Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Bob Dylan: a poetics of transgression (*)

(*) This is the English version of a text originally given as a paper, in Spanish, at the symposium 'Poéticas del siglo XX' ('Twentieth-century Poetics') held from 20 to 23 October 1997 at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (Lima, Peru).

English translation by Christopher Rollason

Camilo Fernández of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, in the introduction to his essay on the Peruvian poet J.E. Eielson[1], offers two approaches to poetics which are of interest for the analysis which I shall present. The first concerns the set of norms and precepts 'which should be accepted by writers if they want their work to be classified as literature by the groups in power'[2]. The second refers more specifically to the terrain of the poetic, in terms of the theory of poetry or the poetic in a given work. For the present case, the second approach appears more useful, given that our aim is to identify a poetics - not so much in the sense of a single or universal poetics, as in order to establish a theoretical hypothesis regarding the lyrics of Bob Dylan's songs. We shall endeavour to define this by examining Dylan's style.

However, here the inevitable question arises: is 'poetry' the right word to describe the corpus of recorded work which - since 1962 and taking a direction which he himself would not have wanted - has made of Bob Dylan a mythical figure in the world of music? Are his songs poetry? Dylan has said emphatically that he is not a poet:

"Wordsworth's a poet, Shelley's a poet, Allen Ginsberg's a poet - and doesn't play rock and roll''[3]

However, the work of Robert Allen Zimmerman (as he was born) catapulted him to the position of absolute leader of popular song, an artistic phenomenon of the counter-culture. Frank Davey, in an essay of 1969 on the songs of Dylan and Leonard Cohen, expresses a very interesting point of view on the literary value of Bob Dylan's work, seen in the context of the popular song to which Davey believes Dylan belongs:

'The most important prerequisite for both a significant poem and significant lyrics in a popular song is that the writer be faithful to his own personal vision or to the vision of the poem he is writing. All the skill and craft generally believed necessary for writing poetry are indeed necessary because these are the only means by which a poet can preserve the integrity of this vision in the poem.'[4]

Starting with his first album, Bob Dylan (1962), Dylan presented the songs he recorded (initially all either of folk origin or strongly folk-influenced) structured according to a quite personal rhythmic technique fitting perfectly with the gritty wail of his highly individual voice, while at the same time marked with a special distinctive stamp in their content, as developed with passion on the albums Freewheelin' and Another Side of Bob Dylan. However, it was Bringing It All Back Home which marked the new shape of his art, both his virtuosity on the guitar (now in electric and accompanied vein, to the horror of the folk purists) and the refinement and technical skill of his lyrics. Dylan sang of mistreated men and women, the denial of civil rights, corruption and impunity, the rejection of violence and war, and Flower Power. All this was sufficient to create a myth and to identify him immediately with a whole generation - rebellious, critical, demanding, committed to exposing the hollowness of a society it believed must change. In numerous ways Dylan gave voice to the feelings of the youth of an entire epoch, to a way of seeing that was cause or consequence of a whole series of phenomena in different areas of culture and society: the hippie movement, the beatniks, the 'new journalism', Vatican II, the Cuban revolution. It is certainly possible to pigeon-hole Dylan in this way, to view him as the troubadour of the twentieth century, the last romantic of musical rebellion, the ingénu of Flower Power. This would, though, be a crass error. If it is true that Dylan is a popular singer who ended up turned willy-nilly into a myth against all predictions, at the same time there is much, much more to him than that - much more to him than what has become (for him) the unfortunate consequence of having written - as he would say many years later - neither more nor less than the things he thought.

In the first place, Dylan's songs were not the product of accident. He was no greenhorn: he was fully aware of the literary and artistic tradition before him, which, especially in the field of poetics, formed the antechamber to the creative flowering that would follow. The protest against the establishment, the stance of marginality, the dismantling of the myths of 'the system', the rise of the counter-culture: all this had begun in the 50s, with the beatniks, with whom Dylan was in contact. This can be seen if we compare the poetics of both: the systematic search for a new language, the arduous struggle with imagery, the vers libre mode. Similar remarks may be made regarding the musical field. Rock'n'roll was now nothing more than a form of dance music with nothing to say (if it ever had), and it was to other genres - folk, blues, jazz - that Dylan turned to find the technique that he would employ to achieve the stylistic enrichment of that musical genre. All these elements combine in the work of the musician from Duluth, to create its effect of transcendence - and transgression, for transgress is what Dylan's music does.

His work transgresses the established order, its values and its myths. Dylan's poetry breathes technique, structure and a life of its own: it reflects in masterly fashion the culture from which it is produced, thus following in the path of his academic and poetic predecessors who cultivated the art of language, but adding an element that troubadours and jongleurs had used in the distant past: music.

It is for this reason that Dylan's poetry is greater than its context and becomes universal. The guerrilla movements in Latin America, hippiedom, the Cuban revolution, and, later, the famous events of May '68 and the disaster of Vietnam - all these developments relate to a shared structure of feeling, diffused across multiple cultural contexts. Dylan's pen turned this material into poems. The call for change expressed through the critical voice, the dirt-real demands, ironic and all but unbound by laws, embodied with maximum force in Dylan's work, revolutionised the essence of rock music and turned it into an artistic genre with a voice of its own. The purely musical aspect, Dylan's sound, dazzles us with its irrefutable brilliance, and yet what matters in the end is what he is saying. Dylan demands our attention as he expresses his feelings with free-wheelin' irony:

Well, my telephone rang it wouldn't stop
It's President Kennedy calling me up
He said: 'My friend, Bob, what we need to make the country grow?'
I said: 'My friend John, Brigitte Bardot,
Anita Ekberg,
Sophia Loren,
Country will grow'

As we can see, not everything in Dylan's songwriting is criticism pur et dur: what we find here is irony laced with a strong dose of humour.

However, as the 60s drew to an end Dylan's poetry and music began to change, sloughing off social radicalism to create a more compact and reflective kind of art charged with a new maturity. His poems now addressed us more intimately: lyrics and music seem locked in rivalry, yet combine in perfect adjustment, free of all ephemeral emotional baggage. What we find is no longer a voice raised in protest, but a process of reflection expressed in soft, harmonious language, and a process of innovation fired by the wish to reinvent himself.

Within this evolution, we can watch Dylan's work in constant motion, impelled by his own experiences: from the disenchantment with broken dreams that haunts his mid-70s work to his conversion to Christianity in the 1980s - a shift which provoked the ire of numerous critics, and of which Dylan himself replied that all he was doing was saying what he thought:

'I'm not the songs. It's like somebody expecting Shakespeare to be Hamlet, or Goethe to be Faust.'[6]

However, none of this does more than explain Dylan's work in terms of the context surrounding its creator, the external factors around the figure of the writer. Criticism should fix its attention solely on the author's literary production, and here we appeal to an illuminative text by Johannes Pfeiffer on the essence of poetry, in order to advance a second argument in favour of the validity of Dylan's work as poetry.

According to Pfeiffer, what makes the content of a text poetic is its untranslatability, in the sense that what is said there can be said only in that single way: its verbal structure cannot be altered, for in poetry sound and sense are of equal and major importance, while language becomes the bearer of an artistic current whose tone, rhythm and accent 'express the state of mind of the one who speaks'[7].

In other words, we are talking about how the content is enhanced by the musicality of the language, in such a way that the form cannot be altered. Dylan's lyrics are poetry because they could only be spoken and sung in one single way. They have rhythm, and in the great majority of cases they also rhyme. We may affirm this purely on the basis of the music of his poetry - music as the intrinsic property of all verse that conveys an internal vibration, that which gives it life - and separately from that other music which we may call external music, the accompaniment in the dimension of sound that achieves a perfect fusion of poetry and rock.

On this basis, it should be clear that Dylan's songs are poetry - and poetry that is most powerfully conceived and executed, carefully located within a tradition and managing to reflect the consciousness of an entire society.

It has been said that there is an initial phase in Bob Dylan's musical development, running in parallel in all ways with his poetic development. This is his period of effervescent content allied to poetic imagery - a phase beginning in 1962 and culminating in Blonde on Blonde (1966), his seventh album. We may take measure of these characteristics in the lines that follow, each of them poetically charged:

Today Medgar Evers was buried
From the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun
Sets on the one
That fired the gun
He'll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
'Only a pawn in their game''

In addition to the apparent simplicity of these lines, the refrain (the last line, repeated at the end of each of the song's stanzas, which obey a uniform structure) forcibly and all but violently sums up the content of the history narrated. The stanza quoted exhibits a clear rhythmic pattern: lines 2, 4, 5 and 6 repeat -u- sounds, while the long -a- dominates in 7, 9, 10 and 11.

However, Dylan can also be gentle when he wants to:

Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathing
Like the stillness in the wind
Before the hurricane begins
The hour that the ship comes in

Dylan employs a simple style: he 'tells the story', avoiding difficult words or constructions. Here too we may note the rhythmic pattern: lines 1 and 2: -up; lines 3, 4, 5 and 6: -in. It is here that the images are born: Dylan's style, typical of the poetry of the 1960s, is marked by a simple, colloquial diction and transparency in the expression of states of mind, thus enabling the non-initiate or non-academic reader to approach the poem. However, in terms of content (or 'semantic charge'), what is most prominent is a vein of uninhibited irony and potent denunciation. The narrative is marked by a wicked satiric tone which becomes the hallmark of Dylan's poetic art, be it manifested bitterly or else more suavely, as circumstances dictate. For the Dylan of this period, each poem is a story, and most of those stories are condemning something. His poetic 'I' sends out its message stridently, recalling Whitman crying in the wilderness: the voice of a leader calling to action, of one who observes in a finger-pointing stance, but a voice which, unlike that of the bard of Leaves of Grass, says no to introversion and heralds a coming revolution.

Later on, however, we find a more relaxed Dylan, with a language apparently characterised by more closely-worked imagery:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke, and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh who do they think could bury you?

The style remains colloquial, but Dylan is now engaged in greater stylistic experimentation, while the texture of the music is now light-years away from 'Blowin' in the Wind'. In the extract we have just quoted, the first three lines offer a parallel rhythm, thus reinforcing the sense of the images and making the listener see and hear what Dylan imagines: your voice like chimes, your eyes like smoke, your prayers like rhymes - we can almost see the woman whom he evokes in her insubstantiality, as if in a mist listening to her prayers through the repetitions at the beginning of each line ('and', 'and') in a soft cadence, and the end-rhymes with their 'm's and 's's …

Finally and to conclude our observations on Dylan as poet, we may recall that the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, in his magnificent book El arco y la lira[11], reminded us of the need when making our definitions to distinguish between "poetry" and "poem". For Paz, "poem" meant the manifestation, written down and ordered in verse, of the material expressed by its creator; whereas "poetry", for its part, could as well be embodied in a poem as in a painting, a Ming vase … or a song.

However, to continue in this vein and analyse the entire evolution of Dylan's stylistic development would be to open up a new and vast chapter, which would take up considerable amounts of our time. That task perhaps falls better to others, and indeed others have already performed it. The labour has borne fruit: Bob Dylan has, and deservedly, been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, every year since 1996. This recognition - independently of how Dylan himself may see it - is near-universal and inevitable (after all and despite his own statements, his poetic work resonates far beyond its author's categories). There is every case for a full study which would underline the status of Dylan's work as literary object, grounded in a poetics of authentic transgression.

[1] Camilo Fernández. Las huellas del aura: la poética de Jorge Eduardo Eielson. Lima, Latinoamericana Editores, 1996. NB: All Spanish-language extracts cited have been rendered into English by the translator.
[2] Fernández, p. 16
[3] Dylan, interviewed by David Gates, Newsweek, 13 October 1997.
[4] Frank Davey: 'Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan: poetry and the popular song'. December 1969. .
[5] 'I Shall Be Free', 1963.
[6] Dylan, Newsweek interview (cf. note 3).
[7] Johannes Pfeiffer, Umgang mit Dichtung: eine Einfürung in das Verständnis des Dichterischen (1962). Spanish translation: La poesía. Hacia la comprensión de lo poético ('Poetry: towards the understanding of the poetic'). Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1959, p. 17.
[8] 'Only a Pawn in Their Game', 1964.
[9] 'When the Ship Comes In', 1964.
[10] 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands', 1966.
[11] Octavio Paz. El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre). Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica 1982.


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