Thursday, September 6, 2007



An old peeve, this: Bob Dylan is not a poet. He is a songwriter. What he does is significantly different than what a poet does. In any relevant sense, the best of what poetry offers is read off the page, sans melody from accompanying guitar or piano and a convincingly evocative voice. The poet's musical sense, rhythmic properties, and other euphonious qualities are derived from the words and clever, ingenious combinations alone. A reader may appreciate the words, the rhymes, the cadences, the melodious resonance, and dissonance, as the case may be, but all this comes from the language of the poem alone, on the page, without music. When addressing such rich and soul-stirring sounds of nouns and adjectives conjoined, the musicality we speak of has everything to with the poet extending the limits of everyday speech. You can read Shakespeare to full literary potential, I think, because his verse, in the guise of dialogue, still satisfies as writing, with metaphors, rhythms, cadences swirling and ringing to a heightened sense of what the complexity of human emotion can sound like if there were words, allusions, similes, and metaphors that could give life and texture for what are, in his plays, inchoate feelings brewing at some base level of the personality before the mind can provide them with an articulate if flawed rationale.

photograph by Jim Marshall
It was the task of Shakespeare, the poet, and the playwright combined, to give vocal music to what were speeches that made private thoughts, half-plotted schemes, inarticulate resentments, paranoia, the whole conflicting brew of insecurity, self-doubt, and malevolence into something that was the equivalent of music, a sweet, and stirring sound that bypasses the censoring and sense-making intellect and which makes even the foulest of schemes seem just and only natural. The writing, that is to say approximates music from the page and provides for a more complicated task when considering our responses to a provocative set of stanzas. Dylan is a songwriter, a distinct art form, and his words are lyrics, which cannot be experienced to their fullest without the music that accompanies them. One may hum the melodies while pouring over the lyrics and mentally reconstruct listening to an album's songs, but this proves the point. Of themselves, Dylan's lyrics pale poorly compared to page poets. With his music, the lyrics come alive and artful, at their best. They are lyrics, inseparable from their melodies, and not poems, which have another kind of life altogether.

The lyrics are flat and unremarkable save for their strangeness, which is not especially interesting in verbal terms. With music, voila! Transformation. This is a condition that makes what Dylan does songwriting, not the writing of poetry. These are distinct art forms with features and rules of composition that are crucial and non-negotiable. Cohen is an interesting case since he inhabits several writing mediums, IE, novels, poetry, plays music. He's not incredibly prolific in any of these areas--over the forty-plus years that he's been on my radar, his output has been meager, albeit high quality--but it occurs to me that he's more of an actual writer than Dylan is. They are different sorts of geniuses. Cohen, of course, is a novelist overall—"Beautiful Losers," "The Favorite Game"--and a poet, someone wholly committed to making the words from their music, rhythm, and power so that the sort of splendid, soul-racked suffering he specializes in, that deliciously wrought agony that's midway between spiritual experience and sexual release, is fully conveyed to the reader and made as felt as possible.

Cohen tends the words he uses more than Dylan does; his language is strange and abstruse at times, but beyond the oddity of the existences he sets upon his canvas, there exist an element that is persuasive, alluring, masterfully wrought with writing, from the page alone, that blends all the attendant aspects of Cohen's stressed worldliness-- sexuality, religious ecstasy, the burden of his whiteness-- into a whole, subtly argued, minutely detailed, expertly layered with just so many fine, exacting touches of language. His songs, which I find the finest of the late 20th century in English--only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell, and Paul Simon have comparable bodies of work--we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase applied to his themes, his storylines. In many ways, I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he's a better writer overall. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty years about the quality of work he's released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen's songbook you would characterize as a cast-off. 

Cohen takes more care in words he selects to tell his tales. He creates his moods as he provides a sense of location, tone, and philosophical underpinning while subtly suggesting the opposite of whatever mood he might be getting at. Cohen is simply more careful than Dylan. In word selection, more discriminating; the architecture of literary influence is on display in the disciplined rhymes of Cohen's parable-themed lyrics, elegantly so. It is, to be sure, a matter of choice how a writer manages their word flow. Cohen's writing has a sense of someone who labors hard to make the image work, to have that image compliment and make enticingly evocative a scenario that starts off simple and then arrives instantly of fatalistic surrender to powers greater than oneself, both sensual and spiritual. I feel for Dylan's method because he is an admirer of what Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac regarded as Spontaneous Bop Prosody, a zen-like approach to an expression where it was believed that the first thought was the best thought one could have on a subject.

Good poets, great poets, are writers when it gets down to what it is they do, and it's my feeling that Cohen's experience as a novelist, short story writer, and playwright has given him a well-honed instinct for keeping the verbiage to a minimum.  Cohen isn't a chintzy minimalist like Raymond Carver. And fewer words in a piece are not, by default, superior to more extended word counts. Cohen just has a better sense of when it's time to stop and develop a  lyric further.

Dylan's genius is closer to the kind of brilliance we see in Miles Davis, where the influences of unlike styles of music and other elements-- traditional folk, rock, and roll, protest songs, blues, country, French Symbolism, Beat poets--were mixed in ways that created a new kind of music, and required a new critical language to discuss what it was he had done with the influences he'd assimilated, and the range of his power. It is possible to look at aspects of Dylan's art. Fine individual strands wanting--his lyrics may be unfocused or strange for their own sake, his melodies are either borrowed or lack sophistication, his singing is nasal and grating--but taken together, music, words, voice, instrumentation fused, one experiences catharsis, power and galvanizing mysticism in the best recorded moments. "Ballad of a Thin Man" is a flat, curious scribble of a lyric read by itself. Still, with the minor critical intonations of Al Kooper's keyboard and Mike Bloomfield's interned guitar, coupled with Dylan's leering, a snarling dramatization of the lyric, we have an art that is riveting n terms that are purely musical; yes, one might go on at length and create a cosmology of what Dylan's lyrical creations make of the experience, but the emphasis needs to remain on the whole.

"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) "is a terrific, innovative song lyric, and as a lyric does not have the same power as a well-written poem has on the page when that lyric hasn't the music to give it momentum. The power of the lyric has a sustained "oh wow" element, one line after another summarizing the sad state of the Perfect Union, the Idealized world in harsh, ironic terms, each image and beat of the intoned images, critical, lively, surreal in a seamless mash-up of different concepts, are lifted, foisted, tossed to the listener by the steady and firm strums of the simple guitar Dylan maintains. Lyrics have their advantages and can be pretty artful and subtle, but I maintain that they're a different art form; the words are subservient to the song form, where poems of every sort are autonomous, structures made entirely of language. (Unless, of course, you're a Dada poet who just arrived here with a time machine).

"Desolation Row" and "Visions of Johanna," two songs from what I think is the center of Dylan's most significant period as a song-poet, if you will, likewise are not to make their fantastic excursions through Daliesque landscapes alone on the page, as flat print. Dylan's chords, his voice, and his forward-march rhythms are what make these extended lyrics crisp and suggestive of metaphysical chaos under a thin the thin guise of civility and reason. Drums, organs, twangy and tuneless guitars, police sirens, his braying voice bring a dimension to the lyrics that aren't there without it. Dylan's songs especially--more so than Cole Porter, more so than Chuck Berry, more so than a host of his contemporaries--are not self-sufficient as page-poets are with their work. It can be argued that what Dylan has done is more complex, subtler, and requiring a new vocabulary to discuss than what poets have done, and something I would subscribe to on principle. Dylan remains a songwriter foremost and a poet only through loose analogy. In all, Dylan's lyrics serve the musical experience, the concept of a song, which makes Dylan a songwriter of genius, but not a poet. When they are writing poetry and not novels or songs of their own, poets are committed to making language, and language alone, the means through which their ethereal notions will be preserved. Successor failure depends on how well they can write, not strum a guitar or croon a tune.


 I do admire the work of artists who remain attractive as they get older, but it is a fact that many writers, poets, songwriters do their best, most compelling work in their early years. Dylan is one of these--the most incredible songs, in my view, were those that combined equal elements of Surrealism, Burroughs-inspired language cut-ups, blues and rural south music vernaculars, and heavy doses of French Symbolism by way of Rimbaud and Mallarme. This gave his stanzas a heightened, alienated feeling of sensory overload, making him the principal Lyricist of the bare existential absurdity that life happens to be. No one got to the infuriating heart of the sensation that life had ceased to mean anything after those matters that "mean" the most to us--marriages, friendships, tastes, financial security, spiritual or religious certainty--were changed, destroyed, or simply vanished. Dylan's writing was of the individual suddenly in the choking throes of uncertainty, batting back encroaching gloom with the kind of swinging, poetic wit that reassembles existence. It is a stance, a state, an aesthetic state of being that made it possible for him to fire on all cylinders for a good run of time. Generally, the poetic quality and intensity that Dylan produced in the longs on the list I made are a substantial body of work that perfectly matches the most vigorous work by Eliot, Pound, WC Williams, Burroughs Ginsberg. It is also not the kind of work you can keep doing for a lifetime; like Miles Davis, he had to. His mature work has often hit the mark and offers the long view of experience in an, especially moving way. Just as often, I think he misses the mark and overwrites or is prone to hackneyed phrasing. 

There is much quality to the later songs, but they are not among Dylan's most excellent as a body of lyrics. 
Dylan is called more often than not a poet because of the unique genius of his best songs; I don't think he's a poet, but a songwriter with an original talent strong enough to change that particular art forever. I do understand, though, why a host of critics through the decades would consider him a poet in the first place. My list is the songs I think that justifies any sort of reputation Dylan has a poetic genius. I like most of the songs mentioned above for various reasons apart from the ones on my initial 35 choices. The Songs there manage an affinity for evoking the ambiguities and sharp perceptions of an acutely aware personality who is using poetic devices to achieve more abstract and suggestive effects and still tend to be wonderfully tuneful. No one else in rock and roll, really, was doing that before Dylan was. On those terms, nothing he's written is entirely at the level of where he was with the songs on my list; this list consists of the body of work that substantiates Dylan's claim to genius. "Just Like a Woman" is one of the most refined character sketches I've ever heard in a song. What's remarkable is the brevity of the whole, how much history is suggested, inferred, insinuated in spare yet arresting imagery. I rather like that Dylan allows the mystery of this character to linger, to not let the fog settle. The ambiguity gives its suggestive power, and there is the whole element of whether the person addressed is a woman at all, but rather a drag queen. It's an open question. It's a brilliant lyric.

"Drifter's Escape "was on twice and is now a single entry. There is a concentration of detail in the lyric, a compression of Biblical cadence and sequence that makes the song telling and vivid not in its piling on of stanzas but in its brevity. He does the same for "All along the Watchtower," which I regard as a condensed "Desolation Row," a commentary, perhaps, from the tour bus just passing through; the tour guide finally tells the driver, "there must be some kinda way outta here." I regard the true "poetry" of Dylan's music in the earlier music, where he is spectacularly original in how he forced his influences to take new shapes and create new perspectives. Post JWH, I just find too much of his lyric writing prolix, and meandering, time-filling rather than revealing; the surreal, fresh, colloquial snap of his language has gone and is replaced with turns of phrase that are trite, hackneyed, ineffective;' they strike my ear as false. Even "Blind Willie McTell," a song that has been persuasively defended by intelligent fans of Dylan's later work, strikes too many false notes for my tastes. Musically, it drags and philosophically seems a victim of convenient thinking,  a PC version of Song of the South; some of the imagery is simply cloying and seems more suitable for Gone with the Wind than a poet of arguable worth.
...See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell...
Really, that is awful, a dreadful presentation of atmospheric detail meant to create historical context and mood, but it trades on so many received ideas of slavery, racism, the south, et al., that the intent no longer matters. It strikes as more minstrel show than tribute. Had anyone submitted this to serious poetry (or lyric) writing workshop, it would have been handed back to us for revision, with the advice that we rid the narrative of the creaky, questionable window dressing? "When I Paint My Masterpiece" works wonderfully because of its lack of any messages about social justice. It works because it is a short, terse, vivid travelogue, vague and evocative in equal measure. The ambiguity and absence of relevance to anything other than Dylan's need to speak offhandedly about an exciting time in the life of a particular character is what makes this song memorable.
Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

Well, I had a feeling that the general good sense this album conveys is that Dylan wasn't trying too hard to prove he's a genius. The record is straightforward, and the language is remarkably free of affectation, a tendency that has plagued him post-JWH. I especially like "Sign in the Window"; it has the sincerity and actual and momentary acceptance of where one happens to be in a specific part of life and offers a new set of expectations. The perfectly natural language here, excellent and unexpected rhymes, telling use of local detail that give us color and history without sagging qualifiers to make it more "authentic." The lyrics are a recollection of a trip, places visited, perspectives changing, a nice string of incidents in a language that sounds like a natural voice telling real things, with genuine bemusement.  


  1. Just as I was about to say
    "But what about Cohen?" you brought him up. You can tell that he is brilliant, in part, because anyone with some talent can take one of his songs and make something divine out of it.

    I found the lyrics of the band Beautiful South quite lovely.

  2. What about Springsteen? I've always felt he was a story-teller as well as a songwriter - but it was his gravely, grainy musical interpretations that often brought poetry to mind.

  3. kol

    Cohen is so fine that he scares me sometimes. So few men are able to write as he does without seeming like fakers and louts. Cohen is not a faker, and he is a genuine poet, the real deal, as one imagines in DH Lawrence novels.


    Springsteen is someone I have mixed feelings about--I like him , but I'm not a fan of his music or lyrics. But he is not a fake. I have a couple of pieces about him in the blog archive. If you go to the tag column on the right and scroll down the alphabetical order, you'll see the "Springsteen" links.

  4. To this I do object, Though my objection you will surely reject,
    Poetry existed before writing, as in Homer's time,
    Always with prosody and meter, not always with rhyme,
    and still does, in Kazakhstan,
    and places in the Balkan's, where the poet sings,
    long works unwritten about ancient things.
    As for "Shelter from the Storm" you will understand the story,
    if you read the poets called Fedeli d'Amore,
    If sound recordings existed in the fourteenth century,
    Dante would be listen'd to, not read as he is today.
    As a saint said, the letter kills,
    but the spirit (which is breath) gives life, and it does still.
    The true poet also his own prosody,
    the natural extension of which is melody.
    And Cohen, even his printed words are boring.
    If I were reading him,
    you could hear me snoring.

  5. I sort of disagree with your thesis, but find I disagree with little of your actual observation.

    Dylan may or may not be a poet -- I think that he is -- but either way, there is no question that he is a much better songwriter, and little question that many of his lyrics DO fail to stand on their own as good poetry. But I do feel that some of it does.

    In the early-mid sixties, as a young teenager living in rural eastern Washington state, I had little exposure to Dylan's music (I had heard PP&M's recording of "Blowin' in the Wind" and I had heard his "Like a Rollin' Stone" on local radio) but I read, reread and memorized the lyrics to his songs, and that, even more than the Sandberg, Frost and Dickinson I was reading in English class, is what triggered my love of poetry.

    I admit that some of what I thought great poetry when I was 14 or 15 does not stand up so well when I reread it now, and I also realize that once I heard Dylan perform the songs, it is difficult for me to once again read the lyrics as true poetry, because I cannot "unhear" him performing it.

    Cohen, on the other hand, IS clearly a poet, was a poet before he ever though of writing a song.

    The one other songwriter who I think of as a poet also wrote poetry long before turning to songwriting is Patti Smith.

  6. That’s all well and good, Ted…I mean, Dylan isn’t Pound or even Aiken…but in all honesty, could you or I ever write something as touching and refulgent as THIS:

    Now grease that pig
    And sing praise
    Go on out
    And gas that dog
    Trick on in
    Honk that stink
    Take it on down
    And watch it grow
    Play it low
    And pick it up
    Take it on in
    In a plucking cup
    Three-legged man
    And a hot-lipped hoe
    Tell 'em all
    Montgomery says hello

  7. Anonymous1:12 AM PST

    I don't know how you can listen to It's Alright Ma and write that Dylan is not a poet. Every argument made against dylan can be negated by the mentioning of just another poet. Like Baudelaire. I would say he and Dylan are a lot alike on paper.

  8. It's Alright Ma is a terrific, innovative song lyric, and as a lyric does not have the same power as a well written poem has on the page when that lyric hasn't the music to give it momentum. Lyrics have their advantages and can be quite artful and subtle, but I maintain that they're a different art forum; the words are subservient to the song form, where poems of every sort are autonomous, structures made entirely of language. (Unless,of course, you're a Dada poet just arrived here with a time machine). In any case, song lyrics and poetry are separate things, and they've been separated for a very long time.

  9. No, Dylan is too a poet, and he is also a radiator, a gardening tool, a Kleenix left in the street and the third shoe you told yourself you didn't need.


Comments are moderated due to spam. But commentaries, opinions and other remarks about the posts are always welcome! I apologize for the inconvenience.