Bob Dylan’s Words

Review: Bob Dylan, 'The Lyrics: 1961-2012'

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan / AP
November 5, 2016

"It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe / It don’t matter, anyhow"

That almost every defense of Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize for Literature has reminded us that Dylan read Rimbaud and Joyce and Chekhov and hung out with the Beats—or has mentioned the troubadours or Christopher Ricks’s Visions of Sin, the distinguished professor’s thematic study of the singer’s lyrics—almost gives the game away. It’s as if Dylan’s words alone don’t quite warrant the most prestigious literary award in the world. Something else needs to be added. The Nobel committee may have felt so, too, which is perhaps why they cited Dylan’s creating "new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition"—whatever "poetic" means—rather than saying anything specific about those "expressions," which they have done with most previous winners (like their praise of Tomas Tranströmer’s "translucent images" and Mo Yan’s "hallucinatory realism").

This isn’t to deny that there are genuine reasons to be pleased with the Nobel’s choice. He seems like a humble guy, and is, according to his kids, a good father. His songs are free of the tripe that gets lauded these days as profundity, and he has remained very much his own man despite over 40 years of fame. Who didn’t enjoy his ignoring the Nobel committee’s announcement for a week before acknowledging the prize and graciously accepting his invitation to the award ceremony?

More importantly, in an age when poets have turned against the music of words and see form as a tool in a seemingly never-ending class struggle, Dylan shows an obvious pleasure in the sounds of words and serious commitment to the ancient story-telling function of song.

In one of the few defenses of Dylan that risks an analysis of his language, the poet A. M. Juster makes just this point. Dylan’s selection, Juster writes, "is a slap at the 'postmodern' English-language poetry guild, an inbred group that denounces clarity, craft, values, and ideas. This guild has walled off poetry from the public so that it has become just a stimulus for mutual back-scratching, laughable jargon, sloppy criticism, and easy ideological pronouncements. It goes without saying that postmodernists have drained music and musicality from poetry—the very features that made poetry popular ever since humans began to brood about topics other than what we should eat next."

But how much musicality has Dylan actually added to the language? Juster goes on to claim that Dylan’s lyrics should not be considered apart from the music of the actual songs. Lyrics, he writes, "are a form of poetry that we must judge on its own terms." It’s an intriguing argument, but a little contradictory, perhaps, in lamenting the lack of music in postmodern poetry, on the one hand, while claiming that Dylan’s words alone should not be required to carry that same music, on the other.

Most troubadour poetry, which was also written for musical accompaniment, stands on its own and follows a regular, often complex, meter. Take "The Skylark," for example, by Bernart de Ventadorn, which begins:

Now when I see the skylark lift
His wings for joy in dawn’s first ray
The let himself, oblivious, drift
For all his heart is glad and gay,
Ay! such great envies seize my thought
To see the rapture others find,
I marvel that desire does not
Consume away this heart of mine.

Compared to the light verse of the troubadours, some of Dylan’s best lyrics are certainly poems. They have a unity, coherence, and music that make them interesting enough to read on their own. Take "Maggie’s Farm," for example, from Bringing It All Back Home, which if not particularly profound, shows Dylan’s ability to use a constrained monologue to create a meaningful narrative. The second stanza goes:

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
He hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more

This is a welcome relief from Dylan’s other lyrics, which can be disconnected and mushily ambiguous (like "You said you’d never compromise / With the mystery tramp, but now you realize / He’s not selling any alibis / As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes"), which allows listeners and readers to assign whatever significance they please to it.

But even his best lyrics possess a line or two—sometimes a stanza—that make Dylan’s shortcomings strikingly evident. The final stanza of "Maggie’s Farm," for example, ends in philosophical slop ("Well, I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them") and includes Maggie’s bizarre confession that "I just get bored." In "Tangled Up in Blue," Dylan tells the story of a couple who ran away together, separated, and later reunited in New Orleans at a topless bar. They go back to the woman’s place, and she hands the speaker "a book of poems…Written by an Italian poet / From the thirteenth century." The speaker responds:

And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you

Glowed like a "burnin’ coal / Pourin’ off" the page? Far out.

This is Dylan at his best. Sure, you could find lines in "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," "Visions of Johanna," "Idiot Wind," or "The Times They Are A-Changin’" that are poignant. But you’ll also find redundancies like "final end," nonsensical metaphors like "Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it," and bloated references to writers who "prophesize" with their pens and lifetimes of "toil and blood."

Many of the other lyrics in the 679-page The Lyrics: 1961-2012 show a songwriter who either doesn’t know what words mean or is more interested in making the words work for the music rather than making the music work for the words. "But is your heart," Dylan asks in "Temporary Like Achilles," "made out of stone…Or is it just solid rock?" Pick one. He’s got "holes in the pockets in my clothes" as opposed to the pockets in his shoes or his hat. Doves, not seagulls, nest in the sand, and people refuse to die—to "go down under the ground"—because "somebody tells me that death’s comin’ round."

With so many great poets who take music and story-telling seriously today, it’s hard to see the Nobel’s choice of Dylan as anything other than a missed opportunity to honor a writer who has a greater understanding of meaning and musicality, and who has enriched language rather than merely capitalized on it.

Published under: Book reviews