Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dylan and the Poets

Whether Bob Dylan's lyrics "are poetry" is an old, half-open, and largely uninteresting controversy. Christopher Ricks thinks they are, and wrote a book (Dylan's Visions of Sin) about them; Hitchens agrees, and wrote a very funny review of Ricks's book. Hitchens:
There are also those who maintain that Dylan can't really sing. (This latter group has recently been reluctantly increasing.) Of his ability as a poet, however, there can be no reasonable doubt.
Lawrence J. Epstein disagrees --
Dylan's musical achievements are those of a performance artist. Separated from the music and the nasal twang and the startling cadences of Dylan's voice, the written lyrics can seem desiccated.
So he can't sing and he can't write. Yet both writers claim to admire him, and I -- who find myself in sympathy with both views -- also consider myself a Dylan fan. You could argue that it's stupid to pass a song through a prism, extract a verbal essence and a musical essence, analyze each and add up the scores. However, a lot of medieval songs have survived without their settings, and can be appreciated as printed lyrics. (Not to mention Campion's magnificent songs.)

Such lyric is distinguished from other contemporary poetry by being metrically adventurous and lyrically straightforward. Here's a relatively literary example, Campion channeling Catullus:

Silly Traytresse, who shall now thy carelesse tresses place?
Who thy pretty talke supply, whose eare thy musicke grace?
Who shall thy bright eyes admire? what lips triumph with thine?
Day by day who'll visit thee and say ' th'art onely mine '?
Such a time there was, God wot, but such shall neuer be:
Too oft, I feare, thou wilt remember me.

If you were to find a phrase for this sort of writing, it probably wouldn't be "brambled verbal density" (Luc Sante on the music he listens to, via Zach). It couldn't; the musical settings would have drowned out any serious verbal complexity, and this was among the formal constraints on Campion. One way to state the distinction is that Campion's lyrics, while sometimes insipid, are always well-behaved poems; Dylan's, while they contain phrases and lines better than anything in Campion, never cohere as good poems. Dylan is a good poet like the Pound of the Cantos is a good poet; most of his lines are flabby and unmusical on the page, but you can't dismiss the writing because occasionally Dylan comes up with stuff like this:

I know that evening's empire has returned into sand

the haunted frightened trees

The vagabond who's rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

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,

If poetry is "memorable speech," I would say all of this qualifies. Dylan is a gifted surrealist. However, there isn't a single Dylan lyric that I can read through without wincing, and few famous ones that even cohere emotionally as printed. The unity of Dylan's songs is a product of his "cawing, derisive" (Larkin) voice, not his lyrics; take the voice away and the payoff lines live in rather squalid surroundings.

[Incidentally, the best thing in Hitchens's review is this factoid:

(Rushdie, who invented the game [of retitling Shakespeare's plays as if they were written by Robert Ludlum], came up with The Elsinore Vacillation, The Dunsinane Reforestation, The Kerchief Implication, and The Rialto Sanction.)]

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