“It’s hard being free in a song-getting it all in.
Songs are so confining/A song has to
have some kind of form to fit into the music.
You can bend the words and metre, but it
still has to fit somehow.
I’ve been getting freer in the songs I write,
but I still feel confined.
That’s why I write a lot of poetry-if that’s the word.
Poetry can make its own form.”
-Bob Dylan (New York, 1966)
The dictionary states that a poem is: a composition in verse. Write down any song written by Bob Dylan or any other musical artist and wouldn’t that just be a verse set to music? If you or I write a few lines, maybe some of the lines rhyme, maybe some don’t, are we then poets? If my 6-year old writes some silly rhyming words on a piece of paper and then sings them, is she a songwriter?
Over the past several years there has been controversy swirling about whether or not Bob Dylan qualifies as a poet or a songwriter. The controversy began when in 1996 when Dylan was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature. In fact, he has been nominated many times. His work must be at least considered literature for the lyrics to his song, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, appeared in the well known Norton Introduction to Literature Tenth Edition. However, as I scan my college text, Modern Poems, it seems that only “official” poets are listed. Known poets, such as Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Wallace Stevens and Dylan Thomas to name just a few are listed in the index. So the question is there, asked by myself and countless others, is Bob Dylan a songwriter or poet? Couldn’t he be both? After all I am not just a college student, I am a mother and a wife too!
As a student of poetry I decided to take a closer look at this question by using what I know about Dylan and what I know about poetry. Let’s start by stating the obvious; the man is not a singer in today’s sense of the word “singer”. Can you imagine a young Robert Zimmerman on stage in front of the judges on American Idol? I know, I just threw my head back and laughed too. It is safe to say that I never once left one of his concerts remarking about his vocal talent. I have, however, left saying, “I actually understood him that time.” But it isn’t his scruffy, out of tune folksy voice that captures the audience, it is the lyrics. It is his stage presence and the way he shows us his passion for his craft through his emotions and the rhythm of his songs.
“Not all great poets-like Wallace Stevens-are great singers.
But a great singer-like Billie Holiday-is always a great poet.”
In His Own Words, 1968
It is a fact that Dylan has been influenced a great deal by poetry. Let’s look at Bob’s name. He was born Robert Zimmerman on May 24, 1941. There has been suggestion that he took the name from well known Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. In 1968 he stated “It wasn’t Dylan Thomas at all, it just came to me. I know about Dylan Thomas of course, but I didn’t deliberately pick his name.” Earlier in 1966 he was quoted saying “I’ve done more for Dylan Thomas than he’s ever done for me”. Personally, I would have to agree. I only picked up a Dylan Thomas book of poetry because of my admiration for Bob Dylan.
Dylan also mentions poets in some of his lyrics, like in the song “Desolation Row”,
Praise to be Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Erza Pound and T.S.Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso’s singer’s laugh at them
And fisherman hold flowers.
Dylan himself has said that he has been influenced by poetry. He names Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine alongside Woody Guthrie as important forebears. In the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia by Michael Gray (yes there really is a Bob Dylan Encyclopedia) there is a section where several poets make comments regarding Dylan. My favorite is this one by poet John Berryman in an exchange quoted from the authorized biography by John Haffenden:
“I can never forgive that young upstart for stealing my friend Dylan’s name,” he roared about Bob Dylan.
“Yes, but do you agree he’s a poet?”
“Yes, if only he’d learn to sing!”
Robert Lowell, however, was more critical and stated, “He has lines, but I doubt if he has written any whole poems. He leans on the crutch of his guitar.” (1971)
Perhaps it is time to look at one of Bob Dylan’s songs. Break it down like you would a poem by Yeats or Frost. I chose “I Shall Be Free No. 10” from his 1964 album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. I chose it for one reason, in the song he states “I’m a poet, and I know it.” This is a rather long “poem” and some of it I honestly could not figure out, so I will use the skills I learned in Intro to Poetry and interpret it to the best of my ability. My thoughts are in bold. I found that there are literally thousands of papers, books, articles and essays on the analysis of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Makes you wonder why? Could it be…?
I Shall Be Free No. 10
I’m just average, common too
I’m just like him, the same as you
I’m everybody’s brother and son
I ain’t different from anyone
It ain’t no use a-talking to me
It’s just the same as talking to you
Dylan has stated on numerous occasions and in countless interviews (especially in the late 60’s) that he doesn’t like the term “prophet” as many have claimed him to be. This paragraph states just that. There is a rhyme pattern here, aabbc. (1.) Curious wouldn’t you say…
I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day
I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay
I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come
26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine
Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you’d better run
99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you
14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen”
This stanza (2.) is about Muhammad Ali’s Heavyweight Championship fight against Sonny Liston in which Ali was the underdog but he bragged about being the greatest anyway and later when on to prove it during the fight. Cassius Clay was his name at the time of the fight, he changed it to Muhammad Alit shortly after he won the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1964. There is also an internal aabb rhyme pattern. Interesting…
Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
The streets in heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians happen to get up there first
Wowee! Pretty scary!
It is my opinion that this stanza refers to the “Space Race” between the US and the Soviet Union. Again there is the presence of the aabbc rhyme scheme.
Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba
Dylan was never one to shy from political controversy and he does not do so here either. He is referencing Goldwater, a conservative US Senator, who in 1964, the year this song came out, was running for the Presidency against Lyndon Johnson. His tone is meant to be funny I believe. Rhyme pattern is evident.
Well, I set my monkey on the log
And ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head
And he went and did the Cat instead
He’s a weird monkey, very funky.
This stanza baffles me and I consider it nonsense. I also take into account that he did record this album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, in one all-night session on June 9, 1964. I again see the familiar aabbc pattern along with the internal rhyme in the last line, monkey and funky.
I sat with my high-heeled sneakers on
Waiting to play tennis in the noonday sun
I had my white shorts rolled up past my waist
And my wig-hat was falling in my face
But they wouldn’t let me on the tennis court.
I believe this is showing Dylan’s adversity to people who think they are better than everyone else because of their bank accounts or social standing in life. Always humble, Bob has never succumbed to this absurdity within himself which probably is what I like best about him. Note the rhyme scheme, again aabbc, although “on” and “sun” could also be near-rhymes.
I got a woman, she’s so mean
She sticks my boots in the washing machine
Sticks me with buckshot when I’m nude
Puts bubblegum in my food
She’s funny, wants my money, calls me “honey”
As scrawny as Dylan was back then he definitely did not lack in the female companionship department. So, this stanza could be a reference to numerous women or just one he was remembering at the time. I do know that he met his wife Sara in late 1964 so I don’t believe it was a reference to her. They later divorced in 1977. Again aabbc is evident with internal rhyme in the last line.
Now I got a friend who spends his life
Stabbing my picture with a bowie knife
Dreams of strangling me with a scarf
When my name comes up he pretends to barf
I’ve got a million friends!
Searched and searched for possible enemies that Bob knew of or had at this time and came up with nothing. This could be expression of an inner turmoil of Dylan’s. Rhyme scheme aabbc once again. I find it remarkable that the same terms I am using to describe the lyrics of this song are found in my College textbook on Poetry.
Now they asked me to read a poem
At the sorority sisters’ home
I got knocked down and my head was swimmin’
I wound up with the Dean of Women
Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it
Hope I don’t blow it.
Ahhh! This is the stanza I find to be very funny and was the inspiration for this article. Dylan himself exclaims he is a poet in the lyrics. Another apparent rhyme pattern and notice how his words read like poetry. It is safe to say that he didn’t “blow it!”
I’m gonna grow my hair down to my feet so strange
So I look like a walking mountain range
And I’m gonna ride into Omaha on a horse
Out to the country club and the golf course
Carry The New York Times, shoot a few holes, blow their minds.
Classic Bob really, doing the unexpected. No question the man is unique and that is what vaulted him to the status he is at. In each stanza he tells the listener a little about himself but more importantly, a little about what is in each one of us. We are all not so different really. One thing that is certain, over the years, Dylan has blown my mind and I am sure he done so to countless others.
Now you’re probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about
What’s probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for
It’s something I learned over in England.
Source of lyrics: http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/i-shall-be-free-no-10
Of course we are wondering BOB! That is what your songs do to us avid fans. Your lyrics make us stop and say “Wait…what?” and that is what a song is suppose to do in my opinion. To make you feel and think what is beyond the words and look more closely at their meaning. I like the quote from the French Philosopher, Voltaire, which says:
“Poetry is the music of the soul, and, above all, of great and feeling souls.”
Back to my question: is Dylan a songwriter, a poet or perhaps both? I believe my breakdown of one of his songs shows that he is indeed both. While the song lyrics I chose have significant rhyme patterns, it also has a natural poetic flow to it when just read aloud with no music accompaniment.
The dictionary also states that Poetry is: writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm. (3.)
There is no question that Dylan should be considered a poet and therefore his nomination to win the Nobel Prize for Literature should be respected and honored. The real question is not whether or not Bob Dylan is a poet, for he is, the question that remains unanswered is why he has not been awarded this prestigious and well deserved honor to date. That is the true question.
As stated in the notes of his second album, Freewheelin Bob Dylan, recorded in 1963, Dylan said:
“Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem.”
Please take the time to check out Bob Dylan for the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature page on Facebook and click LIKE. Not sure whose idea it was to start such a page but let’s hope it works. Mr. Dylan more than deserves to get the honor. Also, I would love to hear any comments you may have.
Works Cited and Referenced:
Gray, Michael. The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Continum. New York. 2006
Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Vision of Sin. Ecco Language: eng New York. 2004
Riley, Tim. Hard Rain. A Dylan Commentary. Da Capo Press. New York. Updated Ed, 1999.
Williams, Christian. In His Own Words Bob Dylan. Omnibus Press. New York. 1993.