Visionary Dylan

Absolutely Modern: Dylan, Rimbaud, and Visionary Song

by Timothy Hampton

The essay begins:

In December of 1965, Bob Dylan gave a news conference in San Francisco. Following his rise to fame in the early 1960s as a writer of politically themed “folk” songs, Dylan had caused a stir several months earlier at the Newport Folk Festival by appearing on stage in a black leather jacket, accompanied by an electric blues band. Now he was beginning an extensive tour to play a new kind of music—music that he described in his press conference as neither folk, nor rock, nor folk-rock, but something called “vision music.” In this essay I want to consider what that phrase might mean.

images-2In what follows I will argue that Dylan’s famous turn to “electric music” is part of a larger stylistic shift in his approach to writing and performing—a shift that unfolds across the middle years of the 1960s. Imagery, lyric form, musical structure, and even the dynamics of performance are recalibrated through new strategies that emerge to replace the earlier interest in topical songs. This is what I will call a “visionary poetics.” It places Dylan in a tradition of visionary poetry reaching back as far as Dante. However, as I will show, Dylan’s development during this period takes shape through his dialogue with literary modernism. For mid-1960s Dylan, the visionary is the modern. My focus will be, principally, on the trio of great “electric” albums produced in the mid-’60s: Bringing It All Back Home (1964), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). What interests me is less the notion of “poetic inspiration” (often assumed to be part of some generational Zeitgeist) than the development of the specific literary techniques and musical innovations through which Dylan expands his songwriting range. I will trace the ways in which the expansion of his songwriting palette during this period generates a set of aesthetic and ethical problems that place pressure on the forms of popular song.

Certainly, Dylan’s expansion of his lyric range owes something to the work of the Beat Generation and, in particular, to Allen Ginsberg, who was seated prominently at the San Francisco news conference. It was no accident that the San Francisco visit included a pilgrimage to the beatnik mecca of City Lights Books, where Dylan was photographed in the alley behind the store with Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure. This was the already aging royalty of the Beats, who had, in their own time, rejected the collective activism of the Old Left to pursue individual beatitude or “beatness.” Dylan was bringing Greenwich Village intellectualism to the epicenter of the emerging sensory-based West Coast counterculture, casting himself as the heir to an earlier visionary generation. Yet Ginsberg had been working in a visionary mode from his very first published poems. Dylan now had to make himself into a visionary; he had to develop a new poetic vocabulary and link it to the limited formal capacities of the popular song.

arthur_rimbaud_gThe touchstone for any study of visionary self-creation is neither Ginsberg, nor Ginsberg’s idol William Blake, but Arthur Rimbaud. It was Rimbaud who had given first voice to the brand of visionary modernism that Dylan would embrace. It was Rimbaud who had announced that the poet “makes himself into a visionary” (Illuminations, xxx). And it was Rimbaud who had codified, in his letters about poetry, the procedures and limitations of the visionary mode. My discussion here will set Dylan and Rimbaud in dialogue, less as a study of influence—though influence is part of the story—than one of affinity, using Rimbaud’s canonical accounts of visionary poetry as a template for tracing Dylan’s development. Continue reading …

Bob Dylan’s turn from “folk music” to “electric music” in the 1960s involves the development of a new visionary poetics. Through a consideration of his affinity with the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, this essay traces Dylan’s recasting of himself as a visionary and studies the pressures placed by this process on lyric form, on poetic diction, and on the representation of the self in popular music.

TIMOTHY HAMPTON is Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of French at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Fictions of Embassy: Literature and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe (Cornell University Press, 2009). He is currently working on a study of the history of cheerfulness.

An Idea Proper to Poetry

Retcon: Value and Temporality in Poetics

by Joshua Clover

The epistemological rupture proffered by finance in the seventies, seeming to inaugurate a distinct mode of production, is merely a form of appearance that capital’s struggle takes in crisis, beneath which the capitalist economy remains under the sway of the law of value and its source in socially necessary labor time. While narrative fiction has been taken insistently as the relevant literary mode or genre for understanding the motion and particularly the temporality of finance, poetry finally provides a better heuristic for such an understanding and, more substantially, for grasping the motion and dynamic of value moving behind the seeming of finance’s hegemony.

This essay is from Representations‘ current special issue Financialization and the Culture IndustryThe introduction to the issue by C. D. Blanton, Colleen Lye, and Kent Puckett, is available online free of charge.

240_jcloverJoshua Clover’s present work revolves around political economy and forms of revolutionary struggle, including the co-authored “Can Dialectics Break BRICS?” (an assessment of class composition and communist party possibilities in emerging economies, with Aaron Benanav) forthcoming in South Atlantic Quarterly, and the Little Book of Riot, forthcoming from UC Press. He is a professor at the University of California, Davis; in 2015, he will convene a Residential Research Group at the UC Humanities Research Institute, studying “Culture, Industry, Finance.”

Photo: C. Dingler

The Literary Mirror

Tang_Dynasty_bronze_mirror_with_dragon

“When is a traditional Chinese ‘poem on things’ (yongwu chi) not a poem on ‘things’? When the perceived and, eventually, constructed nature of the particular thing being described is at odds with, or somehow exceeds, its prescribed function as a discrete object of perception. One such object is the mirror, which appears in some of the earliest Chinese historical and philosophical documents in our possession, before entering the lexicon of classical poetic expression some time around the third century—at the very moment when the tradition of individual lyric expression as such was beginning to take shape. At that point, although it carried with it centuries of discourse relating vision to questions of knowledge of self and others, its capacity for creating meaning would soon exceed anything that could rightly be called symbolic or even metaphorical. The mirror would become one salient thing that would reflect and shape changes in the very notion of the lyric subject over time.” –Paula Varsano

In her new essay “Disappearing Objects/Elusive Subjects: Writing Mirrors in Early and Medieval China” (Representations 124) Varsano examines changes in the philosophical and literary representations of mirrors—and mirroring—in a foundational period of Chinese history beginning with the pre-classical period and ending in the medieval Tang Dynasty. Inspired by the peculiarity of this object, which acts upon subjects at least as much as it is acted upon by them, this study of the literary mirror, of reflection and reflexivity, provides a glimpse into the larger issue of the construction of subjectivity in premodern China.