Monday, April 30, 2018

Another Visit with Author, Professor, Dylanophile David Pichaske

In 2016 David Pichaske was one of our four featured poets at The Underground. He has been an author of numerous books including several that study the lyrics of contemporary songwriters like The Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. If there was ever any question about Dylan being a poet, or a poet worthy of the Nobel Prize, Professor Pichaske would have been happy to weigh in and settle this matter.

His book Song of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan examines the manner and degree to which our Northland and the Midwest shaped Dylan's life and work. He will be opening the 2018 Duluth Dylan Fest with the first of two John Bushey Memorial Lectures at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in conjunction with the opening of the William Pagel Dylan Archives.

EN: Let's start with Ohio University. What years were you there and what were your biggest Athens take-aways?

David Pichaske: I did my graduate work at O. U., 1965-1969, in part because it was close to my undergraduate alma mater Wittenberg University, in part because O. U. offered me a teaching assistantship and Duke and University of Pennsylvania did not. So the weekly bills got paid, and I usually had $20 left over for a weekend up in Springfield. The activism at O. U. was more focused on local issues than it was on other campuses (plans to cut down trees or redirect funds from the library to construction of a new athletic complex rather than civil rights and the war in Vietnam), but activism was there, as was the music—I remember using Thucydides’ A History of the Peloponnesian Wars at an anti-war teach-in in Athens, and an acid rock concert (Grateful Dead, I think) where the sound waves pumped my chest as much as my ears. And I got to campaign for Gene McCarthy in the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries. Administration cancelled the 1969 commencement at which I would have received my Ph. D. for fear of student demonstrations.

Ohio University altered my career in two important ways. First, I switched my academic focus from modern (weren’t we all in contemporary literature back then?) to mediaeval as a result of a graduate seminar in mediaeval French Romances, producing a dissertation in mediaeval animal fables (mainly Reynard the Fox), several articles, and a book on Geoffrey Chaucer, and a lifetime of teaching early British Literature.

On a completely different front, my masters thesis on A. E. Housman and, perhaps, my interest in mediaeval lyrics and writing poems of my own had me teaching undergraduate classes not in freshman comp. but in poetry. This was 1968, 1969. All fans of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon understood that what they were writing was poetry, and I understood that in the old days (i.e. Before Print) poems had been recited or sung, so Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was as legitimate a “poem” as, say, “Sumer is Ycomen In” (one of my first publications was a note to the effect that the line in that poem “bucke verteth” meant “buck farts,” not “buck turns” as the anthologies explained it). So I was teaching rock singers as poets in 1968, 1969. Those classes were the basis of the book proposal I sent to Free Press in 1970 and thus of Beowulf to Beatles in 1972. The title is “Beowulf to Beatles,” incidentally, because “Beatles” alliterates with “Beowulf,” and “Dylan,” alas, does not.

EN: You wrote two Beowulf to Beatles books. Which Beatles songs did you discuss in the books?

DP: The original Beowulf to Beatles contains eight Shakespeare poems, eight A. E. Housman poems, seven Robert Frost poems, four Emily Dickinson poems . . . and fourteen Beatles songs, seven Leonard Cohen songs, ten Bob Dylan songs, nine Phil Ochs songs, two Paul Simon songs (the permissions costs on that book were, as I recall, $20,000+). The Beatles songs were “Eleanor Rigby,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Let It Be,” “Norwegian Wood,” and the whole of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (a “sustained performance” to rival John Donne’s “La Coronna” sequence and William Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode”). The Dylan songs were “All Along the Watchtower,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” ”I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” ”Lay, Lady, Lay,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “She Belongs to Me,” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

In Beowulf to Beatles and Beyond (1981) I added the Beatles’ “All You Need Is love,” “Oh, Darling,” “Penny Lane,” and “Strawberry Fields” and Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” “John Wesley Harding,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” By that time, I was publisher-editor of Spoon River [Poetry] Quarterly and Spoon River Poetry Press, so I added a small raft of poems by Midwestern poets I had published and/or come to know. B2B2 was a lot less successful than B2B1.

EN: If asked to select a Beatles song to write an essay about, which would it be and why?

DP: I would go for the Sgt. Pepper album (I have in fact gone for that album—the essay was published first in a book printed in Poland, then reprinted in my collection of essays Crying in the Wilderness . . . so you can paraphrase/plagiarize if you want). I see that album as a Beatles’ version of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and in that regard the equivalent of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album—an extended performance of interwoven poems that begins here, explores options and possibilities there, and finally resolves the journey/argument (that is my analysis of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, incidentally, in Chaucer’s Literary Pilgrimage, so maybe that’s the way I think).

If I had to select only a song, I’d pick “Eleanor Rigby” for structure and images.

EN: How did you first come to take an interest in Bob Dylan? Was it his poetic expression, the themes he addressed or something else?

DP: I have always said that Dylan is the voice of my generation: he has always spoken to/for me (until maybe this digression into fifties swing). That goes for all stages: folk, rock, country, Christian, lost self/country, sense of new impending disaster. Starting (for many) with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all of us knew Dylan and most of us followed him through thick and thin, right through the “country?--what is this shit” and the “Christian music???!!!” hurricanes. As I said above, I am an oral poet guy, and for me he’s an oral poet. So both—the poetic expression and the themes.

EN: Do you have a handful of favorite Dylan songs that continue to speak to you? What might your "short list" include?

DP: #1, “Forever Young,” which I recited as my father-of-the-bride speech at my daughter’s wedding.*
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” (I sometimes show the video of Dylan performing this—with sign “suckess”—to my creative writing students.)
“Mister Tambourine Man”
“Like a Rolling Stone”
“All Along the Watchtower”
“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” (In my novel, Harassment, the main character is Jack, his lady is Rosemary, and every chapter in the first section has an allusion to a Dylan song.”
“Gotta Serve Somebody”
“Solid Rock”
“Blind Willie McTell”
“I’m Walkin’” (During my Fulbright year in Riga, Latvia, I played this again and again, because I was walkin’ through dead streets with a girl in my head.)
“Rollin’ and Tumblin” (full volume)
“Ain’t Talkin’”
“Tempest”

EN: You make many references to Tarantula, suggesting that perhaps this is an important book. What attracted you to this book and what was its main point?

DP: I think Tarantula is Dylan trying to be what he is not: writing artsy stuff full of allusions and references (okay, I like the references to poets, especially cummings), fragments, typographical inventions (although I’m not sure “a lot” on page 89 is a hip experiment or bad spelling) and mysteries that make no sense—what the postmodernists in New York got him, and America, into during the 1960s and 1970s. It’s hip, but I see no main point other than there is no main point. Admittedly, even the art of writers I discussed in Rooted: Seven Midwest Writers of Place (2006) remains bipolar, an odd fusion of Midwest realism with distant influences: postmodernist fiction, magical realism, surrealism, symbolist poetry, jazz or classical music, philosophy or history. So are many of Dylan’s lyrics. But Tarantula is a good example of the postmodernism he dumped for country and western music.

Talking about Dylan visiting her place in Carmel Valley in the film No Direction Home, Joan Baez remembers, “Bob liked to write there. . . . He would always say, ‘What do you think of this?’ And I didn’t understand the thing at all. But I loved it. So, well, okay, I’m gonna figure this one out. So I read through it and I gave back my interpretation of what I thought. And he said, ‘Uh, that’s pretty fuckin’ good.’ And he said, ‘A bunch of years from now, all these people, these assholes, are gonna be writing about all this shit I write. I don’t know what the fuck it’s about. And they’re gonna write about what it’s about.” Looking back in 1997, he told David Gates that in the late 1980s he was beginning to think his songs were “like what all these people say, just a bunch of surrealistic nonsense” (66).

EN: What are you working on now that has you enthused?

DP: I’m doing a conference in Rome on “Bob Dylan and His Art” come October, and I want to look at his weldings and some of his other art in terms of the junk stashed all over this Minnesota landscape, especially the remains of old threshing machines, tractors, cars, etc. That’s still in the early stages. I have a couple of book chapters on Minnesota writers coming out soon. I’m writing a book chapter on “The Rise and Demise of Rural-Regional Studies at Southwest State.” My own project-in-progress is a text/photo full color book to be titled The Secret [maybe Lost] Places of Southwestern Minnesota: schools, gas stations, and other buildings; whole towns; churches and graveyards; railroads; farms and parks; some buried but successful new businesses; the whole shebang.

* * * *

Related Links
David Pichaske's Website
Song of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan
Sumer is Icumen in
Beowulf to Beatles: Approaches to Poetry

*I walked my daughter down the aisle accompanied by "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"
* * The two paintings on this page are by local artist Sue Rauschenfels, submissions for our Dylan Fest Art Show Monday May 21.


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