Saturday, September 08, 2007

Is Dylan Poetry?

I posted this comment in response to Andrew Shield's post about "testing" Dylan's lyrics as poetry by considering the lyrics on their own. Andrew in turn was responding to a discussion on Matt Merritt's blog on whether Dylan could be considered poetry. I'm sure I reacted rather swiftly & archly -- I don't think either of these guys particularly looks down on art of songwriting -- but anything suggestive of that kind of reductive approach gives me instant heebee jeebies. So I reacted.
The trouble with most literary people -- I mean academics and the like -- when they consider song craft is that they lack musicianship, or appreciation for the musical qualities of a good song. (They may love music & certain songs, but that's not the same thing.) When evaluating a song as poetry their first inclination is to excise the music and to see if the lyrics work by themselves as a poem. Inevitably, they are disappointed. They are then likely to put down songs and the songwriting craft as "bad poetry put to music", a "minor art", etc.

In a good song, lyrics and music are inseparable; in the writing of them, the latter evokes the former more often than the former evokes the latter. (That's at least my experience: nothing like learning a new chord progression to bring out a new song from me...)

If one were to do a truly faithful critique of a song, part of that job would be to look at certain chord changes or rhythms and see how they correspond to the emotional colorations of the words that go with. Most of these, of course, are purely intuitive on a part of the songwriter, as with most vocabulary choices in poems. Few literary academics have any idea the kind of discipline it takes to come up with a good bridge, how strictly honed diction has to be to follow the punch of a rhythm, and how much thought -- or feeling one's way -- can go into that. "Inspiration's great," Sheryl Crow once said, "but knowing the craft will save your ass." Couldn't be put by a better craftsman -- or woman.


Anonymous said...

I've never really considered Dylan-the-recording-artist a poet--just a sometimes-brilliant songwriter (who has a very limited canon of creative writing on paper). Like Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Ted Nugent, etc., he's also an idiot savant. He admitted in the 60 Minutes interview a few years back that he just wrote those old protest songs for the sake of writing songs--he never really fully believed in most of that stuff. Also, in that No Direction Home documentary they aired on PBS, he admits that he never knew what a communist was when he was well into his 20s, despite hanging out with the likes of Pete Seeger. And don't forget his conversion to Christianity, complete with a reputed baptism in Pat Boone's swimming pool.

As far as I'm concerned, the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, The Doors' Jim Morrison, Lou Reed (despite being heavily influenced by Dylan), Patti Smith and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo all function far better as printed poetry on a page.

Brian Campbell said...

Yes, I'd say you're right there. I can think of a few others: Kurt Cobain, Amanda McBroom (The Rose), Joni Mitchell, even, I'd say, Tom Waits.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Brian, I meant to include Mitchell in the above comment, but forgot her at the last minute. The others you suggested were good choices, too--definitely Tom Waits. Waits's old sidekick in the L.A. cafe scene of the mid to late '70s, Ricki Lee Jones, also fits the category quite nicely; as does Jimi Hendrix (particularly on the second Experience LP, Axis: Bold As Love), Bruce Cockburn, and probably Nick Cave (The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). As well, I would consider Pete Townshend (both on his own and with The Who) and Roger Waters (with or without The Pink Floyd) as the great rock 'n' roll playwrights, so to speak. Their lyrics on concept albums truly function as opera librettos. Ditto for the late Frank Zappa in the comic sense.