Is Bob Dylan really a poet?

Bob Dylan always resisted being counted among America's poets but found poetry in US heartlands

Bob Dylan has always resisted being counted among America's poets, but if there was ever poetry to be found in America's heartlands, he was the man to find it, writes GERRY SMYTH

“Mr Dylan is a poet, and though he might be a minor one, were he to publish in slim volumes without the assistance of guitar, harmonica and publicity machine, it is something to sell poetry to a mass audience at all”

THE IRISH TIMES reviewer who wrote those words in response to Bob Dylan's 1966 concert in Dublin touched on a question that has long been a source of contention: is he a poet? Does he belong with Eliot and Pound in "the captain's tower"?

Many would now say there was some injustice in the suggestion that here was a mere minor poet. In the intervening 45 years Dylan’s name has repeatedly come up alongside those of Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Tennyson, Rimbaud and Verlaine, and numerous critics and academics have analysed and connected his songs to a literary rather than a song-writing tradition.

Some Dylan apologists have made the case that his command of language and gifts as a master of wordplay were such that even if his work did not always achieve on the page the highest levels of poetic utterance, at least it aspired to the condition of poetry. The lyric richness and nuance of the early protest ballads, and then the highly charged inner landscapes of his Highway 61/Blonde on Blondeperiod, added weight to the frequent comparison with bygone poets and claims made on Dylan's behalf that he is a true poet of our time.

The question of whether these inner landscapes were a result of what he learned from his readings of the symbolist poets or due to his amphetamine dreams is now somewhat irrelevant. He joined a distinguished school of poets whose work could be said to be outside the realm of ordinary reality. And he gave to rock a new conception of what it could be in musical terms with those mid-1960s albums, as well as probably the era's greatest anthem, Like a Rolling Stone.

The narrative form he adopted for many of his songs takes us close to another of England's Romantic poets: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he of Kubla Khanand Ancient Marinerfame. From Dylan's dramatisation of the story of the teenager whose murder sparked the American civil-rights movement in The Death of Emmett Till, to later sequences such as The Ballad of Frankie Leeand Judas Priest, Lilyand Rosemary and the Jack of Heartsand Black Diamond Bay, he knows the power of a good story.

Dylan’s own response to the “are you a poet?” question has been that he is simply a song-and-dance man. His sights were not on the heights of Parnassus but on the open road and the trans-America railroad beloved of his drifters and hobos – and of course that “mystery tramp” – as well as his early idols, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams.

“It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. It’s a big dedication”

Bob Dylan

THE “SONG-AND-DANCE MAN” answer is somewhat disingenuous. Dylan certainly had notions of himself as a poet as early as 1964, when he took the trouble to seek out Carl Sandburg, an elder statesman of American letters. The visit, however, was a short and testy one and ended abruptly when the Pulitzer winner refused to take Dylan seriously.

The singer went on to form several close alliances with American poets, mostly from the beat circle: Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and, particularly, Allen Ginsberg, who was to become a major influence.

Clinton Heylin, in his comprehensive and definitive account of Dylan's life, Behind the Shades, informs us that it was to this trio that Dylan was initially keen to play his 10-minute masterpiece, Visions of Johanna, in the self-belief that he was "finally prepared to cop to being a poet".

Poets were then, and seem to have remained, a central part of his reading. Ginsberg recalled that when the singer was recuperating from his motorcycle accident he presented him with a “box full of books of all kinds. All the modern poets I knew. Some ancient poets like Sir Thomas Wyatt, Campion, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Lorca, Apollinaire, Blake, Whitman.”

Then there’s the name change that may, or may not, be in honour of one of the great figures in 20th-century poetry. And yet, he once told Nora Ephron, “I don’t call myself a poet because I don’t like the word. I’m a trapeze artist.”

This contradictory and contrary unwillingness to be counted among the poets of America was again demonstrated at that now infamous 1970 honorary conferral at Princeton University, an occasion he dismissed with chagrin and some clever rhyming in Day of the Locusts:

I put down my robe, picked up my diploma

Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive

Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota

Sure was glad to get out of there alive

And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill . . .

However, if Eliot’s contention that poets are those who “startle us out of our sleep-of-death into a more capacious sense of life” is in any way true, Dylan has been doing just that since he took his first steps to becoming one of the 20th century’s most alluring and influential cultural figures.

Dylan once said he aspired to produce work that could stand alongside the art of Rembrandt. But perhaps he should instead have cited Shakespeare, because, like the Bard of Avon, his virtuosity with language has been all-encompassing, scooping up an overwhelming abundance: history and geography, heroes and villains, past and present, and the future when he dares to take on the mantle of prophet. Immensely resourceful as an artist, his creative imagination has taken all that has come its way to produce a body of work that already transcends the time and place of its making.

“I learned t’choose my idols well”

Bob Dylan’s sleeve-notes poem for Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2

LIKE SHAKESPEARE, too, he has been the consummate absorber of other sources, a collector with a magpie’s eye, assimilating whatever was in the ether or washed up on the shore. The remark by Liam Clancy, a companion from the Greenwich Village days, that the only thing he could compare Dylan to was “blotting paper”, because he soaked everything up, was altogether true. Many of his own early folk ballads, including ones he learned from the Clancys and Tommy Makem, were ones shamelessly derived from traditional tunes.

But what great artists haven’t sifted through the Aladdin’s cave of their antecedents, picking and choosing what has preceded them and giving it the shine of newness? And few have done it with the kind of transformative lustre Dylan so frequently applied in his updates of older work. He often simply borrowed the coat but recrafted the stitching: how magnificently Alfred Hayes’s 1930s poem I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill morphed into I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine. But then all poets pay homage in this way to those who have led them to the well.

Although many of the early ballads bear echoes of Guthrie, Leadbelly, the Clancy brothers, Blind Willie McTell, Arthur Rimbaud, Brecht and Weil, the beat poets and countless others, Dylan emerges with his own entirely and unmistakeably authentic voice, whatever the form, be it the declamatory anthem, the song of political or social protest, the love aria, the murder ballad, the stream-of-conscience narrative, the visionary epistle or the biblical parable refashioned in the Dylan vernacular.

Heylin points out that the "most important literary resource for this lapsed Jew" was the Bible, which again and again has been a source for the imagery and the charge of many of his most allusive songs. From the God-said-to-Abraham rant of Highway 61to the end-of-days mood that hangs over Changing of the Guardand Tales of Yankee Power, to the psalm-like contemplation of Every Grain of Sand, his Bible-reading habit has constantly had an impact on the lyric direction of his work.

He has been the wearer of many badges: conscience of his generation (though he is on record as disavowing that tag), hero of the Sixties counter-culture, hipster, outsider, jester, chameleon, sage, shaman, minstrel, troubadour, evangelist, fire-and-brimstone moralist, harbinger of apocalyptic news.

Those constant reinventions and demolitions of his self-image – and often the original versions of his own songs – have been a source of mystification. His musical idioms have chopped and changed and adapted to his whims, from folk to the folk-rock hybrid that evolved into the electrified and electrifying sound that so offended the purists who jeeringly chanted traitor at him in the mid-1960s. The ballad, the blues dirge and gospel song: they have all been adapted to suit his alter ego of the day.

His creation of country rock, so wistfully delivered on Nashville Skyline, was a rethreading of the melancholia of Hank Williams. When he turned to the eschatological with Slow Train Comingand the follow-up Christian albums, he did so with the righteous fervour of any pulpit preacher, in a phase that was perhaps prefigured in the biblical narratives of Gates of Edenand Highway 61.

He has slipped through the years as a chameleon. From the questing and questioning youth who wanted to know "how many roads must a man walk down" to the introspection of Love Sick,in which he finds himself walking "through streets that are dead", on Time Out of Mind– an album that, to quote King Lear, "smelt of mortality" – the whole sweep of his career has been one of continuously dissembling and re-creating his own myths.

In a New Yorkeressay from 1999 Alex Ross summarised Dylan's life in a couple of pithy sentences: "He was born in Minnesota. He went to Greenwich village. He wrote protest songs. He stopped writing protest songs. He took drugs, 'went electric'. He was booed. He fell off his motorcycle. He disappeared into a basement. He reappeared and sang country. He got divorced. He converted to Christianity. He converted back to something else . . ."

The restlessness with which he has moved through musical genres, identities, religious beliefs is still evident today in the so-called Never Ending Tour; but then Dylan the wanderer was signalled on the day he first left his hometown, Hibbing, Minnesota, and on the early recording Restless Farewell:

And the corner sign

Says it’s closing time

So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road.

He is something of an Odysseus without an Ithaca.

The voice too has had its different seasons: from the nasal twang of the protest singer to the sweeter country inflections on Nashvile Skylineand John Wesley Harding, when he sounded his best, to today's raspy growl.

The druggy psychedelic surrealism of early songs such as Mr Tambourine Man, Subterranean Homesick Bluesand Desolation Row, and that defiant surge of sound that announced Like a Rolling Stone, gave way to the simpler folk poetry of Nashville Skyline, John Wesley Hardingand New Morning. From being, as Heylin calls him, "Rimbaud's bastard grandson", he turned to the more rudimentary style and folk wisdom of a Robert Frost.

If Dylan was the provocateur drawing the battle lines by presenting his folk audiences with the amplified assault of his mid-1960s revision of rock’n’roll with that period’s “wild mercury sound”, he also had no qualms about later returning to a more pared-down acoustic sound and to changes in lyrical style more suggestive of Robbie Burns than Rimbaud.

The blissful domestic and bucolic imagery didn't last, and its shattering took the form of his marriage-break-up suite on Blood on the Tracks, an album that makes one of the strongest cases for Dylan the poet. The material, so much of it a stinging rebuke to the muse, is as confessional as anything by Robert Lowell or John Berryman.

Whatever about Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Dylan has perhaps been closest in artistic terms to Walt Whitman, who also had a fascination with the myths, the heritage and pioneering spirit of his homeland and was inclined to expressions of a grand vision of the United States. The remark by the former US poet laureate CK Williams that Whitman was a “voracious devourer of the world” could just as well be applied to Dylan.

If Whitman’s grand statement was that he heard America singing, so too has Dylan. If Whitman’s whole oeuvre was a love hymn to the US, so too much of what Dylan has written. It was no coincidence that the gambler figure features so prominently in his work, that there was poetry to be found in the lives of outlaws and outsiders such as John Wesley Harding or Pat Garret and Billy the Kid.

He also shares with 19th-century poets some need to constantly reshape and remake the work, often to a degree that is ruinous to the original. Asked about this constant changing of the songs, he said, “Time lets me find new meanings to every song . . . The body of the song remains the same but it wears new clothes.”

While Whitman can be regarded as the laureate of the American Civil War, Dylan has taken his own interest in the subject, and in one of the best songs of his later career – perhaps one of his most haunting – Cross the Green Mountain, he has elegised those who died on the battlefields of the south with a vividness and richness of poetic voice that Whitman himself might well have admired.

For writers, and especially poets, Dylan has always held a fascination. Paul Muldoon says that on the page the best of his lyrics stand up as poems. Other literary fans include Joyce Carol Oates, Simon Armitage, Lavinia Greenlaw and the former British poet laureate Andrew Motion, who in response to the singer’s remark that he considered himself “a poet first and a musician second” said it was virtually impossible to separate the two.

Christopher Ricks, his most ardent literary champion, believes “the case for denying Dylan the title of poet could not summarily, if at all, be made good by an open-minded close attention to the words and his ways with them”. Ricks has a point: the best of Dylan’s lyrical output shows that, like any good poet, he has a real command of associative language.

As he now turns 70, and inhabits the kind of time-worn features reminiscent of the late Rembrandt self-portraits he most likely admires, it probably hardly matters to Dylan whether his epitaph will bear the title Poet. But he has staked his claim to being more than a mere minor one.

Behind the Shades: The 20th Anniversary Editionby Clinton Heylin has just been published by Faber and Faber