Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Is Dylan poetry?

Ah, the old "is Dylan really poetry" chestnut again. I'm not sure what to make of Andrew Motion's comment. Surely all song lyrics depend for their effect on the music, otherwise the songwriter would just call them poems in the first place?
On the other hand, he raises two other interesting points. One is whether or not Dylan is considered cool or relevant enough by today's schoolkids to encourage them to read poetry. My suspicion is that for most, he isn't. The second is the whole question of getting kids into poetry by a 'backdoor' route. It makes me a little uneasy, and I find myself thinking that wouldn't it just be better to expose them to plenty of good poetry, well taught. Even when I was at school (mid-80s), the amount of poetry covered in the curriculum seemed to be very small. At O Level, we did a few World War One poems (Owen and Sassoon), a few Ted Hughes poems (I remember Wind being one of them, and the one that starts "The swallow of summer..."), and that was pretty much it. We did do a Shakespeare play, and Under Milk Wood, but very little actual poetry, and I don't ever remember being particularly inspired by it. A Level was better (and very well taught) - Prufrock and Portrait of a Lady by Eliot, Heaney's Selected Poems, and The Whitsun Weddings, but I think it's fair to assume that anyone who's taking English A Level already has some degree of interest in poetry, and literature in general.
On the other hand, I suppose it can't do any harm!
But back to whether lyrics stand as poetry. My own feeling is that they very rarely do, no matter how good they are as lyrics. I love Richard Thompson's songs, for example, but even though I often think about individual lines that they would work in a poem, I generally think that the overall effect depends entirely on the interplay of words, music, voice and instrumentation.
On Radio Five this morning, discussing this story, their objection was that Dylan's songs depended very much on his delivery of them. I'm not sure that's valid, because there are plenty of good cover versions of his songs. I used to have a double album of them, some quite obscure. Two favourites were Farewell Angelina, by New Riders of the Purple Sage (a Grateful Dead offshoot), and Mama You Been On My Mind, by Rod Stewart (in his early days, of course). And of course, there was Jason and the Scorchers' fabulous blast through Absolutely Sweet Marie, sounding a bit like The Ramones would have done had they grown up in Appalachia. Anyone got any favourite Dylan covers?


Andrew Shields said...

First of all, it's a little hard to test Dylan's lyrics as poetry, since his best texts are ones that one is mostly already familiar with. Perhaps Motion (and you and I) should have read the lyrics to all the songs on "Modern Times" before listening to the CD. An experiment for his next album?

Secondly, I'm a little unsure about the idea of "depending for effects on the music"? It's hard to separate the music and the text, of course, but just because the music provides effects does not mean the text could not stand alone. To use your example of RT: "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is a wondrous text. I can't imagine without the music, because I know RT's version too well, as well as Greg Brown's superb cover of it on his "The Live One," but the text is still flawless.

Finally, I have a collection of Greg Brown's live covers of Dylan that is fantastic. I can send you a copy if you like.

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks Andrew, that would be good.
I think you're right that probably the main reason for being unable to separate the words and music is that we're so used to them. Coming to them fresh might be quite different.

Kirk Wisebeard said...

Dylan covers.... personally i'm a big fan of Bryan Ferry's version of Hard Rain, and of Tom Watts take on Subterranean Homesick Blues.. but then i am a weirdo...
and speaking of lyrics as poetry, what about Tori Amos, Kate Bush, or evn leonard Cohen... A poet Dylan may or may not have been, but a novelist he certainly was... i recommend at least trying to read his novel Tarantula...

Matt Merritt said...

I should have mentioned Laughing Len, because he did after all write lyrics specifically as poetry.

Brian Campbell said...

Hello Matt,

Nice to read your blog for the first time. (I found it thru Andrew's blog) Here's some interesting dialogue in the comments box on my post on this issue (about three or four posts down in my blog right now).

R. W. Watkins said...

I've never really considered Dylan-the-recording-artist a poet--just a sometimes-brilliant songwriter (who has a very limited canon of creative writing on paper). Like Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Ted Nugent, etc., he's also an idiot savant. He admitted in the 60 Minutes interview a few years back that he just wrote those old protest songs for the sake of writing songs--he never really fully believed in most of that stuff. Also, in that No Direction Home documentary they aired on PBS, he admits that he never knew what a communist was when he was well into his 20s, despite hanging out with the likes of Pete Seeger. And don't forget his conversion to Christianity, complete with a reputed baptism in Pat Boone's swimming pool.

As far as I'm concerned, the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, The Doors' Jim Morrison, Lou Reed (despite being heavily influenced by Dylan), Patti Smith and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo all function far better as printed poetry on a page.
Monday, September 10, 2007 6:04:00 PM
Brian Campbell said...

Yes, I'd say you're right there. I can think of a few others: Kurt Cobain, Amanda McBroom (The Rose), Joni Mitchell, even, I'd say, Tom Waits.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007 11:15:00 PM
R. W. Watkins said...

Yeah, Brian, I meant to include Mitchell in the above comment, but forgot her at the last minute. The others you suggested were good choices, too--definitely Tom Waits. Waits's old sidekick in the L.A. cafe scene of the mid to late '70s, Ricki Lee Jones, also fits the category quite nicely; as does Jimi Hendrix (particularly on the second Experience LP, Axis: Bold As Love), Bruce Cockburn, and probably Nick Cave (The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). As well, I would consider Pete Townshend (both on his own and with The Who) and Roger Waters (with or without The Pink Floyd) as the great rock 'n' roll playwrights, so to speak. Their lyrics on concept albums truly function as opera librettos. Ditto for the late Frank Zappa in the comic sense.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007 11:16:00 AM



Matt Merritt said...

Thanks very much for that, Brian. I agree with much of what's said. I'll add Australian band The Triffids to that list - some of their songs worked very well as poetry.
I'm off to have a look at your blog - keep coming back!

jesper said...

Jeff Buckley did some nice covers, especially of If You See Her, Say Hello.. worth checking out, at least. No shooting, no game.

Dylan is poetry. Definitions don't matter much. It's the same discussion with art - is a dead shark in a watertank art, if the artist says that it is?

Does it matter?

Matt Merritt said...

Yep, I think you're right, Jeeps. However many times people try to come up with a definition of poetry, it's pretty much whatever the writer says is poetry, and as you say, I don't think it matters too much anyway.
If You See Her... is one of my favourite Dylan songs, so I'll have a look for that Buckley cover.

Padhraig Nolan said...

Hi Matt. Just discovered your blog - nice one!

I think this whole thing is an interesting area.

For me writers like Leonard Cohen, Donald Fagen, Morrissey and many others write lyrics that definitely stand up as poetry in their own right. Time being the the main test, I guess. But one man's poem is another's doggerel? So I can't see any conclusion to this particular debate.

To confuse things further you've got Richard Thompson covering Oops I did it again etc. and revealing a poetic interpretation of a simple pop lyric!

Re inspiration for younger students, I'd guess the parlances of rap might be closer to inspiration for them than Dylan? Although I can't agree with Heaney that Eminem was as important to his generation as Dylan.

Regarding Dylan covers - here's mine (tongue firmly cheek-entwined;

Cover Version

'Perhaps I could take a detour here?' thinks Mac Eochaidh in his jeep.
'This daily commuting is playing havoc with my sleep.
Work colleagues need my eye on them, [ feck, traffic cop on the kerb ]
They'll be the death of me, the lot of them - otherwise I'd telework'.

Across town a secretary trawls the web, researching jobs elsewhere.
'There must be something more than this', she thinks and chews her hair.
Emails her lover's blackberry 'we need to talk about
Whether you're serious about me now? Else you can move on out!'

All along the watched hour, M50 tailbacks grew;
Working mothers wept in rearview mirrors, truckdrivers slipped off shoes.

Somewhere just past Sandyford, a vixen mourned it's mate,
Outriders cleared the emergency lane; a TD is running late.

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks PJ, and love the poem/song!
Leonard Cohen, of course, kind of shoots down my argument, because a lot of his songs have been published as poems.