Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday prompted a lot of media coverage and fan celebrations, in addition to a spate of books on the artist in the preceding year by such Dylan experts as Sean Wilentz, Clinton Heylin, and Greil Marcus. (Dylan recently commented mischieveously on his website that anyone who has ever heard his music or seen him perform might just as well write a book about him.) These followed by a few years Christopher Ricks’s long-awaited full-length critical appraisal of Dylan’s work, Dylan’s Vision of Sin. Surprisingly, the Dylan publishing industry has contributed little to the age-old debate as to whether Dylan is a poet, or, if he is, whether he is a good poet.
Perhaps such controversies seem as dated in 2011 as the decade in which he first rose to fame. After all, who really cares anymore now that Dylan has reached such iconic status as a songwriter and performer? Certainly not Ricks, who made no aesthetic distinctions in his book between Dylan’s more ambitious lyrics and the generic diction of his country songs: a Dylan lyric begs for analysis simply because he wrote it.
But I’d like to throw out some suggestions here for finally classifying Dylan’s language, if only for those who still teach and study his songs in high school and college classes around the country…and the world. We can categorize Dylan’s work as follows: poems, songs with some poetic lines, and, simply, songs.
We know that the tradition of lyric poetry since the ancient Greeks had been to sing or recite the words with musical accompaniment. But beginning In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, poets as important as Shakespeare, Donne, and Jonson, and Herrick made a distinction between their poems and songs: they identified their work as a “song” in its title if its stanza structure and rhyme scheme were simple and regular and if the imagery could be appreciated on first reading/hearing, and indeed they fully intended these lyric poems to be set to music and function as what we call “lyrics.” Shakespeare’s comedies and romances are filled with them. Donne’s “Catch a Falling Star” is identified as a song, was treated as such in his day, and eventually became a 1950s hit by Perry Como! (Or a version of it, anyway.) Many of these songs contained memorable images (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”), but the poet expected his audience to understand the emotional resonances of these images immediately. On the other hand, a sonnet by Shakespeare and Donne is—and was intended to be—a complex verbal structure that demanded considerable attention, and some time, on the part of the reader to be revealed in all its dimensions. This non-oral tradition of lyric poetry, poetry for the page, probably began with the sonnets of Petrarch in the fourteenth century, and it has come over the past four or five hundred years to become more or less synonymous with the popular interpretation of the word “poem.”
I see no reason to challenge this tradition: especially in the past hundred years, the triumph of open forms has insured that most of the great poetry written during this time could not be sung—with some notable exceptions (operatic settings of Whitman, for example). No one expects to hear “Sunday Morning” or “The Red Wheelbarrow” sung or whistled any time soon.
Which brings us back to Dylan. Many of his famous early songs were clearly just that (“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” even “Blowin’ in the Wind).” Some of them were songs or ballads (the other oral tradition, this time a medieval one, Dylan adopted and adapted) with the occasional poetic line (“A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are a’Changin’”). But beginning in 1964 and continuing through 1966, a few of his compositions consistently achieved, line by line, what Pound defined as poetry: “Language charged with meaning to the utmost extent.” Suddenly, the “son” of Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger infused his material with the sensibility and the language experimentation of the Beat poets and their English Romantic forebears.
We know from his interviews that Dylan had been reading Byron, Keats, Rimbaud, Eliot, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Corso, beginning in the late fifties. As a result, his natural gift for imaginative lyrics caught fire under the influence of these poets—especially Keats and Ginsberg—and the result was the transformation of popular song that Dylan single-handedly achieved i n the mid-sixties.
Using the above categories, we can say that Dylan produced a handful of fine poems that work “on the page” as well as when set to music: I would nominate “Mister Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s All Right, Ma,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Desolation Row,” and “Visions of Johanna,” all in the Romantic/Beat tradition (with the exception of the Beats’ embrace of open form; Dylan, of course, never stopped rhyming).
The influence of these songs on his musical peers (Beatles and Stones and countless others) was enormous and immediate. As for poets, he was embraced as a peer by Ginsberg, of course, as well as by McClure and Ferlinghetti. Outside of the world of the Beat/San Francisco Renaissance poets, however, the debate as to the validity of Dylan’s status as poet began.
After Dylan’s legendary motorcycle accident in 1966, the inner turmoil/creative ferment that produced the song/poems listed above ceased. Since then Dylan has written many distinctive songs, some with the occasional, striking poetic line, but few poems that can resonate on the page without the music and his voice.
What happened? Probably what happened to a number of poets in the Romantic/Beat tradition who had a few years of stunning poetic output, usually in their twenties and early thirties, and then more or less lost the visionary power (Worsdworth, Coleridge, Corso, Ginsberg ). Romantic poets live and die (metaphorically) at the whim of the Muse, at the mercy of the transience of inspiration. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
But who would want to be without “The Immortality Ode,” “Kubla Khan,” “Howl,” “Bomb”…or “Tambourine Man”?
Happy birthday, Bob.
Walter Raubicheck teaches English at Pace University in New York. He has published/edited articles and books on figures as diverse as Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and Alfred Hitchcock