The heartbreak is all yours: lyrics versus poems

In Chronicles: Volume One, his 2004 autobiography, Bob Dylan writes that folk songs are ‘the truth about life’, and adds, ‘life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be’. It sounds like a Dylan-esque platitude, like something out of a cut track from his early albums, but is nevertheless prescient in light of the singer’s allegedly plagiarised Nobel lecture. At worst, Dylan inadvertently gave us some poignant lyrics:

Then a piece of shrapnel hits the side of your head
and you’re dead.
You’ve been ruled out, crossed out.
You’ve been exterminated.

Look at that: he thinks in folk music too. You can just about hear the harmonica’s postscript, and that voice like molasses pouring over gravel.

It’s worthwhile to note the ‘borrowed’ sections from Sparknotes only pertained to Melville’s Moby Dick, a gargantuan tome he professed to have read in high school English class. Most readers barely remember what they read six months ago except if it was good or bad, and tend to forget the bad parts of a good book anyhow. The ensuing fracas is nothing new for Dylan, who has appropriated biblical passages and other authors’ lines indiscriminately, as in 2001’s Love and Theft, albeit done with said author’s blessing after the fact. The book happened to be a Japanese mob boss’s autobiography – but digressions aside, the backlash over Dylan’s latest faux pas is less to do with legitimate questions of creative authority, than watching an idol defrock himself and proclaim that he is neither an idol, nor the sage his acolytes talk him up to be.

But people have a way, like Dylan says, of modulating reality until everything neatly locks together, and if a jigsaw piece won’t fit, of being stubborn until it budges. Digging through archival footage of the wild-haired, youthful star facing down a reporter, he squarely puts forward both his burden and his spunk. ‘I just write them’, he says of his songs. ‘I don’t write them for any reason, there’s no great message’, he frustratingly continues. The reporter is irked at this pompous wannabe waxing maudlin, which, some fifty years later, is revealed to be genuine and desperate frustration, per Chronicles:

The events of the day… were imprisoning my soul … civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions – the streets exploding, fire of anger boiling … the lying noisy voices – the free love, the anti-money system movement – the whole shebang.

I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all. I was a family man now, didn’t want to be in that group portrait.

His quarrel is less aimed at any one side than, as he puts it, ‘the whole shebang’: the sound and fury defusing all the good times to be had. Nothing in the book indicates a shred of false hope for his era. This pessimistic milestone came early in life, immersed in a friend’s volumes of ancient and modern literature, philosophy and fiction alike. He was struck especially by Clausewitz’s tract on the permeating nature of war:

Let’s get down to brass tacks. There isn’t any moral order. You can forget that. Morality has nothing in common with politics … It’s either high ground or low ground. This is the way the world is and nothing’s gonna change it.

If Dylan has one indefatigable character trait it’s that he’s not preoccupied with the small details. He cherry-picks the essence of the thing in question and tosses out the carcass. Poetry deals in the language of feeling, capturing and amplifying the fleeting sensations too unimportant for the day-to-day functions of consciousness. The practice of poetry is less a matter of form than a state of mind, and Dylan’s lyrics do embody the poetic mindset. Few saw that proposition last year when the Swedish academy announced the 2016 laureate. Dissenters conceded he was poetic, but not a poet by profession and lyrics indeed are in another ballpark to poetry. Norman Mailer was ahead of his time when he said, ‘If Bob Dylan is a poet, then I’m a basketball player.’ Droll wit aside, he was onto something.

A lyricist affords themselves a degree of flexibility around technical barriers, like that business of rhyme consistency, which can be solved easily by toying with a vowel or two. The 1965 single ‘Positively 4th Street’ is a textbook example of this offence, and the song still resonates so powerfully exactly because of Dylan’s stiff crooning. The olfactory element absent from a transcript alone is the best argument anyone can make barring him from the canon. Music has a far greater reach than a Philip Roth novel, and that’s a sad fact. It can also rouse a different kind of emotional weight. I cannot comprehensively communicate the feeling I get just under my solar plexus at the howling refrain of ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’, nor the tender longing invoked for the namesake of ‘Visions of Johanna’. If I tried, I would say it’s like hearing something that sounds very important but not knowing how or why. To be blunt, you just have to listen to it. One of his typically stripped-down lines, from ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’, is very simply the sobering statement that, quote:

He prayed to the Lord above, oh please send you a friend
Your empty pockets tell you that you ain’t got no friend.

The song is about an impoverished farmer struggling to make ends meet for mother and children. And you want this imaginary figure to emerge victorious because Dylan does too. This compassion is something the Stooges, the Neville Brothers, and even David Lynch’s prog rock interpretation fail to replicate. These great artists, in their own respects, force their specific variation on a melancholy that the original lets percolate in the flat delivery. It is tragedy almost devoid of any redeeming beauty, and even then it’s debased by the banality of it all. Even though Dylan did not endure the 1930s American dustbowl, he is the best spokesperson for its rapture because the heartbreak is all yours; the song becomes only a vessel for it. Dylan’s voice invites the listener to share in these emotions because there’s nothing imposing about it. It’s hoarse and strained, by no means pleasing in a conventional sense, but it’s honest, as the truism goes, and so is its message. You see a part of yourself in a favourite artist, and in Dylan it’s self-conscious imperfection. Dare I say, humanity.

Sometimes I wonder what a more stringent poet would’ve done with ‘Desolation Row’, a tableau vivant starring folk heroes like Cinderella, Robin Hood, and Casanova. ‘Everything is mixed in’, Dylan says, again, of Moby Dick’s scholarly breadth, ‘everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational.’ Another example of a mind of necessity at work. But we know the characters of ‘Desolation Row’ and what they signify, just as Melville’s readers would presumably have recognised at a glance his more explicit biblical and mythological allusions. The delight of recognising them is, nevertheless, only the cherry on top of the cake. The book is vastly enjoyable so long as you can grasp the logistical difficulty of tracking and killing a very, very big whale. Likewise, all you need to know about the denizens of ‘Desolation Row’ is that they’ve fallen from grace, or maybe they never had any to begin with, and now they’re stuck in a jam. The song would lose its charm had it tried to adhere to Melville’s intertextual milieu, packing more erudite references to the brim. For it’s not only an artefact to be decoded, but a story told, spoken to whoever cares enough to tune in. And human comprehension is a notoriously lumbering tool.

Poems can be chiselled away at to the reader’s content until they feel, once and for all, they’ve cracked the code so to speak. Lyrics have to move at the speed of thought. Orwell lamented poetry’s ‘special position as the most hated of the arts’ as early as 1945, for its perceived ‘intellectual pretentiousness, and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday.’ Though he was right to diagnose the public’s hostility to poetry, he thought the rise of broadcasting would initiate a sort of renaissance for the form. The problem, he insisted, was that the public only needed to get used to hearing the odd Shakespeare sonnet between regular news bulletins once or twice, so that it gradually became ‘normal’. On rare occasions like this, Orwell betrayed a nagging bourgeois sensibility, which isn’t to say he did not champion both liberalism and the arts earnestly. But when it comes to the heavyweights like Eliot, Stevens, and later, Ashbery, poetry is an exercise in patience and time which yields slow results. Unless the listener has encountered their works before, hearing them recited can only be an exercise in vanity – you just can’t process, for example, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ on the first reading, let alone first hearing, and nor should you have to. Orwell is right to note that poetry is no longer a cultural staple, and with good cause. In this atomised, post-industrial world, where information is measured in milliseconds and thought is mainly a means to an end, it’s only logical that culture should have to keep up with it. The luxury of having time to read and digest any serious literature is reserved for the affluent, wealthy, and unemployed English students – to be blunt, people who contribute zilch to society and reap its benefits. People who can afford to dissect every bloody sensation that crosses their minds have too much time on their hands, and should probably get a job and work until they set their heads straight. Depending on where you stand with neoliberalism, this is either a useful line of thought, or the penultimate nail in the coffin of individual identity. When we stop caring about art at all, music, poetry, novels, the whole enchilada, we can breathe easy knowing every possible measure is being taken to appease the capitalist machine. Time is money, after all.

Keeping that context in mind, maybe Dylan’s most significant artistic contribution was his ability to wring every last ounce of literary potential from the inherent accessibility of the lyrical form. There must be a reason why some of the most well-read individuals on the planet decided now especially to deny the literary community its coveted place on top of the intellectual food chain. The catch with Dylan is that his grudge has never been with the left or the right, liberals and conservatives, or with two versus three ply. So much as his music speaks for his politics, Dylan shuns the very idea there is one iota of moral leeway discernible in the political process. His great so-called ‘protest songs’ inveigh against injustice and inequality as universal norms. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ asks:

How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?

The titular ‘Chimes of Freedom’ are:

Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake,
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned and forsaked,
Tolling for the outcast, burning constantly at stake.

He even extends his empathy to the rabid lynch mobs that roamed 1960s Americana in ‘Only A Pawn in their Game’ – ‘they’ being the opportunistic ‘Southern politician’ and his meddlesome cohort, while the ‘poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool.’ Enlightened pessimists might scoff at this turn of sentiment, but it is still quite sobering in a world dominated by an us and them mentality. Any just cause can be hijacked and manipulated by savvy enough profiteers, and Dylan’s music constantly warns us of this ever present danger. The consequence of shirking this warning is not so apocalyptic as one might think. Rather, it is sad and pitiful and hits too close to home, like the fate which befalls Medgar Ever’s white killer:

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.

From the eighties onward, the Nobel laureate has been more interested in singing about this or that romantic muse which, as we know, is the artistic gift that just keeps on giving, but with the exception of his contemporary Leonard Cohen, no English-language songwriter has matched what Dylan produced in the three creatively-charged years between The Times They Are A-Changin’ and John Wesley Harding. That his most lauded tracks were anthems for the counterculture movement indisputably influenced the Swedish academy’s decision. It makes you wonder if they listened to his critically panned 2009 Christmas carol album. Speculatively, it would not be surprising if they did. This strange creative decision shows the great political firebrand has the rare ability to smile in spite of life’s punishing motions. Between the steady trickle of uproar that sleets day-to-day life, for reasons well-documented since circa November 2016, it’s comforting to remember that a person is the sum of their parts, and not all those parts wave a flag coloured by politics. Dylan embodies this edict as both an artist and a human being. Alfred Nobel’s will stipulates the award be given to ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’, and what falls in that category has never been set in stone. But I think the academy, on this occasion, might be sending the world one big ‘take-it-easy’. A reminder that happiness can’t be found in the rabbit hole of partisanship and other necessary evils. To quote the titular prophet, who seems always to have a handy nugget of wisdom up his sleeve:

And once the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games you’ve got to dodge.

Once more:

But you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate.
Let us not talk falsely now
The hour is getting late.

Indeed. To mark its passing, I’ll try for a moment to forget about the whole shebang. Maybe listen to Blood on the Tracks, and let the good times roll. I don’t need the Nobel prize to know there’s something mysterious, poetic, and utterly magical lurking between those lines.


Image: Bob Dylan by Fred McDarrah – Simon Murphy / flickr

Ivan Bucalo

Ivan Bucalo currently studies media at the University of Adelaide. He is an avid lover of all things literary. While his favorite contemporary authors are Jonathan Franzen and Marlon James, he has a soft spot for the classics too.

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