You don’t have to write anything down to be a poet. Some work in gas stations. Some shine shoes. I don’t really call myself one because I don’t like the word. – “I’m Not There”
When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last Thursday, it was to be expected that reaction would be mixed. Some claimed it was fitting that – in his 75th year – Dylan should be rewarded for a lifetime’s work. Others complained about the fact that a singer/songwriter was awarded literature’s highest honour, and pointed to any number of other more qualified candidates. But the main debate seemed to be an age-old one – can Dylan’s lyrics actually be called poetry?
Professor and Dylan scholar, Christopher Ricks, comes down very firmly in the Yes camp: “A performer of genius,” he told the Irish Times, “Dylan is necessarily in the business … of playing his timing against his rhyming. The cadences, the voicing, the rhythmical draping and shaping don’t make a song superior to a poem, but they do change the hiding places of its powers.”
On the other side, Blake Morrison (speaking in the same article) said that Dylan’s words are not poetry because they require a voice: “[Seamus Heaney] had a great voice too but his poems work on the page without you hearing it. Whereas some of Dylan’s words, divorced from his music, have faults no poetry workshop would allow …”
Edna Longley put it the most bluntly: “All I can say is: I think that it’s a ridiculous decision, and an insult to real poets.”
There are, of course, as many aspects to Dylan’s songwriting as there are Dylan albums. There’s the traditional “rhyming couplet Dylan”, from the bizarre and almost child-like imagery of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:
“Better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals, try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum you better chew gum
The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles”
to the deep symbolism of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (both songs taken from the same album):
“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christ’s that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred”
But there’s also the “expansive song lyric Dylan”, in songs that oftentimes come across more as short stories than actual songs. One example of this is the song “Tangled up in Blue”:
“I lived with them on Montague street
In a basement down the stairs,
There was music in the cafes at night
And revolution in the air.
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died.
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside.”
“Tangled up in Blue” reads less like the brief snatches of imagery that we get in normal song lyrics and more like a fully-fledged story, filled with characterisation, plot, and attention to detail. The song is the opening track on Dylan’s album, Blood on the Tracks, an astonishing meditation on love and loss (written after he separated from his wife, Sara). From another track, “Idiot Wind”:
“I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.”
Another striking thing about Dylan’s lyrics is the use of similes and metaphor. Dylan is never one to go for the obvious choice. If a writer was to try to think of a metaphor for crying, what might they use? Here’s Dylan in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”:
“Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun”
Or how to describe someone who has been beaten down and is at the end of their tether? Here’s how Dylan does it in “Shelter from the Storm”:
“I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.”
Beyond the question of whether these lyrics can be considered poems, it’s important to remember that the Nobel Prize is awarded – not only in recognition of an author’s works – but also in recognition of their effect on the world and how they have “benefitted mankind”. Maybe this is a better prism through which to view Dylan’s winning of the award than just his words.
In the social sphere, Dylan had a profound effect on the counter-culture of the 1960s, but perhaps more importantly, his work had an equally profound effect on art. He changed rock music forever – a genre that was initially thought of as juvenile and a fad. Countless artists of the time followed his lead – the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Paul Simon – upping their game to produce masterpieces of the genre. Countless artists who came in his wake also followed his lead: without Dylan, there would be no Springsteen, no Nick Cave, no [insert your favourite singer/songwriter here]. Or at least, not in the sense we know them now.
“Has Dylan benefited mankind?” Martina Evans asks. “I am sure of it. Too many people are turned away from poetry in school – but they had a need for poetry and Bob Dylan filled that need.”
When I think of the following line, from “Visions of Johanna”, I can’t help but agree:
“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”
(c) Derek Flynn
Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie’s SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and his fiction was featured in Surge, an anthology of new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press with the aim of showcasing “the very best of the next generation of Irish authors”. Online he can be found at his writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’.