Sir Christopher Ricks on The Poetry of Bob Dylan

London F42

On Thursday 12th January a group of MPW tutors accompanied English Literature students, mostly from our Gifted and Talented cohort, to a special evening event at the New College of the Humanities in Bedford Square. The academic Sir Christopher Ricks gave a fascinating and entertaining talk about Dylan and poetry, a topic he has repeatedly returned to in his long career, not least in his book Dylan’s Visions of Sin, but given added topicality in the light of Dylan’s Nobel Prize last year. Now in his eighties, Ricks has been a Professor of English at the universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford and as well as being a Visiting Professor at NCH he is also Warren Professor of the Humanities, and Co-Director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University.  

We were lucky to secure good seats and settled in to hear his views. Ricks focused on a detailed discussion of the printed text of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), although he reminded us that there is much more than text on a page involved here: Dylan’s is a “triple-compounded art”, he said, comprising words, music and a voice.

Professor Ricks showed a light touch in skipping adroitly from discussing the intricacies of the song’s use of words and its subtleties of tone and feeling, often ambivalent, to revisiting some favourite Ricksian preoccupations and themes. A rich area of analysis was the many differences between British and American English, which go far beyond simple variations in vocabulary (railroad/railway; sidewalk/pavement). Ricks dwelt thoughtfully on the demotic aspects of everyday American English (found throughout the song: “ain’t”; “turnin’”; “kinda”, for example) and suggested these aspects relate to the democratic ideal in US culture, so that their English is “un-misgiving” about being ‘incorrect’ (in terms of formal Standard English). He commented on the way there is sometimes a particular poignancy to the ‘uneducated’ use of language in phrases such as “the light I never knowed”.

Ricks suggested that some aspects of American English are particularly vibrant, though this is counterbalanced by a tendency to be “inherently transitory” (T.S. Eliot’s phrase). Slang, which he suggested stands in a special relation to US language and literature, is a good example: valuable and innovative, it is also often transient. In this, it is related to cliché, which is language that has gone dead, as slang also tends to do. So the energy of American English also often goes stale as the metaphor involved ‘dies’ (or becomes half-dead) and phrases enter clichédom quickly: “post-truth”; “selfie”; “shelf-life” and “half-life” were examples he cited.

Ricks also suggested that it is the task of the artist to take half-dead metaphors and clichés and revivify them: in Eliot’s words, “the language needs to be charged afresh with energy every time it is used.” The phrase “don’t think twice” is an example: somewhat tired from everyday use in which it connotes action unhindered by too much reflection, in Dylan’s song it is more ambiguous, suggesting at once an acceptance that the relationship is over and the singer accepts this (she shouldn’t think twice about it, it’s really okay) and yet also, towards the song’s end, a hint of sarcastic reproach (so you’re not even going to think twice about me? Go on then, it’s “all right”).

A particularly thought-provoking aspect of these intertwined themes was the suggestion that Dylan’s use of language is “poignant, rueful and knows its own temporariness” but that this is “arched against what is permanent” and that this reflects the particular importance in American culture of the Constitution, expressing permanent values in a culture that also emphasises individual freedom, the one pushing against the other and paradoxically helping to keep it in place. Ricks also explored the proverbial element in Dylan’s songs, another element leaning toward expressions that desire permanence in aiming to summarise wisdom.

At the end, Professor Ricks took questions from the floor and a thoughtful debate ensued. Both staff and students went home given much to reflect on in a typically engaging and beautifully expressed talk.

Jonathan Luke