Visions of sin

The Boston Globe’s lead Ideas piece this week is devoted to an assessment of Wesley Clark’s performance during the Kosovo campaign: “Clark’s war.” The piece seems so cursory to me that it is worthless.
In any event, the fun is to be had in the Ideas piece on the new book by literary critic Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan: “The Dylanist.” Ricks is a serious scholar of Milton who is also learned in modernist poetry. The piece opens with an anecdote deriving from his tenure at Cambridge University (he’s now at Boston University): “Years ago, when Christopher Ricks was teaching at Cambridge University, he discovered that some of his students were playing a game called Ricks Bingo during his classes. It involved filling in a grid of 25 squares with literary names that seemed likely to come up during the lecture and then checking them off as they did. The first person to get a row of five was the winner, and the winning card invariably included a handful of dependable names: Tennyson, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan.”
Bob Dylan? According to Ricks, “He seems to me a natural artist to invoke. I think he’s available all the time for comparison.” Now Ricks has produced a 517-page critical interpretation of Dylan’s work, Dylan’s Visions of Sin. The book was recently published in England to not-altogether admiring reviews, and is about to be published in the United States. The Globe piece notes that one of the admiring reviews was by England’s poet laureate, Andrew Motion, a guy whom we have noted and ridiculed (I think Rocket Man produced a wonderful satire on him in a post I can’t find) on more than one occasion in the past. We’ll chalk up Motion’s approval as one strike against the book.
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But the book may have redeeming merit. The Globe piece points out Ricks’s commentary on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a song we recently wrote about.
Here’s Ricks on “Hattie Carroll”: “In ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,’ Dylan earns Ricks’s praise for the delicacy with which he handles the combustible subjects of racial and social iniquity. It’s the true story of William Zanzinger, a wealthy white man who was sentenced to six months in prison for beating a black woman to death. A songwriter can credibly condemn this injustice, Ricks writes, only by being a reliable witness — betraying neither anger nor sentimentality. Dylan pulls it off by rendering the social gulf between Zanzinger and his victim with the utmost subtlety. Ricks finds the song’s first two lines almost inexhaustible in their implications because of the way Dylan orders his words: ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.’
“‘The song opens with a line that takes a risk,’ Ricks writes. ‘But “poor” is saved from any soft pity because it is a hard fact. The word is compassionate but it is dispassionate, too, for it does not lose sight of the plain reality that she is poor.’ William Zanzinger, by contrast, has a ‘diamond ring finger,’ the ultimate accessory of excess. ‘It’s not that he had a finger that had a diamond ring on it; he had a diamond-ring-finger. He may well have had, too, an amethyst-ring-finger, an opal-ring-finger, and a ruby-ring-finger. His diamond ring finger has this extraordinary feeling of affluent agglomeration. ‘That sort of noun-stacking, Ricks adds, is a device Dylan employs throughout the song to depict wealth and power. ‘ “At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.” Add up the nouns like that and you’re really propertied. Nouns are items, and you can possess them…”
The rest of the piece is interesting and delightful. Don’t miss it if you have any interest in the subject.

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