A reflection on the words of a poet.
By Daniel Felsenfeld
"nothing is more unfair and immoral and undemocratic," writes Aldous Huxley of the British painter Augustus John, "than genius." "There are thousands and millions of virtuous folk,” Huxley continues, “who thoroughly deserve the gift; they do not receive it. Of the few to whom it is vouchsafed how many can say to have earned it? Some, no doubt; but many not at all.” And so we come to the legend that is Bob Dylan, that seething, complicated tale of a Minnesotan who made it loud in the world by way of 1950s Greenwich Village, strumming a guitar and somehow working his way to becoming the “poetic voice of a generation.” Anyone who has seen the Coen Brother’s film Inside Llewyn Davis, a kind of cri de coeur of mediocrity in the face of genius — think Amadeus of the bygone folk scene — knows that earnestness and willingness and even hard work can often pale in the face of the non-meretricious moaning of a wise-beyond-his-years chap taking in the entire folk tradition and spitting out, over the course of a half-century-long career, an output of not just songs but a major contribution to American Letters, to poetry. And as such Dylan becomes an American trope unto himself: that of the reluctant hero. Because if the mythology so aptly captured by the Brothers Coen is to be believed, it just worked for Dylan while others — the vanilla everyman of poor unheralded-but-deeply-earnest Llewyn Davis who, in the film’s final sequence, happens into the room where the Mozart to his Salieri is playing, not knowing he will be so readily forgotten — tried and did not manage.
There exists a vast lexicon of Dylanalysis: biographies, hagiographies, discographies exist by the expanding dozen, as do handsome editions of complete lyrics, as well as poetic, musical and cultural analyses of the work including but not limited to, according to Alex Ross of The New Yorker, a website called The Cracked Bell, an “unreadable book-length guide to Dylan’s unreadable book-length poem Tarantula,” and Christopher Ricks’s heroic attempt, as a respected scholar of T. S. Eliot and John Keats, to winnow down the presence of sin and virtue in his own five-hundred-page exegesis Dylan’s Vision of Sin. There is something there, something insightful and worthy of study and consideration. To quote Dylan himself, “we know something is happening there/ but we don’t know what it is.”
Dylan the man is famously gnomic, an unreliable narrator of his own story — as anyone who has read his fascinating but ultimately obfuscating Chronicles knows. You leave the two-hundred-plus pages of autobiography somehow less familiar with the subject than when you began, save for knowing a few books he liked back in “those” days as well as gathering a few names of artists you may or may not recognize. Or take the excellent film I’m Not There by Todd Haynes, which might go on record as the least informative yet most adept and honest biopic ever made, a movie in which five different actors were required to play one single folkie.
Dylan’s lyrics, like much so much of the canon of poetry, are often unclear enough to be subject to many interpretations, requiring healthy portions on the part of the listener/reader of Keats’s famous “negative capability”—“that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” — and yet, like great poetry, and much like the poet, they are most effective when they are the least clear. Not all of his lyrics are a twisting pyre of grapple. “Hurricane,” for instance, is a downright Harry Chapin–style social-justice narrative about the wrongly convicted boxer: “Here comes the story of the Hurricane/ The man the authorities came to blame/ For somethin’ that he never done/ Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been/ The champion of the world.” This tale gets told to us without poetic wanderings because it is, in and of itself, a scrap of mythology, the bizarro anti–John Henry saga (sadly continually poignant and contemporaneous) of a white cop and a black innocent. Or the pure rage made into near-biblical poetry that is “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a splenetic recounting of the 1963 murder in the deeply segregated South of an African-American man by a wealthy white man, who ended up, predictably, with a minimal sentence and lived to a ripe old age.
Yes, he could write a love song: “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Sarah,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Beyond the Horizon,” “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” all stand as his own forays — sometimes sappy, sometimes profound, always charming — into the overstuffed genre. And yet he manages, in his own inimitable fashion, to bend even this genre to his expansive will: one of his most famous songs, “Tangled Up in Blue,” the soundtrack to generations of broken hearts, playing in the background of many a dorm-room epiphany, avails a (mostly) conventional tale of love gone wrong, albeit from a wizened perspective. Take this strophe — one of seven, with no bridge to separate them — that simultaneously speaks to both his and all heartbreaks:
She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out west
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
We’ll meet again some day
On the avenue
Tangled up in blue
While we need not know the details — too much force? which avenue? — we get more than the gist, and it resonates. And yet this breakup song (which can be found on the record Blood on the Tracks, a record Dylan insists, in Chronicles, is based on Chekhov stories, though little evidence of that can be found, but then again who knows?) manages to supersede all musical tales of heartbreak by a certain inscrutable magic. The details of his encounter with her, whomever she may be, working in a topless bar, might be tragic or lurid, but instead he gives us something so striking and real and full of genuine detail that only a poet would notice: “I must admit I felt a little uneasy/ when she bent down to tie the lace of my shoe.” The pain of love gone wrong is oft-reported; the discomfort and even neurosis of it is strict Dylan territory.
For some, Dylan captures their own personal and hard-edged rage, which may or may not be the rage of the zeitgeist — he being one of the prime speakers of the “personal is political” generation. Dylan, want this or not, is most often associated with the tumult that was the American Sixties: an outspoken member of the anti-war movement; the principal anti-capitalist avatar; and someone who, admirably, has seldom cared for vogues or passing cultural fancies save for his famous turn to the electric guitar, the turn that gave us some of his more enduring work. He employs the slyer aspects of his anger in songs like “Idiot Wind” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” refusing, as did his namesake Dylan Thomas, to go gently into that good night. But it is in his blistering “Masters of War” that we see his teeth fully bared. Gone are the pretensions of metaphor — when it gets literal, as in “Hurricane” — you know Dylan is especially white-hot angry. Take this easy-to-vivisect strophe:
And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead
When this follows lines like “the money you made will never buy back your soul” and “You’ve thrown the worst fear/ that can ever be hurled/ fear to bring children/ into this world,” this wish for death is no idle threat. The pretense gone, the understandably unforgiving Dylan aims to exact a painful judgment, revenge he will take with relish.
“Dylan’s version of anger,” says essayist and long-time provocateur Christopher Hitchens, “is sardonic and bitter.” He goes on: “In Masters of War, ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,’ he said to the military-industrial complex and the racists, in effect, ‘You win. For now. But for now you also have to live with your shame. And judgment will follow, and is coming.’” These judgements, if Hitchens is to be believed (and he often is), are severe. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Mr. Thomas reminds us: this is Bob Dylan out of the shadows and ready to fight.
When, earlier in 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize, the announcement brought an equal amount of bustling joy and genuine concerned wailing. Criticisms (aside from the idea that he did not “need the money”) were that a mere musician was being assigned a literary prize; that “poetry” and “lyrics” are enough distinguishable both in content and intent that this was somehow a move on the part of the Nobel committee to sidle up to a rock star (forgetting he’s not even flirted with the charts in decades and that even his vast worth pales in comparison to that of a major contemporary pop icon); and that we were catching “the committee” in the act of selling out. This dim view of Dylan’s literary achievement counters Alex Ross: “In the verbal jungle of rock criticism, Dylan is seldom talked about in musical terms. His work is analyzed instead as poetry, punditry, or mystification. A book titled The Bob Dylan Companion goes so far as to call him ‘one of the least talented singers and guitarists around.’” Whole arguments were and continue to be advanced about who does and does not “like” the voice of “the voice of a generation,” that voice that Philip Larkin called, in the context of a respectful review of Highway 61 Revisited, “cawing” and “derisive,” the point of which was never to be loved in the first place. It is a stretch to call Dylan any kind of musical virtuoso.
So what, exactly, is Bob Dylan?
The umbrage taken by members of the literary community seemed aimed at what was taken as the Nobel’s thin definition of their profession, because they felt the purpose of the prize was to bring global attention to literary lights often laboring in somewhat obscurity in their own land — the names of Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano and Tomas Tranströmer being little known until Stockholm smiled upon them. And while Dylan was, some said, worthy of respect, he was no writer. Certainly one could look to his lyrics in aid of crystallizing a vision of a long-departed age (even though the lack of clarity of Dylan’s murky poetry is part of its appeal), but Dylan, too, had made some stuff that ranged from passable to sophomoric to downright dumb, and ought not a Nobel Laureate have a level of consistency? Is an artist to be evaluated for work from half a century ago or throughout their entire career? Legitimate questions, all.
To paraphrase T. S. Eliot (who one suspects would have loathed Dylan on every conceivable level), there is “minor” and “major” poetry, not as a system of qualitative value, but rather in how we view the work in context. Certain poets are rated as “minor” (arguably, say, William Carlos Williams): while they may have written one or two important or enduring works, they are minor in contradistinction to, say, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare or John Donne. The whole of a poet’s output is the thing to which we look even if certain works are specifically important. Put another way, there’s plenty of dross in Leaves of Grass that still rewards in a complete reading, and even Shakespeare has his flops, but these poets are lauded for their overall statement. Taking this mold, Dylan the writer qualifies as a major poet, the whole of his toil with words being greater than the sum of its parts. Eliot himself qualifies as “major,” his watchword poems like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Hollow Men” and “The Waste Land” standing against the more forgotten “Sweeney Erect” and “Preludes” (“Memory” from the musical Cats aside), outlining a whole system of poetic thinking rather than a collection of excellent poems — the essential difference between “major” and “minor.” When we take the still-in-progress Dylan output in toto rather than breaking down the work song by song, something big materializes, and gives us leave to forgive the stoned beatnik ramblings of Tarantula.
This is where poetry comes to matter because it echoes, it makes sumptuous hay of the moment while simultaneously speaking to what lies beyond....
Any thorough examination of the categorically inscrutable Bob Dylan — which this is not — requires something of a belletristic leap of faith, especially given Dylan’s public persona, the stadium-filling heraldic rock legend. in this instance impossible to do since our seething fan culture desperately wants, from those privileged to stand in front of a massive crowd with a guitar and a microphone, to see their life and work as being cut from the same cloth — and include it, because Dylan, referring to himself so frequently, asks us to do so. Also, considering the anomalous Dylan as a poet, he needs to be placed within the confines of the Great Western Canon — and who among them, even Shakespeare in his day, can lay claim to such a devoted and vast reader- or listenership? While Allen Ginsberg and Eliot drew thousands to their readings, what poets dream of such a scope of influence? Can John Ashbery boast a continual resurgence of popularity and fill thousands of seats, even with the amount of admirers he has? Does Anne Carson sell work into the millions? While Frank O’Hara boasted of being at a lot of parties, can any of them hold a candle to some of the after-event blowouts Dylan must have seen in his life? Even our most valued novelists, our Austers and Moodys, our Chabons and Atwoods, do not stand even the vaguest chance at reaching that level of amplification.
Because of his wide reach, Dylan’s, like so many musical celebrities, became ours: the legendary collective sense of betrayal felt when he “went electric” need not be rehearsed here, but that is to say he was able to form the garde from which he could avant because at that point he was a household name. His Chronicles is full of anecdotes about having to move house from time to time as his whereabouts were discovered by his fans (many of whose enthusiasm moved from the admirable to the actually dangerous). But in a sense he is owned by those who admire him, and has therefore made a life out of a dazzling non-pursuit of those who would have him. Instead he has built a life that is of his own devising, which leads to a different set of experiences from which he can draw his work. As Alex Ross says: “Dylan has survived without becoming a ‘survivor’ — a professional star acting out the rôle of himself. He has a curious, sub-rosa place in popular culture, seeming to be everywhere and nowhere at once.” Or, in his own words, “I wish I was there to help her, but I’m not there, I’m gone.”
Even if we had trouble knowing exactly what he was saying either in reality — Dylan may be the only one in history to have the word “[incomprehensible]” in a lyric sheet — or because the lyrics were veiled in metaphor for which no explanation was offered, Dylan the performer seems to take an impish delight in being certain his conceptually incomprehensible lyrics are not rendered with any actual comprehensibility. But there is a poetic history of this level of pointed gibberish: the nonsense poetry of, most famously, Lewis Carroll’s imperishable Jabberwocky. We all know the opening salvo, which can really stymie one’s autocorrect:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
And while nobody knows the definitions of most of these words because there are no definitions — the poet made them up — we, with a little help from Keats’s “negative capability,” in fact do know what they mean, even if definitions vary from reader to reader: “brillig” as a climate, or “wabe” as a location make both sense and not, which is part — or all — of the fun in reading this particular piece of “nonsense.” We know when we are “mimsy” and we certainly do not want to be in the presence of the “borogoves” or the “mome raths” when they are in this state. We can similarly scrutinize one of Dylan’s more memorably elusive lyrics, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
This verse, like all the verses, leaves both much and little to the imagination. And while Dylan coins no words, he asks more questions than he answers and allows us the privilege of mulling them over on multiple levels. Who is the “I” is the first and most complicated question. Someone is here, bearing witness (to borrow from scripture, to which Dylan frequently helps himself), not an actor but an observer. They, whoever they may be, likely never saw any of these things in real life — can a ladder actually be covered in water? Was there ever in history a gathering of even more than one broken-tongued talker, let alone ten thousand of them? Has a branch ever bled? Likely no, on a literal level. And yet here Dylan bravely stands, repeatedly telling us that the sum of these parts will lead to something catastrophic, the flood that is coming as a result. Were we strict textual critics of the postmodern variety, we would sidestep the context, the through-the-lens-of-history-pregnant 1963 when of the work. But we are mercifully able to take stock of both micro and macro, to say that this farrago of images is, in and of itself, meant as a barrage of poesy save for the last “twist of the knife” line — the guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children — which is as true and terrifying and honest as anything. And from here Dylan slides easily from the “doggerel” of Carroll and avails himself of Eliot’s “objective correlative” wherein the symbol is used almost as a kind of literary fisticuffs, and thus by superimposing the abstract with the real, the latter is offset and achieves a knife-like and often terrifying clarity. Diamond highways do not exist, but children with guns do, and by allowing us this momentary initial daze, the lone terrifying fact resonates and hurts. The thing that is coming, the Hard Rain, has been earned in the worst possible way.
There is a difference, according to Christopher Ricks, between writing religious poetry and writing poetry religiously. And thus we take Dylan — who, primed by his own fervent capability to make a thought out of a symbol and vice versa, did in fact go through a much-lamented “Saved” phase, wherein even at his best in a song like “Pressing On” (heard on the record called, quite literally, Saved) is favored by the easy, echt-Gospel chorus “Well I’m pressing on/ Yes I’m pressing on/ Well I’m pressing on/ to the higher calling of my Lord.” And yet if we take the Old Testament notion that the punishment always outstrips the sin, the work of Dylan exists on the razor’s edge of writing from the perspective of the ancient prophet, for better or for worse. And if you consider the precedents of mystics like William Butler Yeats or William Blake, this is an important line in the poet’s job description.
The trickster in Dylan is often there to alert us to what he is actually doing. Take his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which contains lyrics among his more famous and famously enigmatic. The title alone speaks odd volumes: “subterranean” being both an underground figure but also what beatnik prophet Jack Kerouac dubbed the quasi-mythological group of fellow travelers; “homesick” being a cheeky reference to the forced homelessness of that generation (“beat” meaning both impelled rhythm but also the more colloquial word for simple exhaustion); and “blues” being both a musical form (to which Dylan only vaguely hews) and a sense of overall world-weariness. From the outset: is it an embrace of the counterculture, an explication after the fact, or a gentle ribbing? Or somehow all three?
A sampling of the text — the most famous passage, perhaps, in Dylan’s entire output — provides much in the way of spirited ambiguity:
Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A. look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don’t try “No Doz”
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows
Whole doctoral theses could be penned on this quintessential Dylan passage: its mix of auto-reflexivity (Maggie presumably being the one on whose farm he no longer wished to work), down-and-out “beat”-ness (the soot), Sixties paranoia (“phone’s tapped anyway” and “stay away from those/ that carry around a fire hose” and “look out kid/ don’t matter what you did”), drugs, and the final line, which — aside from its inspiring the name of the radical SDS offshoot group The Weathermen — is a masterpiece warning of severe judgment, using, as any prophet might, the weather as a kind of promised threat, a boon companion to the presaged “Hard Rain.” But dizzying countercultural psychosis (being “on the pavement/ talking about the government”) aside, the song, a spirited up-tempo number, engages objective correlative with the text and creates something that is, while sinister to the point of terrifying, also sub-rosa funny, in the way that the malaise-driven plays of Samuel Beckett or the novels of Dylan’s old friend Thomas Pynchon are funny — we are never sure if we are in on the joke or the joke’s butt, or if in fact the joke has escaped us altogether. In any case, this is a moment where deep poesy abuts Deep Elvis, where inherently historically poetic meets the culture of cool, and this, if nothing else, is a branch of both spot-on cultural analysis and an absolute inscrutability that only Bob Dylan can muster.
One attendant question in the granting of the Nobel was: do the lyrics stand up as poems in their own right? Leaving aside that so much poetry of old was meant to be performed or sung — The Odyssey, Shakespeare, Hildegard — can the work be read in silence and still be moving? To answer that question, one might return to the nineteenth century, where poets and composers were at least of a ken (epitomizing Walter Pater’s famous dictum that “all art aspires to the quality of song”): poems of the day were set to music. Schubert’s famous lied “Der Erlkönig” is a setting of his age’s sage Goethe, whose words are the basis of upwards of two thousand and six hundred settings; Beethoven’s epoch-making Ninth Symphony culminates with the legendary “An die Freude” based on a text by Fredric Schiller. Debussy set Mallarmé and Maeterlinck; Poulenc set Apollinaire and Valéry; Stravinsky set Eliot and Jean Cocteau; Britten set W. H. Auden; Ned Rorem set Paul Goodman. All of these composers took the words of their contemporaries and made them into songs, oratorios, operas, as the words of Dylan were for John Corigliano, one of our leading compositional lights, the basis for his cycle Mr.Tambourine Man. The composer had an issue none of these other composers did: what to do about the music? In his case, it was simple: having never heard the songs, he chose to simply ignore Dylan’s music and take the texts qua texts. As a composer, Corigliano was not keen on the more simple turns that folk music takes, but the respect for the force of Dylan’s words is palpable. “The music rides under the poetry,” he says, “to sustain the singing of words that are extremely charged and extremely full of emotional intensity that very often is not there in the music. So, I may have heard ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ in a coffee shop down in The Village in the Sixties sometime, but it was playing and I was talking to someone else and my ear didn’t stop and say, ‘What is that?’ So, I count that as not ‘hearing’ it because I never investigated it, it never turned my head musically. Now, if I had heard the words — it’s very hard to hear the words in a coffee shop and especially with Bob Dylan singing, the words are not always that clear — I would feel very differently about it. But, just on the musical level alone, it did not fascinate me.” To some this echoes as a kind of sacrilege, but to Corigliano he saw the same opportunity that every composer saw in choosing their words to set: a chance to take an existing and beautiful thing and engage with it in the manner they know how: to pay the port homage.
When novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote about the more recent work — which he values as highly as any of that from the Sixties — he uses Dylan’s (remarkably and even uncharacteristically clear) words to unpack this continuing appeal:
How does he summon such an eternal authority? “I’d make this record no matter what was going on in the world,” Dylan tells me. “I wrote these songs in not a meditative state at all, but more like in a trancelike, hypnotic state. This is how I feel? Why do I feel like that? And who’s the me that feels this way? I couldn’t tell you that, either. But I know that those songs are just in my genes and I couldn’t stop them comin’ out.” This isn’t to say Modern Times, or Dylan, seems oblivious to the present moment. The record is littered — or should I say baited? — with glinting references to world events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, though anyone seeking a moral, to paraphrase Mark Twain, should be shot. And, as if to startle the contemporary listener out of any delusion that Dylan’s musical drift into pre-rock forms — blues, ragtime, rockabilly — is the mark of a nostalgist, “Thunder on the Mountain” also name-checks a certain contemporary singer: “I was thinking ’bout Alicia Keys, I couldn’t keep from crying/ While she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was livin’ down the line.” When I ask Dylan what Keys did “to get into your pantheon,” he only chuckles at my precious question. “I remember seeing her on the Grammys. I think I was on the show with her, I didn’t meet her or anything. But I said to myself, ‘There’s nothing about that girl I don’t like.’”
Words of Eliot seem more apt to explain this than anything I can muster: “Between the idea/ and the reality/ between the motion/ and the act/ falls the shadow.”
What Dylan likely represents, as so many poets do, is the capacity to speak from a grand mountain while holding the oft-referenced “mirror up to truth” of their contemporary world, to both help define and confuse the definition of whatever time they happen — in reality — to be enduring, to speak truth to power if power is defined as the inexorable creep of earthly time. This is where poetry comes to matter because it echoes, it makes sumptuous hay of the moment while simultaneously speaking to what lies beyond — or, to quote Dylan, “it’s not dark yet/ but it’s getting there.”
All this is to say that when confronting the lyrics of Bob Dylan, we are encountering the work of a poet, of someone capable of shaping old forms in his own inimitable way; someone who can force the often-cranky beast that is modern English to his own strong will, making something that works in both the abstract and the concrete, with a holster of expansiveness, humor, self-deprecating wit, sadness, anomie, bonhomie, isolation and despair, hope and prayer, recklessness and rage, spirit and salvation. At this complex historical moment, when the hope of a certain American administration verges on giving way to the purgative bile of another, Dylan, that representative of and antidote to the most recent difficulties on our political landscape, might be called to emerge yet again as a reluctant beacon. Even the simplest phrases of his — “Don’t follow leaders/ watch for parking meters” or “I used to care but things have changed” — are artifacts many of us can carry around reminding us that, as has been proven and re-proven for centuries, poets are and will always be the canaries in the churning coal mines, the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and that their necessary wisdom ought to be sought. Oh Mercy, we continue to need them as they make us better, make us look with a gimlet eye at ourselves and our world, and get us off the computer and into the streets where we belong, where there’s music in the cafe at night and revolution in the air. Now ain’t the time for our tears.
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