Bob Dylan and the Quest for Poetry in His Song Lyrics

Updated on October 13, 2016
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

A young Bob Dylan in 1963
A young Bob Dylan in 1963 | Source

Bob Dylan Nobel Prize for Literature

And a well deserved honour for his poetic expression within the American folk song tradition.

Bob Dylan's Lyrics — Are They Poems?

Bob Dylan is often praised as a great songwriter but there are some who claim he is a poet too. You only have to look into a recent poetry anthology to know that his lyrics are rated high enough to stand on their own. That anthology is called Scanning the Century (20th) and the lyrics are from the song My Back Pages.

And did you know that the Nobel Prize for Literature success puts him up there with the likes of T.S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney?

All I really want to do is ask the question - Can a song lyric ever be separated from the melody, the tune, the musical score, and then be judged as poetry?

My Back Pages

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats

Too noble to neglect

Deceived me into thinking

I had to something to protect

Good and bad, I define these terms

Quite clear, no doubt, somehow

Ah, but I was so much older then,

I'm younger than that now.

Poetical Lyrics or Lyrical Poetry?

It could be argued that Bob Dylan (alongside Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell) is a genius when it comes to writing great songs and poetical song lines but this doesn't mean that his lyrics are inseparable from the music.

To avoid any mixed up confusion - lyrics are not poetry per se; his words need a tune to carry them out into the wider world. But some of Dylan's work is so exceptional in terms of figurative language there is a case for saying Yes, this is lyrical poetry, no two ways about it.

Some Dylanologists would concur, their argument being that, for lyrics to be classed as poetry, all you need is for them to affect people's hearts and minds and voila - his lyrics work because you can see them in print, read them and be moved by them as language, as spoken words.

Chimes Of Freedom

Thru the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail

The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder

That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze

Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder

Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind,

Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind

An' the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

He's a Poet but Does He Know It?

Early on in his career, Dylan called himself ' just a song and dance man' when asked if he was a singer or a poet, which suggests that, for Dylan himself, the song alone is to be trusted.

Of course, writers and critics and other commentators will always want to delve, analyse and take apart a body of work as monumental as Dylan's - there will always be lively debate and strong opinion.

'You're right from your side, I'm right from mine,' could be the line that sums up the whole issue of whether you think a Dylan song lyric could ever be poetry, or not. I suppose it depends on what definition of poetry you use and what kind of poetry you're familiar with.

Whatever your opinion, there's no debate about Bob Dylan's talent for rhyming. He's so keen on ending his lines with the same or similar sound - how about cape/crepe, ship/stripped, dawn/on, thief/relief - he's been called 'one of the greatest rhymesters of all time' by author and scholar Christopher Ricks.

One criticism often surfacing is that Dylan is too relaxed about his rhymes, he either overcooks it, or doesn't vary his rhyming enough. From a poetical standpoint some of his rhymes are staid and all too obvious.

Love Is Just a Four Letter Word

I said good-bye unnoticed,

Pushed towards things in my own games.

Drifting in and out of life-times,

Unmentionable by name,

Searching for my double, looking for

Complete evaporation to the core

Tho' I tried and failed at finding any door

I must have thought that there was nothing more

Absurd than that Love Is Just A Four Letter Word.

Bob Dylan in the 1970s
Bob Dylan in the 1970s | Source

Musical and Literary Influences

Bob Dylan's lyrics have been heavily influenced by a mixed bag of literature over the years.

  • The Bible, novels, short stories, poems, nursery rhymes and fairytales - all have played a big part in the formation of his many layered, textured lines.
  • A friend of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, his narratives in some songs reflect the subversive, drug-fuelled culture that emerged in the late fifties and early sixties in the USA.

Dylan's songs helped galvanise the civil rights movement in the early 60s and were the go-to titles for a new generation of anti-establishment thinkers and doers.

  • When you consider the musical genres involved, from Delta blues to rock and roll, from British folk to love ballad, Dylan's ability to create enigmatic songs from these raw resources makes him one of the most original songsters of his or any other time.
  • Bob Dylan learned hard lessons from pioneers like Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie McTell, to forge a new model of the folk hero with bluesy, fresh faced, cutting edge, prophetic protest lyrics. Dylan had one eye on the government, another on the road, his heart always at one with the down and out, his mind bursting with surreal imagery.

Desolation Row

Praise be to Nero's Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn

Everybody's shouting, "Which side are you on?!"

And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower

While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers

Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row

Bob Dylan in the 1980s
Bob Dylan in the 1980s | Source

Bob Dylan's Identity

Just when you think you've got Dylan's persona nailed to the mast along comes another song, another album, another quote, from the master shape-shifter. He's always moving on. In true Rimbaud fashion he becomes an other.

There is no way to find a definitive identity for this slender artiste from Duluth, Minnesota, but in the popular mind he is prophet, protester, shaman, bard, unacknowledged poet laureate, visionary, troubadour, whining thin man, lapsed Christian seeker, artist, rocknroll rebel, holy messenger, seer, Messiah, actor, storyteller.

A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall

I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin',

Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world,

Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a blazin',

Heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin',

Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin',

Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,

Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley,

And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard

And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall.

Dylan's Love Ballads

In many of his songs Bob Dylan is above all things a balladeer. He builds up beautiful lines based on what seems to be a personal experience and weaves them into a stream of consciousness that evokes the universal.

Some of his melodies are truly haunting - take Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands for example - a masterpiece so powerful the complex lyrics cannot do without the melody. And vice versa.

One Too Many Mornings is a more straightforward song, depicting a poignant scene of departure from a lover. From a poetical angle, a couple of lines have superb alliteration and assonance:

An' the silent night will shatter

From the sounds inside my mind,

For I'm one too many mornings

And a thousand miles behind.

Dylan the Poet Within the Song

Bob Dylan has been making music for over 50 years. His songs do contain lyrics which some would say are poetry. Purists might disagree and argue that lyrics simply cannot be divorced from the melody, the musical notes. End of story.

Poetry is the art of the spoken word alone and song lyrics, no matter how poetical, simply don't qualify. That may be true but there's no doubting the poetical force of some of Bob Dylan's lyrics; they sure push the boundary.

Bob Dylan in 2006
Bob Dylan in 2006 | Source

It's All Over Now Baby Blue

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sins

Take what you have gathered from coincidence

The empty handed painter from your streets

Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets

This sky too, is folding under you

And it's all over now, baby blue.

© 2016 Andrew Spacey


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