someone’s Gotta Hold of My Heart.” Of course Highway 61 Revisited is a good joke about Wordsworth and people who write such poems, you know, as “Yarrow Revisited.” It’s a great tradition. At the same time, to revisit a song is different from revisiting a poem. But yes, part of the case for doing the edition was to have some record, though not a complete record, of printed variants, and to have some record of sung variants. You could presumably do every bit of it electronically—though in fact what we always find out is that an electronic world is a nightmare as soon as it becomes really big.
So the printed variants selection, you’ll remember, was that the other instances in which we quoted Dylan’s wording should all be from official releases by him. We didn’t go to what are sometimes very interesting changes but which he hasn’t endorsed as among his choices as to what he would like to be remembered by.
DR: Why was it time to put this collection together in terms of Dylan’s career?
CR: I don’t have a good answer to that at all. I was born in 1933. He’s born in 1941. There are a few years when he and I are in the same decade, and I really like that. I’m looking forward to his being in his 80s and my being in my 80s too, before I hit 90. It’s very attractive to me the way in which, you know, he has aged. The process of aging in him has been really very important, and very wisely conducted by him. There’s been none of that sort of Robert Redford good-natured pretense that you’re still young. Which Redford sometimes turns to an advantage in his acting but which is a terrible peril in the performing world. In terms of the edition, the absolutely key figure in all of this is Jeff Rosen, somebody about whom Dylan people disagree but who has always been extremely generous and kind and clear in any dealings with me, with us. I had talked with Lisa and Julie, and we had met to talk to Jeff Rosen about some such work. It was I think literally the day before the lights all went out in New York. Dylan had to cancel. Jeff Rosen said at a certain point, “I’ll talk to . . . ” the person he calls Bob and I don’t: “I’ll talk to Bob about this tomorrow.” The idea was about an edition which did these things: had more alternate versions, had some variants printed and sung, and—this gradually developed—represented on the page the rhyme schemes, the stanza schemes which are what Dylan in the Rome interview talks about as a grid.
DR: What’s this grid?
CR: It’s the grid, perhaps, that Hopkins had or Herbert had in the writing of poems. There’s a sense of a shape—better than a shape because it’s active, this grid. Dylan’s word “grid” comes at a certain time in his thinking, had become a very important notion for him. And you can see that there’s a grid, that “Just Like a Woman” is two lines followed by three lines, followed by a line that bides its time, which then has four rhyming lines and comes back and picks up the line that was biding its time. So it’s not that it’s numerological in the sense of the significance of the number three or seven or nine. It’s not metaphysically numerological, but it is terrifically aware of numbers, and the way in which, you know, the word for a poem in the old days would’ve been “numbers.” “I lisped in numbers,” Pope says. So “Just Like a Woman” should be set on the page so that the eye, in looking at it, sees what a very different shape it has from any other song by Dylan.
He loves doing things with more lines than you might’ve expected rhyming, fewer lines than you might’ve expected rhyming, the bridge—the eye should see that the bridge is a bridge. And the eye, in the case of “Tempest” —the eye should see that there is no bridge. It’s part of the tragedy of the story of the Titanic. That there’s the bridge on which the captain tries desperately to save the ship, but there’s no bridge from the ship to anywhere else. It’s as if there’s a deep pun on what do we mean by a bridge? This feeling of the extraordinary stepping stone that a bridge can be, to change the metaphor.
DR: You’ve mentioned “Just Like a Woman” and “Tempest” as songs that reveal something by the way they’re laid out on the page, which the indentions of the rhymes. . .
CR: Yes, it’s the stanza shape, or the stanza grid, and “reveals something” is both the right and not the right way of putting it. That is, the stanza layout brings things up into consciousness, with the gains and losses of bringing things up into consciousness. It’s not so much, I think, that on the page something is “revealed,” as that something which one had not been able to understand why it worked as it did, you’ve got some insight into how it managed to do this. Now that’s very different from its doing it for you. And we do sacrifice something when we learn how it was done. It’s the old thing that you can’t have at the same time on the trees the fruits of autumn and the blossoms of spring—one or the other. I think there are things to learn from looking at the song on the page, especially as to how very beautiful and varied the rhyming is and the stanza shape is. This way in which a line will have to wait for a while before it finds its brother or sister or husband or wife in another rhyme. This lovely feeling—Dylan is very patient. I mean, he’s living in the most impatient society that’s ever existed—probably. Things are very speeded up; to have to wait five microseconds for your machine to answer is intolerable. The songs are very patient. They’re often about patience: “Eternal Circle.”
DR: Are there any songs that you hadn’t looked at very closely in your career, in your listening to Bob Dylan, that jumped out at you as more beautiful or more complex than you realized when you set them on the page?
CR: I mean, I both approve and then have a reservation about your moving so quickly from “beautiful” to “more complex.” The extraordinary thing about some great lines, whether in prose or in poetry, is how simple they are. “If Not for You” is a triumph of simplicity. “If not for you,” I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. In fact, if not for you, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t see the floor. It’s open. As soon as it becomes a list of things, you imagine a quarrel, you should imagine a quarrel in which somebody, since lovers fall out all the time and a lot in Dylan is about falling out “as lovers often will,” the falling out would be something like this: You couldn’t hear the robin sing, but you could hear the ostrich, or you could hear the raven. It’s beautiful, the song, the refrain, because it simplifies it down to: oh, as I feel about you now, everything in the universe could be in my list, but I have to stop the list at some point. That’s then a matter of the rhymes. Because in the last stanza of “If Not for You,” the rhyme scheme changes. You have a little ribbon that plaits it: “But anyway it wouldn’t ring true.” Both “ring” and “true” rhyme in the stanza, and it’s the only stanza where that happens. “Ring” rhymes with “spring.” “True” rhymes with “if not for you.” So as it’s coming to a close, it has this little signing off. Very beautiful.
DR: And is this something that you in your studies and your writing had realized about the song “If Not for You” before setting it on the page? Or was setting it on the page key to developing a greater appreciation?
CR: The trouble ordinarily with very simple things is that you feel, often wrongly, that everything about them is used up at the first reading—or hearing. It’s not that the more times you need to read or see or hear something the better it is, but it is true that very simple music may be used up earlier than something that is in some ways more subtle. The valuable pun may not be exactly subtle at all. “When she died it came to me”—is that a bequest or is that a thought? It’s not actually complex, it’s just beautifully saying really that everything that comes to you is a kind of bequest. “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Isn’t that wonderful?
DR: Your book is bookmarked to a particular page [opens the book]. “I’d Hate To Be You on That Dreadful Day.”
CR: Pure fluke. [Looks at the page.] And this, of course, is of the utmost simplicity. The important thing here is that it’s couplets, but they’re different couplets, because “Hey hey,” is tinier than “Hey hey hey.” It’s the difference between saying it twice and saying it thrice. I don’t understand people who say, “Come on, that doesn’t mean anything,” and I don’t understand other people who say, “Sorry, it goes two, three, two, two, three,” and so on. Dylan is doing something with the difference between saying it three times and saying it twice. But that’s the rhyme—“hey” “day”—which gives you this word, “heyday.” It doesn’t actually say “heyday.” It says “dreadful day.” But “heyday” is the opposite of “dreadful day.” So this is looking forward to the time when you could be done for. Anybody who on their dying day says, “Hey, this is my heyday.” Samuel Beckett thinking, “It’s better to be dead than alive, best of all never to have been born.” And you can say that the heyday is when you say, “Buster, enough. I’m out of here.” Anyway, among the ones I love going for are “Black Diamond Bay” [flipping through the book].
CR: “Out on the white veranda / She wears a necktie and a.” So that’s the rhyme! “Panama hat” is waiting for “she looks nothing like that.” Our page indents it so the first two rhymes are aligned. Then “Panama hat” is indented a bit and will be aligned with what it rhymes with. Then “Face” / “place,” and so on. You spill on down the page like this, indenting a little bit more always, and then the refrain of course. The refrain is a triplet: “away” / “sway” / “bay” [points down the page]. “S’il vous plait?” So you know where you are with the rhyme. “S’il vous plait” is a bit like “veranda,” the comedy in the rhyme. There’s that interview with Jacques Levy in which he talks about the fun that they had with rhymes. There’s a shape all the way through. Sometimes one sort of guesses at it. Sometimes it’s not altogether clear. Is “were” and “soldier” and “corner” a rhyme? Well, at that point, “lifting” is simply an assonance with “is” and an assonance with “quickly,” so those three rhymes don’t exactly rhyme but they’ve got a sound link in them that they’ve all got the short i. It’s assonance instead of rhyme. We’re helped to see that, I think, by the way in which at that point in other stanzas it is a triplet rhyme. There’s a remark by Norman Mailer when he says about writing and about boxing that the successful thing is rhythm, but being just off the rhythm. And there’s a lot of Dylan which I think is like that. Is “laugh” and “aftermath” a rhyme? “Hand” and “grand” is clearly a rhyme. “Tough” and “enough” is fully a rhyme. “Bags” is an assonance with “aftermath.” It doesn’t rhyme with it. So some of this is certainly up for argument.
DR: What is it about being just off the rhyme? That it adds more texture, more nuance?
CR: It’s a counterpoint. It’s a little bit like what you get in those paintings where, what’s it called when your knee is bent? Contrapposto? It’s famously important with Michelangelo and his David. There’s something about the tiny tilt which is given by having one of the legs slightly off-balance. It gives you the feeling of incipient movement. It’s as if it’s about to move.
DR: So what do you do with a song like “You Angel You,” from Planet Waves?
CR: Yes. I love it.
DR: Where Dylan said in an interview once, Those sound like dummy lyrics that I just made up on the spot at the microphone. What do you do with a song like that?
CR: Well, what weight do you give to what authors say about their work? It’s very tricky. Popular art has a particular temptation to make out that it’s not intellectual, or cerebral—it comes as naturally as the leaves to a tree. So “You Angel You”: “You’re as fine as anything’s fine / The way you talk and the way you walk.” And when he sings, “I swear I could almost sing,” he’s taking up a famous complaint, isn’t he? That he’s very good, but he can’t sing. I think we should never discount what an artist says, but what weight we give to it as a piece of evidence—love that remark of Dylan’s that you’ve got to program your brain so that it doesn’t get in the way.
DR: It’s like in the introduction to the edition, you mention “Negative Capability.”
CR: That’s the Keatsian notion. Yes I do. That is, being in doubt, uncertainties, mysteries without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. It’s not that you shouldn’t be interested in fact and reason, but there can be a point when your reaching for them can be irritable. The poem is a cooperation between things you can reason about and things you can’t reason about, things which will remain mysterious.
DR: Even to the author.
CR: Yes, even to the author. There are very beautiful remarks by all of the great writers, and I think also by the great musicians, but Dylan is in line with Keats in saying that it’s afterwards confirmed in a dozen features of propriety. There are a dozen ways in which I used exactly the right word, though I didn’t have them in mind when I wrote it. That is, I look at it, and it’s as if I can’t have written it myself. All that from Keats. And Dylan speaks like that, doesn’t he? He often speaks as if the song is somehow out there. He doesn’t speak as if it’s a séance and it’s being somehow channeled from some great unknown. But this feeling that you couldn’t have said in advance why that was altogether right.
DR: This plays into the question of genius. You’ve often said that Dylan is a genius, and in fact a “fascinating and extraordinary genius of a certain kind.” And in the introduction to this edition of the lyrics, you also claim that “genius is free to do what it chooses.” So, what is Dylan’s kind of genius and how do we understand it as “free to do what it chooses”?
CR: Some of it is the traditional sort of definition of what the highest imagination is. That is, where do we locate it, the extraordinary imagination that this man has? Now, it’s an imagination fortunately that is always braced against things which are not imagination, but which are matters of fact. That is, he is rightly at liberty to take certain liberties with the facts. He’s not allowed to make up somebody who hits over the head a woman with a cane and she dies. Or rather he’s not at liberty to make that up and call this person William Zanzinger. He’s at liberty to spell Zanzinger’s name differently (from Zantzinger). And there’s that tiny change that it makes to have it not be exactly the court case. Strange how that works. And of course, as he sings it, you don’t see the spelling.
The great account is by Coleridge. It isn’t a definition of, it’s a characterization of imagination as the “balance” and sustenance “of opposite or discordant qualities.” That the great thing to do is be able to have a more than usual state of order with more than usual emotion. A more than usual sense that it is exactly fitting, with a more than usual sense of how surprising that is. “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” So there’s tension. These are opposites. If it was often thought, surely it must’ve been expressed perfectly well already. So there’s this feeling, the combination of that which is new, with that which is true. It’s easy to say something new if you don’t care whether it’s true, and it’s easy to say something true if you don’t care whether it’s new. But to have this extraordinary combination of the new and the true, which is there for me in such a line as “Take what you have gathered from coincidence.” Where “gathered” is partly a thing in the head (“I gather from what you said. . .”) and partly it’s the accruing of things that aren’t just something you understand, but are really gathered, pieces of knowledge, pieces of information.
Tarantula is evidence of things about Dylan. It’s less good than the songs for lots of reasons. But the letters in it are terrifically good. Everything about the butter sculptor, everything about the professor who says, “Don’t forget to bring your eraser.” All those things are very good. Anyway a lot of it is evidence. “April or so is a cruel month,” is not quite the very the best thing that Dylan ever does with Eliot, but It’s a lovely thing to have done with Eliot—even if it’s not as good, as deep, as “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower.” The great thing is the depth with which Eliot is apprehended. “April or so is a cruel month” is witty—I wish I had thought of it myself.
The genius is partly the general case for extraordinary powers of imagination, as the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities, that includes the discord between the words and the music. There are quite different ways in which he sings the words, “It ain’t me babe,” because there are moments within that when he can’t not be resentful and angry about the misrepresentation of the relationship that supposes that it is me, the person you want. When he sings it sometimes, he can’t conquer resentment and irritability and it’s very, very dramatic like a Donne poem: “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.” And some of Dylan’s exchanges with people are saying, “For God’s sake hold your tongue,” and others of them are saying, “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, sing a song for me.” I’ve spent all my time singing songs for people, sing a song for me. I won’t fall asleep and I’ll really listen to it.
Then of course it’s the particular kind of genius you need to have if you’re in a performing art. You need especially not to long for the definitive. Artists tend to think, “It’s perfect, it’s consummated, it’s a well-wrought urn.” There’s nothing to do to it, be careful not to break it. Dylan’s feeling is all the time that as you get older, “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” That means a different thing to the singer. And as his audience ages, it means a different thing to his audience.
DR: This brings me to the question of setting the lyrics apart from the music and the voice, which you’ve spoken of as well. You’ve called it a “danger” in “privileging the words.”
CR: I hope I don’t say “privileging.”
DR: I have it right here. You say “privileging the words.” This is in The Telegraph in 2016, after the Nobel win.
CR: Maybe I said it in a sneering, sarcastic way. It was really, “What you trendy people call ‘privilege’.” The argument about whether they’re poems or not seems to me idle. A song is a combination of words and of a voice, or of different voices, and of music. No one of those, as I’ve tried to spell out, is more important than the others, because it is in the nature of a compound that all the things that are in it are indispensable. It’d be like saying, are the wings more important than the tail of an airplane? They had better be organically related. So I try to set that aside. They’re not poems but this is because their medium is not words alone. And it’s not true that the medium is the message—the medium changes the message. I don’t think Dylan ever thought, with the editions of the lyrics, that people would read the words instead of hearing the songs. I can’t imagine anybody wanting this book instead of wanting the songs. I suppose I would, if I were thinking about what I said to the Telegraph—I’d probably want to drop “danger” and “risk,” and I’d certainly want to drop “privilege.”
CR: Although it meant something in those days. The thing is, there’s a price that’s paid for doing things. There’s a price that’s paid for every decision anybody ever takes. The reason why great art isn’t sentimental is that it repeatedly knows it’s sacrificing something. The translator always knows he’s sacrificing. This kind of creation is a sort of translation. When Dylan re-sings “Just Like a Woman,” he’s translating the song so that it becomes another song. It’s impossible for there ever to be translations without sacrifice. I mean, only somebody who would want his or her head seen to would suppose that The Lyrics is offered as a substitute for listening to the songs. What this will sometimes do is give, I think, a good account of what the words probably are that he is singing—not indisputably, because there are occasions when he either hasn’t or doesn’t want to be absolutely clear.
DR: So there’s something that’s going to be lost by putting it on the page.
CR: Yes, but there’s something that’s been lost if you were to scorn the idea that you never try to find out what the words were.
DR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CR: I’m glad that you haven’t made central to this interview the question of what exactly are the words that Dylan sings at this point, that point, and the other point. Lisa, Julie, and I have done our best to be fully responsible about it. Lisa and Julie are American and repeatedly hear correctly that which I don’t hear correctly, and that’s often that an idiom escapes me. I remember the first time I heard “Hurricane,” I just didn’t know what the phrase was, what it alluded to. We don’t for instance in England have anything called “out-of-state plates.” It’s a funny little phrase and sung with a certain kind of speed. I just couldn’t hear what it was. Lisa and Julie were extremely good at hearing. I think they in no way disapproved of my saying in the introduction that this edition isn’t definitive. Sometimes it’s not definitive because what do you do about “freeze” versus “frieze”? Dylan might prefer the printed text to be e-e-z-e, but “wallflower” goes so well with “wallpaper,” with what a “frieze” is, as to have that float in. Knocking about near the words of the song there are these other words. That’s a perpetual question, but it isn’t actually a question that is very valuable. Dylan rightly doesn’t want to discuss it.
 Not said, but written, I now realize, and put in italics by me. – CR