Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mr. Dylan is not known to me

The collected correspondence between American poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (Words In Air) goes from May 1947 to August 1977, covering a good expanse of mid-20th-Century life and events and art.

January 28th, 1972, Bishop wrote Lowell from an address on Brattle Street in Cambridge, MA:

>> Dearest Cal:

It was such a surprise, & wonderful, to hear your voice Monday morning.  The operator didn't speak first saying it was long distance the way they usually do -- I just picked up the telephone & there you were, as if you were down the street.

...Kathy Spivack...was here yesterday & gave me, or lent me, a copy of the Review -- with your sonnets and interview in it....I understand well, I think, and like, the last FISHNET, and 9, and 8,  These sonnets are clearer, though, and full of beautiful things -- especially the weather!  (Closed Sky -- lovely).

...The interview is awfully good, I think -- I think you are too kind about Bob Dylan however . . . (I tried; even bought 2 records.) And all those people are responsible for rhymes like:  heads / bed // or -- one of Kathy S's -- fill / spills / unfulfilled / and so on -- that drive me wild . . . (And then she -- and everyone else -- says -- "But I like it."  And I feel like Dick Wilbur's grandmother.)<<


(She's a poet and she doesn't "get" Dylan?



Without meaning to, Bob Dylan seemed to generate controversy, when he started out in the Sixties.

In a publication called Sound & Fury, Henrietta Yurchenco wrote this, in April 1966:

------------ [excerpt] ----------- The controversy over Bob Dylan as a poet extends beyond the minor points mentioned above.  Literary academicians also have their say.  The publication Books conducted a poll of professors, critics and poets, which brought the following responses: 

Said Howard Nemerov, "Mr. Dylan is not known to me.  Regrets." 

An English professor at the University of Vermont commented:  "Anyone who calls Bob Dylan 'the greatest poet in the United States today' has rocks in his head . . . Dylan is for the birds and the bird-brained,"

or, "His poetry sounds like a very self-conscious imitation of Kerouac, and for an English teacher this is pretty feeble praise.  My students . . . have lost respect for Dylan, for they think he is after publicity and the nearest buck." 

John Ciardi wrote: "My nephew (a drummer) would agree that Bob Dylan is a poet, but like all Bob Dylan fans I have met, he knows nothing about poetry.  Neither does Bob Dylan."

A few, like John Clellan Holmes, went to his defense:  "He has the authentic mark of the bard on him, and I think it's safe to say that no one, years hence, will be able to understand just what it was like to live in this time without attending to what this astonishingly gifted young man has already achieved." 

All shades of opinion were represented -- from blind hostility to unqualified praise, and also the indifference of an older generation forgetful of its own rebellious youth.

If Dylan has done nothing else, he is responsible for the present wide-spread interest in poetry.  He has taken it away from the academicians, off the dusty library shelves, and put it where it can be heard by countless thousands of young people.  In our unpoetic age where an audience of a few hundred people at a poetry reading is unusual, Dylan's feat is quite remarkable.


Well I ride on a mail-train, baby
Can't buy a thrill
Well I've been up all night, baby
Leanin' on the windowsill
Well if I die
On top of the hill
And if I don't make it
You know my baby will

{"It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry."  Highway 61 Revisited album.  1965.}


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