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Excerpt: (Eric) Ormsby on (Christopher) Ricks on (Bob) Dylan.

By ERIC ORMSBY [from Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place] – Whether writing on Tennyson, Eliot, Housman, Beckett, or many others, Christopher Ricks has always been a critic of exceptional learning and aplomb; that he has been generally given to a somewhat oblique, even eccentric angle of view — embarrassment in Keats, the subtleties of punctuation in Geoffrey Hill — has been to his credit, for while he is in one sense a traditional textual expert of rare authority (witness his editions of Tennyson and T. S. Eliot’s smuttier verses), he has also exhibited a delightful ability to surprise. His new book is no exception, less so in its erudition perhaps than in its surprises. Ricks, who recently completed a five-year term as the Oxford Professor of Poetry, has always been smitten with Bob Dylan; even in The Force of Poetry, his 1984 collection of essays, he included considerations of the singer as a poet rather than as a popular performer. It is clear now that his infatuation with the singer — the word is not too strong — has been no passing fancy but constitutes an all-consuming passion. With his new book, Ricks reminds us, on virtually every page, that the word ‘fan’ derives from ‘fanatic.’

All of Ricks’s impressive analytical strengths are on display in Dylan’s Visions of Sin. There is no song, no lyric, no mumbled comment from an interview with Bob Dylan, all cited here with excruciating exactitude, that does not elicit from this most acute of auditors some elaborate and, at times, almost comically inflated gloss. Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Keats, Larkin, and many others are adduced to shore up his case. While Ricks’s learning and range of reference remain as impressive as always, the very scale of the enterprise overwhelms its subject. It is hard to think of any singer or composer, however brilliant or original, whose work could stand up to the claims Ricks makes for Dylan: Schubert would have quailed with dismay, Noel Coward would for once have been speechless. There is in truth something annihilating in Ricks’s advocacy of Dylan; as I read I found myself wondering at moments if this book did not represent a strenuous effort at self-exorcism, as though subjecting the slightest song and the most casual utterance to such drastic dissection might free the fan at last from his fandom.

As he makes clear in several statements, which Ricks quotes approvingly, Dylan has always been an instinctual, unreflective composer. He is wary, and rightly so, of excessive speculation on ‘the artistic process’. Many of his songs, among them the most famous, have come to him seemingly out of nowhere, and he doesn’t care to track them to their sources.

This chapter from Fine Incisions (“Butterfly on a Wheel [Bob Dylan]”) continues at The Porcupine’s Quill | More Chronicle & Notices.

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