Bob Dylan's Tarantula:
An Arctic Reserve of Untapped Glimmerance Dismissed in a Ratland of Clichés
a polemic by Mark Spitzer
"Dylan? He's the best living
American poet there is, man!"
For the most part, critics and reviewers have always stigmatized Bob Dylan as a lousy poet, advising the public to buy his music instead. When his book Tarantula was published by Macmillan in 1971, the reaction was predictable, and has been ever since--keeping in league with what is expected from that failed-artist class bent on bashing the bards they secretly aspire to be, but can't, for lack of imagination.
That common thought restated for the millionth time, I'll take another unpopular stance: I have never felt a connection with Dylan's music, nor have I felt the urge to worship him like so many fanatics from so many different generations all over the world. Still, there is something about him that I feel is worth appreciating.
Growing up in Minnesota, then going to the U of M (and living under "the watchtower"), I studied the same books Dylan did. I know this because, back in those days at the University Library, you had to sign a slip of paper inside the back cover whenever you checked out a book. And in the books by Arthur Rimbaud, the mythic name of Zimmerman was always there, scrawled in the same ink in which passages were underlined in French as well as English.
Meanwhile, Dylan's popular songs were being played daily (as they are today) on KQ92, and were just as overplayed as the Beatles--because America loves repetition and rhyming just as much as it loves a parade of clichés. The measure of mainstream mediocrity has always been reflected in the most commercial music; ie., the bubble-gum aesthetics of Brittany and the Backstreet Boys, the pop poetics of country western, etc.
But back to those whose job it is to maintain the standard standards of a mass market thriving on lyrical lard: their jargonistic journalism seeks not literary genius, but rather simple rhythms to secretly pledge allegiance to, since we all go la la la in our heads when we walk down the street denying the silence of our minds. Reviewers rarely being poets, though, and hardly ever scholars, it's no surprise they're out of touch with the history of cutting-edge verse.
Robert Christgau was the worst. He reamed Dylan in a New York Times interview when Tarantula first came out, stating that the book "is not a literary event because Dylan is not a literary figure."1 But the thing is, Dylan would be more of a literary figure if Christgau hadn't set the stage for the book's critical reception--which a herd of poetically illiterate reviewers repeated the sentiments of for over thirty years, essentially echoing Christgau's final damning words: "it is a throwback. Buy his records."2
Plus, the publisher's dismissive introduction (in which the editor refuses to identify himself) didn't help Tarantula become recognized as an avant-garde work of postmodern poetics. By explaining that the editors "weren't quite sure what to make of the book--except money," then employing the disclaimer "This is Bob Dylan's first book... the way he wrote it,"3 it's no wonder readers had trouble understanding Dylan's innovation.
Blundering reviewers like Steve Collins then came along and confused Dylan's readership even more by poorly explaining the literary tradition the poetry sprang from:
Tarantula came about after poet Allen Ginsberg urged Dylan to read Maldoror by the Comte de Lautreamont (pseudonym of Isodore Lucien Ducasse) and A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, both of them nineteenth-century French surrealist poets and writers. Surrealism is a modern movement in art and literature in which an attempt is made to portray or interpret the workings of the artist's or writer's subconscious mind as manifested in dreams. It is characterized by an irrational, non-contextual arrangement of material. Some describe it as automatic writing, that is when a writer quickly puts his random thoughts on paper without organizing them, allowing interpretation on the basis of the writer's total creative output, whether for a day or a lifetime of effort. Others call it art that is anti-art.4
Thus, we now have tons of misinformation informing readers about what Dylan was trying to accomplish. For one thing, Rimbaud and Lautreamont were never "nineteenth-century surrealists," because they predated that movement by half a century (Hey Collins, look up André Breton, 1928, and see if there's a manifesto; Rimbaud and Lautreamont inspired the Symbolists, who in turn inspired the Surrealists, but they never belonged to anyone's club). Also, Surrealism may have been a Modernist movement, but it hasn't been a "modern movement" for sixty years. One can only conclude that Collins' malarkey about "irrational... arrangement of material" must've come from the same place he got that baloney about a "writer's total creative output" allowing for interpretation.
I am embarrassed for the reviewers of Dylan, who note his poetic influences but don't have the foresight to look into these connections. Sloppy research, though, is better than no research at all when it comes to reporters trying to understand the purpose of Dylan's poetics. After all, to fully perceive the fine web of music and meter strung throughout Tarantula, it takes a "seer"--a term Rimbaud used in defining the voyant: someone who approaches the ideal of the impossible through a systematic derangement of the senses--which Tarantula does in conscious dreamlike windings.5
Such perspectives on seeing are alien to most people who have never studied the poetics of Rimbaud, but such lyrical language techniques were definitely visible to the visionary Dylan. He practiced these techniques with a skill and ambition that rivaled Rimbaud's. In fact, no other poet in the Am Po scene has demonstrated such mastery in this department since Walt Whitman.
The evidence for this, however, isn't in the fact that I say so; it's in the assonance and alliteration which Dylan saw Rimbaud applying to his already super-imagistic verse, making it more musically dimensional than anything that came before--thus, putting an end to centuries of rhyming in France by slaughtering sonnets, killing quatrains, and foreshadowing the future of free verse.
Dylan, though, didn't just imitate Rimbaud's syllabic acrobatics; he observed how Rimbaud placed similar sounds together to create melodic waves, then did it himself in a way that is hauntingly reminiscent of Rimbaud's poetic prose. Note the repetition of "u" and "a" sounds in the Rimbaud excerpt below, followed by the same sounds in the Dylan excerpt following that. Also note the "c" and "g" combinations in Rimbaud, as compared to the "l" and "d" combinations in Dylan:
From Rimbaud's "Bottom"
Je fus, au pied du baldaquin supportant ses bijoux adores et ses chefs-d'vre physiques, un gros ours aux gencives violettes et au poil chenu de chagrin, les yeux aux cristaux et aux argents des consoles.6
From Dylan's "Black Nite Crash"
aretha in the blues dunes--Pluto with the high crack laugh & rambling aretha--a menace to president as he was jokingly called--go--yea! & the seniority complex disowning you . . . Lear looking in the window dangerous & dragging a mountain.7
Language aside, this Dylan passage hardly represents an "irrational... arrangement of material;" it is part of a high-art symphony of allegoric metaphor, fertile with commentary on Civil Rights and twentieth-century politics through the ghosts of Kerouac and Shakespeare via Greek mythology. And any reviewer who can't see this is either ignorant or lazy, like those who fail to notice the same (but less pretentious) intention in Dylan that is automatically glorified in the canonized antics of James Joyce, a "crooner born with sweet wail of evoker, healing music, ay, and heart in hand of Shamrogueshire... googoos of the suckabolly in the rockabeddy... copiosity of wiseableness of the friarlayman in the pulpitbarrel... wideheaded boy!"8
"Inaccessibility" is expected from Joyce, but not Dylan, who chose his name for a reason that his sophomoric followers--who view rhyming clichés as poetry--refuse to acknowledge. The Tarantula's web is therefore labeled "jibberish," as demonstrated by a recent listing of the "Top Five Unintelligible Sentences From Books Written by Rock Stars" in Spin Magazine. Dylan made the top of the list with "Now's not the time to get silly, so wear your big boots and jump on the garbage clowns."9
It's ironic, of course, that those who claim Dylan is unintelligible assume that his words have no meaning, but it's pathetic that they fail to notice who the "garbage clowns" are. If such bumbling media-mongers juggling rubbish took a moment to consider that the poet might actually be a poet and have some insight into human nature, they might decode the metaphor.
Meanwhile, there's an undiscovered continent of sense to be made from the seemingly nonsensical pages of Tarantula. Because reviewers of music are not authorities on poetry, there's a whole poetic "novel" by Dylan here waiting to be praised for cryptic brilliance. So get past the music, Garbage Clowns, and read the book--but slowly, and out loud, pausing with reflection.
1. Christgau, Robert. "Tarantula," Bob Dylan: A Retrospective, Craig McGregor, ed. William Morrow & Co., New York, 1972, p. 390.
2. Ibid., p. 394.
3. The Publisher. "Here Lies Tarantula," Tarantula, Bantam, New York, 1972, pp. v,vi,viii.
4. Collins, Steve. "Tarantula: Poems," Book Reviews, http://poeticvoices.com/0006BDylan.htm (accessed 2/19/2003), 2000.
5. For more on Rimbaud's visionary aesthetics and the impossible, see "Introduction," The Collected Poems of Georges Bataille, Dufour Editions, 1998 (2nd ed), pp. xii,xiii; or Bataille, Georges. "The Malady/Greatness of Rimbaud," translated by Emmanuelle Pourroy, Exquisite Corpse 7, http://www.corpse.org/issue_7/ critical_urgencies/batail.htm (accessed 2/21/2003), 2000.
6. Rimbaud, Arthur. "Bottom" (from Illuminations), uvres de Arthur Rimbaud, Mercure de France, Paris, 1952, p. 261.
7. Dylan, Bob. "Black Nite Crash," Tarantula, Bantam, New York, 1972, p. 76.
8. Joyce, James. Finnegan's Wake, Penguin, New York, 1976, p. 472.
9. Compiled by Dave Itzkoff et al. "Top Five Unintelligible Sentences From [sic] Books Written by Rock Stars," Spin, vol. 19, no. 4, April 2003, p. 86.