A gifted poetry critic takes on the lyrics of rock bard Bob Dylan.
Ricks (Humanities/Boston Univ.) has penned tomes on Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Tennyson, but he has long been fascinated by Bob Dylan: His 1984 essay “Clichés and American English” was a much-lauded textual reading of the singer-songwriter’s work. In this ambitious and intellectually freewheeling work, Ricks takes a full-length look at the poetic and moral underpinnings of Dylan’s songs. Selecting tunes both well-known (“Positively Fourth Street,” “Lay Lady Lay”) and obscure (“Clothes Line Saga,” “Handy Dandy”), Ricks analyzes them lyrically and structurally in terms of their relationships to the Seven Deadly Sins, the four virtues, and the three heavenly graces. This approach is sometimes strained, and some of the songs don’t sustain the author’s thematic scrutiny. Ricks nonetheless proves to be a lively and learned guide through the sometimes-daunting thickets of Dylan’s compositions. He is especially astute at picking apart the musician’s rhyme schemes and turns of rhythm, and he is an especially lively and (surprisingly, for an English poetry scholar) playful guide through the mechanics of the work. A chapter doesn’t pass without some deft and amusing allusion to other pertinent numbers in the Dylan canon. But the author is less skilled at discussing the meaning and moral weight of the songwriter’s oeuvre. Unlike most Dylan pundits, he completely eschews a biographical reading of the texts; while that might open the door for a fresh consideration, Ricks’s interpretations often seem too open-ended and airless. The reader—especially one with a nonacademic bent—may ultimately wonder for whom this was written. Its length, intellectual density, and plentiful citations of poets both ancient and contemporary will probably put off all but the most devoted Dylan enthusiasts, while poetry buffs will likely ask themselves if a musician, even one of Dylan’s caliber, is worthy of something as weighty as this.
A diverting and occasionally revelatory stroll through a master’s work, but one that will have a difficult time finding an audience.