Poems Without Titles is not just the earliest Dylan manuscript ever to have been offered for auction, but also a highly significant addition to his canon as a writer. It dates from his formative time at the University of Minnesota, which he began to attend as a freshman in the fall of 1959, and left (after increasingly sporadic attendance) at the end of 1960. He arrived at the college as Robert Zimmerman, a shy 18-year-old from upstate Hibbing, and left as Bob Dylan, a folksinger and aspiring songwriter ready to challenge the leading lights of the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York.
The young Zimmerman made an entirely conventional entrance to University life, joining the Jewish fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu in September 1959. Within a few months, however, he had turned his back on this conformity, leaving the fraternity house and preferring to spend his time in Minnesota's bohemian Dinkytown district. He became a regular visitor, and subsequently performer, at the Ten O'Clock Scholar, a small nightspot which attracted the city's community of beat poets, folksingers and other outsiders.
In keeping with his new persona, Zimmerman hit upon a fresh identity. By spring 1960, he had reinvented himself as Bob Dylan, shedding his ties with his family and, to some extent, his Jewish heritage. Several of his Poems Without Titles, however, include familiar yiddish phrases or references (Shalom Alechem, good Shabos, etc.) - something entirely absent from his writing after he arrived in New York in early 1961.
The Poems demonstrate that Dylan had created a literary style to match his change of name and demeanor. Heavily influenced by the beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, they have a casual humor and a delight in vulgarity that wouldn't be seen again in his work until his so-called 'Basement Tapes' songs of 1967. Despite some unsurprising adolescent earnestness, there is a lightness of touch about this work that looks forward to his witty talking-blues songs of the early 1960s. There are even hints, in the absurdity of the poem I thought I saw Humphrey pissing and the lines about A dark haired Einstein, of the free-flowing imagination that underpinned his classic Highway 61 Revisited album in 1965.
Yet the Poems Without Titles are also grounded in Dylan's daily life at the University of Minnesota. There are references to local landmarks and streets, such as Washington Avenue and Hennipen Avenue, and to many of his classmates and friends - notably a long poem recounting (in suitably exaggerated style) Dylan's romantic history. The latter piece begins by describing 'Judy', who is presumably the teenage Judy Rubin, quoted by several Dylan biographers as his first love.
With their verbal dexterity, personal resonances and heavy use of irony, Poems Without Titles offer a remarkable glimpse of the birth of a literary - soon to be musical - personality. They illustrate where the young Bob Dylan had come from, and where he was going, to become arguably America's most important songwriter of the 20th century.