The film actress Kay Francis, reputedly the highest paid female star at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, once told an interviewer, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.” She has all but gotten her wish, since few can imagine Kay Francis was more of a box office draw than Bette Davis until 1938 (the year of Jezebel).
Unlike Kay Francis, celebrities usually want the opposite: to be remembered well past their sell-by date. There’s even a film about it, Sunset Boulevard, as complex a mixing of art and life as the medium ever offered (Gloria Swanson, a genuinely forgotten silent-screen idol plays a silent-screen idol whose servant is her old director, Max Von Stroheim, who was in fact a celebrated German silent-film director.) Not quite Don Quixote, but more than enough layering for a two-hour on-screen performance where you can’t turn back the pages.
John Milton called fame the “last infirmity of mortal man.” He was referring to poets seeking a permanent place in the literary firmament. This same infirmity still afflicts poets and writers hoping their work will last. Even when they are not literary celebrities, they would rather not be forgotten. There are exceptions, of course: the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne refused to publish even his less saucy verse. Now considered one of the finest lyrical poets in any language, Donne and his work sank from sight for more than two centuries. No one cited him in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson did not include him in the Lives of the Poets, despite including such seventeenth-century giants as Wentworth Dillon (Earl of Roscommon), Thomas Otway, and George Stepney. Johnson also excluded all women poets, so Donne was in good company in terms of neglect. But the neglect meant that the Romantics didn’t read him, and Donne had no influence whatever on nineteenth-century authors like Tennyson, Whitman, or Dickinson.
Not until Herbert Grierson, a scholar, published his Oxford edition of John Donne did the poet’s fortunes begin to change. Grierson’s edition was reviewed by no less a celebrity than T.S. Eliot, and Donne’s brilliance shined from under the bushel.
But this is a rare, quirky emergence in the realm of literary culture. As the late Harold Bloom often pointed out, poets make the canon, not editors, professors, readers, or even Amazon. Earlier poems chosen by later poets — “belated,” in Bloom’s vocabulary — serve as models to be imitated, stolen from, reworked, or parodied. This is a cumulative process of formation, since those later poets in turn become the objects of imitation. All these imitated works come inescapably to make up the canon because, to read and study later poets, we must study the works that influenced them.
There are other ways to conceive of canon formation, including discovery-and-recovery missions like Grierson’s, but charting the influence of earlier poets is unavoidable. Walter Jackson Bate called this “the burden of the past.”
Will Bob Dylan’s influence survive as a “burden” on future generations? Will he, in the future, become an unavoidable figure of the American poetic and musical past? Is he already a canonical figure, or is there work to be done, Grierson-style? The Nobel Prize is no guarantee of a place in the literary firmament, as Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis, and (probably) John Steinbeck would testify.
Popular music presents an even trickier problem than literary works. Songs from earlier eras only outlast their first popularizers in nostalgic covers, or, rarely, as with the “standards,” in a new improvisatory art form like jazz.
So where does this leave Dylan’s songs? It’s difficult to imagine what demographic will be strumming “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” in twenty, thirty, fifty years (is there a generation of acoustic guitarists playing those songs even now?). Will there be rock ‘n’ roll bands reviving “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” or “Not Dark Yet”? Given the direction of popular music, this kind of revival seems unlikely.
And what about the Dylan imitators? They used to be legion. Dylan’s phrasing and style, diction, even his inimitable voice demonstrably influenced a generation of guitar players and songwriters. The term Dylanesque became descriptive currency, referring not only to singing and songwriting, but also to something beyond music, an elusive, utterly distinct posture. But would a Dylanesque effort be recognizable today? What would it take for that characteristic to survive? More significantly, can anyone other than Dylan be Dylanesque successfully, or does the term a fortiori indicate a failure to create a personal musical style and distinctive posture? This latter alternative further confirms the threat of obscurity in Dylan’s future.
Ergo, maybe this 80th birthday year—hailed as a milestone by some, dismissed as a non-event by others—should get us wondering. Not wondering if Dylan will endure, but how we can make it happen. Because no one has ever survived without some help, whether from imitators or editors.
Here’s a curious fact. Despite all the voluminous attention Dylan has received, all the interpretation, poring-over, contextualization, and microscopic critical appraisal—and Christopher Ricks’s monumental The Lyrics: Since 1962, which includes variants of the songs. Despite all that, there hasn’t yet been an annotated edition of Dylan’s lyrics. That is, an edition with commentary and interpretation, along the lines of the Yale Milton or the Oxford Ben Jonson or even, more modestly, the myriad Shakespeare textbook editions.
Maybe this gap in Dylan studies is a result of copyright restrictions. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’re toying with canonical survival. It’s all well and good to sneer about infinity going up on trial, or to impute permanence to works we deem unsurpassable. But are we tempting fate to think song lyrics live in the music and die in explications on the page?
There have been translations of the lyrics, most notably into Italian and French. And there are footnotes galore in sixty years of articles and books. But no sifting and collocation has emerged in the form of a single edition designed, at least in part, for future listeners (and readers). This is a desideratum. For example, an annotated edition might include this kind of information:
POSITIVELY 4th STREET*
* 4th Street an east-west running street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a quarter known for its bohemian inhabitants and, during the 1960s, home to cafes and folk clubs. Dylan owned a house on 4th Street.
Inside the museum,* infinity goes up on trial
* museum private or public building that cares for or conserves artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance; curates exhibitions for viewing audiences who walk through the galleries at their own pace.
Don’t laugh: before about 1800, the word museum referred to Greco-Roman temples. Scores of other Dylan lines come to mind, many of which, even today, might benefit from annotation.
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels* of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
* skippin’ reels a) a reel-to-reel tape recorder, the state-of-the-art technology in the 1960s, both in studios and for home recordings; b) a traditional dance, e.g., the Highland Reel.
It’s all well and good to eschew becoming self-ordained professors’ tongues. And it’s certainly a blast to debate interpretations on Einstein “sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet,” or the importance of the “13th-century poet,” or why the trial’s “in a Sicilian court.” Not that these debates should stop — on the contrary, poetry and criticism grow together like the rose and the briar. But hermeneutics alone won’t preserve Dylan. Soon enough, it will be necessary to define Bette Davis, now probably almost as obscure as Kay Francis. And other basic definitions will be called for: what are electric violins, for instance, where’s Montagu Street, what exactly is “a topless place,” who were “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac” (not to mention “Louie and Jimmy and Buddy”), and what about “the land of Oz”? This is not pedantry. It’s preservation. Dylan’s 80th birthday might not be a genuine climacteric. But perhaps we should use it as a bourne at the roadside, a marker to urge selfless planning for future listeners to the music, future readers of the lyrics, future scholars — future Dylanistas.