In their comments on my post on Dylan as poetry, Don Brown emphasized the element of performance as essential to the poetic quality of Dylan's lyrics, while Brian Campbell pointed out the absurdity of the apparent literary-critical assumption that evaluation of lyrics as poetry means that one should ignore the music when considering the "poetic quality" of a lyric. In his second comment, Brian quoted the comments on his blog by R. W. Watkins, who did not dispute that songs can be evaluated as poetry, but argued that Dylan is not the best example (Nick Cave and Tom Waits, among others, being better).
— Anyone listing people who are at least as good as Dylan should go and listen to a whole bunch of Greg Brown. (Do I proselytize? Yes, I proselytize. I am large, I contain multitudes.)
— Don and Brian's comments mesh nicely: the performance of the music is essential to a great lyric. This has some implications about how the songwriter's goals are different than the poet's. When writing a song, I am extremely focused on how the words feel in my mouth when sung, as it were. Further, listeners to songs want to sing along, and that has an immense influence on what constitutes a good lyric. When I read poetry, which I do so quite passionately, I am looking for many things, but I don't think that "singing along" is what I am looking for, either literally or figuratively.
— The pragmatist in me says that I should stop discussing Dylan as poetry hypothetically and look at a lyric and a poem. So here's "All Along the Watchtower" (words copied from bobdylan.com):
"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
To have something to compare this to, I used some random-number generation (and a bit of hedging) to pull a book out of my poetry collection and find a poem with a similar structure. I ended up with Philip Larkin:
Who called love conquering,
When its sweet flower
So easily dries among the sour
Lanes of the living?
Flowerless demonstrative weeds
The white bride drowns in her bed
And tiny curled greeds
Grapple the sun down
By three o’clock
When the dire cloak of dark
Stiffens the town.
— I won't go into an analysis of the differences between the two, and of their relative quality. But one thing is quite clear here that I have long noticed as a significant difference between songs and poems: enjambment is rare in songs, or even completely absent (due to the conventions, I guess, of melodic phrasing), while it is an essential tool of the poet, whether in formal verse or in free verse.
If anyone would like to comment on these two texts, I'd love to hear what you have to say.