Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dylan as poetry 2

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).

Several responses:

— 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

"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
Selfishly spread,
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.


Translation Whitelist said...

Had to say this, but Dylan Thomas as a modernist contemporary to TS Elliot had a better sonority, a much more resounding writing and a much more beautiful pace.

That, next to find recordings and see what to 'propagate' and 'control' as stances!



Justin Evans said...

I have always believed Bob Dylan to be a poet. I am not of his generation, being born in 1969, but even before I was a die-hard fan of his work, I recognized he was a poet.

Bob Dylan himself has asserted he is not trying to sing, that in fact, the only performace of his which is him trying to sing, is "Lay Lady, Lay." So if he is not singing, can we take him as performing his poems and providing his own arrangements?

Reginald Shepperd, I think, does not classify Dylan as a poet on some technicality I cannot fathom with my weak intellect (I am not making a joke or insulte there) but I cannot come to any concluson other than poet.

You chose "All Along the Watch Tower" but what about the entire album of Highway 61 Revisited? "It takes a lot to Laugh, it takes a train to cry" is simply amazing, as is "Desolation Row" Speaking of "All Along . . ." why not all of John Wesley Harding?

I could go on, of course, but for every point I make, there is another to make about song writing not being poetry. What is a song if not the aural parent to poetry. I will concede contemporary song and contemporary poetry sound different, but it is all abut sound. Poetry is a performance art and a participation sport. It relies, or should rely, upon the performance. Simply put, I don't give a damn for poetry which forsakes its musicality or renders itself into the category of non-performance.

That's why, in part, I believe Bob Dylan to be a poet.

Andrew Shields said...

Justin, I chose "Watchtower" because it is one of the lyrics that I keep coming back to to sing, and because it is such a suggestive and powerful text. Of course, the simple music makes it a great jamming song, too.

Another text that I return to over and over to sing is "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." Again, it is the performance of the music and the words that makes the song so compelling. But hey, I agree with you: Dylan's texts work, on the page, as lyrics, in performance (by himself and others).

In the final analysis, I guess, it does not really matter whether we define Dylan as a poet or not. Most of those who don't want to give him that label are still happy to admit that he is a brilliant songwriter!

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Lots of poems that fill anthologies started out as songs -- how many of the poems in a book of Chinese translations start out saying they are "written to the tune of"? Troubadour poets, aren't they read these days? So we don't have the tunes to most of these poems/lyrics/lyric poems anymore ... Fine with me if Dylan wants to call himself a poet or anyone else wants to. If you decide to write up a critical essay on one of his songs as a poem, pretending perhaps that you've never heard it sung, then why not?

Andrew Shields said...

Glenn has the right attitude, I think: what does it really matter?

One thing I have come back to since this post is the problem that "poem" and "poet" are sometimes neutral, descriptive terms, while at other times they are "values," if you will.

So what people are saying when they say Dylan is not a poet is that "poet" and "poem" are not just neutral descriptive terms in their eyes, but are values. That is, "he may right verse, but it's not good enough to call him a poet."

I'm for the neutral description. Otherwise, nobody can talk about "bad poetry."