ROBERT REGINIO, REVIEW OF TIMOTHY HAMPTON'S BOB DYLAN'S POETICS: HOW THE SONGS WORK

[PDF version here]

Timothy Hampton. Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work. Zone Books. New York: 2019. 285 pages. ISBN 978-1-942130-15-4. $29.95.

REVIEW BY Robert Reginio, Alfred University

Bob Dylan’s Poetics, the main title of Timothy Hampton’s excellent exploration of form, suggests that the study will detail a theoretically informed analysis of Dylan’s corpus in an attempt to make an argument about the philosophy of poetic language underpinning the artist’s experiments. The subtitle, How the Songs Work, tamps down one’s expectation for such a speculative study, connoting a strictly formalist approach to the songs. Neither the main title nor the subtitle gives one a sense of the study that follows.

What Hampton provides the scholar and critic is a model of theoretical and methodological diversity perfectly suited for the present moment of Dylan Studies. Attuned to literary genealogy, the forms of popular music that make up the texture of Dylan’s art, and the implications for listeners excited by the uncanny strangeness of even Dylan’s most popular tunes, Hampton is uninterested in stabilizing this moving target.

 

In Hampton’s study, Dylan is paradoxically both a curator and an iconoclast, oftentimes in the very same song. For example, in Hampton’s first chapter “Containing Multitudes: Modern Folk Song and the Search for Style,” he pays close attention to the dialects and idioms Dylan strategically uses in the song “With God On Our Side”:

The “hobo” language of “I’s taught and brought up there” immediately gives way to the old-fashioned sounding phrase “the laws to abide” which is semantically vague [it could mean either “to tolerate” or “to obey”] . . . the phrase generates an alienating effect, as if the singer knew something about grammar that we don’t, as if this phrase actually “worked” grammatically in some sociolect somewhere, in some local tongue that we would recognize if we knew what the singer knows. (37)

Hampton links the singer’s alienation from the history he has inherited and his concomitant solitude to the way Dylan places Guthriesque “hobo” language against the “old-fashioned” language of law and tradition. The drama of the singer’s disillusionment unfolds in our ear. As careful curator, Hampton implies, Dylan incorporates, even in his early compositions, a wide variety of phrases, idioms, and dialects. As Hampton insists, this “collage” of discourses creates an aural environment that is strangely familiar. But the spark of familiarity fades quickly, and as listeners we are uprooted from those discursive communities that lend us a sense of being at home. As an iconoclast, especially in “With God On Our Side,” Dylan employs this “collage” of discourses to question the primacy of any dominant narrative. Hampton’s study moves chronologically through Dylan’s recorded work. Dylan’s songs are shown to recover and to reanimate an ever-increasing range of citations. The tensile way in which these citations are curated in the songs oftentimes serves iconoclastic ends.

As Hampton argues in the following chapter, “Ramblin’ Boy: ‘Protest’ and the Art of Adaptation,” Dylan invents a new type of Guthrie/hobo figure to inhabit. This figure stands between the world of his primary listeners (white, college-educated members of the folk revival) and that of his sources (Hampton singles out African-American blues). Dylan deploys a kind of semantic wandering in fashioning this “rambling” figure. “[T]he invention of a new type of hobo,” writes Hampton, “is linked to the collage style of writing”:

Indeed, the two phenomena—the performing identity and the style of the lyric—are two sides of the same coin. The rambling boy is the thematic embodiment of the poetic technique shaping Dylan’s lyric style. Dylan’s composite lyricism, drawing on both working-class American idioms and “exotic” imported song forms, is the manifestation, at the level of form, of his mercurial persona, and vice versa. It is impossible to say which one generates the other. (50-51)

His songs (that is, the words and the music) offer performative sites where affect can be mapped, historical perspectives can be challenged, and literature can make urgent demands upon an engaged listener. The method of Dylan’s “composite” poetics produces lyrical and musical fragments. The result of his songs’ interrogation of their own coming-into-being is a dedicated iconoclasm.

“Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth,” Dylan sings on 1983’s Infidels. The line figures as a typical pronouncement of the doubled nature of language and performance in Dylan’s allusive art, suggesting anything from the echt-Romantic trope of the artist as merely the Aeolian harp the Muse(s) might deign to plug into the PA system, to the eyeball-and-cigarette Cubist-portraiture smoked and punched into place by the railroad man in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” This disfiguration aligns with that song’s lament about the artist’s existence as one filled with endlessly unspooling tape reels onto which he repeats refrains and echoes and reconfigures words.

For this reader, the most important implication of Hampton’s formal study is the theoretical argument it implies. Hampton clearly describes the remarkable way marshalling only a few echoes from folk songs or literary traditions allows Dylan to create a compelling series of personae. Performing in the guise of a constructed persona has always been at the center of Dylan’s art, and these performances have allowed him to fashion a voice replete with overlapping discursive echoes. And yet, however much a few scraps of previously shaped (or stolen) language can express the self, this process simultaneously undoes the stasis of self-identity. In exploring how Dylan’s songs work, therefore, Hampton presents the reader with a compelling narrative of an artist reinforcing and undoing the notion that an individual identity draws its strength from tradition.

On Infidels, the refrain of “I and I” focuses on just this sort of self-reflective poetics: “I and I / In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.” The disorienting moment of self-reflection (“I and I”), of self-undoing, and the moment of “creation” seem linked in Dylan’s art: this is the implicit thesis of Hampton’s study, making Bob Dylan’s Poetics quite timely as scholars begin unearthing what the Bob Dylan Archive may tell us about how the songs work. In addition, Hampton is refreshingly polemical. Hampton insists, for example, that “Dylan’s own art, from its very first manifestations, has consistently questioned, taken apart, and criticized every feature of the very culture that made it possible” (13). In this statement, Hampton argues that a turn to sources is a critical act for Dylan. It is a recursive gesture, neither a recovery of the past nor an establishment of a link to the past that secures the singer’s sense of his place within a historical continuum.

Dylan expresses his fidelity to his sources by recreating, through allusion, the essentially disruptive effect those sources had upon him. Hampton’s framing of Dylan’s project in this way runs counter to critics who may read the performances’ multifarious cultural and historical contexts as grounding Dylan’s work in a variety of traditions. For Hampton, even Dylan’s earliest songs remain uncanny echo chambers. A tall order, then, for the twenty-first-century critic of Dylan’s art: one must carefully listen to the songs reverberate in the “memory palace” that makes Dylan’s art possible while attending to the cracks and fissures in the cultural foundations produced by the songs’ reverberations.

The resonant phrase “I and I“ is lifted without attribution from Rastafarian theology and twisted from its original theological emphasis on unity. Moreover, “I and I” is only a step away from Rimbaud’s infamous “Je est un autre” (“I is an other”). Hampton forcefully argues that for Dylan, informed by Rimbaud’s poetics of disintegration and visionary profusion, “[l]anguage . . . works through resonance, as much as through reference” (91). In a discussion of the visionary mode of Dylan’s mid-1960s work, Hampton steps beyond the by-now clichéd invocation of Rimbaud to illuminate the confusing, synesthetic labyrinths of epics like “Visions of Johanna” or “Chimes of Freedom.” He establishes Rimbaud as a writer for whom the dissolution of the cultural foundations of poetry energizes the act of creation.

One of the most valuable interventions offered by Hampton’s book occurs when the context offered by Rimbaud’s poetics is expanded to include the tradition of modernist poetics. Less interested in delineating precise lines of influence, Hampton identifies “the technical discoveries of modernist art” as the proper context for Dylan’s poetics (26-7). The most salient discoveries for his analyses of Dylan’s songs are:

the fragmentation of time and space, the vexed worrying about the past, about tradition and originality, the idea of culture as ruin, [and] the emphasis on artificial or invented objects and moments as bearers of peak or authentic experience within an increasingly unreal ‘real world.’ (27)

While one can sense the paradoxes to come in identifying “authentic experience” as the result of an encounter with the “artificial,” Hampton’s sketch of modernist art’s preoccupations supports his assertion that we read Dylan in the light of this specific literary tradition. Dylan’s recursive exploration of American popular music—from rock and roll to folk revivalism and back to rock again—is reflected in the powerful performance of the songs.

For example, when reading “Tangled Up in Blue” as concerned with “the problem of generational identity as a problem of collective illusion” (i.e., as a fragmented, critical return to a time when “revolution was in the air”), Hampton argues that the song’s propulsive form inaugurates “the theme of performance,” a thematic concern that casts “his own song as a special type of illusion, as fragmented lyric insight, self-conscious, oblique, even difficult” (140). As the forms of Dylan’s 1960s “vision music” settled into a kind of mannerism, Hampton argues Dylan turned to the contrapuntal structure of the sonnet (as defined by Petrarch) to occupy, as performer, this oblique relation to the past. Hampton’s formal analysis of “Tangled Up in Blue” remains consistently linked to his figuration of Dylan as a modernist: “Dylan’s response [to stylistic mannerism] is to turn to older forms of representation, archaic models that can help power an ironic break with the recent past” (141). This gesture, of course, is a modernist one: in this quote Hampton could be describing the poetic theories of Ezra Pound, his infamous injunction to “make it new” invigorated by a fixation on the power of the fragments of Sappho to break the back of decorative Victorian verse.

Indeed, according to Hampton, Dylan is alive to Rimbaud’s provocations and the modernist poetry that followed, even in his earliest compositions. Dylan’s citation from Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” in “Song for Woody” (“Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men / Who come with the dust and are gone with the wind”) is, Hampton insists, a complex gesture. “Dylan cites these lines to evoke not the life of the migrant worker,” he explains, “but the wandering (and well-known) folk singers who were Guthrie’s friends” (55). Teasing out the implications of such a layered allusion, Hampton argues “at the very moment that Dylan cites Guthrie’s account of migratory labor experience, he turns that citation against itself. Those who wander nowadays are folksingers” (56). For a young Dylan introduced to Rimbaud’s poetics, “I is another” denotes perhaps his recognition of himself in the French provocateur. That would also be a doubled moment: in it, the artist discovers a resonant lineage while also realizing that he is (as we all are under the conditions of modernity) belated. The question thereby remains: how does it feel?

In terms of the songs’ powerful effects on how we feel, one must consider Hampton’s augmentation of his brilliant lyrical analyses with his exemplary musicological description. Like Alex Ross, Hampton remains scrupulously detailed in registering the changes in key and chord structure that undergird Dylan’s songs without discouraging a reader unfamiliar with musicological nomenclature. A riveting moment comes in Chapter Three: “Absolutely Modern: Electric Music and Visionary Song.” As he tells the story of Dylan’s development from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding, Hampton’s analysis of the musical structure of “All Along the Watchtower” sheds light on Dylan’s commitment to a thoroughgoing questioning of identity. “The density of figuration” (a wonderful phrase that could be applied to many songs on the album) in “All Along the Watchtower” is a result of the fact that “no narrative mediation links the Joker and the Thief” to the song’s “two riders.” Joker (an artist figure) and Thief (a marauder) “exist in equipoise,” thereby frustrating an attempt to pin down the artist as a marauder engaged in acts of love and theft (116). Hampton then explains that this “density of figuration” can be heard in the musical structure of the song. He notes that the chords which make up the harmony of the tune are “very close in sound” and “the only break in this dense structure is the one-beat passing chord, a B major, which, like a swimmer emerging for an instant to grab a breath renders perceptible the otherwise murky alternation” of the two linked chords that make up the basis of the tune (116). We hear, in this description, the song’s ability to suggest an apocalyptic conclusion while flashes of individual histories (like the conversation of Joker and Thief) break the surface. Even a reader unfamiliar with the technical language of musical notation can follow along, grasping the precipitous soundscape that links the fate of Joker and Thief. As Hampton’s analysis reveals, however, “All Along the Watchtower” contains a fleeting, energized interruption that tugs at the ear. This subtle inflection essentially questions the notion of fate. Such an effect underscores the song’s ambiguous conclusion. Blonde on Blonde’s phantasmagoric indeterminacies are pared back on John Wesley Harding, but Hampton uses his musicological analysis to nail down the essential continuities between these albums. 

And yet, the scrupulous analyses of both lyric and music in this book seem hampered by a need on the author’s part to ground any speculative poetic theorizing on definitive sources (e.g., he assures us all too often about the relevance of Rimbaud’s proto-modernist poetics by alluding to Dylan’s own allusions to the French rebel in interviews and liner notes). Such strict bookkeeping cannot at all be faulted—this is an exceedingly erudite book in which every endnote counts, in which every proposition is slotted aptly into an apposite critical conversation, sometimes far afield of Dylan Studies. Hampton’s book registers that the most beautiful aspect of the music is when, inside these museums that make up Dylan’s songs, echoes sound familiar and estranged in the same moment. His study satisfies in the way that it offers several schemas for reading Dylan’s work, and he proves most adept at utilizing the work of writers known for their determined arguments about poetics (Rimbaud and Brecht, for example). But he leaves no schema in a fixed central position. This rhetorical move strengthens the book.

On the other hand, at times Hampton seems beholden to language used as a vehicle for moral argument. In such moments we lose sight of Dylan the iconoclast. For example, Hampton sometimes explains that Dylan’s songs “mediate” between phenomena. In commenting on Infidels’ critique of neoliberal capitalism, Hampton writes that the song “Jokerman,” because of its allegorical nature, “works to mediate between private experience and the public experience that was being retooled for the full onset of neoliberalism” (186, my emphasis). The verb “to mediate” is vague. It suggests there is a role the song plays between its affective power over its listener (its status as an artwork) and the social surround (the history it reflects). The vagueness of the verb holds back a potentially radical reading of literature itself. Rather than “mediator,” is it not that a song like “Jokerman,” in its ironic subversion of the putative ends of allegory, stands as (or in) the gap between commodifiable cultural products and history itself? Hampton gives voice to this potentiality when he writes of this song’s “self-consuming dimension,” how all the virtue imbued in the figure of the “Jokerman” “is revealed by the last lines to have been an illusion.” Hampton continues, “[t]he album may be full of infidels and idolaters, but we may be the biggest infidels of them all if we believed Jokerman could fix things” (185). Hampton’s insight can be brought to bear upon the song’s own enunciation of its various intertexts in a leveling list: “the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy / The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.” We begin with the Jewish scriptural roots of Dylan’s Christianity when he invokes some of the most proscriptive texts in the Torah. We then hear the everyday excuse for apathy in the face of exploitation (“it’s the [natural] law of the jungle”). “[T]he sea” suggests a kind of generic “poetic” setting. Listing—as it was for Joyce, and more corrosively for Beckett—is a de-essentializing, satiric gesture. Hampton’s arguments therefore shed light on the difficult “fixity” of the Dylan text when they stray from the tendency to see the songs as “mediators” of our experience in a history already mediated by texts and scriptures.

It is a testament to Hampton’s sensitive, critical connection to his subject that the various forms of interpretation Dylan’s work has yielded are felt at every moment in his text. But it makes for a crowded book. Hampton seems prepared for a full-length study of Dylan’s work from 1997 to the present. For example, his chapter on “Late Style and the Politics of Citation” is a brilliant exploration of what Hampton insists has always been present in Dylan’s work: a radically leveling reincorporation of distinct discursive modes and traditions into new patterns of expression. His argument thereby steps beyond the commanding formal analyses of Christopher Ricks and their relative silence on the problem of history. Early on, Hampton argues

Dylan was able to seize [the] empty space in the structure of the folk music world, presenting himself as “authentic” yet not “traditional.” He was shrewd enough not to try to reinsert traditional songs back into their now distant contexts . . . [r]ather, he would invent the fiction of a new cultural space beyond the mainstream. (31)

The loaded distinction between “authentic” and “traditional” in this passage (i.e., between a cultural expression steeped in its past and one aware of the terminal nostalgia of “traditional” recreations) is incisive. Recognizing this distinction sets Hampton up to describe Dylan as aware of the patterning of the self through discursive streams whose sources remain counter-voices to the “homogeneous empty time” of modernity. As he insists about Dylan’s work: “The voices of the past are violently available to the imagination at any time. They ring through the present. A body on the street in Manhattan could be from Gettysburg. If Dylan is anything, he is a historical poet” (34). The adverb “violently” in this quotation carries with it a clear-eyed and convincing sense that Dylan’s borrowings, as much as they exploit textual indeterminacy to open up a space of expressive freedom, nevertheless carry with them a political and ethical charge.

This foundational definition of Dylan’s poetics as eminently historical, while not only furthering the argument that Dylan may be placed in a modernist context, establishes a theoretical leitmotif in the book that sheds new light on Dylan’s most recent compositions. Rather than trucking in universal categories of morality and judgment, Dylan is preoccupied with violence. On the one hand, he is drawn to the figurative violence of disruptive modernist poetics. These strategies can be found in Dylan’s meta-awareness of his audience in his mid-1960s work, which also comments on the violence of modernity’s appropriating cultural industries. On the other hand, Hampton insists Dylan is responsive to the traumas of historical violence and how these traumas define the American landscape.

Coming full-circle in the book’s later chapters, Hampton argues that Dylan’s work after Oh Mercy explores “the processes of cultural memory and the isolation of the individual cut off from past and community. . . . The answer to desolation seems to be self-conscious performance and the circulation of bits of cultural information [based on] a rhetoric of the fragment” (218). Perhaps one of the central questions of modernist poetics—is a fragment a recovery of a part of the past, a suturing of present and past in the name of justice, or an untimely presence testifying, in unending echo, to loss?—lingers over Hampton’s stunning analysis of “Workingman’s Blues #2.” Rather than figuring Dylan as an artist in exile, on his own among his storehouse of memories, Hampton uses the song’s Ovidian allusions to think deeply about exile itself. For Hampton, exile is not a transhistorical, existential fate for the poet cast from the realm of power, nor is it expressive of an artist’s contrarian agency, as it may be in the voluntary exile of James Joyce from the fair north country of Ireland. In the lives of Guthrie’s wandering hobos, as well as in Dylan’s early ruminations on the dark side of “wanderin’” in songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Don’t Think Twice,” and “One Too Many Mornings,” exile is a felt phenomenon. Hampton, however, makes a crucial distinction: “Whereas Guthrie sings about the rambling forced on him by the Dust Bowl, Dylan’s persona rambles to get songs that he can then sing . . . about his rambling to get songs” (46, ellipsis in the original). A footnote in Hampton’s text takes in Walter Benjamin’s theorization of the flâneur and Peter Doyle’s study of Jimmie Rodgers’ invention of the wandering American cowboy singer. The intersection of the footnote and Hampton’s reading of Dylan’s Guthrie persona spark manifold possibilities for reading Dylan as invested in the perpetuation of a series of stylized personae that simultaneously reflect and undermine an understanding of modernity as that which threatens authentic identifications. Both of the cityscape and removed from it, Benjamin’s flâneur is not so distinct from Jimmie Rodgers’ own “wandering” persona. Hampton’s critical survey of Dylan’s self-fashioning has the virtue, therefore, of remaining steadfastly equivocal on the status of popular culture and the cultural products we designate as “art.” While this mixing of high and low culture is a well-worn feature of most accounts of Dylan’s work, Hampton indicates avenues of critical speculation where Dylan doesn’t simply “mediate” between “high” and “low” culture. Rather, as in Benjamin, Dylan intermixes ways of reading “proper” to high culture with those affects that are “simply” the province of mass culture’s consumable products. To shift between these ways of reading leaves a listener informed by Hampton’s study in a virtual state of exile.

Hampton’s culminating reading of “Workingman’s Blues #2” exemplifies the study’s productive methodology. In his analysis, Hampton strategically unpicks the citational threads in the opening verse of the song. The reference to “the Proletariat” brings us back to Guthrie’s crowded union halls, while the line “They say low wages are a reality” sounds like a snippet of punditry echoing from a TV set. As Hampton argues, the line “is a secondhand thought, something picked up, perhaps, at a tavern like the one celebrated by [Merle] Haggard’s well-employed hero” (219). If there is a constant, Hampton argues, it is that exploitation, a founding aspect of neoliberal capitalism, has the power to surround us with a plethora of consumable goods, but its historical working out leaves us with only those (in this song, now scarce) products. Disconnection and dispersal, interwoven in the song’s lyrics, leaves us achingly nostalgic and empty. Moving from the song’s references to Ovid and his exile, Hampton argues that the entire point of this song “is that, in the world of globalized capital, everyone is an exile. Even if you are home, you are not at home” (220, emphasis in the original). Sensitive to the different registers of discourse juxtaposed in the opening verse, Hampton notes that “the break in history that I have highlighted throughout Dylan’s late work, the split between an empty present and some earlier moment of plenitude and meaning, is here intensified through the Ovid reference. Not even Ovid had it this bad” (220).

For Hampton, Dylan investigates the effects of formal experimentation. His experimentation—informed by the modernist preoccupation with the problem of history and the recursive play of citation against expression—takes us from “the dynamic blends of idioms that characterizes the early songs . . . to [the mid 1960’s] collage of images, names, and cultural references” (97). The literary equivalent of guitar feedback, his songs become “mosaics of cultural noise” (97). Dylan’s late style retains a fidelity to such restless innovation. For Hampton, Dylan’s allusive late style does not serve to veil an essential self: his late style presses blues lyricism (and the poetics of the resonant fragment) against the narrative coherence of the traditional ballad. “[T]he structural looseness of the late style dovetails with the conventions of the most archaic of forms, which lends itself perfectly to the disjointed postmodern world being painted,” Hampton writes. (204). We thereby find in Dylan’s art an unblinking focus on form as a means through which we can feel our own being in history: a time out of joint, a time out of mind.

The editors welcome feedback at editors@dylanreview.org