Friday, June 11, 2004

Dylan as Poetry:Poetry as Dylan

There's a bit of an oddball article in the NY Times on a professor of literature whose written a book about Bob Dylan as a poet. I really don't understand this need on the part of Dylan fans to legitimize him by trying to give him highbrow status. What's wonderful about Dylan is that he isn't highbrow; he's deep in the folk tradition of American song (when I say folk I mean blues, folk, country, even rock n'roll; people's music, not something that comes from conservatories or formal training). The other problem is that Dylan is simply not a very good poet. He's a great songwriter (and singer too, in my opinion), his stuff doesn't work in other mediums. Take these lines from "Blind Willie McTell", probably my favorite Dylan song:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying this land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem

I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

On the page its a bit trite, a little forced and too cute for its own good. When sung, however, in Dylan's dessicated voice and with its rolling, sinister minor-key chord progression pushing upwards and then, inexorably, resolving itself, the effect is nothing short of magnificent. This song never fails to send chills up my spine. The same is true for most of Dylan's songs. Their poetry is in their melodies as much as in their words, and in their interplay with Dylan's unique voice and guitar style (inspired incompetence, perhaps, is the best way to describe it). Maybe this is why I have always found cover versions of his songs to be empty and uninteresting compared to his own versions, or why the exanguination of them in favor of the bare words on a page always fails to capture their primal power and sublime majesty.


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