Dylan: Poet, Or Songwriter?

Nathan Sloop
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Does Bob Dylan write songs with memorable lyrics, or poetry set to music?

Dylan himself has always preferred to avoid that question. In 1965, he answered it: "I think of myself more as a song and dance man."

But the argument has been rejoined because of a new book by Oxford Professor of Poetry Christopher Ricks, in which he makes the case for Dylan the poet. The book is called "Visions of Sin."

Ricks says he thinks Dylan's lyrics have "entered the realm of enduring. The puzzle with the word "literature" is that literature is sometimes comprised only of words. So what I want to do is attend to the words, not in the belief that the words alone matter - because clearly the music, the cadences of music, the voice, all matter - but that there is something to be gained by looking at the words briefly, independently of some of these other things."

It's an argument that has raged for decades: Is Dylan the voice of the baby-boom generation that without him, wouldn't have a voice?

"I don't think that Bob Dylan set out to be a great poet, he set out to be folk singer," says Paul Gambaccini, a radio disc jockey who makes his living explaining American pop culture to the British.

"His role models were people like Woody Guthrie. They weren't people like Robert Frost. But he couldn't help but be himself, no creative artist can, and the way it came out was poetic. Of course I've asked myself, do I and members of my generation call Dylan a great poet just because without him we don't have a great poet of our time. But no, the farther we
get away from his most creative period in the 60s, I think the more extraordinary we realize he was."

Prof. Ricks says Dylan belongs on the same level as Milton, Keats and Tennyson in the following respect: "I've put him in the same category as deserving a deeply respectful attention."

Ricks points out that Dylan is extremely well read - despite the fact that some people would like to cast him as "an obscene howling hobo."

"He isn't a hobo, a lot of his songs are full of intelligent witty resourceful references to people like [French poets Paul] Verlaine and [Arthur] Rimbaud, and to Shakespeare and to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I don't' know why people think that he doesn't know anything about those people."

Gambaccini says, "It is astonishing that a young man could do so much - I mean we're going back to the achievements of Byron and Shelley when we're talking about this in terms of youth. The only difference is, is that Dylan's poetry does sound better performed - because I can't say recited - by him."

Once when Dylan was asked if his words were more important that his music, he responded, "Words are just as important as the music, there'd be no music without the words."

"The word literature is misleading because mostly we use the word literature to mean things that consist only of words. Shakespeare is great literature but what we know is the meaning of Shakespeare's words is only fully brought out in performance," says Ricks. "There are enough great songs it seems to me for the question of trust to make very good sense. Always in art you have to trust... If you wait for proof that someone deserves your love then you will die loveless. If you wait for proof that your will is wisely devised then you will die intestate. I can make good I believe the case that Dylan uses words extremely well."

Ricks compares Dylan's different phases to Picasso's, with people never knowing what will come next. "I think it's a mistake to set one phase of an artists work in competition with another, 'What is the essential Wordsworth?' 'What is the essential Shakespeare?'"

Gambaccini notes, "You don't want to be called a genius in your 20s, from your point of view, you've got to keep going and you hope that you didn't peak a long time ago. Fortunately for Dylan, he recurrently and unpredictably came back with great work."

Dylan's status as a cultural icon has been confirmed in many ways, including an honorary degree given to him by St. Andrews University in Scotland. "An extraordinary important and influential figure in the culture of our time," he was called.

"I think that one should be grateful and if you've got this one chance in a lifetime to talk about why, it's an immense privilege to live at the same time as this genius, then you should attend to the things for which you have good reason to be grateful," says Ricks.

"After Robert Frost, Dylan is the great American poet, and no one has topped him since," says Gambaccini. "But it's best with the music."