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Is Bob Dylan a Poet?

By Harriet Staff

Bob Dylan

… or is he a musician? Dana Stevens and Francine Prose weigh in, at New York Times’s “Bookends.”

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on pressing and provocative questions about the world of books. This week, Dana Stevens and Francine Prose discuss whether Bob Dylan’s lyrics make him more poet than musician.

By Dana Stevens

“I wasn’t yet the poet musician that I would become,” Dylan writes of his early folk-singing days in his memoir “Chronicles: Volume 1” (a vivid, surprisingly chatty book that nonetheless manages to disclose almost nothing about its strategically elliptical author, and that points to yet another potential career path: Dylan as prose writer). But elsewhere he has repudiated both those roles, most famously in a 1965 press conference in which — asked the same question that appears above this column — he laughed and replied, “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.”

That modesty, false or not, hasn’t kept us from trying to understand for the past five decades just what, exactly, Bob Dylan is, or from throwing ever-heavier symbolic mantles over his bony shoulders: prophet, shaman, enigma, bard. The more he evades definition, the more grandiose the titles we devise, all the while romanticizing his ability to keep us at a permanent distance. His very undecidability as a cultural figure — the sense that we, and he, haven’t quite grasped what he’s up to — is a mark of how much Dylan has given us as a — well, as whatever kind of artist he is. It’s too early to perceive the full scope of his contribution, and he’s not done changing yet. […]

By Francine Prose

The Dylan songs I keep returning to are the ones that spin out images like a surrealist or expressionist film, like Buñuel’s “Andalusian Dog” crossed with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones? “Visions of Johanna” may be our most accurate, haunting evocation of the semi-hallucinatory insomnia that can be an unfortunate side effect of love. Perhaps I have a weakness for songs about the apocalypse (another favorite is Exuma’s “22nd Century,” performed by Nina Simone), but I’ve always admired “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” Dylan’s images cascading in the cadence of a children’s rhyming game: a partridge in a pear tree in a post-nuclear hell. Dylan is a master not only at translating rage into song (“Positively 4th Street” and “Idiot Wind” come to mind), but also at convincing us we’ve felt exactly the same kind of anger he’s describing.

He’s the heir, the unlikely offspring of Arthur Rimbaud and Walt Whitman. But he’s neither Rimbaud nor Whitman. He’s Bob Dylan. Is he a poet or a songwriter? The same answer applies: He’s Bob Dylan. I find myself falling back (again!) on Emily Dickinson’s remark: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Dylan’s songs can make us feel that pleasurable shock of being partially decapitated by beauty. […]

Read more at NYT.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.