Bob Dylan, I think, is a class of artist who had an enormous, galvanizing, revolutionizing style for a period of his career, years in which he released an impressive series of albums, from Another Side of Bob Dylan up to Blood on the Tracks, that is one of those bodies of work that are untouchable works of genius . Fitting perfectly well within his interesting notion of the Anxiety of Influence, Dylan's songs and lyrics in that period so profoundly changed the nature of what popular songwriting can be that all songwriters, regardless of style, write in the shadow of that genius. Younger writers can write further into the direction they believe Dylan was headed, taking further risks, bigger chances, or they can go in the other extreme, writing away from the pull of Dylan's gravity, writing in a way no less risky and perplexing as those who become Dylan apostles. Dylan's case, within that of songwriting, is comparable to that of Shakespeare's, an influence so vast that no artist, even those who intensely dislike the work, can ignore the artist; lesser writers, "weaker” writers as Bloom would put, cannot help but be influenced by the profundity of the work that has gone before. Like it or not, it is a standard that compels you to make a stylistic choice. Genius, though, is fleeting, and Dylan's ability as such was that it came out of him in a flow that was, I believe, effortless, nearly savant-like, requiring less craft than a brain that was firing on all cylinders and producing a language that seemed to compose itself. But genius leaves a good many of our great artists--it is a spirit, perhaps, that takes residence in a person's personality long enough to get the work done and then leaves, sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually.
Other things come into play as well, such as a change in why one engages in the kind of self-interrogation that writing essentially is; Mailer dropped his high style, my favorite style when he came across the Gary Gilmore story and wrote in simpler terms as his fiction become more nuanced and rich. This is was a plus. Allen Ginsberg became a Buddhist and fell in love with the notion of "first thought, best thought" and essentially transcribed his continuous notes to himself, unedited, unmediated by literary qualification, in the effort to present a truer, constantly evolving face to the public in his books of poetry. Much as I like the reasoning and dedication, AG's poetry became far, far less exciting, interesting, became far less good. For Dylan, after his motorcycle accident, he has taken up with simpler more vernacular language, and we see the good it offered he and the listener, with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. The language was simpler, and the sources from which Dylan took his inspiration, folk tales, old songs, country western bathos, navigated closely to the banal and hackneyed, but we must admit that Dylan had the skill, the instinct, to manage his language no less artfully than Hemingway would have done at his prime and kept matters enticingly elliptical at the heart of things: there are ways to create a sense of what you're getting at without too much artifice and pretension, useless . He was masterful in creating simpler lyrics that still drew you in and still kept you making intelligent guesses. Hemingway, this virtue wouldn't last, in my view; Hemingway fell prey to depression and concerns of his virility and sought to write his way out of his depression, the result is a series of late-career books that lack the grace or conviction or the brilliance of insinuation of his great work; he veered toward self-parody. Dylan's work, post Blood on the Tracks, became alarmingly prolix and parochial in ideas and a contrived rural diction that sounds completely false, the phoniest I've heard since the quaint southern tales of Erskine Caldwell.
I know that Dylan has always trafficked in clichés, but what he did previously with stale phrases was to subvert them, place them in unexpected juxtapositions, and cleverly invert their meanings to expose their shortcomings. He is not doing that these days--rather I think the good man just starts writing something without an inherent sense of where to go or when to stop or where to edit and seems to write in an attempt to maintain equilibrium. He seems to need to hear himself write; it is more the process than the result that matters. His use of clichés or banal phrases seems more stitchery than rehabilitating the language; they are means that he can connect his stanzas, do patchwork on an incomplete idea.
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