Christopher Rollason: Poet on Poet..Stephen Scobie on Bob Dylan

Poet on Poet: review of And Forget My Name: A Speculative Biography of Bob Dylan, a poem-sequence by Stephen Scobie, Victoria (Canada): Ekstasis Editions, 1999, soft covers, 77 pp., ISBN 1-896860-51-6, 12.95 Canadian dollars

No-one else could play that tune - you know it was up to me
                        Bob Dylan, 1974



On 24 May 1941, somewhere in the north-country distance of Duluth, Minnesota, a woman gave birth to a child, who was to be christened Robert Allen Zimmerman, but was to rename himself, twenty-one years later and by due process of law, as Bob Dylan - the name under which history was to make him world-famous. Bob Dylan is - despite the occasional misrepresentations of ill-informed journalists - the poet's legal, and therefore real name: but whether that name enfolds what we might, quoting his song of 1974 'Up To Me', call his 'real identity', is another question. Emulating his own characters the Jokerman and the Man in the Long Black Coat, Dylan has, over his long career, shed off layer after layer of skin, and hid his face behind mask after mask. Stephen Scobie's new poem-sequence, 'And Forget My Name', is an attempt to see behind the masks, to grasp something resembling the historical Dylan - even if, as the book's author would be the first to admit, the very act of constructing a history of this man may itself be the creation of yet another - necessary and inevitable - fiction.

Stephen Scobie is particularly well qualified for this task, as the author of numerous published volumes of poetry (and recipient of the Canadian Governor-General's Award in 1980). His collections of poems include 'Gospel' (1994), a poem-sequence reconstructing the life of another historical character, Jesus Christ (whose biography Dylan himself has condensed into song form, on the track 'In The Garden' on his album 'Saved'); 'Slowly Into Autumn' (1995), whose title comes from Dylan's 'Idiot Wind' and whose poems, each and every one, are Dylan acrostics, with the first word of each horizontal line vertically forming part of a Dylan quotation; and 'The City That Dreams' (1996), a volume dedicated to Paris which, again, takes its title from Dylan, this time from 'Ring Them Bells'. He is also - as a professional academic and faculty member of the University of Victoria - the author of a particularly reflective and acute critical study of Dylan as poet, 'Alias Bob Dylan' (Red Deer, Alberta: Red Deer College Press, 1991; slated for reissue in an expanded version for the millennium) - in which he pays special attention to the whole question of Dylan's 'real identity', the multiple masks he hides behind and the interrogation across his work of the very notion of names and naming: the 'I' of Dylan's 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time' declares, like Lewis Carroll's Alice lost in the wood where things have no names, that he can't 'remember the sound of my own name', and, as Stephen Scobie puts it in his study, 'the simple strategy by which the young Robert Zimmerman attempted to make a name for himself (literally) has turned into the lifelong core of his invention of himself' (p. 64). We may read 'And Forget My Name' as a poet's construction, out of the raw materials of fact and text, of another alias for Bob Dylan - an alias which is as provisional as any other, but is also offered as bearing at least a tangential relationship to that ever-elusive 'real identity'.

This new collection is made up of forty poems, which together trace, in approximately chronological order, the story of the foundation and growth of Hibbing, the 'little Minnesota town' where Dylan grew up and which may be recalled in his 'Went To See the Gypsy'; the family histories leading up to the marriage of Abraham Zimmerman and Beatrice Stone; and the birth, childhood and early youth of their son Robert. It culminates in the moment when young Bob seized control of his life and left Hibbing for good - to mark the rest of the century with his presence (as I write this, 'Time' magazine has just, in its 14 June 1999 issue, confirmed Bob Dylan as one of its '100 most influential people of the 20th century'). A number of the poems in the book have already been published, in various numbers of 'Parking Meter', the Austrian-based Dylan fanzine, but now all forty are offered to the world as a coherent sequence.

Some half of the poems take their titles from Dylan songs, and from the contents page the careful reader can already glean some idea of the sides of Bob Dylan which this book will focus on, by looking at the origins of the different lines quoted in these titles. There is a visible presence of the album 'Planet Waves', which itself supplies a poem title, as does its most famous song, 'Forever Young', while 'The Hills of Old Duluth' is from 'Something There Is About You', another 'Planet Waves' song. That album is closely related to the snow-clad north-country landscape of Dylan's childhood, and it is no surprise to find that another poem bears the title 'North Country Blues', from the song of that name about Minnesota miners on 'The Times They Are A-Changin''. Others of the songs quoted in the titles are about the vexed question of naming and identity ('One Too Many Mornings' supplies two titles, 'One Too Many' and 'Restless Hungry Feeling', and 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time' gives, in a phrase we have already mentioned above, 'The Sound of My Own Name'), or about the process of poetic creation ('Lay Down Your Weary Tune', one of Dylan's very finest songs, provides two titles, 'Sounds Before the Sun' and 'Strength of Strings'). It is clear, then, from the outset, that this poem-sequence will be an invitation to relive Dylan's early years and the formation of his artist's vocation.

Stephen Scobie clarifies his method and sources in his concluding notes, informing the reader: 'As far as possible, I have tried to keep the facts accurate, whenever they are known. Thus, most details of places, names, and specific events are true. Of course I have also exercised the poetic option of interpreting the facts, through selection and imagery, and of speculating on motives and emotions'. The factual raw material comes partly from his visit to Hibbing in 1990, partly from 'the standard Dylan biographies - Scaduto, Shelton, Heylin', and partly from a book of 1997 by Dave Engel, 'Just Like Bob Zimmerman's Blues: Dylan in Minnesota'. To those to whom such distinctions are not obvious, he makes it clear that the book is to be read as literature, not history: 'nothing in this poem should be taken as a definitive statement of " truth " about a life of which I have, of course, no direct knowledge'.


The poetic journey begins in the North Country: the reader is spirited out of his home, like L. Frank Baum's Dorothy blown out of Kansas, 'north to the home of the winds/ (the Canadian/ border fifty miles away)/ across the Iron Range' - to a harsh, austere land, 'a country where even the breath/ inside your lungs is cold' - but a land which, it is already intimated, conceals under its snow-bound surface a mysterious potential for creativity: 'Words ride on the shoulders of wind/ Wind slides and cuts under the skin'. The winds hit heavy on the borderline; but in the north-country wind a message is blowing, which will later be articulated in the poet's song.

As the saga unfolds, various aspects of Hibbing appear in the foreground, illuminating different sides of Dylan's future work as they pass. The town's economy, we are reminded, was based on iron: 'iron under our feet/ iron under feet of snow'. Iron was, in fact, to become a recurring image in Dylan's work - from the literal 'red iron pits' of 'North Country Blues', through the 'dreams ... made of iron and steel' of 'Never Say Goodbye', to the 'idol with the iron head' of 'Jokerman' and the metaphoric 'iron waves' of 'Caribbean Wind'; those 'iron waves', indeed, later reappear in Scobie's pages ('Generations on the move/ crossing the Atlantic's iron waves'), and we may glimpse something of the process by which that real, literal iron of Dylan's childhood environment could sink into his soul and become an element in the growth of his mind.

We read on to learn how, when it was discovered that 'the best deposits of ore' ran 'under the corner of 2nd and Lincoln Streets', the town of Hibbing was bodily moved to the south: 'we can't move the mine/ we're just gonna have to/ move the town', in a remarkable act of physical displacement that may itself anticipate the 'restless hungry feeling' that was to fire Bob Dylan's own never-ending quest. Later, Scobie recalls a curious historical irony - it was in Hibbing, and later Duluth, that the celebrated Greyhound bus company started up: 'A local company/ with a couple of trucks/ Calls them buses:/ commutes to the mine/ expands to Duluth/ calls itself Greyhound'. Dylan evokes the Greyhound bus in 'Get Your Rocks Off' and 'Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie', and it seems appropriate that he should have sprung from the places associated with that symbol of the unending highways of the Beat generation - which he knew, besides, from its appearance in the last stanza of Robert Johnson's 'Me and the Devil Blues', where it stands for incurable restlessness ('so my old evil spirit/ Can take a Greyhound bus and ride').

Later, we see Robert Zimmerman's grandfather, 'Zigman Zimmerman, born in Odessa/ in 1875', as he 'travels/ the immigrant road that narrows/ onto Duluth' (here, Scobie is surely thinking not only of the historical facts, but of Dylan's own song 'I Pity the Poor Immigrant'); he settles in Duluth, and becomes a shoemaker: '" Zimmerman " means " carpenter " so perhaps/ It's a family joke when Zigman becomes a shoemaker "' (the reader may put two and two together and wonder whether this family history may not help account for Dylan's poetic mentions of both professions - the 'carpenters' wives' of 'Tangled Up In Blue', and the words from 'I and I', 'I've made shoes for everyone, even you').


1941 arrives, and the young Robert Zimmerman is born. We watch him growing up in Duluth - curiously, like another future poet, William Wordsworth, by a lakeside, living 'rainy days on the Great Lakes' (this is a direct quote from 'Something There Is About You'), in 'the sullen company of clouds'. It is an austerer landscape than Wordsworth's English Lake District, yet there is more than a trace, in Scobie's picture of the Zimmerman child, of that Wordsworthian sensation (as narrated in his great autobiographical poem of 1805, 'The Prelude') of the poet's mind being formed by the physical world around him and its images, recollected in tranquillity years later. For Dylan, we may think of the lakes, the clouds, and 'the hills of old Duluth'.

When young Robert was six, the Zimmerman family quit Duluth with their chattels, and moved to Hibbing. Scobie's poem moves on, to chart his adolescence, pausing to record the influence of Reuben Meier, a rabbi ('so ancient/ he once met Leo Tolstoy'), who taught 'about war and peace and what it means/ to be a Jew' (the phrase 'war and peace' cunningly forms a link between Tolstoy's novel and the opening line of Dylan's 'Gates of Eden': 'Of war and peace the truth just twists'). The Zimmerman lad, young but daily growing, watches the gradual decline of the mines of Hibbing ('some mornings on Howard Street/ you can taste defeat/ on the edge of the wind'), in a sequence that anticipates and quotes his own future tribute to the old mining communities, 'North Country Blues' ('ain't nothing here now to hold them'). He draws sustenance from nature, in a passage that may recall Robert Frost's young 'swinger of birches' (in his poem 'Birches'): 'Evenings after school he likes to ramble/ gets to the edge of town (it isn't hard)/ watch the silver birch trees shivering/ touched by the fingers of Canadian wind' - till the moment comes when, perhaps inspired by a cold, hard natural image ('the grinding of ice floes/ massive on Superior'), he discovers his poetic vocation taking shape inside him: 'there was a sound that told him/ this is possible/ the world will change/ will, for a moment, shift its direction/ you can create that moment/ you can stop that time'.

But if this young man is going to wind up meeting us on our crossroads as a fully-fledged poet, it will be as a bard in demotic guise. Scobie's unfolding narrative charts him hanging round the movie house, imbibing the films of Marlon Brando and James Dean ('James Byron Dean, 1931-1955', 'dead like Lord Byron on the fields of Greece' - poetry springs up in unlikely places); and listening to the radio, to rock'n'roll, above all to Elvis Presley. Robert Zimmerman will be a visionary, but his visions will unfold within the rough, raw musical idiom being forged by a new kind of youth: 'He traces down a guitar riff/ With the precision of an archaeologist'. Charting the emergence of Dylan the musician, Scobie places the emphasis on the rock'n'roll element in his musical influences, showing him 'standing at the piano pounding/ so hard he breaks the pedal and his voice/ screaming Little Richard'. This side is stressed rather than the older, traditional side, the input from folk, blues and country; and yet even so, Scobie does also sketch an unforgettable vignette of the young Zimmerman savouring the feel of his first guitar in his hands: 'how it feels like something he has always held/ like this, in familiar arms/ time out of mind'. The last four words connect, of course, to Dylan's album of that name of 1997, in which he triumphantly restated his debt to old-time music; and, curiously, they also bind the budding poet to an older literary tradition, for the phrase 'time out of mind' was a favourite of the great American writers of the nineteenth century - it occurs in Melville's 'Moby-Dick', in many of Poe's tales, and, perhaps, most interestingly, in Walt Whitman's 'Song of the Broad-Axe', from 'Leaves of Grass': 'those who time out of mind made on the granite walls rough sketches of the sun, moon, stars, ships, ocean waves'.

We can imagine Robert Zimmerman illuminated by Walt Whitman's sun, or moon, or stars, as, with his guitar in his hand and his poetic vocation clear in his mind, he gazes back to the streets of Hibbing, the small town of his childhood, and bids them farewell for ever. His artist's destiny could no longer be contained within its limits: 'When Bobby goes he'll go for good/ Hibbing won't hold him', and 'certainly his name won't hold him'. The final poem of Stephen Scobie's sequence ends with a cameo shot of Robert Zimmerman in October 1959, in conversation with the manager of a folk club in downtown Minneapolis. The man asks him what his name is, and the poem ends: 'The singer grins, his left leg suddenly/ twitching out a nervous rhythm/ glances for a moment somewhere north/ and lets the wind or the wind's echo/ speak his name'. The poem-sequence ends as its title does, on the word 'name', and now we realise that an old name is, indeed, about to be shed and forgotten. In the wind is blowing an unexpected answer to the stranger's question: the singer's name is no longer Robert Zimmerman. From now on it will be Bob Dylan, and the coming quest will not be his alone: about to begin is a new quest, one of tens of thousands across the planet - the search ('so many roads, so much at stake') to understand who or what might lie behind that new name, Bob Dylan.


After closing Scobie's book on the pages and the text, the reader is left with a refreshed sense of the growth of Dylan's poet's mind - how his fortunes were moulded by the specific nature of a particular place, but also by the compelling need, in the end, to break with that same place. The poems should also send the reader back to listen with renewed attention to those parts of Dylan's production which bear the imprint of those early years - certain songs on 'Free-Wheelin'', 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' and 'New Morning', and the entire 'Planet Waves' album (especially such tracks as 'Never Say Goodbye' and 'Something There Is About You').

Throughout the volume, the quality of Stephen Scobie's writing does justice to his subject. His style is based on the brief line, the taut phrase, the lucid and economical image (as in 'into the cracked and crystal air', or 'where the long lines/ of laden ore cars/ mime the horizon'). Dylan's voice is, as is to be expected, often present behind Scobie's; the marked presence of Dylan quotations in the poems' titles, as noted above, certainly does not, however, mean that the poems themselves resemble some kind of Dylan collage. There are echoes and recollections of Dylan's words across the pages, but the direct borrowings remain few and discreet, and the voice we hear is Stephen Scobie's own. Even so, the alert reader will identify the sources of such phrases as 'living/ outside the law' (taking up Dylan's 'to live outside the law you must be honest', from 'Absolutely Sweet Marie'), 'somebody got lucky' (from 'Pledging My Time'), or 'a country fair and unfair' (here, Scobie puns on Dylan's phrase 'north country fair' from 'Girl of the North Country', altering the meaning of 'fair' and transforming it from noun to adjective). The last example, indeed, testifies to how Stephen Scobie's writing transforms and mutates its materials (including the Dylan sources) within his own, personal creative process.

It may or may not be a coincidence that Scobie's book has appeared in the same year as another work of literature that mines the Dylan treasure-trove, namely Salman Rushdie's new novel 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet' (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999). Rushdie has made direct or indirect reference to Dylan in some of his earlier works, including the novels 'Grimus' and 'The Satanic Verses' (no less) and his collection of essays, 'Imaginary Homelands'. In this novel, he charts the career of Ormus Cama, an imaginary rock singer of Indian origin, aspects of whose story (e.g. a near-fatal accident) bear at least a passing resemblance to moments from Dylan's life. The text of Rushdie's novel also contains, alongside numerous other embedded lyric references, clear traces, indirect or direct (titles, quotations, near-quotations, puns), of at least ten Dylan songs, from 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' to 'Forever Young'. Dylan is mentioned by name three times in the book (pp. 402, 425, 435), even (in the first of those occurrences) showing up to play at an imaginary benefit concert for Ormus Cama. However - and here lies an essential difference with Stephen Scobie - with one probable exception (what looks like a reference on p. 17 to Dylan's 1989 song 'Everything Is Broken'), Rushdie's Dylan quotations and references are all to the songwriter's earlier work, or at least to nothing later than 'Planet Waves'. Indeed, one might even argue, in more general terms, that the recent official issue of 'Live 1966' has not been altogether beneficial, as it has brought in its wake rather too many comments in the general press from amateur Dylan decline-theorists, lamenting the alleged falling-off in quality of a post-1966 or post-1975 production which they have almost certainly not bothered to listen to properly, if at all. Stephen Scobie, by contrast, does not neglect to give Dylan's later work its due, weaving into his tissue of quotation and allusion references not only to the early material but also to such later songs as 'In The Summertime' (1981) and 'Dark Eyes' (1985), and, as we have seen, to the album title 'Time Out Of Mind' (1997).

Going back in time, the alert reader may discern, behind both voices in this volume - Scobie's and Dylan's - the windborne echoes of an older voice: the tones of Walt Whitman. The influence, in part exerted through Woody Guthrie, of America's national poet on Dylan is well enough known; Allen Ginsberg, in his sleevenotes of 1975 to 'Desire', finds in Dylan's music 'enough Person revealed to make Whitman's whole nation weep', and describes how Dylan 'lets loose his long-vowel yowls and yawps over smalltowns' antennaed rooftops', in a clear evocation of the famous line from the end of Whitman's 'Song of Myself', 'I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world' (section 52). Scobie's typical line is briefer than Whitman's, but the clear lucidity of his imagery, with its concrete sense of place and detail, at times strongly recalls the older poet. As I read lines like these: 'daughter of Sam, fish-peddler, on the shores/ of sullen Lake Superior, under winter skies/ where the ice grinds ashore/ at the dark doors of Duluth', I relive, at the back of my mind the sharp-etched vision of Whitman - the Whitman of lines like 'I follow quickly, I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff' ('Song of Myself', section 31); the Whitman who could claim to contain the entire North American landscape in himself: 'I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots' (ibid.) - including, we may imagine, the frozen lakes and iron-ore deposits of the North Country.


In the wake of Stephen Scobie's new volume, it is tempting to carry speculation a little further. In an essay of 1871, 'Democratic Vistas' (included in the Everyman edition of 'Leaves of Grass', 1912, repr. 1939, pp. 301-359), Whitman called for the emergence of a new kind of poet for a new epoch, the truly democratic poet of the Americas: 'there must, for future and democratic purposes, appear poets ... possessed of the religious fire and abandon of Isaiah, luxuriant in the epic talent of Homer, or for proud characters as in Shakespeare ... bards who will, now and ever, so link and tally the rational and physical being of man, with the ensembles of time and space, and with this vast and multiform show, Nature ... as to essentially harmonise, satisfy and put at rest' (p. 354). Whitman believed that these poets, or this poet, would be fundamentally different from all predecessors: this would be a democratic poet, whose visionary words - 'a poetry ... bold, modern, and all-surrounding' (p. 346); 'works, books, nobler than any hitherto known' (p. 353) - would also be accessible to the ordinary person, and would communicate the liberating message of 'the pulsations in all matter, all spirit', together with the certainty that 'death is not the ending' (ibid.).

Whitman no doubt hoped that his own work would be a contribution to that new democratic poetry, that he himself would be one of those bards. If so, posterity has borne him out; but it may not be too fanciful to suggest that Bob Dylan, too, may be seen as an embodiment of the new poet, of and for the future, in Whitman's sense. In the passages from Whitman I have just quoted, there are curious anticipations of Dylan's own phraseology: the intransitive use of 'harmonise', in the context of nature, anticipates Dylan's line from 'Gates of Eden', 'I try to harmonise with songs the lonesome sparrow sings', while 'death is not the ending' points straight to Dylan's title 'Death Is Not The End'. Indeed, 'Democratic Vistas' even contains a critique of the cult of the unmediated visual: 'No useless attempt to repeat the material creation, by daguerreotyping the exact likeness by mortal mental means' (p. 352), which, I would dare suggest, signposts us across the years to one of the most perceptive of all Bob Dylan's lines, 'Dignity never been photographed'. Is it too far-fetched to see the young Robert Zimmerman, as Stephen Scobie imagines him, leaving Hibbing guitar in hand, as starting out on a journey on which he would become an avatar of that new democratic poet dreamed by Walt Whitman, making his gift of tongues accessible to those whom traditional poetry would never reach, by combining visionary words with the power of music, the whole within an idiom both popular and traditional?


Christopher Rollason



1. My thanks to François Kahn for drawing my attention to Whitman's use of 'time out of mind'; and to Craig Jamieson for a small correction.


This article was first published on the 'Bob Dylan Critical Corner' site: , in July 1999. It has also appeared on the newsgroup.