Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Seven Ages of Bob Dylan Conference, Bristol

A great day yesterday in the University of Bristol with the Dylan professors and enthusiasts on the great man's 70th birthday. An introduction, nine individual papers/talks, a poetry reading and a keynote address by expert Michael Gray made for a very full, tiring day. Difficult to summarize everything that was said but here are a few impressions.

A common theme dealt with the old question of whether Dylan can be regarded as a poet or not and the consensus was that his songs cannot be considered as texts alone. It seemed to be agreed that if we were only reading his words on the page then there would be no conference and no celebration of his 70th birthday.

Two talks were close readings of individual songs. Aidan Day looked at Man in the Long Black Coat and with references to Blake and Milton saw it as a as a celebration of someone who chooses imagination, creativity and risk rather than convention. Craig Savage talked about Cross the Green Mountain from the film Gods and Generals and the way Dylan uses the American Civil War.

Katherine Peddie spoke about "I is somebody else" a translation by Dylan of a line by the French poet Rimbaud and talked about Dylan's use of Rimbaud's mythmaking of the poet as vagrant wanderer and the sense of the divided self and the lack of the stable "I". "What does this mean?" is the wrong question to ask about poetry and song.

Mark Ford talked about Dylan's use of the vignette, mini-narratives or anecdotes which avoid coherence. Characters appear and disappear, drawn with razor-sharp lyrics. These use the collage techniques of modernism and while they may look silly on the page they take on life in the singing.

David Boucher from Cardiff asked why did Robert Zimmermann take Dylan Thomas' name. His answer was that Dylan Thomas who died in 1953 was seen by the beat poets and others in the USA as an irresponsible Bohemian who achieved fame and popularity. Thomas' first American published poem was "O Make me a Mask" and this may have also influenced Dylan who has always been fascinated by the mask image.

Richard Brown dealt with Dylan's visions of endings and the apocalyptic references in much of his work and Philip Horne's talk resonated with this as he considered Dylan's Flood Songs with reference to the body of blues and other songs about the 1927 and 1937 great Mississippi floods.

David Punter considered Dylan's fascination with the word pity in his work and the last paper by Neil Corcoran was a delightful look at some of his early work. Dylan as editor of his own work is responsible for the reissue of these early albums in mono. They stand as a great achievement but he managed to avoid what many others did not, early achievement followed by stagnation. He talked about the melancholy and the awareness of death in these early works and the difficulty he had in the Cynthia Gooding interview in answering the question "What age is Bob Dylan?" because that is not the same question as "What age is Robert Zimmermann?"

And then Michael Gray's keynote address but that's for another day maybe.

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